July 4th, 2015 | Interviews

illustration by cahill wessel

When Bill Kreutzmann learned how to play the drums as a kid he immediately realized that he was hooked; he did not, however, know that he’d go on to play over 2,300 shows as a drummer in one of the longest-running, hardest-partying bands in the U.S. (if not the entire world!). Nearly twenty years to the day from the very last concert the Dead ever played, and close to fifty years since the band’s beginnings in the Bay Area, Kreutzmann has written an unfaltering account of what it was like to spend nearly three decades touring non-stop in a band that broke nearly every unwritten rule in the business (such as encouraging audiences to make and trade their own recordings of live shows, and routinely dragging a grand piano along with them on tour). Bill joined us from a hotel lobby in New Orleans and talked about the CIA, what it means to be a hippie, and his bandmate Bob Weir’s short shorts. This interview by Kristina Benson.

In the beginning of the book, you talk about the fact that CIA is what led Kesey to acid, and acid is what made the Dead the Dead. Is it fair to say then that the CIA created the Dead, in a way?
Bill Kreutzmann: The way it got to us is Ken Kesey used to go to the VA hospital and be a volunteer for LSD experiments. That was the only way he could get his hands on LSD! And after a few times sitting in this clinic in a white room with a doctor wearing a white coat saying, ‘Do you feel anything now? How are you feeling? You OK?’ After the fifth time, Ken just said, ‘Nah, nothing’s happening.’ Lying through his teeth! The walls were melting, the doctor’s face was changing into a bunch of horror images. And he walks outside and goes, ‘Ah! This is what LSD is really about—not about being in this white cage! It’s about being outside and it’s about experiencing all of life!’ Isn’t that far out? That someone would be brave enough to be whacked out of their mind on acid and tell a doctor with a straight face, ‘No I don’t feel anything!’ That’s how we got our hands on it.
You talk about how you guys weren’t political hippies—you were more dangerous, the ‘fun-loving, peace-seeking, do what you want’ kind. Why is that more dangerous than the political kind?
Bill Kreutzmann: It’s kind of a joke—like herding cats! Herding cats could be dangerous, but we weren’t dangerous, cuz we weren’t really rebels. We were the kind that you can’t put your finger on, and that’s why we were more dangerous.
But people would follow you around—all across the country. There are rumors people sold their houses to follow you to Egypt and see you play. Isn’t that kind of political, given that you inspired people to just stop participating in the system—for lack of a better way to put it? And kind of a dangerous in its own way?
Bill Kreutzmann: You know people that are real locked in their ways—I’m going to use this word ‘straight’—they have a very linear type of thinking, and would find those kinds of people dangerous. And the irony is that there’s nothing dangerous about us! We’re the most open, loving people! It’s not about being anarchist, or throwing rocks or stones or anything like that. It’s really about loving people through music. That’s why I play music—I get to make people happy. I’m in my sixties now but I don’t feel that old—I don’t even know what that means.
Do you still consider yourself a hippie?
Bill Kreutzmann: I do! What is a hippie? A hippie is a person that has a very open mind, isn’t restrained by thoughts, by society, by what their parents said, by what college taught them. I don’t think of a hippie as a person with long hair. I think it’s more an attitude of the mind—it’s more than just someone who has dreads and is dirty. That’s just one kind of hippie!
Speaking of people who have dreads and are dirty, one of the things that’s so interesting to me is that when you look at what the Dead looked like, and what the audience looked like—especially in the mid to late 80s and the 90s—you guys don’t look the same. Often bands will look kind of like their fans, but you guys dressed nothing like your fans. Jerry would have on his purple sweatpants, and Bobby would wear his little shorts or whatever, and you look out into the audience and no one is really wearing purple sweat pants or little shorts. And on stage no one has dreads or tie dye.
Bill Kreutzmann: [Laughs] You’re great! You’re making me laugh! We were not fashion conscious at all, and it’s so obvious. I’d put on jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes and then play. It was just about playing the music! We were definitely not fashion statements! And we’d go to some town that’s kind of like … Minneapolis, Minnesota. Not Chicago, so much, and definitely not San Francisco or New York or L.A.. But some of these Midwestern cities you go to, they were just drab—drab! And as you’d be in the car or the limo on the way up to the gig, the closer you got, there would be this wave of color. And it would be Deadheads in their tie-dyes and stuff, and the closer you got, the better the city looked! It became colorful all of a sudden—I loved that! That’s the look I remember. And they had smiles on their faces! I don’t really judge my fans for how they look. They’re just fans—they’re Deadheads. Sometimes they’d copy what Jerry was wearing, and that was very obvious. I didn’t mind the girls wearing short shorts—that was OK with me!
I was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, but in preparing to do this interview, I found being a fan made it kind of hard: fans know so much about the Dead, and so much has been written about the Dead—was it difficult writing this book because so much is already out there?
Bill Kreutzmann: There have been many books written about the Grateful Dead. One in-house book, and Dennis McNally wrote the tome. I didn’t struggle with that so much. I made sure that I told the truth about the things that I wrote about—to the best of my knowledge, things that really happened to me. I think it’s interesting for readers. They’re talking to one of the guys in the band. All these other people, they have all these opinions of us, right? And most of them are pretty darn true, although I have read stuff that has been falsified where they just made stuff up about me. But that’s part of the danger of being famous.
In the book, you talk about how you were playing free shows one day, and then selling expensive tickets to the Winterland Ballroom the next. How did you pull off that balancing act where people would pay for tickets even though they knew they had a chance of seeing you for free?
Bill Kreutzmann: We didn’t think of it as balancing. That was just part of playing. When you’re a new band, that’s all you really want to do you— you just want to play, play, play. I never thought of it in any financial way: ‘This is a paid gig, and this is a free gig.’ It was just always about, ‘Hey, let’s enjoy a gig somewhere. Oh we don’t have to pay for this one? What a good deal!’ That’s how it is today—I’m still just about playing music. I walked into a bar down here the other night to have a beer with my friends, and in the back room there was a three-piece band and they were playing ‘Scarlet Begonias.’ I couldn’t help myself—I said, ‘Do you mind if I try playing that?’ They didn’t know who I was. They really didn’t know! So I sat down, I played the song great, and then the guitar player said ‘Wow, man, you really played that good!’ ‘Well, I’m Bill Kreutzmann.’ The guy’s jaw just dropped to the floor! He couldn’t believe it. We had fun, and I didn’t have to be famous or anything—they didn’t know, so it didn’t matter. I love that.
It’s wonderful that you were able to do that. I’m sure you made their days. Their entire lives, probably. But that’s something Jerry would never ever have been able to do. Everyone would have known who he was.
Bill Kreutzmann: He couldn’t have done that.
You talk about how Jerry was blessed and burdened at the same time, because so many people loved him so much. What about your own interactions with fans?
Bill Kreutzmann: It’s a different experience, I’m sure. Every day I walk down the street, someone comes up to me and says thank you. One guy walked up to me with tears in his eyes, saying, ‘Thank you Bill, you saved my life.’ He was in a motorcycle accident and he was in a coma for six weeks, or eight weeks maybe. But a darn long time. And the doctor got really wise and said to his mom, ‘What kind of music does your son like to listen to?’ ‘The Grateful Dead.’ They put a good pair of headphones on him and put on a live concert, and he was awake in less than an hour. That’s how powerful this is. I love our audience, and I love what we’ve done. It makes people feel better—even me! It makes me feel better! It makes me feel better talking to you!
I used to listen to the Grateful Dead every day of my life at one point—
Bill Kreutzmann: You did?
There was a point where if someone put on a show, I might not be able to identify the exact show, but I could definitely tell you the year, no problem.
Bill Kreutzmann: You’re a Deadhead! You are! I can tell!
So to prepare for this interview, I started listening again. And you’re right—the music just made me happy. I have no idea how or why. How did you do that?
Bill Kreutzmann: I can only speak for myself. But if it comes from the heart, your music—what you’re putting out there—well, this is what it is. How do I do it? It’s still a total get-off for me. It gets me off.