Q&A with Tony Sclafani
Posted by HLPAPG
To mark the arrival of his Grateful Dead FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History, Tony Scalfani met up with Music Tomes to discuss his love of The Dead and the new discoveries he made about the band during the book’s construction. With Spring (slowly) warming up, it will be Deadhead weather soon! Read the rest of the interview here.
At first it was the popular songs, like “Friend of the Devil” and “Uncle John’s Band.” The Grateful Dead’s main writing team of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter came up with more great songs than I think people realize. I kept finding hidden gems of theirs. When I got deeper into the scene, I became impressed at how the Dead’s live shows married the mindset of improv jazz to rock music – something the Allman Brothers also pioneered. Being a guitarist, I always found it interesting to hear what Garcia had to say musically. He’s one of those players whose style is so distinct you can spot him instantly.
With such a history, how did you decide what you wanted to put into the book?
Having read and reread all the classic books about the band, I wanted to stake out territory that hadn’t been charted. So I often looked to unrelated sources for ideas. For example, I was a fan of the old British rock magazine Trouser Press, which ran features about “great lost albums” of unreleased material they felt bands should have put out. I came up with two of those. I also noticed very little had been written on Dead members Donna Jean Godchaux and Tom Constanten, so I devoted chapters to them. I always thought the Dead’s studio albums hadn’t been given the attention they deserved so I set aside three chapters to take a fresh look at them. And whenever possible, I tried to place what the Dead were doing into the larger context of rock music, since I hadn’t seen that done very much.
There is a wealth of bootleg material from the Dead. How did you parse through the best of the best?
When it came to the live recordings, I used my own knowledge and picked the brains of Dead authorities David Gans and Dennis McNally to come up with a list of essential concerts every fan (or would-be fan) should hear. That became a chapter called “Playing in the Band: A List of Significant Dead Concerts.” What made it tricky is that there are live recordings of Jerry Garcia playing in various traditional music groups before he was a member of the Dead. I felt a lot of those tapes were entertaining and historically significant, so I included them in a separate chapter called “For the Faithful: A Dozen Essential Bootlegs,” even though they’re not the Dead per se. For studio material, there was a lot less to sift through and I included what still sounded good after all these years.
What did you find in your research that surprised you?
First, that by 1994 the Dead had a lot of high-quality original material that would have made for a great final album. I knew they introduced new songs in their last years, but when I strung them together it seemed like they were hitting a new creative peak. I also started realizing just how much the Dead became part of the culture, even though they were not an act really supported by mainstream radio. I put together two chapters on that: “Built to Last: Ten Places the Dead Left Their Mark on Popular Culture” and “Strange Deadfellows: Five Surprising Dead Connections.” Finally, I was able to hear the unreleased solo album the late Brent Mydland recorded. I was amazed at how good it sounded. I put it on YouTube and listeners seem to agree.