|The cover of Ian McLagan's 2000 autobiography All The Rage (Billboard Books)|
One of the most unexpected footnotes in the book was his remark that he was asked to audition for the Grateful Dead keyboard chair in the Fall of 1990, after the unfortunate death of Brent Mydland. According to McLagan, the offer to audition came from his old friend Chesley Millikin, an Englishman who among many other things seems to have booked the various Grateful Dead European tours, and seems to have been some sort of European agent for the band. According to McLagan, Millikin said that he could live anywhere (at the time he lived in Austin, TX) and he would be promised a minimum of $250,000. McLagan turned down the opportunity, saying that the Dead's sound had never grabbed him and he didn't think it would work out.
At the time McLagan's book was published, there had been nary a hint that McLagan had been asked to audition. Over the years, people have noticed the remark, and McLagan has been asked about it various times. Based on some casual web surfing, it seems that McLagan now says he didn't audition for the Dead "because they sucked." Cruel as that sounds, in the context of McLagan's autobiography, it's just another remark. McLagan likes to tell stories, and he's more than willing to tell stories on himself or his friends, all with a spirit of charm and good humor. I have no doubt he would have said "the Grateful Dead suck" to Garcia's face, and they all would have laughed and auditioned him anyway. McLagan has figured he can get some mileage out of the non-audition, and he's doing it: good for him, in the spirit of the laddish Faces.
My interest in McLagan's non-audition, however, was not how he would have sounded with the Grateful Dead. In fact, much as I love the Faces and McLagan, I don't think he would have made a good choice as the Grateful Dead's keyboard player, and I think he knew it. I do think he would have made an awesome choice as keyboard player for the Jerry Garcia Band, and Ronnie Wood would have dropped by, and--well, it didn't happen. Nonetheless, the issue for me isn't McLagan, it's Chesley Millikin. When Brent Mydland died and the band needed a new keyboard player, what process was used to find a replacement? How was Millikin, or anyone, involved? To put it in more formal terms: looking at the Grateful Dead as an institution, what was the decision making process by which players were asked to audition?
The Grateful Dead As Institution
The Grateful Dead had had very few personnel changes over the years. Mickey Hart was simply invited, Tom Constanten was sort of "tried out" and then invited, Keith Godchaux mysteriously 'appeared' when needed and Brent Mydland was talent spotted by Weir and then Garcia before Keith's inevitable departure. However, when Brent died in 1990, while the Dead needed a new keyboard player as soon as possible, the band's status and economic obligations insured that the choice of a new player could not be made in isolation, nor delayed.
With no obvious candidate, the Grateful Dead had little choice but to hold auditions. However, arranging the auditions so that the various candidates could jam with the band meant a major organizational effort. While this subject may not be of interest to everyone, anyone who has every worked in a fair sized corporation or other institution, such as a government agency or University will appreciate the implicit choices that the band had to have made. Since no band member or inside source has every discussed this process, I am left with little to do but speculate based on some very scarce information, but that is the purpose of this blog after all.
Although learned Political Scientists may be able to provide a sophisticated analysis, as a layman there seems to be two basic institutional choices: either a "Hiring Manager" or a "Hiring Committee." In most corporations, a given manager makes the choice about new hires, subject to oversight by his or her own boss, Human Resources and so on. In many not-for-Profit entities, particularly Universities, where a group of people make the final decision, a small "Committee" of two or three look for candidates, and those candidates are presented to the hiring group as a whole.
It seems pretty clear that there was no "Hiring Manager" for the keyboard player of the Grateful Dead. The "hiring" entity would have been the band as a whole, but it is both unlikely and unwieldy to have the entire band meeting to discuss not only candidates but the tedious mechanics of auditions. It seems clear that there had to have been a small "Committee," even if not called that, consisting of a couple of band members and a couple of other functionaries. Weir, Lesh or Hart would have been the band members, but not all three, and maybe only one, and perhaps one or two other Grateful Dead insiders, such as Ramrod or attorney Hal Kant, would have sought out potential candidates.
Anyone who has ever had any experience with a hiring committee knows that one of the key goals is finding candidates who will meet the expectations of the "key stakeholders," a big term that translates in Grateful Dead terms to "Jerry." Jerry Garcia himself would not have been directly involved in finding the candidates, but everyone involved would have started with the question "What Will Jerry Do?" By the same token, numerous outside parties would have been working the phones with the hiring committee, suggesting different names and making pitches for different players. All of those outside parties could have had any number of motives, but the general point to make here is that the hiring committee would act as a filter for the Grateful Dead operation as a whole: if someone proposed a player to audition, the hiring committee would have had to approve the opportunity. Presumably, the auditions themselves would define the choice on mainly musical grounds, but a player would have to get the audition in order to shine. In that respect, the hiring committee, however informal, would have acted as "gatekeepers" to the Grateful Dead keyboard chair.
What Is Known About The Auditions?
The official history suggests (to my knowledge) that only three players were auditioned: ex-Jefferson Starship member Pete Sears, ex-Dixie Dregs member T Lavitz and The Tubes keyboard player, Vince Welnick. There is a general understanding that Bruce Hornsby was offered the chair prior to the auditions and seems to have turned the band down. Nonetheless, since Hornsby did in fact play with the Grateful Dead for much of the next year, he obviously didn't turn the band down completely. As to rejections, other than McLagan, the only player to claim to have refused to audition for the Grateful Dead was apparently Merl Saunders.
It seems that the effort to get Hornsby to join the band was comparable to the invitation to Brent Mydland: he was such an obvious choice that his assent would have obviated any other process. Unlike Brent, however, Hornsby had a substantial solo career and lived in Virginia, so he seems to have chosen an adjunct role. This left the Dead little choice but to audition. The Merl Saunders case is more ambiguous, and I will return to it later, but the essence of it is that Merl claimed he received a call about auditioning, but he never returned it and went on tour instead. Otherwise, all we know about the auditions are the three who were known to try out: Pete Sears, T. Lavitz and Vince Welnick. I am interested in viewing these candidates in terms of the Grateful Dead hiring process, rather than specifically as musicians.
Pete Sears was an Englishman who had migrated to the Bay Area in about 1970, as a member of the San Francisco group Stoneground. He had joined Stoneground when they had toured England in 1970. Subsequently, Sears mostly worked out of the Bay Area, primarily with the Jefferson Starship. He had worked with Rod Stewart in England throughout the 1970s, but the bulk of his work was with Starship related activities. Sears would have been known to every member of the Grateful Dead, and had played with Garcia a variety of times. Most recently would have been the very interesting performance with Nick Gravenites on April 29, 1990 at the South Of Market Cultural Center. Since Garcia had played with Sears in April, and he was asked to audition in the Fall, it must have made an impression on Garcia.
Since Sears was a band friend, a successful rock musician in his own right and had recently jammed with Garcia, he looks like a traditional "inside" candidate. Since Sears is a fine player, I have to assume that a principal concern must have been Sears's lack of experience as a harmony vocalist. In any case, Sears would have been an obvious choice to audition after Hornsby turned the band down, and there is little mystery about why he was asked.
Terry "T" Lavitz (1956-2010) was the keyboard player for the progressive Southern rock band Dixie Dregs. The very improvisational Dregs broke up in 1983, and Lavitz played with a variety of groups, including one called The Bluesbusters, including Catfish Hodge and Little Feat's Paul Barrere. He also played on a variety of different projects. Lavitz was a tremendous player, well used to improvising difficult music on stage in front of large audiences. Lavitz was an excellent candidate to audition for the Grateful Dead's keyboard chair.
What interests me about Lavitz was that he not only had no connections to the Grateful Dead, he had no connection to the West Coast either. Someone on the Grateful Dead side had to have done some research to have found him, and there had to be some phone calls to take care of due diligence: any new member of the Grateful Dead had to have his ego in a safe place and no outstanding personal problems. What interest me is the process--who called whom? Whose word was good enough to insure that Lavitz's personality was in line with his playing? Who in the Grateful Dead family made the push to audition Lavitz? I assume that Lavitz's musical status was similar to Sears, in that he was a fine player who had no standing as a singer. I do wonder if anyone every made that clear to the band in the first place, yet another thing that makes me wonder about the "committee" and its "process," such as it may have been.
Vince Welnick was originally from Arizona, and played in a band called The Beans. The Beans and some other Arizonans moved to San Francisco in 1971 and changed their name to The Tubes. In the mid-70s, The Tubes had a spectacular stage act and were rock's next big thing. I saw The Tubes a few times in 1975, and they were truly amazing, if very different than the Grateful Dead. If Jerry had stayed with us, sooner or later Quay Lewd himself would have made a guest appearance with the Dead, so that everybody could have sung "White Punks On Dope" together.
By 1990, The Tubes were well past their Moment, and only played occasionally. Welnick played regularly in Todd Rundgren's band, but Todd only toured periodically. Despite Vince's Bay Area residency, there were few meaningful connections between the musicians that had played with Welnick and the Grateful Dead. Nonetheless, someone seems to have sought out Vince, since he had never met the Dead himself when he got the call. Interestingly, much as I like The Tubes and Todd Rundgren, neither of those acts improvise on stage--quite the opposite--so someone who knew Vince's playing very well must have suggested him. Who suggested him? Who in turn needed to be persusaded? And finally, whose word was good enough for Jerry? Having Vince Welnick audition is not at all an obvious choice, so someone had to have confidence that Vince was worth trying out.
Given that Vince is no longer with us, no one really talks much about the process of his hiring. From that point of view, Vince was musically as unlikely a choice as Ian McLagan, and he won the audition, so for all McLagan's joking whose to say what would have happened if Mac took up Chesley Millikin's offer?
Coda: Merl Saunders
Merl said that the Dead called him to audition, but he never called them back. It's hard to judge this from afar. On one hand, for all of Merl's friendship with Jerry, he doesn't seem like a likely choice. On the other hand, perhaps the call was a sort of backup call: the Dead had booked a tour, and Hornsby wasn't certain, so perhaps they would have gone out with Merl for one tour if everyone else flunked the audition. The important part to me remains unstated: who called Merl on behalf of the Dead?
I think numerous people close to the Grateful Dead started making phone calls as soon as the auditions became a reality. By the same token, the same people calling keyboard players were also calling the key people in the Grateful Dead organization, whom I have dubbed "the hiring committee," to pitch their various candidates. Ian McLagan's reference to Chesley Millikin is our only hint to this. Millikin was definitely a well respected member of the family, and he could have made a good case for McLagan on the grounds of all his great recordings, which Garcia and the rest of the band would have known about.
I think a Grateful Dead insider called Merl, but even if Merl had returned the call, that insider would have to persuade the hiring committee to audition Merl, so Merl may have preferred not to face rejection. This is a common scenario for all senior level hirings, where a senior outsider knows they have no real chance despite a few supporters inside.
In Hollywood it's considered bad form to say what films you turned down, and I'm sure it's the same in the music industry. But a lot of keyboard players must have gotten calls, some of whom turned them down, and others of whom never got past "the committee." If Grateful Dead documents ever indicated some of these suggestions, refusals and rejections we would learn a lot about the Grateful Dead as an institution.
|Ian McLagan's most recent album, Never Say Never|