Q&A: A teller of Grateful Dead tales

Name: David Gans

Age: 62

City: Oakland

Position: Musician, author, radio host

David Gans photo/scott peterson

J.:
Your career has largely been based on the Grateful Dead. Have you ever wondered in what direction your life would have gone had there been no Dead?

David Gans: The question I tend to ask myself is what if my family had not moved to Northern California. I probably would have continued on my path as a musician, as I was already a young singer-songwriter. I didn’t become a specialist in the Grateful Dead until the mid-’80s.



Can you tell me about your first Dead show?

I was living in San Jose and my songwriting partner had been bugging me to see them. It was March 5, 1972. We took what turned out to be a gigantic dose of LSD. We had car trouble and therefore were in the last row at Winterland; it was maybe 110 degrees up there. I was 18 and had a hard time with acid then. It made me anxious and scared, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the whole experience. But I just listened really hard and certain bits of music stuck in my mind. When I began listening to their records, it really revolutionized my sense of how music works. Once I discovered the Dead, it opened my mind to other ways of making music.



You host a nationally syndicated Grateful Dead show on the satellite radio service SiriusXM as well as on the local station KPFA and have worked as a music journalist. How did you get into radio?

As a music journalist, I got to interview the band members quite a lot. In the spring of ’85, I went to KFOG to promote my book “Playing in the Band,” and I was first asked to become a contributor to its Deadhead hour, and then to take it over. I started getting calls from other stations, as they wanted to carry the show.



So much has already been written about the Dead. Can you give me one story that maybe no one has heard from your new book, written with Blair Jackson, “This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead”?

On the Europe ’72 tour, the band had to get onstage once and explain that they weren’t going to play. The crowd got so upset that they had to escape out of a bathroom window.



In the introduction, you say: “The reason people are still talking about the Grateful Dead 50 years after the band’s founding is that they made an absolutely unique and deeply compelling” type of music. Why did they inspire such extreme feelings, from love to hatred?

If you scratch the surface of that hatred, you’ll find people who don’t like hippies. Vice President Al Gore is a Deadhead, and there are many more who aren’t hippies. They changed and adapted their music so much over the years that the love is incredibly deep, while the hatred is shallow. It’s profound and satisfying music, with a different performance every time they played, and that made people want to hear what would happen next.



Why did you choose the oral history format?

There were plenty of narrative histories, and we wanted an oral history because it follows the function of the Dead very nicely. It’s a collection of individuals working in concert to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Everyone is pitching in to tell the story.



You grew up secular in L.A., the son of a Brooklyn Jew and his British Jewish war bride. Why do you think there are so many Jewish Deadheads?

It’s a profoundly spiritual thing to belong to something bigger than yourself, and the Dead community isn’t dogmatic. All the rituals are incredibly inclusive and allowed you to define your own participation. Also, Jews tend to be fairly smart and soulful. Dead music appeals to the brain, the heart and [the urge to dance] in equal proportion, so for a generally intellectual people, music that is intellectually satisfying is attractive.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."