Some artists become legends in a burst of electricity – like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin – while others ascend to that status steadily, by being consistently good over long periods of time. Pete Sears is among the latter. With his career beginning in 1965, he has built up a stellar reputation on bass and piano. Rod Stewart relied on him through four consecutive early solo albums, Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells A Story ranked among the best Stewart has ever done. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick wanted Sears for their Jefferson Starship project, staying with the band from 1974’s debut Dragon Fly to their reincarnation Starship’s venture into more poppy sounds via their Knee Deep In The Hoopla album.
Nowadays, Sears chooses to play with a talented group of musicians calling themselves Moonalice, and with the David Nelson Band. Moonalice released a fun psychedelia-flavored funky soul album earlier this year featuring vocals by Roger McNamee and Lester Chambers. A 10-piece ensemble, Sears loves the improvisational aspects of the group while having a chance not only to do famous covers that his bandmate Chambers originated – “Time Has Come Today,” “Let’s Get Funky” and their most recent single “Love Peace & Happiness” – but originals as well.
Sears’ career has been a long, steady, oftentimes exciting one, and he has no plans to stop now. At 74, he continues to tour, write songs and share stories from his musical life. “I kind of looked at Pete as an older brother almost because we weren’t that separated from age and we had really similar musical tastes,” former Jefferson Starship bandmate Craig Chaquico said during a 2013 Glide interview. “I was just in awe of him because he could play great guitar, he could play great bass and he could play great piano. The people that know music know Pete … To this day, I still can go to any band that Pete plays in and listen to everything he plays and feel like I’ve seen a whole concert, just listening and watching him.”
I recently spoke with Sears, who was born in England but has called the San Francisco area home for over forty-five years now, about his long career.
Before we talk about Moonalice, I’m down here by New Orleans and you have a long time connection to the music of this city.
Oh the music, yes. Listening to some of those early piano players like Champion Jack Dupree. He was my favorite piano player when I was young. I really loved his music. I saw him once out here near the end of his life. He was at the Sweetwater and I went down to see him and he had his colorful New Orleans clothing on. It was about six months before he died. We didn’t know that at the time but I think he did and it was probably one of his last tours and there was only about twenty people in this club. He didn’t care. He seemed to be in good spirits and I just really enjoyed just watching him. He was such a great influence on so many piano players but he also was an entertainer too. He had a really great sense of humor and he infused that into his music. He just had this really beautiful swing to his playing and this sort of anything goes sort of attitude onstage, which I found infectious.
And of course Dr. John. I had the most good fortune to play a show with him and we hit it off pretty well. It was near the end of his career though, so he had a vulnerability to him at that point. But still, it was fun to play with him. I’d always admired his playing a lot.
When I was with Jefferson Starship, we always hit New Orleans. I was only in town a couple of days but I always enjoyed the city a lot. Of course, I played shows there over the years and I liked to walk down Bourbon Street and I remember all the clubs and the music everywhere. All the various bars or restaurants or clubs had their doors open with music pouring out. It just had that great feel to everything.
Also, I liked the sort of impromptu aspect of sitting in the square outside and suddenly a bunch of really incredible musicians would show up with their horns and just start playing and that was an incredible thing. The whole town was alive with music, steeped in music, and had a massive influence on players around the world, and still do to this day. Of course, when the awful floods happened with Katrina, that was very tough for the people there that lost a lot, including the musicians who lost all their horns and guitars. I remember trying to help raise some money, you know, for those guys.
You have been playing piano since you were a child. How long after you started playing piano did you discover all this other music that made you want to change what you were playing?
Well, post-war England was a pretty stressed place to live. You’d be coming across bombed-out buildings here and there, but that was all we knew, you know. But of course, most people didn’t go around sort of worried about that or anything. As children growing up you didn’t have anything to compare it by, right. Then my parents always made our place look really nice, did the best they could.
So I started out having piano lessons and then along came rock & roll. My older brother used to listen to Dave Brubeck and Jimmy Reed and all this different music. He’s five years older than me so that just kind of went in, you know. But I never had a teacher teaching me any of that stuff or the Motown or blues. I used to listen to Lead Belly and all those guys. There were blues clubs all over South London, all over England, and people would sit around playing blues records so it all kind of went in.
I turned professional with this amateur band I was with and we started playing all over the British Isles. But we’d listen to the great players and be aware of them but not necessarily study everything they were doing. We probably should have (laughs) but we didn’t. My point being, that it wasn’t like now where you go to the local music store and they teach children how to play this and that and you get these amazingly talented young players now. Back then, we just listened to the record and we just went out and started playing it, or trying to (laughs). But what that did, by playing it six or seven nights a week for like two years, the first band I was with professionally, that had the effect of helping you create your own style of playing. I mean, instead of rehearsing and learning everything note for note, exactly like the guy you’re listening to, you get impressions of what they’re doing, then doing your own version of it and that’s when you start doing it better, and better and next thing you know, for better or worse, you have a start of your own.
But the New Orleans guys, oh man, all those great piano players that played that stuff. I’d sit down and try to figure something out, what they were playing. That’s what a lot of the players did back then, they were self-taught, they learned how to do that stuff by just listening to the record, putting the needle down, and wearing the vinyl records out.
What was it like at the Marquee Club when you were going to see all these great bands?
Back then in London in 1969, it was always packed every time I saw anybody play there. But the London music scene was really alive back then, around that time. I was in a British blues band called Steamhammer and I played on their record. They got really big in Germany and I used to watch them there at the Marquee Club. I saw very early Pink Floyd at the Marquee and I thought, I really dig this, and it stayed with me.
Our guitar player from the first band, Mick Hutchinson, called me up and asked me if I wanted to come down to the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road. He had an Indian tabla player and just Mick on guitar playing ragas, he was an amazing guitarist, and I played bass on that and a little bit of B3, if there was one in the club. We played all the big psychedelic clubs in 1967 and Hendrix came and sat in with us. I was concentrated in the London area at that point, and the clubs had that anything goes, psychedelic light shows and it was a really amazing time, to be questioning authority and it seemed to subtly influence the world I think. Not everybody agreed about that but we were just young people immersed in that. But that musical improvisation stayed with me and I still draw from that experience.
With Moonalice, there is a lot of that sixties vibe happening. What else do you get to explore musically with this band, cause you’re not just playing bass, you’re playing guitar and you’re singing.
Well, in my mind, this is a new Moonalice. We have a really strong front line of singers. We’ve got Lester Chambers, the guy that sang on all the great Chambers Brothers hits back in the sixties, and his son Dylan, who is really an amazing singer and entertainer. And the T Sisters – Chloe, Rachel and Erika – they have wonderful voices and they also blend unbelievably well with their harmonies. So it opened up a whole new thing for us. It’s also Barry Sless on guitar and me and John Molo on drums and Jason Crosby, and sometimes, when he’s not out with Jackson Browne, we use Mookie Siegel, who I play with in the David Nelson Band; and Roger McNamee, of course, on rhythm guitar. It’s his band and he’s a great rhythm guitarist.
We’ve always liked to do sort of psychedelic improvisational music where we just go anywhere the music takes us; interact together, hopefully move together. With Lester Chambers in the band, we have some of those early hits like “Time” or “Love Peace & Happiness,” “Let’s Get Funky,” and they often have little sections, cause they combined funk with psychedelia and they had that improvisational aspect to their music, so it gives us a platform. So we get the really great vocals and classic songs sung by the person that actually originally sang them. Then we can just launch off into our improvisational jamming for a bit and then go back. It creates some exciting new things.
We also play classics like “People Get Ready,” the Curtis Mayfield song that I played with a band called Fleur de Lyse back in 1966 and here I am playing it with Lester, who was good friends with Curtis Mayfield. That’s a beautiful song. And “Dock Of The Bay,” the Otis Redding song, we do that occasionally. But we really do mostly original songs or songs like that that Lester actually sang. And Dylan, of course, he sings amazing, songs like “Hard To Handle.” He’s very talented. So that’s where we’re at. We’re a ten piece band now.
With all this improvisation, how long does a typical Moonalice show last?
We still keep it within the bounds of whatever the club or festival wants us to do. It’s usually an hour and a half or if we’re on our own it’s two and a half hours, something like that. When I used to play with Jefferson Starship, we used to do three hours altogether, you know, but that was back in the seventies; and back in the sixties with different bands in England, we’d be playing for hours (laughs). So yeah, it just depends on whatever they want.
Moonalice released a record earlier this spring. I’m assuming that it was recorded during the pandemic, correct?
Yeah, we were able to do that. We were very, very careful. I kept recording and playing at home during the pandemic but various people would send me their files and I’d play keys on them or the piano or something. Roger kept doing it with his band Doobie Decibel System. Every day almost he’d do a livestream from his house, cause he has a really great spot for it, and Moonalice would go over there and do that. We were all apart from each other and were just really careful. So yeah, we carried on and I think we did the record at Laughing Tiger Studios in San Rafael. We did some recording before the pandemic but we did some during. We have some new tracks we’re about to record now; some new songs we’ve written.
When you’re playing live, do you use the same bass through most of the show or do you switch out?
I use the same bass now. I tend to do that. I choose a bass, start playing it and then I just don’t play anything else, unless I’m playing an acoustic show or something like that and then I’ll play a Martin acoustic four-string bass. Now I’m playing a Fender Jazz bass, which is based on a 1960’s design and it reminds me of the bass that was stolen in Germany. I had two basses stolen, all my equipment stolen, in Germany in 1978 with Jefferson Starship. They had a big riot and Grace was sick and drunk and she couldn’t go on so we didn’t play and the audience rioted and everything.
But you got that bass back, right
Yeah, I got one of them back. I had a custom bass that was made by Tom Lieber, a luthier that worked with Doug Irwin at the time. Irwin Guitars is the same one that built Jerry Garcia’s Tiger and all that stuff. Jerry had told me about these guys and then they came by when we were recording one of the albums, I don’t remember which one it was, maybe Red Octopus, in San Francisco. And so they built me a custom bass. It had a beautiful inlay, just a beautiful bass. I’d just got it in 1978. It was delivered to me and for some reason I took it with me on our first trip to Europe, even though the bass I played all the time was my old beat up Fender Jazz bass, a sunburst all worn out, and David Freiberg and I would switch back and forth with the keys. We had a B3 and some really great pianos. We took it all to Europe but the bass I played was a Fender Jazz bass and that was also stolen. Of course, I don’t know where that is.
But the one we called the Dragon bass, because it has this silver inlay dragon flaming through it and it’s really a beautiful work of art made by Tom Lieber, who is a luthier on the east coast in New York. When we found my old Irwin dragon bass that was stolen in Germany, it was in pretty poor shape, but everything was there. Just not set-up properly and the wiring was messed up badly. I bought the instrument from the German musician who’d had it in his closet since the late seventies while bringing up his family. He’d bought it from a Dutch fellow who had probably stolen it during the riot and taken it back to Holland, which was close to the festival site. The luthier who had built it while working for Irwin Guitars in 1977 was ecstatic we got it back and restored it to its former glory at his shop in upstate New York. I did play it a few times after I got it back but rarely play it anymore. It is a work of art really. I may play it again someday. But I prefer Fender Jazz basses these days, like the one I played in the seventies and early eighties. I used to play a ten-minute bass solo on my old Fender Jazz back in the seventies.
Jefferson Starship was my very first concert. It was 1981, you were on the Modern Times tour and you played a double-neck guitar during the show. I noticed you played a double-neck in the video for “Stranger” yet I don’t think you played guitar on that track, or bass. I was wondering about you and this double-neck guitar.
Well, I wrote the song and came up with that signature line in my studio at home with the harmony and everything and I just went in and showed the band what to do. And of course Craig played it much better than I could. But I did play it live. On the record, I just had Craig do the harmony on the guitar, and of course, it’s a great guitar solo at the end. And David Freiberg, I showed him that bassline and then I played the keys on it. On the video, as I recall, I played the guitar line with Craig. I don’t remember everything I did (laughs) but live I played the guitar line with Craig and then I switched to bass. I think that was what I was doing at that time.
The double-neck six-string guitar and four-string bass instrument I used in 1981 was built for me by Carvin Guitars as an endorsement. It was unfortunately stolen from me around 1983. I used it as a way to recreate my recorded harmony guitar signature line with Craig live on stage. I never found another one and have no idea where the stolen one might be. I seldom play double necks anymore.
Basically, my career has been made up of either playing bass or keyboards, depending on who I’m with. Like with the very first band, I played bass and a little bit of keys. The next band I played just keys and the next one I played bass and a little bit of keys and so forth. With some of the blues guys, I played piano. With John Lee Hooker, I played keys. With Dr John, I played bass. With Jefferson Starship, I played bass and like on the song “Miracles,” one of their big hits, I played bass and I played piano on that track and David played the B3. So it’s always been one or the other.
Long John Baldry, I played bass. With Rod Stewart, I played on four of his big early albums, way before “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” I lost touch with him after 1974 but the early stuff had “Maggie May.” Those albums I played piano mostly and a little bit of bass on a couple of tracks. So it depends on where I fell into it, you know. And with Hot Tuna, I went off with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in 1992 and played with those guys for ten years on piano and organ; and then the Jorma Kaukonen Trio as well. That was fun. So it’s always been one or the other. But I sometimes play guitar if it’s needed.
You played with drummer Aynsley Dunbar before and after Jefferson Starship, is that correct?
Yeah, we did some session work together on Alex Harvey, a songwriter out of Georgia who wrote “Reuben James,” and he was doing a solo album and he asked me to produce one of the tracks so I brought Aynsley in for that and I brought Neal Schon in for that too, before Journey. Aynsley was a great drummer. He played with John Mayall and Frank Zappa, just an amazing drummer. Then I had a band with Greg Errico and Neal Schon called Sears Schon Errico and we played the Diamond Head Crater Festival going into 1973, which was an instrumental set, and Gregg Rolie came up and we did “Black Magic Woman” and another song but mostly it was all instrumental. We never did find a permanent singer we liked so it was a short-lived band. Then I went off and started working with Kathi McDonald on her album Insane Asylum, which I arranged and co-produced. Neal went off and started Journey, I guess, and Aynsley, I think, was with that.
Then when I ended up playing with Jefferson Starship, well, see there was Jefferson Starship in the seventies, from 1974 to the riot in 1978, and that was a really cool band. I really liked it. I used to write with Grace then. Then the band sort of broke up for a bit. Marty Balin left the band and Grace went off to rehab for one album and we got a new singer and a new producer. The whole sound changed because the original producer in the seventies was Larry Cox, an engineer/producer, and he was really great. Then everything changed slightly in the eighties. It was still rock & roll. But Aynsley came in because John Barbata, the original drummer, had a serious car accident. I mean, he didn’t know if he was ever going to play again. It was that bad. So we had to get a new drummer so I brought Aynsley in. Then after a while, after a couple of albums, we got another drummer, Donny Baldwin, who stayed with the band and he’s a great drummer. He’s out with them right now. He plays with the current Jefferson Starship; not Mickey Thomas’ Starship but the current Jefferson Starship with David Freiberg and the lineup of musicians that played with Paul Kantner before he died [in 2016].
But as a bass player, the rhythm section has to really gel. It gets to the point with a good drummer that you really play together, you don’t have to think about the action, the hits, and you just kind of go there and end up locking up tight as a rhythm section. Instead of having to work stuff out, it just comes naturally. And Aynsley was one of those drummers. John Molo in Moonalice is like that now. I really enjoy playing with him.
What about you and John Cipollina? Even though he’s a guitar player, how did the two of you gel?
Oh John was amazing. He had this distinct style of his own and we really hit it off. I was with a band called Stoneground in 1970, cause I’d joined Stoneground after Silver Metre, the first band I did when I flew over to Venice Beach from London for the first time when I was twenty-one in 1969 and we formed a band and that band led into Stoneground. When I was with Stoneground, at one point we recorded in London and then we recorded again in Hollywood. We were staying in Mill Valley out here in Marin County and then somehow we were renting a big house there and somebody took me over and introduced me to John and we really hit it off. We talked about getting a band together, and this is 1970, we went down and did a live broadcast with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. It was just impromptu, and there is a bootleg knocking around from the KSAN Studios. It was a very thrown together thing but we had a lot of fun doing it. And John and I really hit it off. But I went back to England to record Every Picture Tells A Story with Rod and then came back with the Long John Baldry Blues Band and I ended up flying up to San Francisco to start a band with John. By then he had already found some other guys and we came up with a name, Copperhead. So I was in the original Copperhead and we played shows around and we really were very close. I lived at his house actually for a while.
But John was amazing. He used fingerpicks, played an SG, I remember, a classic, the one in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame now, with the bat-like pick guard, shaped like a bat, you know. I remember we were hanging out in his room when he was carving that, filing it, and there it is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. It’s very surreal, actually (laughs). A part of your life and there it is sort of behind a glass case.
But he was a very intense fellow. John had a health problem, really bad, emphysema, that’s what he died of eventually. He was afraid of the dark actually; well, not afraid of the dark, he was afraid to go to sleep, so he did whatever he had to do to stay awake as much as possible. He lived rock & roll, he was that kind of guy, but he was very intelligent and had a great sense of humor, a very cool guy.
But then I left Copperhead and was going to play with Nicky Hopkins. He was out with the Stones but he asked me to play bass in a band he was getting together. He rented me a house in Mill Valley and he was off with the Stones and that never materialized, that band, so I started working with Kathi and Neal Schon and Greg Errico, who was Sly Stone’s drummer, and then went back to record the last Rod Stewart album, Smiler.
Then came Paul and Grace. I’d met them a little bit earlier when I was working on Kathi’s album. Grace was upstairs doing a solo album called Manhole and I went up and played some piano and bass, bass on one track and piano on another, and played a blues piano on a song she wrote on the spot called “Better Lying Down.” I was just playing blues changes and she came up with that. Paul mentioned to me at that point that the Airplane had broken up and he was going to get a band together called Jefferson Starship and asked me to play in it. But I had to go back and finish up the album with Rod, which took a year, so I think the very first Jefferson Starship tour I didn’t do but came over and joined them and did my first official Jefferson Starship album called Dragon Fly and I wrote a song with Grace called “Hyperdrive.”
You mentioned earlier about playing with Hot Tuna. How did that come together?
I was between bands and I was volunteering for Wavy Gravy at the Seva benefit, Wavy and Jahanara and Larry Brilliant, from the old Hog Farm, one of the good things to come out of the sixties hippie movement; that and Camp Winnarainbow for kids, and that’s still going strong and so is Seva. So I was playing at a benefit at Berkeley Civic Center; I think it was John Lee Hooker maybe but Hot Tuna were on the bill and I told Wavy, “I’ll just go in the cafeteria and play some blues piano for everybody, just in the background, you know.” I did that quite often, actually, no matter who I was playing with. Sometimes I’d play on the main stage with somebody one year for the benefit but then I’d also do that, go off and just help out, cause I really believed in what they did.
So I’m playing the piano, and I hadn’t seen Jorma or Jack in a few years, and then I get a tap on the shoulder and they’re standing there and they said, “We’re doing an album at Sweetwater tomorrow, can you come down and sit in?” They invited me over and I went down and sat in and they set me up. They didn’t have the drums at the time or keys or anything so they set me up in the back where the drums usually are. Of course, no rehearsal or anything. I wasn’t that familiar with their material so I was trying to learn the song, knowing that Jorma was probably at some point going to turn around and give me a solo so I’d better know it by then, right (laughs). And it’s a live recording. Anyway, it turned out okay. We had a good time with it and I ended up staying with them ten years. I mean, I really enjoyed my time with Jorma and Jack and Michael Falzarano. We toured all over, we really got along well and that was a good time, musically and everything. Good people. And Jorma started that Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio and I taught there in the early years; piano at first and then later bass.
On your second solo album, The Long Haul, is a song called “Elizabeth” that you wrote with John Lee Hooker. Did you have most of that song already done before you hooked up with him on it?
Well, I had the music. We were in the studio, cause with John, if he’s going to play on your album, you only get like one take out of him. And it was great he agreed to do it. Most people then were hiring him to come down and all they wanted really was his distinctive voice on their album, on a track. Nobody really said much about his guitar playing in later years. I asked him to come down and when I got him to sit down I said, “Well, I’ve got the music and I’m just going to play the music,” I didn’t have any words or lyrics, and I said, “Just play the guitar. We really want your guitar playing on this. And here’s a mic just in case you feel moved to sing anything.” And he looked really happy about that.
We ended up doing two takes, which was unusual. We did the first one and I was quite happy with that, no overdubs at all, all live, you know. And John came up with that name, Elizabeth, some girl he liked at the time, he came up with that and he came up with the lyrics. I had a song contract we had to sign. I signed it and it’s got John Lee’s markings on there. And I treasure this thing. But he wrote the lyrics, I didn’t write any of the lyrics, and everything that is on there he came up with live on the spot, on the moment, making it up as he goes along, and we got some of his great guitar work. He had these big hands and his hands were very silky, very smooth, when you shook hands with him. But towards the end of his life, he had difficulty playing sometimes, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to get him on the track. So that’s how that came about.
I also had Francis Clay, who played drums with Muddy Waters, on the same album. I had a slow blues so I said to him, “Just sit down and play.” He played drums on the track with Wavy Gravy on that album but Wavy wrote that poem on the way to the studio and that’s how that came about.
Do you remember a time in your career where live you’ve been so into an improvisation that you didn’t realize maybe it was time to get back to the song?
Probably way more than I should have (laughs). Interesting enough, the very thing that enables you to go off into the ether, if it’s a really good moment, you’re really interacting with the band like a school of fish, just moving together, each person in the band, no matter what they’re playing, often helps veer the direction; it’s no one person. But when you are so deep in that kind of interaction, unthinking, just going with the moment, so metaphysical really, it’s incredible, musical telepathy or something, and that’s what happens with a lot of Jazz players. When you get that kind of improvisation going, you’re so connected that something draws you back to what you’re supposed to be doing; not necessarily a glare from the lead singer (laughs).
Usually, you’re so in the moment but it’s also a very musical moment, right, so you know this is just a section of the song where you’re predetermined you’re going to go off and do whatever, you know it’s coming back. I can’t recall any time it was like a negative thing, you know. Of course, that’s not to say that there wasn’t somebody else who wasn’t part of the improvisation might certainly have been thinking, Oh God, I wish they’d shut up (laughs)
Do you see more Blues or Jazz in your improvisations?
Well, I don’t call myself a blues musician, a country musician or a Jazz musician, or anything, right. I call myself a rock & roll musician. I have all those influences and I have played with real blues cats and I love playing the blues but if I had to choose one thing, it might be that. But my improvisational stuff came from playing ragas in 1967 with a tabla player and a guitar player. He was a brilliant player, Hutch Hutchinson played ragas. That kind of music is what really influences me and I’d say the improvisational aspects lends itself to the Indian influence and that 1967 playing of anything goes, but within reason. Yeah, that’s what influences me, I think, more. So I guess the combination of everything – blues, classical, Indian, rock – it all sort of goes into one. It’s definitely a combination of elements that when I improvise now, that’s where I’m going.
What was your first impression of Jerry Garcia when you first saw him play?
When I first saw Jerry was when we did that KSAN broadcast. I’d heard about the Dead, I was in England in the music scene and I didn’t come over until 1969. But at that first KSAN live broadcast from the KSAN Studios, Jerry brought down his pedal steel guitar. So my first time actually playing with Jerry was pedal steel and I played the old upright piano in the corner and Bob Weir played acoustic guitar and sang. We did country stuff like “Silver Threads & Golden Needles,” stuff like that. John Cipollina played an electric guitar and Mario Cipollina, his little brother, played bass. Mario went on to play with Huey Lewis, of course, but we had no percussion on that. I played the upright piano. So I remember thinking how wonderful Jerry was on the pedal steel. I hadn’t played with too many other pedal steel players at that point but it just sounded amazing to me. And Jerry was very insecure about his pedal steel playing. He didn’t think he was that great or anything. But other really good pedal steel players will tell you that Jerry was probably way better than he thought he was on the instrument, cause he had really good note selection and feeling in his playing. It’s a very difficult instrument to play. So he did that.
He played on my first solo album and was supposed to play on the other one, The Long Haul, but he fell ill. His guitar playing, he could just weave magic, you know. We were playing together, on YouTube there is a thing of Elvis Costello, James Burton and Scott Matthews, I’m playing bass and Jerry is on guitar, that was at the Sweetwater Club, and also when I was playing with blues man Nick Gravenites with his band Animal Mind, we recorded together and played together; I played keys with him, piano mostly, and we were doing a benefit for a guy named Brian Wilson, not the musician but the fellow that lost his legs when he was protesting weapon shipments to El Salvador during the Reagan Administration and the train at the Concord Weapons Naval Base carried on going and ran over his legs and cut them both off. He was there, he had two artificial legs at that point, but he was a very brave guy. So I said to Jerry, and Jackson Browne was playing on that show too, a little club over in San Francisco under the freeway, and I asked Jerry to come down and he said, “I’d love to but I don’t want to sing. I just want to play.” So he came down and he played blues all night and he loved that.
Jerry could weave magic with his playing. He was a very musical player and he was amazing, very identifiable. You’d know it was Jerry. Just incredible stuff and he was such a strong influence and he and Bobby were very close. It was a very amazing band that just defied all the ways that music was supposed to be back then. You were supposed to get a record label and get a hit record and then you go out on the road. But the Grateful Dead were able to fill up Madison Square Garden two or three nights in a row or something with no hit record and that’s something that completely blew the rest of the music business away. But Jerry was a magical player. I really enjoyed playing with him and enjoyed hanging out with him. It was a sad day when he passed on.
You’ve always been social-minded, so when you came to California in the late sixties, it was a beautiful world one minute and then the next minute people were scared to death because of the Vietnam War. What was it like for you coming from Britain into that?
You know, when you’re young, you kind of flow with stuff. A guy named Gary Rainier, he’d just got back from Vietnam and he had shrapnel wounds in his back and he developed a heroin habit, but a really sweet person, and he was helping people with their equipment and he’d talk about it and it was a very, very tough time for those soldiers because, I mean, a lot of those guys came from small-town America where it was a family tradition to join up and go to the war. Their father or grandfather was fighting WWI or WWII, which God bless them, and thank God they did, right. But there was this pressure to sign up, you know, so they did. Then they end up over there and the wrongs and rights of that war, there weren’t many good things about it, but they were stuck there, really, in this awful war that was unwinnable, really. Those poor guys got screwed up by that.
I mean, I grew up in post-WWII England where it’d been bombed the crap out of. My mother talked about the sky black with German bombers. It was a tough period but there were still bombed-out buildings, not everywhere but you’d come across them still. But it had engulfed everybody that was around me, the older people, our parents’ generation, and older children that’d gone through the war. I mean, it was a massively big thing so even though I was born in 1948, it was everywhere, just all around you, people talking about it or on everybody’s minds still. But there was a feeling of camaraderie actually, which often happens when you go into a situation like that. Things were in good shape, you know, we had the National Health System, that was pretty new and still is an amazing thing, ragged but still amazing. Anybody can walk in and get medical attention with no questions asked. So I think people realized you could have that kind of socialism but still be a capitalist free enterprise society. It’s not just this big sweeping communist thing.
So the Vietnam War is just what it was. I didn’t accept it but it was there and we did some benefits with Starship for the Vietnam Veterans Association. I think you have to understand, you can’t do this sweeping thing where you’re angry at all the soldiers for going because a lot of them they were victims themselves. I think you either have to embrace what happened or you have to rebel at what you’d been through. I don’t know, I’ve met too many people that were on the fence who hadn’t been over there. But it’s just war in general. Until we figure this out as a species, we’re going to keep repeating it over and over again. As a species, we’re not doing so great. We’re still fighting each other, right.
And you went over to Guatemala and El Salvador in the eighties. Weren’t you scared?
It was a heavy time, of course, with all that going down and there were times where I was certainly apprehensive, yeah, but they weren’t firing at me, fortunately. It was an intense time. I came back and made a music video called “Guatemala,” and Dave Grisman came in and played on it and we circulated copies of that video to any human rights organizations working trying to help the Mayan Indian population in Guatemala. Hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, and disappeared in the street. It was a nightmare. In Guatemala and Santiago, where I was staying, the Catholic priest there was murdered in his room at the church. It was heavy stuff.
Your wife Jeannette is a songwriter but I understand she has written a book. Can you tell us more about it and how someone can get a copy to read?
She wrote a really fantastic novel called A Light Rain Of Grace and it’s a rock & roll novel and it got good reviews, it got a quote from Grace Slick and Ben Fong-Torres about it. You can see it on her site but she hasn’t done any sort of publicity cause covid came along and she wasn’t able to go to bookstores and do readings or any of that sort of thing. But now we’re thinking of trying to do some readings through Zoom.
What is the rest of your year looking like? You’re going to be playing shows, correct?
Yeah, I’m playing with Moonalice here. We have a whole schedule. And another band, the David Nelson Band, we’ve got some shows coming up. Then another band I play with, Steve Kimock & Zero, a very musical band, I’m playing a bunch of shows with them, an East Coast tour. So between Moonalice and those guys, I’m pretty busy (laughs).
Portraits by Bob Minkin and live photos by Greg Homolka