Today we are bringing you an interview with John, who worked with the Grateful Dead for 9 years. Read on as he shares some of his memories with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
You have a special connection to the Grateful Dead that we’d love for you to share. What is it you did and how did it come to pass?
“I was a personal assistant for the band from 1987 to 1995, when Jerry died. Then I did a couple of music festivals for them. I did a couple of years with “The Other Ones”. First, I drove the catering truck. They had their own caterers. They were one of the first bands to have their own caterers. I was a runner for Electric Factory Concerts. So, every time they came into town, they would request me. One time, it was Bill Kreutzmann’s birthday at the Spectrum and they were gonna have a party after the show and they wanted me to bartend in the bands dressing room. So I did. It happened to be one of those nights I had the one liners blowin and I was just on. I had everyone laughing. Afterwards, the person that was in charge of catering asked me if I wanted a job. I couldn’t take it right away because I was paying my way through Temple. After the next semester at Temple I called the guy up and it just so happened that he needed someone to drive the catering truck. So, I did that the first tour. By the end of the tour, I was onstage with Dave, who was hired to tour before me as a personal assistant to the band. It was just too much for one person so they asked me if I wanted to do that in between driving the truck to and from, to help Dave out. A year later, they said, “We’re gonna get someone else to drive the truck. You’re on the bus now. We want you guys to be the ones taking care of the band.” It was everything from “send a runner out to get me this CD” to “I’ll take number 6 from the menu. And here’s my guests and they all want to order from the menu.” I was in charge of the backstage alcohol for a number of those years so any guests of the band were introduced to me and they would have to find me to get beer or vodka, whatever, any kind of alcohol. I met a lot of celebrities that way. It was kinda cool. One of my main jobs was filling the bags for the band and crew members each night. Before the show, I’d walk around with my little notebook and find out what they wanted to take back to the hotel room each night; orders off the menu, alcohol, non-alcoholic drinks. We pretty much stocked their hotel rooms for them each night. During the second set, I’d fill these bags for them and then as they’d leave I’d be standing there by the van handing their bags off to them.”
Were there ever odd requests?
“Always. One time, after Jerry’s coma, they brought in a separate chef. So there was the one chef that would just cook traditional menu items. The other chef was cooking non-fat items. It was mostly for Jerry but they made it available for everybody so he wouldn’t seem so singled out. He would order off that menu each night but then he’d pull me aside and say “I want two meatball sandwiches, two hot dogs. Stick them all the way at the bottom of the bag.” He cheated on his diet with me more than a few times. When he did die, his publicist said it was too many hot dogs and milkshakes. I felt pretty bad about that. But I realized if I didn’t do it, somebody else was gonna do it. I was just doing what he asked me to do. I had a really good relationship with Jerry. I only remember him raising his voice once. That’s when the death threats happened on the last tour and he was scared. He didn’t raise it (his voice) at me, he raised it to the head of security. That’s the only time I ever remember him raising his voice.”
Had you been a fan of theirs prior to working with them?
“I was. I had seen exactly 50 shows before I got the job. And then I probably worked about 400 shows.”
What an opportunity! There you are, working with the band you paid to see 50 times! People I’ve spoken to in the past have said that they became disappointed in the celebrity or band or what have you, that they love after meeting them. That it jaded them. Did you have that experience?
“No. Because I became friends with them. And I never really acted like a fan. I always put on a professional face. I smiled a lot, the first year. They were always like “why are you smiling so much?” “I’m just happy to be here man!” If I showed my cards at all, it was that. But other than that, I talked to them about everything but music. Jerry and I had some pretty awesome conversations about random stuff.”
If you had to describe Jerry to someone that may read this who became a fan later or doesn’t know much about the band or Jerry, in particular, what would you say?
“He was way more cerebral and intellectual than he appeared. Conversations with other people that I overheard…he was a pretty intelligent guy. If your parents were to see a picture of them performing and they see the beard, being overweight, they’d think “this guy’s a mess”. He really wasn’t. He was a really intelligent guy.”
Any favorite stories you have that you want to share?
“There’s a million of them. There’s one where Jerry would like to call me a different name every day. It was about my third year in when he finally trusted me enough to have me in their little area other than to just take an order or something. I did a few Garcia band tours. I would clean up his dressing room when he went on stage, put his stuff away for him. He saw that I was the guy doing that and he started trusting me. I don’t know if he had had problems in the past. After that, he would just start bustin on me. That’s how you know someone really likes you, if they mess with you a lot. If they don’t like you, they’re not gonna mess around with you. So, after that first tour, he’d call me a different name every day. And he’d stick with that name all day long, remember that he’s calling me Jake or whatever. That whole tour, he was in such a great mood.
I’ll never forget he told me one time (during that tour) “I want you to dig a hole six feet deep. Stick a live, raw pig in there. Cover it back up. Light it on fire and let that fire burn for three days. Pull the pig out, strip away the skin, take the meat out, and I want that on two pieces of sour dough bread that you fly in from San Francisco.” He went through this whole thing and I’m standing there like “are you serious!?” His guy, Steve, was standing there saying “what are you waiting for? Go do it!” So he used to mess with me a lot. (Laughter)
There’s a little curtain wall in back of the stage, like little stage dressing rooms, on stage. Each band member had their own except for Bobby and Jerry. They shared one. I would go in there sometimes to get their bag or before they went onstage because they were the hardest ones to track down. Everybody else I could find to get their bag orders before they were ready to go onstage. They (Bobby and Jerry) would wait till the last minute, sometimes they would separate and I would have to catch them. Bob Weir would purposely stand in my way with his guitar so I’d have to stand in there till they took the stage. I caught a lot of stuff. I was the fly on the wall when they were deciding what to play, say stupid things, just messing around before they went on stage. Bob would get a kick out of that. He’d make sure I couldn’t leave for a while cause he knew I was so uncomfortable and nervous. I just wanted to get out of there. They’d see and read that and he’d stand there and not let me get by.”
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have the opportunity to get to know my favorite band on such a personal level. It must be surreal.
“It’s pretty cool. It was some of the best years of my life. I asked for a raise my second year in and they gave it to me and gave me a raise every single tour after that. So I would do anything for them.”
That had to build so much confidence in you to go on and pursue the business you have for yourself now. (A catering company for many live entertainers)
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t had those years. People are wired differently, I feel. I often called that my boot camp. I learned how to work 18 hour days and get up and do it again the next day. I learned how to deal with different personalities really closely and adjust yourself and your conversation to adapt to those personalities. I think that gets you far in life. I look back on all those years as teaching me how to maneuver through life. It’s been pretty good so far.”