Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Reflections" Reflections (Round Records RX-107)

Jerry Garcias's solo album Reflections, released in February 1976 on Round Records
Jerry Garcia's third solo album Reflections was released on Round Records in February 1976. The album was well received when it was released, and on the rare occasions when I hear any of it, it still sounds pretty good. The album featured four songs recorded by the Grateful Dead and four recorded by what was the Jerry Garcia Band at the time, featuring Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with John Kahn and Ron Tutt. While a few connected people had some tapes in those days, most people didn't, and Jerry Garcia tapes were even rarer, so Reflections gave a contemporary picture of Jerry Garcia's music at the end of 1975 that wasn't available otherwise.

Of course, even at the time I knew that some of the songs had been floating around for a while. I  owned a bootleg Grateful Dead  lp with "Comes A Time" on it, and I knew "They Love Each Other" and "It Must Have Been The Roses" from live shows. Still, the recordings on Reflections were very well done, and they wouldn't have fit on Blues For Allah. There were two new songs as well, namely "Might As Well" and "Mission In The Rain," and they were pretty good. The three cover versions were excellent choices but suitably obscure ("Catfish John," "I'll Take A Melody" and "Tore Up Over You"), and the configuration of the record was typical of solo albums at the time. A few tracks with the parent group, some originals and some hip-but-obtuse covers--Reflections was an excellent specimen of a typical mid-70s solo album by the front man of a major group.

Reflections was released in February, 1976. Nicky Hopkins had already left the Jerry Garcia Band by that time, but the group had continued on with Keith and Donna Godchaux on board. Over the years, the genesis of the album has been described  by Bob Weir, John Kahn and others as a compromise. Kahn, quoted in Blair Jackson's book, said "the album was supposed to be a Jerry Garcia Band album, but it sort of fell apart in the middle, so it ended up being half that and half Grateful Dead" (Jackson, p. 270). Given Nicky Hopkins personal and health problems in the Fall of 1975, it makes a plausible story. And yet, an analysis of the recording information provided on the All Good Things box set leads us to some unexpected conclusions. I think the Grateful Dead were working on another album, and that work got sidetracked into a Jerry Garcia album out of financial necessity.

Reflections Sessions
According to the excellent Deaddisc site, the recording history of Reflections looks like this [my emphasis]
  1. Might As Well (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter)
  2. Mission In The Rain (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter)
  3. They Love Each Other (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter)
  4. I'll Take A Melody (Allen Toussaint)
  5. It Must Have Been The Roses (Robert Hunter)
  6. Tore Up Over You (Hank Ballard)
  7. Catfish John (Bob McDill / Allen Reynolds)
  8. Comes A Time (Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter) 
(Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 8 recorded with the Grateful Dead, and the other tracks were recorded by the Jerry Garcia Band)
  • Engineer (tracks 1, 3, 5 and 8) - Dan Healy
  • Second engineer (tracks 1, 3, 5 and 8) - Rob Taylor
  • Engineer and mix-down engineer (tracks 2, 4, 6 and 7) - Smiggy
  • Second engineers (tracks 2, 4, 6 and 7) - Willi Deenihan, Joel Edelstein
  • Production assistants - Steve Brown, Kidd, Ramrod, Steve Parrish
  • Cover - Mike Steirnagle
  • Art direction - Ria Lewerke
  • Mastering - George Horn
  • Special thanks to - Elliott Mazer, John Kahn, Zippy
  • Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 8 recorded at Ace's Studio in August and September 1975
  • Tracks 2, 4, 6 and 7 recorded at His Master's Wheels in October and November 1975
  • Mixed at His Master's Wheels
  • Mastered at Columbia Recorders
Kahn's description of the history of the album seems to be contradicted by the session history. The Grateful Dead recorded four songs in Bob Weir's studio (Ace's) in August and September 1975, before the Jerry Garcia Band was even formed. The studio sessions with Nicky Hopkins and Larry Knechtel (on electric piano, mostly) happened later. How did the Jerry Garcia Band sessions "fall apart," if the Jerry Garcia Band did not yet exist?

It's possible that the session listings are incorrect. However, a comment from Garcia seems to confirm the timeline, if somewhat implicitly (quote via Deaddisc):
A lot of the energy from that record [Reflections] is really a continuation of the Blues For Allah groove that we got into. We sort of continued the same energy because we were having a lot of fun doing it.
The work at Ace's on Blues For Allah had lasted from January through June. So it seems like the August sessions were following on the earlier Blues For Allah album. So what was the Garcia album that "fell apart?" Like many Grateful Dead stories, it has been repeated so often that even the principals seem to accept it. Yet the evidence doesn't appear to support it. What could really have been happening?

Some Considerations
Without additional information, I can only speculate on the actual dynamics underlying the recording of Reflections. Of course, speculation is my specialty, but even I am unable to rank any of these factors in order of importance. It is up to the reader to decide which factors may have been the most important. So, in no particular order:

A listing from the Fremont Argus of August 18, 1975, for the "Jerry Garcia Band" at the Great American Music Hall. In fact, Garcia played with the Keith And Donna Band (note Les Paul the next two nights)
Consider: Garcia Had No Band
In July, Garcia had stopped playing with Merl Saunders. This was quite a surprise to Merl, apparently, and John Kahn was deputized to deliver the bad news to his friend. Was there a planned Garcia album with Merl that got stifled? It's interesting to consider that in August 1975, Garcia was playing shows with the Keith and Donna Godchaux band while recording what would become Reflections with the Grateful Dead. It certainly causes me to re-think the timing of Garcia's dismissal of Merl Saunders, because if an album was imminent, I don't know what to make of it. If Garcia was planning a solo album, he must have had a greater urgency to dump Merl than he ever admitted. However, whatever Garcia's frustration with Saunders, I don't think he was thinking about a solo album in the Summer.

Consider: Round Records Had Dire Cash Flow Problems
McNally describes the difficult situation that Grateful Dead Records had fallen into in mid-1975. The band had spent a lot of money on the Wall Of Sound and the Grateful Dead movie, and they had stopped touring. The Dead had borrowed a lot of money from the Bank Of Boston, so Ron Rakow had gotten a cash infusion by signing a distribution deal with United Artists, along with an international distribution deal with Atlantic. However, the Grateful Dead had no income and they owed money all over the place. I have written at some length about how cash flow problems defined the history of Round Records.

Consider: Recording At Ace's Was Cheap
While recording in Bob Weir's garage was not completely free--there were expenses--there were no studio fees and the band did not need to be paid. Recording in a San Francisco studio with professional musicians would have meant laying out cash that the Dead didn't have. So if Round Records needed Jerry Garcia "product" to sell, recording with the Dead at Ace's was the quickest and cheapest way to go. Three of the four songs the band recorded already had established arrangements, so the recordings must have come easily.

The confusing part of my semi-hypothesis is the apparent conclusion: why did Jerry Garcia only record half a solo album with the Grateful Dead? Bob Weir had already recorded a solo album with the Dead as backing musicians, so it wasn't as if the band was ashamed of the concept. Sure, the restless Garcia was always anxious to do something different, but Round Records was a business. If Garcia had recorded half an album with the Dead, why couldn't he finish it up with them? Or do a few songs acoustic, and play with David Grisman or something? There were four original songs, which was plenty for a solo album that could be filled out with hip cover versions. If Round Records needed money, couldn't Garcia just knock out a musically superior collection of songs, and sell a few records? The next year he could focus on something special. Why would Garcia have recorded half an album at Ace's?

The Jerry Garcia Band At His Master's Wheels
The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins debuted at Sophie's in Palo Alto on September 18, 1975. A few shows had been billed at Keystone Berkeley as "Jerry Garcia" or "Jerry Garcia Band" for August, but those shows were played by Garcia and the Keith And Donna band. Whether this was a scheduling problem with Hopkins or had some other motive is uncertain to me. It is still interesting to note that while Garcia was playing the Keystone with Keith and Donna in August and rehearsing Hopkins for the band in September, he was recording with the Dead at Ace's.

His Master's Wheels was in San Francisco at 60 Brady Street, just behind the Fillmore West. It had previously been Alembic Studios, and prior to that it had been Pacific High Recorders. In 1974, Alembic sold the studio to producer Elliot Mazer. It appears that the Jerry Garcia Band went into His Master's Wheels in October 1975 to begin recording Reflections. The exact dates for recording are uncertain, but its easy to bracket the time frame. The JGB had played four dates in September, and they played about six dates in October between October 8 and October 22, when the band began an extended tour of the Eastern seaboard. So the recordings must have been done in the first half of October, in between the various shows in the Bay Area.

The Eastern tour ended November 1 in Washington, DC. The JGB began a Midwestern tour in Chicago on November 21, so it seems clear that the second sessions were in the first three weeks of November, interrupted by a few Keystone Berkeley shows. Outtakes from circulating tapes and the All Good Things box set show the Jerry Garcia Band trying out many of the rock songs associated with him, even if some of them hadn't been played in a few years, like "You Win Again" and "Hey Bo Diddley." Yet on some of the outtake tracks, the grand piano isn't played by Nicky Hopkins but by Los Angeles studio legend Larry Knechtel (check out Knechtel's discography).

Knechtel plays some electric piano in support of Hopkins on Reflections, possibly overdubbed to give more texture to the tracks. However, although participants seem reluctant to disclose details, it appears that Hopkins was not available for some or all of the November sessions, and Knechtel had to fill in. There's even a whiff that Knechtel did some overdubbing of Hopkins' piano parts. Hopkins was a studio legend, and rightly so, and thus it would have seemed that the environment would have brought out the best in him, but apparently the opposite was the case. Hopkins was a very nice man, so no one liked speaking ill of him, but he had serious health problems separate from his preference for drugs and drinking, and he seems to have simply failed to answer the bell.

Knechtel was a fine player, but obviously the opportunity to take advantage of Hopkins' live experience with Garcia was lost. Apparently, when Blair Jackson asked Knechtel about playing with Garcia, Knechtel didn't recall it. Knechtel had played with everybody, so I wouldn't read too much into that, but it does suggest that Knechtel's role was after the fact, cleaning up what Hopkins had muffed, possibly with just John Kahn in the studio.

Presumably, if Hopkins' health prevented his appearance, or if he was unable to deliver the goods in the studio, Garcia must have needed to fall back to a Plan B. Whatever exactly Rakow had promised United Artists, they plainly had to release something. Thus Garcia must have taken the four tracks with the Dead and the best four tracks with Hopkins, and made a pretty good album out of them. It looks like a few overdubs were done near the end of the process, with harmony vocals from Weir and Donna Godchaux, and a little percussion from Hart, as well as possible overdubs by Knechtel. Reflections was released in February 1976, and the Kingfish album was released in March, so UA got their Garcia and Weir albums.

What Was Plan A?
In retrospect, Kahn's overview of Reflections makes sense: "the album was supposed to be a Jerry Garcia Band album, but it sort of fell apart in the middle, so it ended up being half that and half Grateful Dead." Garcia, Kahn and Tutt seem to have gotten Nicky Hopkins in order to form the Jerry Garcia Band, and they had plans to make a Jerry Garcia solo album at His Master's Wheels. Garcia knew Hopkins from his Quicksilver Messenger Service days, and he was a living legend--The Kinks had written a song about Hopkins called "Session Man" 9 years earlier--so it seemed like a good plan. Yet Hopkins let them down, due to some combination of circumstances. As a result, 4 tracks were salvaged from those sessions, and four tracks from Grateful Dead sessions were used as well.

Yet why had the Grateful Dead been recording at Ace's in August and September? Garcia had a plan in place for his own solo album, so why were the Dead recording Garcia/Hunter songs? I think the Grateful Dead were actually beginning work on their next album, and the tracks got borrowed by Garcia. Although Rakow's words always have to be taken with a grain of salt, he told McNally that UA had been promised 4 Grateful Dead albums along with solo albums by Garcia and Weir. The band had the '74 Winterland shows in the can, although it would later turn out that those tapes were in poor shape.  

Blues For Allah would have been the first UA album, and the Winterland tapes would have accounted for two more (according to the contractual orthodoxy of the time, double albums could count as two albums). Weir was already working with Kingfish, and they had some original material. Garcia and Kahn had plans for the Jerry Garcia Band. That would still leave one album unaccounted for.

I think the August and September 1975 sessions at Ace's were meant for a forthcoming Grateful Dead album. "Might As Well" was a new song, but the other three had never been released by the Dead. Obviously, we'll never know what else might have been recorded had they continued. The increasing stress of record company business had made the Dead's own situation more precarious. According to Rakow, he threatened UA with bankrupting the Grateful Dead in order to get out of the contract if they did not receive more money. Whether or not Rakow actually voiced that threat to UA--he certainly could have--it was a sign of desperation. By December of 1975, when Garcia had returned from touring with Hopkins, Garcia would have needed to take over the songs for his own album, and any possible plans for a subsequent album were pushed aside.

Scholar and regular Commenter Light Into Ashes has a relevant quote from Garcia at the time, and an intriguing counter-narrative
Garcia had a bit more to say about the Dead sessions that ended up on Reflections. "It was a continuation of what we were doing with Blues for Allah. We were having fun in the studio is what it boils down to, and that's pretty rare for us. The energy was there, and I thought, 'I've got a solo album coming up. Let's cut these tracks with the Grateful Dead. I've already taught them the tunes.'" (Jackson p.271)

So by Garcia's account, the Dead-recorded tunes were meant for his next solo album all along. What Garcia doesn't mention is that he didn't have his own band when they started recording in August/September. So using the Dead would have been a necessary step, if he wanted to start recording right away. 
But the Nicky Hopkins JGB formed in mid-September - it seems no coincidence that the Dead stopped recording then, and the JGB sessions picked up where they left off almost immediately, in October.

I am not certain why the JGB had to head to His Master's Wheels when the much cheaper Ace's was available - except, perhaps it wasn't. Weir & Kingfish rehearsed & recorded their album at Ace's, probably around the same time (this should be checked), so the JGB would have had to find another studio.

There's also the unspoken issue that the Dead had already spent half the year in the studio recording Blues for Allah. As "fun" as Garcia says the sessions were - this was a guy who habitually spent months in the studio working on albums - I suspect that some of the other Dead members were probably getting burned-out by September and were happy to relinquish the sessions to the new JGB.

I would take Garcia's word that he was planning another solo album in mid-'75, right after finishing Allah. Weir would probably have been able to scrape up enough songs for half a Dead album, but I doubt anyone expected the Dead to record two albums in a row. Rather, Rakow would likely have been nudging Garcia for another solo album for Round, since a Garcia album would do well.
So on one hand, perhaps Garcia intended a solo album all along, which makes the timing of his firing of Merl Saunders even more significant. Of course, Garcia could have been making up a plausible story as to why Reflections was recorded the way it was. One point I would make about late 1975 would be to remember that the Dead weren't touring that year--why wouldn't they record a second album in a year? What else were they going to do? In any case, LIA's comments give us yet another angle to consider.

Maybe I'm overreaching by constructing a narrative of a lost Grateful Dead album from some fragmentary, after-the-fact interviews. But if my hypothesis is incorrect, what's the alternative explanation? The timeline doesn't particularly make sense. Now, it's possible that initially Round Records' finances were so dire that Garcia thought he would have to make his whole solo album with the Dead, and discovered he had a budget halfway through. Even so, it makes for a strange series of events that has been glossed over with an easy-to-digest explanation. For now, until someone can peel off another layer of the onion, I'm going to say that there were plans afoot for another studio Grateful Dead album in the Fall of 1975, and they slipped away with Nicky Hopkins' health and a hefty debt owed to the Bank Of Boston.