Grateful to be alive after impersonating Jerry Garcia
by Corey Levitan
I am on stage disrespecting Jerry Garcia in a Grateful Dead tribute band whose following is fanatical.
Cubensis agreed to let me up with them for four songs at 14 Below in Santa Monica, where they perform every Sunday night. It's a Faustian deal made by Craig Marshall, the band's leader and regular Garcia impersonator. When he tried to get a write-up, I politely declined.
"There's this adventure column I write, though, that your band would be perfect for," I said.
What he didn't realize is that I'd wear a fat suit, grey wig and beard, and that I wouldn't know most of the words or chords to the songs.
Most of the audience members continue to dance barefoot, as they did for the first hour of the set, oblivious to my shenanigans. But rhythm guitarist Nate LaPointe and keyboardist Tom Ryan are both staring me down.
I have basically walked up to a church pulpit dressed at Jesus Christ, to perform a comedy skit.
I've never been a Grateful Dead fan. As hard as my friend Roy Silverberg tried to initiate me during junior high, I didn't get it.
"Nobody," Roy said, "nobody plays guitar like Jerry!" Thinking he was about to prove his point, Roy sat me before his older brother's stereo and narrated me through a concert bootleg, the way a father tries explaining the nuances of Carmen to his uninterested son.
"Listen to that!" Roy said, pointing at the speaker midway through a swirling guitar solo in which Garcia repeated the same bar, almost exactly the same way, for ten minutes.
"There, right there! He's teasing the crowd!" Roy enthused. "No one knows whether he's going to go into the lick from 'Althea' or 'Ship Of Fools.' They don't know what he's going to do next!"
I don't hate the Grateful Dead. The band was competent at what it did -- playing blues and bluegrass with a danceable beat and smiley-faced harmonies. And I respected its principles. For 35 years it resolutely defied rock trends such as metal, disco, punk and grunge. Its message remained the same, too: love was still all you needed (love and a couple of hits of blotter acid).
What I hate is how glorified the Grateful Dead was by its cult-like audience, who forwent careers, healthy social lives (and too often, showers) to follow concerts around the country.
To me it always seemed impossible to LIKE the Grateful Dead. People either loved the band obsessively, or dismissed it because of how obsessive others were. No exaggeration: All Deadheads own 200 bootleg concert cassettes, which they've played religiously enough to drive family members, roommates and lovers either screaming out of the house or into the tie-dyed fold.
Maybe I'm wrong, but to me, the Grateful Dead is merely good. They're not the Beatles. They're not God.
Cubensis is good, too. Noodley notes ooze from Marshall's guitar as he and his band mates shuffle through the 10-minute jams made famous by their idols. In fact, they sound so much like the Grateful Dead, I can't tell these songs apart, either.
I duck out when I hear one of the few melodies I do recognize -- the hit "Truckin'." We agreed that I would go on after it. I secretly get dressed in the club's parking lot, where a man in dreadlocks sells beads and incense on an unfolded blanket.
The top edge of the pillow hastily stuffed in my tie-dyed shirt juts out more like boobs than a belly, but my intent is obvious. When Marshall first eyes my transformed self out of the corner of his eye, he nearly stops playing in shock.
"I don't know why I'm doing this," he tells his faithful crowd between songs, "but here's Jerry's Kid."
That's the mysterious stage name we agreed on. I didn't want anyone beside the band knowing that I was a journalist.
I had previously positioned the song sheet for "Fire on the Mountain" on the P.A. monitor in front of us. Yet I have no idea how the melody goes, and the sheet is too far away to see the lyrics. The band covers for me.
I always try my best during these adventures -- at least in the moment. Let's just say that the less I prepare beforehand, however, the more interesting they tend to turn out.
To Cubensis' immense credit, I am allowed to also muck up "Woman Are Smarter" and "Not Fade Away."
A few days earlier, Marshall had me over his apartment in Redondo Beach, where he handed me a Fender Stratocaster and discussed the songs I might perform. His true intention, I suspect, was to suss out whether I could really play and sing.
I can -- only I don't know any Dead songs.
"'Fire on the Mountain?' That's easy!" I lied. "We don't need to rehearse that!"
I began playing the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" instead, and Marshall was suitably impressed. He joined in, playing with an entirely different rhythm.
"Jerry used to play a version of that in his solo band," he explained.
Marshall, a former Lynwood postal worker living on band income until his pension begins in four years, reminds me of Garcia -- and not just in appearance. He's remarkably low-key and good-natured.
"Not playing my own music isn't personally frustrating for me," he said, "because the songs I've written suck."
How can you not like a guy like that?
Raised in Hawthorne, Marshall became a Deadhead on November 11, 1967, the date of his first Dead show at the Shrine Auditorium.
"But the Dead only played L.A. about once a year," he said, "and we couldn't take that. So we started playing in people's backyards and garages."
Cubensis formed in 1986 as Sugar Cubensis, an amalgamation of the Dead song "Sugar Magnolia" and psilocybe cubensis, the chemical name for a type of hallucinogenic mushroom. Marshall is the only remaining original member.
Although Cubensis plays more than 150 concerts a year, it isn't the most successful of the approximately 40 Dead tribute bands out there. The Illinois-based Dark Star Orchestra books 200 annual gigs around the country, many in theaters, thanks to a unique shtick. It performs sets duplicating specific Dead concerts. (Every set list differed slightly, as did the band members and even microphone placement.)
The crowd's job is to guess which concert is being replicated by night's end. Believe it or not, they usually do. Even Deadheads who weren't born at the time can go into incredible detail about the subtle differences between the band's April 11 and 12 concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1973. (Attention Deadheads: I made those dates up, so please don't correct me!)
"But I wouldn't want to do what Dark Star is doing," Marshall said, "because they're on a road where they can only go 55 and in one direction. We can go any which way we want."
Marshall prides himself on improvising off script -- not only from the sets and the songs, but sometimes from the sound of the Dead.
"We let the music play the band," he said. "We take our particular abilities and produce an end product that would be slightly different than the Dead would ever play it."
My cameo certainly helps live up to that promise. Over the years, Cubensis has jammed with guest stars including Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson and real Dead member Tom Constanten. But I doubt that any of those cameos made as lasting impression as mine.
I have one final surprise for Cubensis and its fans. At the tail end of "Little Red Rooster," I reach into my pockets, where I've stashed wads of potato chips. I proceed to stuff my face in a manner that men of Jerry's girth, and hash intake, are not unfamiliar with. Greasy crumbs rain down on the band's effects boxes and ruin my beard. (I suspect this may be the last time Lelands Just For Fun in Hermosa Beach consents to free rentals in exchange for a plug.)
The few smiles emanating from the crowd suddenly stop. The comedy line has been crossed. My long, strange trip -- and possibly my life -- is over. I walk off stage to face my fate.
"The next time you do this, don't embarrass Jerry like this!" insists a woman who identifies herself as Jeannie from New York.
"How could you not remember the words to 'Not Fade Away'?" asks another woman.
At this point, another man starts eating stray chips out of my beard. (I'm not making this up.)
Among my new band mates, Marshall appears confused, Ryan throws his hands up and huffs out the front door, and LaPointe questions me about the chips.
"It's performance art?" he asks. "Did the Grateful Dead ever do performance art that you know of?"
"Not that I know of," I reply.
"So tell me the reason behind a performance-art approach during our music," he continues, adding that "this is pretty serious to me. This is my life."
"Oh my God, you're gonna get your butt kicked by hippies," Breeze photographer Branimir Kvurtac whispers to me. "And I don't know if I'm gonna jump in to save you."
It fell to poor Marshall, who to his credit maintained his good nature, to calm his band mates and try explaining to his fans what had just occurred. After they heard I was a reporter, they took to the Cubensis Web site message board and attacked.
"This guy tried to take a lead and it was so bad," read one post. "Yes, I mean awful."
"The potato chips were really stupid," read another. "Jerry didn't eat potato chips."
There was also concern that I may have turned off stray newcomers to Cubensis. I hope that's not true.
Dare I suggest that Garcia himself might have appreciated my performance? To me, he seemed genuinely freaked out by his Stepford Wives fandom. He even refused to speak from the stage, for fear that his words would be quoted for some occult Bible.
I believe Garcia would have understood that my joke was not really on him, but on those who continue to take him as seriously as the heart attack that ended his life in 1995.
At least some guy who looks like Jerry Garcia liked it. (See photo below.)
I toss my costume in my car and, despite the danger, return to 14 Below. I'm approached by one of the women who lectured me earlier. I prepare my brow for more beating.
"Come here and dance with me, hon," she says. "If you dance with me, I'll forgive you."
Now that's the true spirit of the Grateful Dead.