On Bill Kreutzmann
Edited from the writings of Mickey Hart
Billy Kreutzmann rocks hard. Nobody moves like that. He has an mental pendulum that dictates his inner balance so only the naturalness of the well- massaged groove is heard or felt. He approach simple and direct, yet if you try to duplicate it you realize how much power and skill is hidden that apparent simplicity.
He’s an original. Nobody sounds like him: undemanding, steady, and forgiving, but relentless in pursuit of the groove. He knows the power of time in the groove–the longer he’s in it, the deeper it gets, the bigger the payoff. He trusts himself, he trusts the groove. Closing his eyes and riding the pulse, he locks on the tractor beam with me, and away we go.
Billy is a first of all a dance drummer, yet he can be funny and experimental. He is the center of the Grateful Dead. I mean the exact center; the rest of us drift a bit from one side of the beat to the other. Billy thinks of drumming like a dancer. He’s light on his feet, has superb balance between feet and hands, yet can drive a band out of this world with his relentless power and steadiness. When he is on, and playing his best, I almost have to stop just to admire the artistry. He makes drumming look so easy.
Meeting Billy was the most important thing in my musical life. He taught me rock and roll. In return, I taught him drum rudiments, giving him the technique to help express more nuance, and opening up new rhythmic possibilities. Together, we’re a force tied together at the heart. Our very different personal styles have merged in a complementary way, allowing for freedom and individual expression, while still generating power and rhythmic density. This is possible only when two drummers instinctively agree on a common ground. The groove we share is private, warm, secure, and deep; on a good day it’s fur-lined.
Count Basie was playing the Fillmore, and his drummer Sonny Payne was a friend of mine, so I came to hear him. That night I first met Billy, who was also in the audience. I immediately knew we were somehow connected. After the show, we got loose on the town, ran around the city beating on everything, all night long–raving, laughing, beating on car-bumpers, cans, poles–the city became our instrument for a spontaneous ritual of trust and fun. It changed my life. I finally found somebody to play with who didn’t think I was too crazy. No bullshit, no questions, just drumming.
For the next few days, we just hung out together, drumming on pads. One night, he took me and Sonny to hear Janis Joplin with Big Brother at the Matrix, a very small club on Fillmore Street. Janis was incredible, she tore my heart out. But it was too loud for Sonny. Loudness is often the great divide between musical eras: I never saw Sonny again.
I had never heard his band, the Grateful Dead, but the rumor was they had a lead-singer named Pigpen who was a Hell’s Angel. He invited me to their rehearsals, but I could never find the garage they were practicing in. Instead, on September 29, 1967, I showed up at their gig at the Straight Theater on Haight Street, where they held an event they called a dance contest. After a two-hour first set, they took a break. Billy and I talked about the energy, the sound, the amazingly loud sound. Billy said “Let’s have some fun, we’ll go get some drums and sit in” So during the break, we both went out and picked up a set of drums from somewhere–must have been one of his friends. It was a quick set up, and we started to play the second set. We played “Alligator-Caution” for hours. It was a blur of rhythms, good vibes, fierce musical expression, and fun–more fun than I had ever had in music before. There was the Pig, growling out “Alligator creeping round my dooooorrrrr,” Jerry soaring and bleeding over the top, Phil rising and falling on waves of sound like some giant whale, Bobby slashing his way to the far side, while Billy and I went on one hell of a ride. Many hours later, after the music stopped, a calm feeling came over me. It felt clean, like taking a wonderfully long shower, feeling good. No one clapped for quite some time as we somehow came to the end. I remember see the dust settle slowly in the beams of light on the stage. Everyone embraced, there was no need for words: but Jerry said,”this is the Grateful Dead, we can take this around the world”… and that’s when the adventure began for me.
The Mickey Hart Collection albums, including “The Apocalypse Now Sessions: Rhythm Devils Play River Music” recordings may be purchased at Smithsonian Folkways.
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