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Music

Bill Kreutzmann discusses the best songwriter in the Grateful Dead

Throughout their entire 30-year career, nearly every single member of the Grateful Dead managed to get their name on a songwriting credit at some point. That included members whose tenures were short, like Tom Constanten, and members who weren’t especially known for their vocal contributions, like Keith Godchaux. As an egalitarian collective, the Dead were always eager to spread the wealth when it came to song royalties.

For most of that time, however, it was the band’s guitarists who came up with the large majority of the Dead’s songbook: Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. They each had their own in-house lyricists in Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow (Hunter worked with all of the band members, including Weir, during the band’s earlier songwriting escapades), and together they created hundreds of original songs that were judiciously played during the Dead’s legendary live shows.

Drummer Bill Kreutzmann has a few notable songwriting credits to his name as well, namely the iconic jam ‘The Other One’ and the Jerry Garcia solo track turned Grateful Dead classic ‘The Wheel’. Despite these, Kreutzmann makes it clear in his memoir Deal that his contributions to the band started and ended with playing his primary instrument.

Kreutzmann also gave his insights on which writers made his own personal favourite Dead songs. Like much of the band’s fanbase, Kretuzmann gravitated toward the Hunter-Garcia material. “I liked the Jerry Garcia songs the best,” he said. “That should come as no surprise. Jerry Garcia’s music with Robert Hunter’s lyrics was the best of what we had to offer and getting to play those songs was the reward for being a good sport about the rest. When I got up on stage every night, all the way to the end, I couldn’t wait to play the Garcia/Hunter stuff. That’s what really got me off.”

But Kreutzmann didn’t stop there, providing insights into the other songwriters in the group as well, starting with bassist Phil Lesh. “Phil’s songs were always the hardest to play,” he added. “He wasn’t the strongest vocalist and liked to put a lot of changes in the arrangements. I think he took an academic approach to songwriting, using it as a chance to experiment and play around with theoretical concepts. It was like the band was his guinea pig. Some of the songs came from the head more than the heart. They just didn’t swing.”

Kreutzmann acknowledged that Lesh had written some beloved songs for the Dead, most notably ‘Box of Rain’, but even that classic tune had its hangups for Kreutzmann. “It wasn’t an easy song to play, even though that’s the illusion that it gave off. There were often issues with the tempo. Jerry’s songs never felt that way because the groove was always there.”

Compared to Lesh, Kretuzmann was more favourable to Weir, even if his tracks didn’t quite live up to the Hunter/Garcia compositions. “The Bob Weir songs were more fun to play, but even some of those could feel a bit too contrived to me. Or clunky.” Kreutzmann pointed out that ‘The Other One’ and ‘Throwing Stones’ were personal favourites, but also took time to throw ‘Lost Sailor’ under the bus. “It’s just not one of my favourites. However, it used to be fun to play anyway, because Mickey [Hart] would mock the lyrics, off mic, and make all sorts of funny faces that would entertain the rest of us.”

“Some of Bobby’s other songs felt like they were drudging along to their finish lines,” Kreutzmann writes. “I hope you don’t hate me for saying this, Bobby, and I think when you play those songs by yourself, they’re strong. But when the Dead played them next to Garcia’s songs, they just didn’t sound as good. I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with me about that. Although… not everyone.”

Kreutzmann also took time to mention Brent Mydland, who joined the band at the tail end of the 1970s and wrote a number of songs for the band over the 1980s. Kreutzmann felt that those tracks were more akin to pop songs, although he appreciated the challenge of playing them. Still, when it came to songs like ‘Blow Away’, Kreutzmann wasn’t afraid to put them down. “I don’t think a song like ‘Blow Away’ was ever really a Grateful Dead song. It was his own thing. Weir’s songs were Grateful Dead songs. Lesh’s songs were Grateful Dead songs. And Jerry’s songs were the very best Grateful Dead songs.”

While Garcia’s songs seemed to flow naturally, Kreutzmann felt that “both Phil’s and Bobby’s felt forced by comparison. It doesn’t mean that I’m right – this isn’t about being right or wrong. I’m just talking about my own taste in the music that I played for all these years, and the other members of the band have their own preferences and fans have theirs, as well. It’s a wonderful thing. Anyway, in my opinion, all the songwriters had their moments… but nobody could compete with the songwriting partnership of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.”

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