Friday, May 27, 2011

Nicky Hopkins and His Giant Mirror

I discovered the Grateful Dead in 1972, and I was fortunate enough to see them a few times while I was in High School. Due, however, to being trapped in the suburbs with scant money and transport, I never managed to see Jerry Garcia with one of his own bands until I went to College in 1975 (knowing what I know now, I could have walked to at least a few shows, but I was not that sort of person at the time). The first two Garcia shows I saw were the Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins at the Concord Pavilion on October 17, 1975 and then again at Winterland on December 19 of the same year. Of course, I loved both shows, but the subject of the Garcia Band's music is a topic for a different post.

Over the years I have seen many rock shows by many groups, but the two Garcia/Hopkins shows featured an oddity that I have never seen repeated elsewhere. This first iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band was a quartet, with John Kahn on bass and Ron Tutt on drums joining Garcia and Hopkins on electric guitar and grand piano. Grand pianos were not unknown for major rock shows at the time, and Keith Godchaux, for one, had played  a full size Yamaha on stage with the Grateful Dead up until 1974. Hence it was not surprising to see a giant black grand piano onstage for Hopkins. What was surprising, however, was that the grand piano faced away from the other three musicians. Hopkins was not looking at the band members, but rather at a giant mirror, probably 3 feet by 3 feet, propped up on his piano like giant sheet music. Hopkins looked in the mirror while he played, staring at the reflections of Garcia, Kahn and Tutt, who in turn stared back at his reflection.

I hadn't been to that many rock concerts by Fall '75, and not all of them had grand pianos, but a few of them did. None of them faced backwards, and none of the piano players had a giant mirror to watch the band with. Who had I seen play grand piano on stage by Fall 1975? Keith, Chuck Leavell of the Allmans, Ian McLagan of Faces, Mark Naftalin, Commander Cody, Freddie Mercury of Queen (hey, they were good back then) and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd (I think he played a grand on some songs, anyway), and all in all that's a fair cross section of touring rock pianists. Still, conventional wisdom held that Nicky Hopkins was the best of the best rock pianists--a position I'm still willing to stand by--so I just figured that everything was different for him.

At the time, I thought that having a mirror for the pianist to see the band was weird. I didn't realize, however, that I would never see that again. I mean, it probably wasn't a good idea, but it was still an odd thing. Since the Jerry Garcia Band generated only the most perfunctory kind of press coverage, if any, I don't recall any serious discussion of it. Since Hopkins left under unhappy circumstances, no one wanted to talk about it afterward. I don't even know if he did it every show, but I saw him at the beginning and end (more or less) of his brief tenure, so I assume it was a permanent thing for his stint in the JGB. When I saw Hopkins years later playing in different ensembles, he faced the band like every other keyboard player, so I guess he gave up the experiment.

Hopkins was not in great personal shape in Fall 1975, so perhaps the experiment was not undertaken in a fully logical manner. Of course, my friends and I made all sorts of waggish jokes about why the band needed a 3 foot by 3 foot mirror on the road, but after a few years no one but me even understood the jokes anymore. I have a feeling that Hopkins only tried the mirror with the Garcia Band and then gave it up. Since he may have barely remembered it himself, he may have not had much to say about it, leaving it as one of those half-remembered things from Garcia shows long ago. Still, I saw them twice, so two half-memories equals a whole one--when I saw Nicky Hopkins play grand piano with the Jerry Garcia Band, he faced away from the band and looked at the rest of the group from a giant mirror. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

4 comments:

  1. I now have a second person who confirms seeing Nicky and His Giant Mirror at the Keystone in October 1975.

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  2. It makes some sense to set up the body of the piano
    facing outward from the center of the band so the
    players are physically closer together. Easier to
    confer between songs, at least. NRBQ routinely used
    this sort of set-up, with a clavinet set up facing the
    audience.

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  3. Anon, thanks for the observation. Did Terry Adams ever use a mirror to look at the band?

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  4. The mirror is discussed in Julian Dawson's bio of Nicky, which I have read but haven't yet annotated.

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