Easy Answers: Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth Reflects On The Grateful Dead

Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead had a far-reaching influence that stretched way beyond their inner circle of improvisational minded bands.  Since playing their first shows 50 years ago the Dead have earned their place in the lexicon of culture as perhaps the quintessential American band. In light of their final shows, which take place 4th of July weekend in Chicago without lead guitarist Jerry Garcia of course, and to commemorate their legacy as a whole, we’ve decided to launch a special column that focuses specifically on the impact of the Dead within many different musical communities. In each installment of Easy Answers (get the reference?) we will question a different musician or band, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, about the importance of Grateful Dead on their own life and musical path. We could easily keep this column within the jam band community – and we will most certainly turn our focus to some of those acts – but the goal of Easy Answers is to get insight from musicians who most wouldn’t expect to be influenced by or fans of the Dead.

For the very first edition of Easy Answers we spoke with a man who needs no introduction, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Though he is best known as a founding member of the seminal experimental rock band, Ranaldo has also established himself as an eclectic musician excited to collaborate with a range of different musicians. Often considered one of the greatest gutiarists of all time, it seems only appropriate that Ranaldo would be a fan of Jerry and the gang. We caught up with Lee Ranaldo while on tour in Europe with his solo project. 

How did you first get into the Grateful Dead?

I was turned on to the Dead by the older, hippie sister of my best friend in the early days of high school, probably 1969 or 1970. I remember hearing three of the records almost simultaneously: Workingman’s Dead and Live/Dead, and, almost immediately afterwards, American Beauty. Getting into these albums coincided almost exactly with early experiences with first opium (!) and then grass. I remember many sunny stoned afternoons with those ‘acoustic’ albums playing… Listening to those two in particular always takes me back to those early days. A short time later, in addition to going back and investigating some of their earliest records, I heard Europe ’72 – which completely knocked me out with its sprawl and scope, and which is a record that remains one of my favorites. I loved that they were doing albums of new, original songs recorded live rather than toiling in the studio – they did that often and I’ve always been inspired by that.

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Are there any personal memories of the band or a concert experience you’d like to share?

I first saw the Dead in late ’72 or early ’73 on the East Coast – sadly, shortly after Pigpen stopped touring with them, around the time of his death. Very sad never to have seen the band with him. I was at the Watkins Glen festival and I remember the Dead coming out the night before for their ‘soundcheck’ – after both The Band and The Allman Brothers had come out and each briefly played a few songs – and basically doing an entire set (or two?) to the delight of the crowd. It was an amazing surprise – they just seemed so into it and inspired by the collective mood of the place and kept on playing, jamming into the evening hours. I don’t even remember them repeating songs the following day at the ‘actual’ concert. There were so many people and it was chaotic but I did manage to be close enough to see the stage as well as hear, and, not having been old enough a couple years before to go to the Woodstock Festival, it was a really cool experience.

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What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead song and why?

Such a hard question! I’ve recently been involved in a tribute project to the band spearheaded by members of The National, and hearing all these cover versions of their songs really highlights how many incredibly great songs they had – it’s nearly impossible to pick just one! I’ve had an obsession the last year or so with “Mountains Of The Moon” and especially with TC’s harpsichord part – so much so that I had a baroque harpsichord player I met in Berlin last year play on one track from my last album, Last Night On Earth. I suppose a ‘most representative’ song might be “Dark Star” – which has all that out playing and also, at it’s heart (check out the 45rpm single version) a really beautiful and concise song.

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What is your favorite era of the Grateful Dead and why?

Well, I guess I’d say the whole ‘first period’ from inception thru about Europe ’72Wake Of The Flood and Mars Hotel remains the period I listened to the most. I also liked Blues for Allah quite a bit. Loved the first three Jerry Garcia albums and also really loved Bob’s Ace record. I saw them many, many times and also attended lots of shows by Jerry’s various bands and Kingfish too. But by the time Terrapin Station came out I had become really interested in the blooming punk and new wave scenes and gradually followed them less and less after that.

Pipgen, Tom, Keith, Brent, Bruce or Vince on keys and why?

My period is definitely Keith, just because that’s the era when I mostly saw them. I love TC’s work and of course Pigpen. I’d kinda fallen out of touch by the time Brent, et al took over….

What do you feel is the greatest misconception a lot of people outside the Dead’s circle have of the band?

That they were just a bunch of stoned-out noodle-ers (which they sometimes were!)

Do you remember where you were when you heard of Jerry’s passing?

Yes I do. On August 9, 1995 Sonic Youth was on the big Lollapalooza tour – we were headlining the festival that year. We were in Texas playing; the festival set up in a big parched-grass field somewhere. I remember Thurston dedicating a song to Jerry from the stage the night he passed – some people might’ve been surprised that a band like us was paying tribute to him, and although I was the band’s resident ‘Deadhead’ and no one else in the band was particularly interested in their music, I thought it was cool and appropriate that Thurston acknowledged Jerry from the stage.

What are your favorite Robert Hunter lyrics?

I’ve always thought that “Attics Of My Life” was one of his most mysterious and  profound lyrics. He was really firing on all cylinders in that period – “Box of Rain”,  “Brokedown Palace”, “Ripple” etc. – incredible poetic imagery abounds on that album in particular…

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What three songs do you hope they play in Chicago?

I’ll be happy with whatever they play – at this point I do not have plans to attend. “Truckin'” is such a signature song – I hope they give it an airing – it’s their story, encapsulated. Some songs strike me as hard to do justice to without Jerry’s voice but I’ve always loved “Stella Blue” and I hope Bob does “Jack Straw”. And I always like it when Phil puts his vocals in the mix…”Unbroken Chain”, perhaps??

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Ranaldo recently put out two albums Lee Ranaldo & The Dust:Acoustic Dust and Lee Ranaldo & The Dust: Last Night On Earth.

Ranaldo also has 2 exhibitions of his artworks in March 2015 – at the Volta Fair in NYC and at SxSW Music/Gear Expo in Austin, TX. For more information please visit his website.

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21 Responses

  1. The question I would have liked to ask him is what would he think is the most major misconception that is devoted fans, the “Deadheads” have about this band. I have always liked The Grateful Dead but I have always felt that their fanatical fans could never quite appreciate them. The ascribed an originality to them which was there, but was also their new link in a chain of musical tradition amalgamated with the moods and time of the band seminal.

    1. re: the Dead being a new link in the chain of musical tradition…absolutely! I have a friend that refers to them as “the absolutely most American band of all time.” and he’s right. There have been bands that have fused rock and jazz (Steely Dan, Chicago), bands that have fused rock with folk and country (The Byrds, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers), but never has there been a band that fused every single American tradition (folk, bluegrass, country, blues, jazz and rock) so seamlessly as the Dead ever did. Phish can play each of those forms competently, but they never seem to gel together the way that the Grateful Dead were able to make them do.

      And, as far as I’m concerned, it makes total and complete sense that experimental punk rockers like Sonic Youth would get them. Actually, I’m kinda shocked that more punks didn’t. Because the Dead were pretty punk at decade prior to punk. Maybe not in terms of volume or three chords and the truth, but certainly in attitude.

      1. I really believe that ’68 Dead deserves more credit for inventing proto-punk/noise rock sounds, right along with bands like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Apart from the official releases, particularly give a listen to 6/14/68 Fillmore East, 11/1/68 Chico, and 11/23/68 Shrine Auditorium (the night before Two from the Vault), and you’ll see. Those shows should open the eyes of anyone who thinks the Dead were just noodly, mellow hippies.

  2. I was at the Lolla 95 show in Austin at Southwark Meadows on the day Jerry died. One of the best shows I have ever seen and SY gave me an epiphany that night.

    I remember Thurston dedicating the song to Jerry, but had no context. The audience had spent the entire day in a field with, blissfully and obviously, no cellphones or TV’s. So they said something about Jerry and Jerry being on the full moon that night (in reference to Courtney Love earlier saying Kurt was on the moon) and was totally confused until I got home that evening.

    1. indeed Ginn even signed my Hippy/Punk band AwaysAugust to SST records
      We brought him a tape after we read in Maximum RnR that he was a deadhead.
      We Loved Black Flag and we Loved the Dead

  3. Nice piece, I wish you’d asked Lee about Kerouac– he’s a huge Jack admirer, as was Jerry & of course Jerry had direct conduit to Jack via Casady… Lee even has son named Cody!

  4. Thanks to frightwig, I will look up those shows you mention on archive.org. Dylan Carlson of Earth should be interviewed for this series, also an atypical deadhead.

    1. Also, Henry Kaiser is a Dead-loving free improvisor, and would make an excellent interview for this series.

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