Friday, June 1, 2012

Jerry Garcia And Perry Lederman

The 1966 Gibson Byrdland that Jerry Garcia gave to his friend Perry Lederman in August, 1979 (the photo is from the site of the auctioneers, Gruhn Guitars)
By all accounts, if you were fortunate enough to know Jerry Garcia well, he was a difficult, complicated guy. Given Garcia's commitment to great music over the decades, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that he was a driven, ambitious rock star. In that respect, while he was outwardly a lot more benign than some of his peers, he had devoted his life to taking the steps he needed to take, and the results weren't always pretty. On top of this, he had some trying personal habits, well outside the scope of this blog, that cannot have made him easy to work or live with. Nonetheless, I am confident that Garcia's relentless drive and ambition was in the service of his own musical goals, rather than oriented towards himself, beyond recognition as a great musician.

One marker of Garcia's true feelings about music was his generosity towards fellow musicians, particularly friends from his past who had not had the success of the Grateful Dead to buttress their lives. Much of Garcia's generosity was mundane, if important: sharing the take at bar gigs, appearing on people's records to create some sort of buzz or insuring that friends had a chance to open for the Dead or Garcia when the opportunities presented themselves. Here and there, however, some of Garcia's acts of generosity gave interesting insights into the value he placed on music and fellow musicians. One such act of generosity has to do with a guitar that Jerry Garcia gave to an obscure guitarist named Perry Lederman. It's an interesting, nice story, which can be found on the web if you are looking for it, but I am going to look at it from the point of view of what it illuminates about Garcia.

Perry Lederman
Perry Lederman was born in Brooklyn, NY, moved briefly to Ann Arbor in 1959, and then spent the 60s and 70s in Berkeley. Up until the early 60s, sophisticated finger picking on the guitar was a mysterious art, occasionally heard on record but all but impossible to learn. The few that knew were like high priests of an obscure, forgotten religion. By all accounts, in the early 60s, when the likes of Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen were still figuring things out, Perry Lederman was one of the finest fingerpickers in the country. There is very little recorded evidence of his work, but it seems to have been a profoundly advanced form of blues, perhaps comparable to some of Jorma's work with acoustic Hot Tuna.

By the mid-60s, Lederman had become fascinated with Indian music, and his performances were often extended raga-like performances on a 3/4 size electric guitar. Needless to say, in 1965 very few people were playing 20 minute guitar instrumentals, and only Lederman was playing them on a 3/4 size electric guitar. There were actually a few players who did such things, Sandy Bull and John Fahey being the most prominent in America, and a guy named Davy Graham in England. Lederman was apparently as great as any of these people, and a true original. Fahey was based in Berkeley, for the most part, and along with some other amazing unheard musicians like Steve Mann and Tom Hobson, Lederman was part of a small circle of players in the Bay Area that newly arrived guitar players looked up to.

A similar learning process was going on with bluegrass music. A small number of musicians from the suburbs, rather than Appalachia, like David Grisman (Hackensack, NJ) and Jerry Garcia (Menlo Park, CA) had become fascinated with the sophisticated picking in bluegrass. While there were bluegrass masters to learn from, much of the learning was still largely self-taught. The more blues oriented players, while building on classic records by the likes of Skip James and Rev Gary Davis, were traveling in more uncharted territory. As far as is generally known, Jorma Kaukonen is usually cited as someone who learned from the brilliant blues style pickers just a few years older than him (like Steve Mann and Ian Buchanan), and Garcia is usually framed as someone who aspired to be Earl Scruggs or Bill Keith on the banjo, rather than as a bluesy guitar picker.

Lederman apparently spent the latter half of the 1960s and the early 70s studying Indian music with Ali Akbar Khan. Lederman did not make his living from music, nor apparently had he ever done so. As a result, he dropped off the radar entirely. In 1979, Lederman's house burned down and he lost everything he had. A plea went out to all his friends for help. Garcia was one of those friends who responded.

Jerry Garcia and Perry Lederman
It seems that when Garcia heard that Lederman had lost everything in a fire, his first concern was that Lederman would have no instrument to play. This may seem like projection, in that Garcia's first concern after a fire would have been his lack of an instrument, but by what accounts there are of Lederman's life, Garcia was probably right. The first thing Lederman needed was a guitar, and Garcia gave him one. By 1979, Garcia wasn't rich, but he was definitely doing alright. He gave Lederman a 1966 Gibson Byrdland guitar with a Gretsch headstock (a picture of the actual guitar can be seen above).

The nice part of this story was that Garcia and Lederman, who had apparently been friends in the early 60s, stayed in touch over the remaining years. As Garcia became more famous, the guitar became more valuable by virtue of having been associated with Garcia. In 1992, Garcia sent Lederman a signed note authenticating the guitar as a gift. In 1994, when the Dead played Boston Garden, Lederman and his family were invited backstage to see Jerry, This is no small point--by 1994, about half of Boston wanted to be invited backstage to meet with Jerry, but Lederman and his family got the call.

Lederman died of Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1995. Before he died, he had finally put together a privaely released cd from some of his tapes. While apparently an extremely nice man, he hadn't left his family much. Conveniently, however, since Garcia had given him a guitar 15 years earlier, it had only increased in value. It was auctioned off to the tune of $40,000, and even Garcia's authentication letter garnered $1500. Lederman was obscure, but he had impressed Garcia, and a gift freely given from one musician to another turned out to be a boon to the recipient's family as well.

A Private Garcia
My focus for this post is not on Garcia's generosity, which was admirable and has been well-documented, but on the different insights that the Perry Lederman story gives us about how Garcia actual thought about things that mattered to him. From that perspective, Garcia's relationship with Perry Lederman is surprisingly informative.

First of all, let's think about the formation of Jerry Garcia as a musician in the early 60s. It's a common metaphor, encouraged by Garcia himself, that his principal musical aspiration in those days was the bluegrass banjo, as played by the likes of Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith. Similarly, its a commonplace to identify Jorma Kaukonen as the aspiring young bluesman, striving to sound like the Reverend Gary Davis, under the tutelage of the likes of Ian Buchanan. Garcia is always associated with the young bluegrass players in the Bay Area, and Jorma with the young bluesmen.

Garcia's friendship and admiration of Lederman seems to turn this on its head. Lederman played some very sophisticated, blues based music, and according to various eyewitnesses, his performances often included extended improvisations on the electric guitar. Thus Garcia's predilection for extended modal blues jams like the kind heard on "Viola Lee Blues" or "Caution" may not at all have been unprecedented. I think Lederman's music--as far as I can tell--was in the extended blues mode, with endless variations on a basic theme. The big differences seem to have been that Lederman would often have been playing acoustic as well as electric guitar, and often on a smaller 3/4 size guitar, and never with a band. Garcia may have considerably transposed that type of playing, but it turns out that he must have had some musical models when he started a solo on"Viola Lee," and Lederman may have been one of them.

Garcia's concern after the fire that Lederman would have nothing to play was a clear mark of Garcia's musical admiration for him. If he was a regular friend, Garcia would have been concerned about money or a place to stay, but Garcia must have recognized Lederman a true player, and would known that having a guitar would have been his first concern. It's also revealing that Garcia gave him an electric and not an acoustic, a sign that Lederman's playing of raga-like improvisations had had a big impact on Garcia.

I only found out about Garcia's gift to Lederman after both had died (of course, the invention of the internet helped). Clearly, it was a private matter between two friends, only made public later when the instrument was auctioned off. Up until that time, I had no idea that Lederman and Garcia even knew each other. Now, it's not surprising that they had met, since serious professional folk musicians were relatively few in number, but Lederman did not fit the profile of someone for Garcia to admire.

In the endlessly cliched re-tellings of these stories, it is Garcia who looks to bluegrass players, and Jorma Kaukonen who was the patron of the fingerpickers after his success. All credit is due to Jorma for what he did for his fellow players after he was successful: he helped Steve Mann and Tom Hobson, produced an album by his friend Richmond Talbott (the original Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane) and so on, all admirable activities. Yet Garcia is always framed in relation to bluegrass players, usually through his connection to David Grisman: Garcia helped bring Vassar Clements and Frank Wakefield the popularity their playing deserved, and so on.

It's not surprising that Garcia heard Perry Lederman play in the 60s, probably in Berkeley at the Cabale Creamery (at 2504 San Pablo), since folk musicians usually hear each other play. However, from what we know of Perry Lederman's music, it turns out that Lederman sparked a musical interest in Garcia that would not find any expression until several years later when Garcia, too, was an electric guitarist.

Jerry Garcia's Guitars
Over the years, there has been considerable scholarship devoted to Garcia's guitars, principally in Blair Jackson's book Grateful Dead Gear and various websites. Although I am not a musician, I have always thought that Garcia's guitar was a significant determinant in how he played, and I consider the topic of his guitars to be a critical part of the scholarly discourse about the Grateful Dead. The whole Lederman episodes hints at a couple of curious aspects about Garcia and his guitars that does not seem to have come up in past investigations.

A look at a fine site that has pictures of the guitars Jerry Garcia is known to have used with the Grateful Dead shows no sign of the Gibson Byrdland. The only hint of it is one Gibson Les Paul that appears to have a headstock (whammy bar) similar to the one on the Byrdland, so perhaps that piece was attached to various guitars. For all the various guitars Garcia was known to have played, particularly between 1966 an 1971, the Gibson Byrdland does not seem to have made known public appearances. Where did the Byrdland come from? When did Garcia buy it? How often did he play it?

Looking at the different Fenders and Les Pauls that Garcia played between 1967 and '72 begs another question: what happened to all of them? Garcia was no guitar collector, and we generally know the relatively few guitars he still possessed when he died (few compared to the likes of a collector like Stephen Stills, who apparently has several dozen guitars). Something must have happened to what appears to be eight guitars that Garcia played between '66 and '72. I realize that some of the Les Pauls may be the same or rebuilt, so perhaps it's fewer, but where did they go?

From what little information I have, I believe that Garcia gave away a fair number of instruments, and he sold the rest. I think that the late 60s San Francisco bands could afford good equipment, but they couldn't afford to hang on to spares that they weren't actually using. As a result, I think the bands sold or traded instruments and equipment to each other, as desired or needed. I have some reason to think that Ramrod was the go-between with other bands, just one of many functions Ramrod served for the group over his many decades with the Grateful Dead. It's interesting to think that the various guitars Jerry used from 1966-72 may have been used before or after him with the Jefferson Airplane, The Youngbloods or many other groups. I also know, if somewhat indirectly, that Garcia had a number of other guitars in the 70s and 80s that were never seen with the Grateful Dead, so he seems to have at least experimented with a fair number of instruments over the years.

Still, where did the Gibson Byrdland come from? I have to assume Garcia was interested and someone--I think Ramrod--acquired it for him, perhaps swapping one of Garcia's 'retired' Fenders or Gibsons. Garcia must have played around with it and found it wanting, and then it must have languished. A lot of guitarists feel that guitars need to be played, and its a nice gesture that Garcia gave the Byrdland to someone who would cherish it and play the hell out of it on a regular basis.

7 comments:

  1. As Perry Lederman's widow, I found this to be exceptionally detailed and interesting, with not 100% agreement with accuracy but that's fine. Piecing together puzzles -- interesting that Perry and Jerry died within a few months of each other.

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  2. Ms. Lederman, thank you for the very kind words.

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  3. I knew both in the early sixties while a student at San Jose State and later when Jerry was with the Dead and Perry lived in Berkeley. If talent were the only criterion, Perry should have been famous. He was a phenomenal guitar picker.

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  4. Anon, thanks for the perspective. Where did you get to see Perry Lederman? I've never been able to confirm any performances by him outside of Berkeley. Do you know if he played The Offstage (in San Jose) or The Top Of The Tangent (Palo Alto)?

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  5. Perry's song "Impressions of John Henry" generously offered as a sample by Joan Lederman on her website, is as complex and rich as anything produced by the Delta blues acoustic iterations of Jimmy Page. If you like acoustic Zeppelin, and their blues facet, check it out...it is a must have. Then buy the CD: This World Is Not My Home. Whether you like Dylan, Garcia, Page, Guthrie, Leadbelly...the CD should be in your collection!

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  6. Jerry had over 110 musical instruments throughout his life. They're all chronicled in my upcoming Encyclopedia Of Jerry Garcia Music Venues.

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  7. Perry appears in Rhoney Stanley's biography Owsley and me. Interestingly, Lederman means Songman.

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