By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler) Mar 28, 2016 • 9:01 am PDT
Sitting down with Bill Walton to discuss the Grateful Dead and his new book, Back From The Dead, an epiphanic generational gap between an old-school Deadhead and a 38-year old neophyte by comparison revealed itself unexpectedly. On three distinct occasions, Bill Walton busts my chops for an archetypal habit of a modern day fan. “There you go with the ranking and the rating, again,” he laughs.
First, I tried to draw out the comparison of his Trailblazers 1977 NBA championship season as the pinnacle of his NBA career which happened concurrent to the Dead’s mighty May/June 1977 run. Both of these events occurred at the exact same point in time, yet Bill couldn’t have cared less.
“I don’t think about it that way all,” he objects. “The pinnacle is today and the band is playing better today than they have ever played. Their equipment is better. They have always been out there willing to experiment on every level. What Bear [sound engineer Owsley Stanley] did and every step along the way, they were never afraid to be out in front.”
His mentality is quite the opposite of most fans today as we tear apart every detail of every show, devote entire websites to unearthing the best versions of songs, and endlessly stratify the relative value of shows and eras.
“I’m the same way in everything,” he explains in reference to not just music but also to sports. “ESPN has changed the way we look at the world. Everybody wants to know what is the best? Who is the best ever? That is not me. Today is the best. I go to shows for fun. I go because that is where you find the most interesting people in the world are and where you never know what is going to happen. It’s like opening a great book when you don’t know the story, or playing a basketball game. I love it live.”
“There you go again, ranking and rating,” he laughs again. This time I’m asking about who he considers his closest comrade within the Grateful Dead organization, pointing out that despite deep friendships with all the band members, most of whom have stayed with him at his San Diego home, he seemed particularly close with longtime crew member Lawrence “Ramrod” Shurtliff. Ramrod is referenced often in Back From The Dead and in our conversation as a particularly close friend, and he was the one who delivered the news of Jerry’s passing in 1995.
“Once I met the band in 1974,” he says, “A lot of things changed in terms of access to the music. If I was at the show, they would just hand me the tapes right as I was walking out and if I wasn’t there, Ramrod would mail me the tapes. For the home games in Portland, the son of our radio man, Bill Schonely, knew how to run the PA system in the entire arena. I think games started at 8 o’clock in those days, much later than they start now on the West Coast. So if you’re in there at 7 o’clock, yesterday’s Grateful Dead show would be playing on the PA system through the entire Portland Coliseum. I don’t think the other guys or the coaches even knew what was going on,” he jokes. “It was a completely different world back then. If you go to an NBA game today it’s so organized. It was not like that at all. The games managed to start on time though, unlike the Grateful Dead concerts.”
“Ramrod was phenomenal in that he loved sports and he loved Oregon. He was a very quiet person. He was not loquacious or boisterous. He liked to be in the back. When he did speak, it was pearls of wisdom with precise timing. When you are out there in the front and you’re racing, you need someone with that level of big picture perspective and patience. He brought that to the team. There were so many personalities in that group. All the guys like Dan Healy, Bear, Ramrod, Big Steve [Parish] and all these people at Ultrasound made this intergalactic community. Then you have [lyricists Robert] Hunter and [John Perry] Barlow telling all the stories of our lives that we can’t express ourselves. I have a house full of instruments and I have zero musical talent, so I needed these guys.”
Bill Walton has been seeing the Grateful Dead and its scions for 49 years. He counts his total dead shows at 849, which breaks down to a manageable 17 shows a year. The math is a little fuzzy though since the tally seems to include post-Jerry iterations, but regardless he’s clearly earned his title as Celebrity Deadhead Number One. “We went all the time, that’s all we did,” he explains. “They played every weekend and then you had the Jerry Garcia Band, Ace, and all the other bands I love like Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. It was literally all the time and we still do it, and it’s not enough. If it’s Grateful Dead music or Grateful Dead players, we are there. At the end of the shows in Chicago, I just looked around and said look at how happy everyone is, look at how happy the band is, and look how much money everybody just made,” he laughs. “How could you possibly think about stopping?”
The main premise of Bill’s book is to provide a ride along view into the intense peaks and valleys of his life as he struggled both physically and emotionally with great successes cut short by never-ending injuries that derailed him at every turn. He begins the book in 2009 at his life’s nadir, lying on the ground, incapable of moving, and ready to give up due to a complete spinal failure. He considered ending his own life, but with the the help of great doctors, a solid network of emotional support, and music, he pulled through and recovered. “Don’t ever let the music stop,” he sighs. “Sadly, that’s exactly what I did, because I was so sick after my spine broke down. I’m always sick with something, or somebody. Music is one of my three medicines. The other two are athletic participation, which I couldn’t do, and then being with the guys and being on a team, which I also couldn’t do. When you have the opportunity to move and listen to music, it makes you feel better.
“Plus, I’m a really good dancer, although nobody else would be able to verify that besides me,“ he jokes. “When I started to get better and I realized that I hadn’t been listening to music, I wrote a big sign and put it right on my desk that says ‘Turn the Music On.’ It reminds me any time I’m working, that the music should always be on.”
Music is far more than a form of entertainment or escapism for Bill. It’s his north star and his religion.
“Everything changes in life every single day,” he says. “Where I am today is defined by four mantras. One: when you get confused listen to the music play. Two: we used to play for silver now we play for life. Three: once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. And four: it all rolls into one but nothing comes for free. The privilege that I have to be a part of this family that you, me and JamBase are all a part of, it means a lot to me.”
Throughout both his own struggles, and later in helping others through their own struggles with back pain, he often uses the lyrics from “Mission In The Rain” as a motivator to keep trying, take that extra step to get the remote, or push a little harder to get the bike up the hill.
“That song to me is about the passion and the compassion in understanding of how hard it is out there,” he explains. “One of the endless great things about the Grateful Dead is how they are able to take this sad, cruel, brutal, hard world with all this pain and isolation, and make you feel better. They are able to put a big splash of beauty on it. It’s not just the music, it’s the fans, the artwork, and the happiness of being part of the team. Whether it’s ‘Mission In The Rain,’ ‘Standing On The Moon,’ ‘Stella Blue’ or the endless other songs, I go to them for a lot of different reasons: to be educated, to be stimulated, to gather strength, to gain confidence. I go to be healed.”
“You’re getting into the ranking and the rating again,” he cuts me off laughing, busted again. I wanted to hear a favorite Jerry Garcia story. “Jerry was super fun, super nice, and super smart. I was on the inside of that scene in a sense, but I’m really just a fan. So, I used to care what they played and where they played. Now I’m only interested in how they play. Athletes, artists, writers, and musicians are the ultimate entrepreneurs. We have to create something from nothing every single day. Jerry knew that and he loved to work. He was like Larry Bird and John Wooden. He loved to come and do his thing every day. He would always have his guitar and he was always practicing. At first, I would always bug him, please play this or please play that, and he would say no every time. Maybe once in awhile he would play one.
“I stopped doing that eventually,” he says, “much to their joy and relief. I realized that it’s their show and they are trying to teach us something. The way that they work so hard at the preparation, it’s quite similar to a basketball team when you have a great team like the Warriors are now or the Celtics or the Blazers were in the past. You always have a plan in place, but it never quite goes according to plan. But they were always ready. A Larry Bird, a John Wooden, and a Jerry Garcia understood that as the leader that this is a privilege to be able to do this. Privilege comes with the burden of responsibility of getting it right. When they didn’t, they knew they had to do better. I respect that.”
A large part of what draws Walton to the Grateful Dead is the serendipitous twists of fate and the “we are everywhere” mentality.
“One of my favorite stories recently was after [Fare Thee Well] Santa Clara,” he describes. “The shows end and all we want is more. Keep playing and don’t stop. The planes and the hotels and airports are full of Deadheads and it’s going 24/7 and then at the end you’re like, it’s over. It’s always really sad when you’re in that car or on your bike and you’re leaving the tour. We were on this plane going home and it was quiet as could be and everybody is thinking ‘oh my god that was incredible and it’s over.’ So we land in San Diego and out of nowhere Southwest cranked ‘Truckin’’ on the PA. Everyone was cheering and dancing on this plane, and we were so excited to go back to Chicago for the next weekend.
“I couldn’t believe at the Fare Thee Well shows how young everybody looked. All these people who had no idea about the Grateful Dead came out,” he says, pulling a bit of rank. He has other more lasting stories of fate with the band. Bill and his wife Lori offer differing accounts of how they met. She claims they met at a Dead show, while Bill claims they met somewhere else. “We met at church,” he says. “It was a very special, personal, unique church.”
He’s not the only one either. In 1986, Bill took his Celtics teammates to see a Grateful Dead show at the Boston Garden and turned both Larry Bird and Kevin McHale onto the band. Interestingly, Rick Carlisle met his wife at the show, it was their first date.
“Rick calls me and says ‘Bill, I want to marry this girl, she’s fantastic,’” Walton recalls. “‘The Dead are playing tonight and I really want to take her.’ You couldn’t reach people easily back in those days, so I tell him just go to the show, knock on the back door, and ask for Ramrod. So he tells this girl, look we don’t have any tickets, and she thinks it’s never going to work, but they try. The guys open the door at the venue and look at him, straight laced, and think who is this guy asking for Ramrod? But he says, ‘I’m Rick Carlisle. I’m friends with Bill Walton.’ So they let them in and got them right up there right in front of Jerry, and they have been married ever since.
“That’s just the way it works with the Grateful Dead and why I live for it,” Bill describes. “These things always happen, just like the rainbow at Fare Thee Well, ‘Truckin’’ on the airplane, or when Mount St. Helens blew up while they were playing ‘Fire on the Mountain.’”
Finally, the music is a form of preparation for Walton. On the 10 year anniversary of Jerry’s passing, he found one of his longtime favorite songs at the Comes A Time tribute show at the Greek Theater in Berkeley where Trey Anastasio and Bruce Hornsby got together to play a chilling “Standing On The Moon.”
“This is an overwhelming version,” Bill recalls. “There are so many songs like this, but on this one particular day everybody is crying and the colors and sounds are better than perfect. That song carried me for a long time. I got a recording of this show and this Hornsby/Trey collaboration became my music to get in the zone. I always use music to get ready. The first one of those I ever had was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, but I used this Hornsby/Trey song for the longest time and I would just replay it over it over. I’d call Hornsby afterwards and start screaming ‘We’re standing on the moon, Bruce. Let’s go! We’ve got a game!’ He’d say, ‘Bill, take a deep breath.’”
Bill doesn’t look at the Grateful Dead as counter-culture. He looks at it as it as his life.
“They are the pilots of the spaceship, and you know when you’re in that moment that you are in the right place, you are going someplace that is better than where you are right now. The thing that always made me so proud is how happy everybody always was in the organization even though there was a lot of loss and sadness. They come out and they filled us all with strength. At the end of the show, you’re thinking if they can do that, we can do anything. The only time it gets sad is when they stop playing. We never thought they would stop playing. I always thought, ‘I’m with those guys.’”