Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Always A Dead Connection

Like so many other things, this was John Kahn’s fault. You will recall that in October of ’74, the Grateful Dead pulled the ol’ “fake retirement” trick–one of the hoariest gimmicks in show biz–and now Garcia had no touring money coming in. This is suboptimal for a man with three children and a mortgage, and so Garcia ramped up the Jerry Band. Whereas before, he stuck mostly to the Bay Area and played with locals, now he would take to the road and get some of that sweet, sweet East Coast cash. Those coffers ain’t gonna replenish themselves.

First, he put together the Legion of Mary–his best solo band, hands down–which was Kahn on bass (of course), Merl Saunders on organ and terrible vocals, Martin Fierro on out-of-tune saxophone, and the Greatest Drummer of All Time™ Ronnie Tutt. Sadly, this combo proved short-lived; Garcia fired Saunders and Fierro (not personally, of course; he let Parish make the calls) and added legendary British pianist Nicky Hopkins. Those big, brutish block chords in Sympathy for the Devil? That was Nicky.

But Nicky wasn’t a road dog like Garcia was: he was unhealthy since he was a kid, and he drank too damn much. He was a chatty drunk, too, and would introduce songs for ten minutes. Plus, according to Ronnie Tutt, he had bad time. (What Ronnie Tutt thought of Garcia’s time, he has kept to himself all these years.) A new keyboardist was needed. Someone reliable, professional, a real team player.

So Garcia hired an insane junkie.

James Booker’s tenure with the Jerry Band lasted a weekend, which makes him the Anthony Scaramucci of the JGB. Quite frankly, I can’t believe Garcia kept him on for the second night. Go listen to the show. Booker overpowers Garcia, and Kahn, with the deluge of music coming from his piano and, even more hilariously, refuses to listen to Garcia in the slightest. Booker cuts off his solos, goes into verses when Garcia starts singing the chorus, and at least once takes over the lead vocal halfway through the song. Also: the tunes end when James Booker says they end, and that’s it. (Every song. Every single song ends with Garcia trying to finish up the song but Booker keeps playing, or he’ll just ripcord out of the song while Garcia is soloing away merrily in the background.)

Was he amused? Pissed? I bet Garcia was pissed. I’ll bet his eyes got darker and darker throughout the evening, and that he made fun of Kahn for the suggestion for years afterwards.

Anyway, this is the 1/9/76 show. There was a second show the following night, and then James Booker was bundled back onto a plane bound for New Orleans. Garcia called up Keith and Mrs. Donna Jean and never hired any geniuses ever again.

6 Comments

  1. The whole episode serves Garcia right, though. Doing things his own way because he was a genius, refusing to end songs until he felt like it, playing songs he felt like playing instead of what people wanted to hear, refusing to use a set list–who would do that?

    The Garcia Band was a more professional band after the Booker experience, because Jerry had looked at the abyss, and the abyss had stared back at him (with his one good eye).

    • Thoughts On The Dead

      October 24, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      “Oh, you think you know how to solo over everybody and do whatever you want? Watch and learn, kid.”

  2. From Blair Jackson’s outtakes to his Garcia book:

    http://www.blairjackson.com/chapter_fourteen_additions.htm:

    “Booker was my idea,” Kahn said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I knew him from doing sessions in L.A. He came to my house in Mill Valley a couple of days before the gigs [at Sophie’s in Palo Alto]. First he didn’t show up until 5 in the morning. Me and Jerry were there and we’re getting calls from his grandmother and his priest — Booker had gotten lost en route somehow; they’d lost track of him. Finally I got a call and it was Booker himself. He was calling from Dan’s Greenhouse, a liquor store. He was in front of there at 5 in the morning with an overcoat and no socks and a hat bag; that was it — no clothes. He had about 30 eye patches and eight or nine wigs.

    “The shows were really cool. But he wouldn’t learn any of our songs. We tried to teach him songs and he refused. He was a little crazed, so we ended up doing mostly his songs. He did half a set of solo piano and it was great; you could hear a pin drop. And he played things like the “Minute Waltz”; it was incredible. He could still play great. He could switch between piano and organ really easily and it would sound amazing. But he was out of his mind. He was watching cars go by and was checking out license plates and talking about the CIA. He saw a Louisiana license plate and then John Kennedy’s name somewhere and that freaked him out. He saw bad omens everywhere and he was getting really weird. I didn’t know he was that crazy, so I might have had delusions that we’d stay together longer.”

  3. I find the Hopkins Piano in “Monkey Man” to be absolutely mesmerizing.

    Thoughts on Nicky?

  4. I mean Nicky did the British Studio thing, then he came and lived among the hippies, Nicky and the Hippies,

    JGB, Zero, QuickSilver…

    Scientology

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