Grateful Dawg
dir. Gillian Grisman
Opens Fri Nov 2 at the Varsity.

In the vast iconography of rock 'n' roll, there is no more polarizing figure than Jerry Garcia. As leader of the Grateful Dead, Garcia was the figurehead of a movement that, depending on your perspective, either embodied, obscured, or transcended the music that was its nominal center. To their fans, the Dead were a nexus of subcultural celebration that had more to do with gathering than listening. To everyone else, they were a bunch of flagrant, self-aggrandizing, stinky hippies. And as far as the latter faction--which contained punkers and Archie Bunkers alike--was concerned, no hippie was ever stinkier than Jerry Garcia. Both perceptions made Garcia cringe, because, stoner landmark or no, he was first and foremost a musician.

Like a lot of rock stars, he sought refuge from his blurred persona in many pastimes, most famously heroin and sloth. But in less self-destructive modes, he turned to the musical form that made him pick up an instrument in the first place. Old-timey bluegrass picked by masters is one of life's purest sources of pleasure, for listener and player alike; and Garcia was a disciple of Bill Monroe long before he was "that guy from the Grateful Dead." In 1964 he met David Grisman, a fellow Monroe doctrinaire, in the parking lot of a Pennsylvania folk club. Over the next 30 years, Garcia and Grisman engaged in an on-again, off-again musical collaboration that spawned the '70s bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way, and later, five humble, playful, masterful records as a duo.

The new film Grateful Dawg, directed by Grisman's daughter Gillian, casts an intimate light on Jerry and David's partnership, which lived primarily in Grisman's basement studio. To jaded eyes, this film is a glorified home movie of a couple of fat old dudes in sweats, pickin' and grinnin' through grizzly beards. Look a bit closer, however, and you see a compendium of precious moments between musical peers, in which the simple desire to play and play well--every song is presented in its entirety--had the power to stop time, however briefly, and let the players revel in the thing itself.

I spoke to Gillian Grisman when she came through Seattle last month.

I was wary going into a movie about Jerry Garcia, because I just have no time for the Grateful Dead at all.

And I don't either.

A lot of what that band represents--maybe not what they actually were, but what they represented culturally--I find really... awful. But Garcia was such an interesting guy, and obviously a really incredible musician. I've always had the sense that maybe he had a bit of disenchantment with "Grateful Dead, Inc." as well.

I think you're right. Especially toward the end. I mean, that was one of my motivations in making the film. I wanted to make a film that would appeal... that, yes, that Deadheads would enjoy because they love Garcia, music fans would enjoy because it's about the creative process, and the origins and genres and dynamics between musicians, no matter if you play punk music, jazz music, whatever--these guys have dabbled in all of them. And were masters of a lot of it. And I felt like that side of Garcia was really limited, and people didn't know that necessarily, because he was this cultural hippie icon--which he never was comfortable with. He walked around in a black T-shirt and sweatpants, y'know? He was the most humble, low-key guy in person. But he was also really generous in that way and, I think, tapped himself out because it became like he had this burden of a whole incorporation on his back. Not just the band that he played with, but the institution of it and the fans and the people selling granola-nut-whateverthefuck in the parking lot. Y'know? It was like that was his day job.

I wonder how difficult this partnership was from your dad's perspective; I mean, yeah, it was very casual, but there are power levels in any collaboration. Garcia had the power to define when they got together 'cause he had the busier schedule. The film sort of skirts the issue of how your dad, who was obviously a serious musician, felt about having to, like, wait around for the Dead to get off the road or whatever. It's a kind of classic archetype: the world-famous rock star who secretly just wants to be in a basement, and the serious musician who's already down there--

It's interesting because the question comes up, actually, about this envy or this ego battle... and it never existed between them. They would bicker and have, like, musical arguments, but I don't think my dad wanted--it never entered into their consciousness: "I wanna be like you." Or "I wish I had what you had." Y'know? I think they gravitated toward each other because they got things off of each other, but at the same time, they were exactly the same in that way. That was the weirdest thing about it. They both just loved to play this music. I mean, I'm not trying to paint too happy a portrait. There were long periods of time where Jerry and my father didn't speak... and Jerry was unhealthy... and my dad wouldn't get paid on royalties. I mean, issues came up that come up in any friendship. But when they got together, they just had fun.

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