David Gans thinks he has the best job in the world. "I'm one of the luckiest people I know," he says. "Not only am I paid to make Grateful Dead tapes, but my commute is down the stairs. I think I'm making out like a bandit. And it's fun."
Gans is the producer and host of The Grateful Dead Hour, a syndicated weekly radio program currently airing on 59 stations across the U.S., including most major markets. The hour-long show features unreleased live material from the Dead's private vaults, but it's a lot more, too. Gans has made it a point to diversify the shows' content, so that listeners can not only add rare, vintage recordings to their collections but get some idea of "where the Dead are coming from," according to Gans.
"I'd rather put energy into focusing on stuff you can't get at a Grateful Dead concert or from a concert tape," says Gans, "to illuminate what they do. For instance, at a concert you can't talk to the band and get some of the background. There's an immense world of music within the Dead, so many beams of light refracted into that thing, and a lot of kids don't realize how much. You can look at the whole tapestry of it or focus down in on an individual thread. I'm not [only] interested in fattening people's tape collections."
Gans had no radio experience when he "fell into" producing the program in 1985. A long-time Dead Head and a guitarist who plays in a Dead cover band in the San Francisco area -- he can also be heard on Henry Kaiser's most recent album, Those Who Know History Are Doomed To Repeat It (SST), playing on an obscure Dead tune -- Gans had authored a book about the Dead, Playing in the Band (St. Martin's, 1985), when he went up to San Francisco radio station KFOG to promote his work. At the time he was a music journalist -- he also authored a book about Talking Heads -- but was souring on that occupation.
KFOG had just begun a program called The Deadhead Hour, during which one of its DJs played Dead tapes, and Gans had an idea for the show. "I had lots of interview segments with (Dead Iyricist) Bob Hunter, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart talking about the evolution of the song 'Greatest Story Ever Told.' I put together a 20-minute tape with a couple of whole versions and all these pieces, and I had such a good time doing it that I asked if I could do it again." The station said okay and Gans eventually began producing the show on his own, from his home. "I had a closet full of tapes that I'd collected over the years that I was really embarrassed about," he says. "Getting involved in the radio show was the perfect rationalization."
KFOG could only offer Gans $50 a show for his efforts, however, so he met with the Dead to discuss syndicating the program, and to his surprise they said yes. He began signing on stations in other cities and ultimately lined up 16 stations for the weekly program. Sending out the tapes to each station was too costly for Gans considering the returns, though, so he went back to the Dead and asked them if they'd mind if he found a distributor for the show. Again they agreed, and last fall MJI Broadcasting began distributing the program, renamed The Grateful Dead Hour. With 59 stations now buying the show, Gans has been able to give up writing and concentrate on producing the program full-time. He's also been able to buy an eight-track recorder on which to make his tapes sound more radio ready than before.
And he has had no trouble finding material to incorporate into the shows, some of which feature Dead concert tapes and others of which show other sides of the group and its members. One recent program, for example, featured the Dead's concert performances of Bob Dylan songs during various periods. At other times Gans has invited members of the band on the show to play their favorite records -- one program featured a 16-minute John Coltrane piece picked out by Phil Lesh, the Dead's bassist, possibly the first time that that music has been played over some of the host stations. Another featured drummer Mickey Hart introducing some of the ethnic music he's produced, recently released by Rykodisc as "The World" series.
"I see an immense amount of stuff in the Grateful Dead and I'm trying to bring that to other people," says Gans. "One of the most fun things about the Dead is that I've learned from them directly and indirectly. You hear something they do and you check it out. I don't think some of the kids at their shows realize that when they play 'Mama Tried' it's a Merle Haggard song, or that 'Big River' is a Johnny Cash song. When you listen to the Dead you're hearing country music and folk ballads and Egyptian music and rhythm 'n' blues."
Gans receives a lot of mail from listeners who would like to hear nothing but uninterrupted concert tapes from the band, but that, says Gans, is not what the show is all about. "If you want to hear the Grateful Dead you can go to see them live or collect tapes," he says. "What I'm trying to do with the show is to play to the fans who are interested in the music's value as something more than cultural currency. I have two 25-minute segments to fill each week and there's no way I can fake a whole concert in that -- besides, I'm not allowed to play whole sets. My philosophy, my obligation, is to expand on what they're doing. I did a special show based on the rainforest benefit concert that the Dead did [in New York] last year. I take that stuff seriously; I share a lot of the Grateful Dead's ideas about how the world can be improved."
That doesn't mean Gans doesn't enjoy indulging in the ultimate Dead Head fantasy: roaming through the group's private tape vault picking out material he'd like to use on the show. "The Dead do have a tape vault, but it's jealously guarded," he says. "There are people in the Dead scene who are very protective of that stuff and they're not at all sure they want it played on the radio. My agreement with the band pretty much allows me unlimited use, but I don't want to get into a situation where they think I'm ripping them off. I go there about once a month and pick out some stuff and listen to it at home, and I pull out a few things to use on the show.
"But I'm not on a campaign to make their archives public. Whether it comes from the vault is not the important thing. I do like to have something on the show that will knock out my hard-core taper friends, but there's so much good music available that I've never run out of material. Besides, there are a lot of tapes that hard-core collectors have heard till they're blue in the face, and I gave up trying to please them because there are a lot of people who haven't heard the classic stuff yet. I don't see it as a competitive scene, and I don't like to encourage that."
The Dead themselves have made a point in recent years of accommodating that segment of their audience which delights in taping the group's concert performances. They are the only major group that not only doesn't frown upon tapers at their shows, but sets apart a section of the floor for those tapers to set up their equipment. If the Dead are afraid of bootlegging, they certainly don't show it. And Gans feels that his show also helps to "take a little wind out of the sails of people who are profiteering" from the Dead's music. "Why go buy a bootleg album of questionable quality when every week you're getting an hour of high-grade stuff?" he asks. "On that level we're flooding the market with reasonable quality stuff without really cutting into the future potential of their archives. If they ever want to start releasing tapes from their vault they'll still do plenty good business."
Some Dead Heads have questioned why the band even bothers cutting studio albums when it's generally acknowledged that the Dead Heads are primarily interested in seeing the group live and then hearing tapes of those gigs. Gans doesn't feel that way; he believes that the Dead's albums are valuable in that they "keep the band alive." He says, "If we think the music is so good, we should want it to have more cultural weight. I've always felt that their writers have a lot to say and they're worth being heard by a larger audience. Keeping the Grateful Dead a cult item is leaving room for thoughtless clowns to top the charts. Having a Dead song at the top of the charts means a set of lyrics that has some meat to it is being heard out there; it's not all George Michael. There's a song on their next album called 'Standing On The Moon,' and if people hear it on the radio they're gonna learn something. I mean, what if the whole world were Dead Heads? It's not a particular campaign of mine, but it's not something I would stay away from either."