|John Dawson, circa early 70s|
This story is true, at least as far as I know. It continually surprises me, however, how often that various events in Grateful Dead history that seem to be settled fact turn out to have an entirely different context that causes me to think of events in a different light. The "Birth Of The New Riders" saga has always been presented as a serendipitous, chance occurrence, as only Garcia's random purchase of a pedal steel guitar and Dawson's casual presence at a Dead rehearsal caused the New Riders to arise fully formed.
Recently, however, I was fortunate enough to hear an extensive interview with Grateful Dead engineer Betty Cantor, thanks to the good offices of David Gans. Cantor talked extensively to Gans about the recording of Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead and Workingman's Dead, among other projects. While we can anticipate that Mr. Gans will share the best parts of this interview in the future, on the Deadhead Hour or on KPFA, a passing remark from Ms. Cantor caused me to re-think the entire genesis of the New Riders.
In the context of talking about how she learned to work in the studio, Cantor talked about the different things she did, such as setting up microphones. Then she added, most unexpectedly,
Plus we did a lot of demos down there, with Marmaduke, John Dawson, before the New Riders. I got to be the drummer! To keep John in time. He was great, great songwriter, great player, couldn’t keep time real well. So I just had to play snare, high hat, kick, keep in time. I got to be the drummer on the demo, it was real fun.I am pretty knowledgeable about the New Riders, but I knew nothing about any demos with just John Dawson and a rudimentary drummer. Of course, I realized that the tape had probably been erased, as professional recording tape was expensive, but it forced me to consider the context: why were the Grateful Dead recording John Dawson demos in late 1968 or early 1969?
|The cover of the 1969 Grateful Dead album Aoxomoxoa|
How did the Grateful Dead use all this studio time? According to Cantor, there was a lot of experimentation, some of it quite serious, some of it just goofing off. According to her, almost none of the experimenting was preserved, for good or for ill. Although she doesn't specifically say so, I know that one of the reasons for that was the expense of recording tape. I know that the recordings of the Avalon on January 24-26, 1969 that were not used for Live/Dead were simply erased and recorded over for Fillmore West a few weeks later. It may seem odd that a band willing to go over $100,000 in debt would be cheap about tape, but I have a feeling that the studio would bill through Warner Brothers but the band had to pay actual cash money for the recording tape, and the Dead always had a cash squeeze.
Nonetheless, it seems that the Dead were using their own studio time to record demos for one of their friends. There's no other way to interpret the Marmaduke recordings in San Mateo than to think that the Dead had plans to make music with Dawson, probably by getting him a record contract. It may have been that the Dead had studio time booked when the band had shows scheduled, so recording Dawson's demos may have been a way to make use of the time when the band wasn't there. Like many good engineers, Betty Cantor could play a little music (she apparently was a good piano player), but Bob Matthews would have only used her on drums if no one else was available. I have to think that manager Lenny Hart had a plan to sign John Dawson to a record contract, but it's clear that if Dawson was recording demos, the band was on board with the plan. However, knowing that Dawson recorded demos in late 1968 puts the New Riders genesis in a totally different light. Garcia's new pedal steel guitar may have put Dawson's songs in a new context, but Garcia and Dawson had apparently already been trying to make Dawson into a singer/songwriter already.
|The cover to the 1986 Relix lp Before Time Began|
Relix Records was the recording wing of Relix Magazine, a Brooklyn based music publication. The magazine and label focused on the Grateful Dead family, Hot Tuna and related San Francisco bands in the 1980s, when there was very little interest in those groups elsewhere. The record label released a lot of interesting music, but it was run on a shoestring basis, like many independents. I suspect that the label generally operated on a cash basis, paying out money as they got it, which was probably much appreciated by its artists. Certainly artists like Robert Hunter and Jorma Kaukonen released several albums each with the label, so they must have been happy with how they were treated.
Back in the day, I was intensely bothered by the fact that the liner notes and recording information for Relix releases were scant, and often startlingly inaccurate. For example, a Kingfish album released in the 1980s clearly included material that must have been recorded in the 1970s, but there were overdubs from current band members, with no explanation of the process in the notes. There was even a track left off the liner notes. At the time, I thought that Relix staff was inattentive, but I now think the mistakes were so persistent that they did them on purpose. At the very least, Relix had a vested interest in not correcting their mistakes, although I am left to speculate why that might have been.
Before Time Began featured four songs ("Henry", "All I Ever Wanted", "Last Lonely Eagle", "Cecilia") by the New Riders Of The Purple Sage and two ("Garden Of Eden", "Superman") by John Dawson. The four NRPS songs were apparently recorded in November 1969 at Pacific High Recorders in San Francisco, with a lineup of Dawson, Nelson, Garcia, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh. The two Dawson songs are identified as having been recorded at Pacific Recording in San Mateo in July 1968. The tracks are said to have been recorded "with the help of Garcia and some members of Doug Sahm's group." Based on the information I now have, I am much better able to make a plausible hypothesis about the Dawson demos released on the album.
First of all, I think we can safely dismiss the July 1968 date for the Dawson demos. The Dead were not in Pacific Recording at the time, and I put no credence in dates from Relix liner notes. Since Betty Cantor recalls recording demos with Dawson, I think late 1968 makes much more sense. It also make sense that after Marmaduke and Betty--sounds like a cartoon duo, doesn't it?--recorded some demos together, a few of the tracks were re-recorded and built up into legitimate demos. I have to think that Lenny Hart, at least, played the demos for some record company guys--maybe Clive Davis heard about Dawson from these demos, long before the New Riders. In any case, they must have had no takers, but that in itself seems odd, since record companies were signing every band in San Francisco.
The way Betty Cantor described the recording process at Pacific Recording, there was a tendency to get a good take and then experiment with mixes and overdubs, without really saving anything but the final copy. The vagueness about the backing musicians, as "Garcia and some members of Doug Sahm's group" may stem from the fact that there was a variety of overdubs and "punch-ins" (recording over a musical or vocal part, often for just a few phrases or a verse), and no one recalls who actually played what. Of course, there may be other reasons that no one remembers who played what.
While I'm sure Garcia helped with the Marmaduke demos, I have to take the Relix liner notes with a grain of salt. The label had a vested interest in claiming Garcia's involvement, so the fact that he isn't particularly audible suggests to me that Garcia was involved in the arranging or the mixing, but didn't have a big role in the actual performances on the demos. I have been told that some pedal steel guitar parts are played by Lowell "Banana" Levenger, of the Youngbloods. Banana was an old pal of Rick Turner, who became a key player when Alembic was formed shortly after Aoxomoxoa (by Turner, Owsley Stanley and former Ampex engineer Ron Wickersham), so that may have been why Banana was present, if indeed he was. It's also true that Garcia owned a Fender pedal steel guitar around 1967 which he sold to Banana, so perhaps Banana was playing Garcia's old instrument, a strange coincidence that would fit right in.
Doug Sahm and some of his band members had moved to San Francisco from Texas after a 1966 pot bust, a very scary proposition in Texas. Sahm had numerous band members, some of them sort of rotating in and out, so it's hard to say who might have played on the demos. Also, most of the Sir Douglas Quintet, including Sahm, were talented on numerous instruments, so it's even harder to say which members might have actually been on the recordings. The interesting Grateful Dead/Doug Sahm connection in 1968 was that Sahm was on Mercury, and he recorded extensively in that label's San Francisco studios on Mission Street. And who was the house engineer at Mercury West? Why, Dan Healy, of course, so there were plenty of connections between Sahm and the Grateful Dead. Hence, finding the Sir Douglas Quintet over in the South Bay helping out in the studio isn't surprising.
In 1968, Mercury Records made a big splash by announcing that they had signed 12 bands in San Francisco on the same day. The most famous of these was Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet, but they signed plenty of obscure artists. Mercury also recorded some demos for a Pigpen solo album in 1969, believe it or not, so they must have been sniffing around the Grateful Dead when the band's contract was ready to expire in 1969. Mercury, like many labels, was signing everyone in San Francisco, including some really forgettable artists. With this in mind, considering the Dan Healy/Doug Sahm connection, I find it strange that no record company was interested in John Dawson's demos. Even the Grateful Dead would not pay to record their friend's demos without having some plan, however harebrained, to find a way to allow Dawson to record a real record.
Until we get more information, I'll end with a series of propositions. I'm hoping for some proof or contradictions from anyone with more information or some clever ideas.
- The "Marmaduke Demos" on Before Time Again were recorded in late 1968 at Pacific Recording
- The initial demos featured just John Dawson and Betty Cantor on drums, but these were probably superseded and may not have survived
- The two surviving demos were probably built up with a variety of overdubs and punch ins, so it might not be clear who played on what track, even if anyone was in a state to remember
- The Grateful Dead family was interested in turning John Dawson into a recording artist as early as 1968, and willing to spend their own studio time to do it, even though nothing ever came of it, so the New Riders project can be seen as a solution rather than a random idea
- When Garcia played pedal steel to Dawson's songs for the first time in April 1969, he not only probably knew the songs, he had been actively working on trying to record Dawson
- Garcia's pedal steel guitar was a new sound for Dawson's music, but it was the sound that was new, not the songs. I maintain my working hypothesis that for Garcia, the New Riders was really about the sound of the band rather than the notes and melodies themselves