David Gans. Photo by Jamie Soja
David Gans. Photo: Jamie Soja

On Saturday, Feb 23, David Gans will walk into the studio at the Berkeley-based KPFA and put on a song by the Grateful Dead, thereby launching a 16-hour Dead marathon popular around the world. It will be the 27th time Gans has hosted the marathon, a fundraiser that nets thousands of dollars each year for the radio station.

Gans is now a Grateful Dead expert with a weekly syndicated radio show highlighting the band’s music. He is also the author of Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead, among other books, and a guitarist and accomplished songwriter. As Gans prepared for the Grateful Deal marathon, which will run from Sat. at 9 am to Sunday at 1 a.m. at 94.1 FM, Berkeleyside asked him how he started to love the band and why the music is so enduring.

When and where was the first time you heard the Grateful Dead? At what point did you fall in love with their music? And after having listened to it for decades, how have you not grown tired of the music?
My roommate and songwriting partner dragged me to a show on March 5, 1972. I found it attractive enough that I started listening to the records, and when the Dead came back to the Bay Area in August of that year I went to four shows in a week.

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There was something about it that drew me in: a different approach to songwriting, for one thing, and a real sense that something meaningful was going on. Jerry Garcia’s charisma was one of the main things, of course, but there was a collective spirit on that stage that drew me in. It took me a while to begin to understand what was going on in the jams between the songs, but that too felt like a challenge worth taking on.

A couple of years later I was living in Berkeley and fell in with a bunch of musicians who were into the Dead. We started playing together, and that deepened my appreciation of the songs and the band’s collective improvisation. Those guys had tapes of shows I hadn’t seen, and I began to recognize that the Grateful Dead were honestly doing it fresh every time. That’s why I don’t get tired of this music: throughout their 30-year career, the Dead continued to evolve as individuals, each bringing new sounds and images to the conversation.

Do you have a favorite song? Favorite Grateful Dead era?
“Dark Star” is my favorite. From 1968 to 1974, it was a vehicle for deep and wide-ranging explorations. I just wrote an 18,000-word chapter on “Dark Star” for a book about how the Grateful Dead made music.

My favorite era would be the “Americana jam-band” period, from Keith Godchaux’s debut on piano in October 1971 through the band’s (temporary) “retirement” from touring at the end of 1974. The Grateful Dead Movie and the album Europe ’72 document this period brilliantly.

Why do people like the Grateful Dead’s music so much? Why, after Jerry Garcia’s death, do they continue to flock to Dead-related bands? Does nostalgia play a role?
Once you are bitten by this bug, you’re unlikely to lose interest. With thousands of recordings available — literally: there are a couple hundred official releases, and lots more complete shows on archive.org — you can keep exploring for a very long time.

I never listened to the Grateful Dead at the expense of everything else. I have been a songwriter and performer since before I ever heard the Dead, so I don’t obsess about it the way some fans seem to.

The Dead gave the world a pretty large collection of wonderful songs. The surviving band members are still playing those songs, and hundreds if not thousands of other musicians play those songs, too. The Dark Star Orchestra is the country’s premier GD tribute band, and they draw pretty well all over the country. And there are Dead cover bands all over the country. I played with a couple of them in Arizona last week, and I will jam with more of them in the months to come.

I play some Grateful Dead songs in my own show, mixed in with my original songs and material by Elvis Costello, the Beatles, Gram Parsons, etc. This music is immortal!

The Sycamore Slough String Band will play live at the GD marathon. L to R: Dave Muhlethaler, David Gans, Roger Sideman, David Thom.      Photo: Jamie Soja
The Sycamore Slough String Band will play live at the KPFA Grateful Dead marathon. Pictured, left to right: Dave Muhlethaler, David Gans, Roger Sideman, and David Thom. Photo: Jamie Soja

How have you collected the material you use in your shows. Have you ever gone to great lengths to track down an elusive piece of music? If so, can you talk about what you had to do?
I was a regular ol’ collector in the ’70s and ’80s, meeting up with traders to make copies of their recordings. In the ’80s I began to engage the Dead members as a journalist; the musicians recognized right away that I brought a musician’s perspective to my writing about them, and they encouraged and supported me. When I wandered into the radio business by accident (KFOG started the Deadhead Hour and then eventually asked me to take it over), the band was kind enough to allow me access to their own stash of tapes.

What kind of preparation goes into producing a 16-hour music marathon? Do you plan out the order of songs?
I don’t plan the order of things. I listen to lots of GD music in the course of the year (I produce a weekly syndicated program, “The Grateful Dead Hour”), and, starting in January, I set aside rare and exceptional shows and parts of shows for the marathon. I explore my own archive for interviews and rarities. I’ll show up at KPFA Saturday morning with several days’ worth of material, and I’ll just sort of make it up as I go along.

Where are your listeners from?
Everywhere! I have friends/fans in Europe who will listen and contribute. In past years I have heard from people in Calcutta, on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean, etc. And of course, people from all over the USA.

The Grateful Dead marathon, a benefit for KPFA, will run from Saturday Feb. 23 at 9:00 am to Sunday, Feb. 24  at 1:00 a.m. at 94.1 FM. Tim Lynch will assist Gans with the marathon. which will feature exclusive music by the Mickey  Hart Band and a live, in-studio  performance by Sycamore Slough String Band. There will also be taped interviews with the band members, rare tapes from the Grateful Dead vault, and more. You can listen to the webcast at KPFA online.  

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...