Keith Godchaux, pianist of the Grateful Dead from 1971 through early 1979, would have been 65 years old today. I never had the pleasure of meeting him -although I came very close to it- met his wife, and had many occasions to be in close proximity during concerts by both the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band. But then there are some people you never meet in the flesh whom you know you have known in the spirit, (of whom it might be said "you travel the same beam")-and for me, he was one of those. On an actual level, he was also something of a mutual friend- either of others in the band I had met or of friends I made early on in my thirty year residence in San Francisco.
Keith was a pianist with exceptional skills. Joining the band at a point when original keyboardist Ron ("PigPen") McKernan had begun having health issues, his ragtime and honky-tonk inspired playing gave a new fire and spark to the Dead's musical texture. The jazzy approach he brought matched that of the other members. Coupled with the recent departure of second drummer Mickey Hart, the music performed while Keith was in the band from the years 1971 through 1974 in my opinion encompasses some of the most freeform, inspired space-jazz ever played. With the re-addition of Mickey in 1975, the music began what I felt was a decline- over-emphasizing the drums and percussion ("find a beat and fill it!")- in opposition to the light, breezy, often cerebrally lofty places the band could go when just five pieces.
It was said by Buddy Cage, pedal steel pioneer extraordinaire, that what Keith brought to the Dead was akin to "what Nicky Hopkins brought to the Rolling Stones." I agree completely with that. What I told someone once was that "Keith brought class, which they did not quite have before"- not meant so much as a slur to Pigpen and their lowlife biker fan set, as it was a nod to the new textural component of the grand piano. And I challenge Dead Heads, who and wherever you are- to try and find a sour note ever played by Keith. (I did, in fact, find one, and only one, but just to be ornery, I'm not going to tell you where I found it- and that was after listening to literally hundreds of tapes.) His playing was always perfect for the situation- in many cases understated, in some cases, extraordinarily extroverted.
I came and went with Keith and Donna during their tenure with the band. I had an interesting night in Palo Alto where I not only met Jerry and Donna personally, but had quite a gas hanging near the right of the stage and Keith's piano, actually at some points, harmonizing with him, singing along wih the band. (A later event where I caught the Robert Hunter/Comfort band in Berkeley nearly resulted in my being hauled onstage to sing along with their backup vocalists... not having a guitar in hand at either event, I graciously demurred- probably best for all concerned, anyway)... I kept going to Dead concerts intermittently, in the Mydland years, for one reason or another, but primarily for me, the focus in retrospect was that the Godchaux years were both more enjoyable personally because my personal life was more satisfactory and that the Dead's music seemed more truly a liberating force. Everything that came later seemed to be a trip down, down the dark ladder- as Joni Mitchell put it.
Among rumors that had been flying about on the street in '78-'80 was that Garcia was getting further and further into smoking Persian heroin. This was something, it turned out, to have been a shared temptation with John Kahn and Keith as well, in their time playing in Jerry's solo band. John Kahn is on record as saying that the reason Jerry fired Keith (from the Garcia Band) was that he caught him with his hand in his briefcase, going after Jerry's stash. Given the propensity of smack users to forego all thoughts of conscience when they need their fix, I wasn't surprised to read that. However, I also understood the mindset that would have led such enormously talented individuals to begin using this drug to begin with. [It's not as if anyone sets out to get hooked on it. Everyone thinks they "can handle it." But the body begins to make demands on the mind, and then the mind begins to make excuses for how "wonderful" it all is.] I also had some sympathy toward Jerry- with no place else to turn but inside himself when the pressures of being "artist, guru, and idol" to thousands were too much, he needed some way to slam the door on the world once in a while and recover his artist self. It didn't seem to hurt his playing any, at least not for a very, very long time- even as it cost him his relationship with his wife and family. But that's a downside to the drug that most people can reasonably say is a risk they would rather not take to begin with. Selfish reptilian self-centeredness sort of comes with the territory. And I'm one of those types who could have never been so inclined to head in that direction.
All the same. Heroin, I felt, was such an "un-Grateful Dead" sort of drug to begin with.
If they were going to be so shallow as to try to run Pigpen off for alcohol abuse, they could have been a bit more compelled to stick it to Garcia as well. But like his daughter Annabelle said- if you made any to do about it with him in those years, at the least, you were walking on eggs. And that discretion was the better part of the valor, I think, which allowed me the ability to come and go from the GD/JGB scene with as much leave as I had. I would not trade off that for anything in life, since it was always such a great experience musically and emotionally. DeadHeads, however can seem downright hypocritical in their condemnation of Keith for the very human frailties they'd willingly grant to Jerry- and even if both these guys were strung out, my reasoning always was- they aren't ripping off people's guitars to get it, and it's their dough & health to waste -- if they so choose. It really didn't ultimately make either of them evil people in the least, and I think that's one of the things I want to drive home in saying this.
I made friends with several Dead freaks who lived in the Haight when I moved into San Francisco via "crash landing" in late Summer 1978. These were people who made a to-do (amongst themselves) as to being part of "the Family"- a rather odd assemblage of hangers-on around the GD who prided themselves on the ability to get in to shows free, hang out backstage, party & etc, on the good graces of the band members. This group in particular were especially fond of Keith and Donna (as was I) and we hung out a bit together, on the street, and at a local bar, and they'd often pass on gossip to me there about what Keith was doing after he and Donna left the band.
One of the stories they passed on to me was that "Keith is going to be playing with Dylan soon!" This was about one or two months before the car accident that claimed his life. (More about that in a minute). I always thought "that would be perfect for him"- since I had really dug the work that Keith, Jerry, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh had done in session on David Bromberg's "Demon in Disguise" LP. I also thought that it might well fit Dylan's new trend toward gospel. Keith and Jerry (Donna too) had always had something of a preference for either gospel tunes, or a gospel feeling, in the work they did with both the Keith & Donna Band and the Jerry Garcia Band. In fact at one point there was something in one of the Dead Head newsletters about them describing what they played as "neo-gospel". So I thought with Dylan's new turn toward being a "born again" it would be a good turn. Sadly, however it was not to be.
Several weeks after this barroom conversation with my friends John and Kevin (never knew them by any last names, they more often used the handles "Red" and "Peacock") I picked up a Chronicle one morning and on the obituary pages was "Keith R. Godchaux" along with a picture, a short bio, and an article describing his recent death in an auto accident.
It's a serious mistake for people to think that Keith was driving this car at that time- although I know Rolling Stone "the music press authority" just said so in a recent special edition on the GD, nothing could have been further from the truth. The truth, my friend Red told me- was that Keith and an artist well-connected within the Dead community (whom I will not name, but indeed, is rather well-connected) were out celebrating Keith's birthday at Mickey Hart's ranch. Keith had decided not to drive on the trip back, and was actually a passenger, and not in command of the car. The driver, apparently had been consuming many of the same intoxicants, and at some point near Ross on Sir Francis Drake Road the car crossed over the yellow line and smashed into a parked SUV. I have seen a photo of the crash site- it would have been unlikely anyone survived this head-on collision, but apparently (for the moment) both did. They were rushed off as soon as ambulances could arrive, and Keith lingered- unconscious, in a coma- for four more days until succumbing to his wounds. The artist driver survived. But it irks me no end to hear Rolling Stone describe Keith as the driver, when that was just not the case at all. It adds to the miserable legacy of some who would wish to speak no good of him. They should be and ought to be a bit more investigative and factual about their reportage.
During that time, Donna never left his side, and my friends (John, Kevin & perhaps one or two others) went up to the hospital and sat with her for a time.
"It was very sad..." he told me, as we sat together, two weeks after the death, in a bar across the street from our earlier hangout, and clinked bottles of beer together in a toast to our departed friend, and an era now turned.
Now in my musical coterie and gang of runabouts, I've ended up defending Mrs. Godchaux on one level or another, against all and any argumentors (including some of my most cherished friends,) for a number of years. "All she does is scream," they invariably say. But I knew that not to be the whole story in the least. I had known she was a Muscle Shoals background singer, had worked with the likes of Elvis, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs and others. And that was all before she had even met Keith.
Additionally, the Godchaux's period of life pre-GD, as active Dead Heads, and my own concert attendance, were pretty much concurrrent as well- I did not begin seeing them until the spring of 1971. And the story of how Keith got hooked up with Jerry has been told too many times for me to need account, but from October of 1971 on, until late in 1977, you really couldn't touch them, musically, or critically- they were an element of the music which was essential and so far as I was concerned, Donna's stage presence lent a more sexually egalitarian bent to the entire experience... er... trip. Even if five times from ten her background vocals on Playing in the Band were... often... dubious. (What she may have lacked at times in tunefulness was well made up for in enthusiasm, but that is another of those things that do not translate well onto recording tape, and would require having been there, perhaps, to appreciate). And I'm sure it must come as news to many "tapers", but the purpose of Dead music was never simply to serve tape recorders, but warm living bodies.
One of the experiences a friend and I shared, on consecutive nights, when the GD played their "retirement" shows at Winterland (filmed for the Grateful Dead Movie) was our noticing how annoyed Keith constantly was by the dolly camera, that had been set up just to his rear and just above him, and the dolly swooping low- narrowly missing the top of his head by inches, repeatedly, through all five concerts. In the film he's seen to give a sour frown to the camera- although there's no explanation why. Well, that was more than likely exactly why. I've read of him referred to by one writer as "taciturn" although, obviously, that guy never hung out frequently enough (if at all) around him, to have seen him smile. Which wasn't all that hard to get from him. But his introversion and moodiness were belied by the quality of the music made, and most often, as another good friend stated it- "He plays so much better when [Donna] is up there with him." And the music itself, for me, anyway, I often envisioned as "a spaceship, for escaping to the 21st Century." Of course back then, nobody could see, just how much the 21st C. would be as much a bummer and lame as the 20th, (or so it looks thirteen years into it) but it was a big part of at least making the last part of the 20th C. a bit more livable.
Keith 's death then, actually really shook me- here was someone who I had had some proximity to, (close as that might have been without an actual meeting, perhaps) and who was in any case, a big part of my world. I think the shock of learning it hurt me worse than the death of my own mother since I had had a number of months to psychologically prepare for that. But this was a bolt from the blue. And as a player, the reality that- I'd never get the chance to play with him, now- that probably hurt as much as the feeling that a kind, gentle soul (Well I, for one, had never been told a thing about Keith and Donna's "famous" fights, at that point) had been wiped from the earth. Gone, but by no means forgotten.
Perhaps my favorite picture of the 70's GD- a clean-shaven Garcia, Keith at far right. Zoo World 1-13-74
In the midst of the actual "Dead Family"- a myth I know a good many persist in believing- in part from the Dead's own propaganda about its existence-[Status in which seems most appointed by the number of dollars and hours one has invested in the band over x years- membership determined by "who has the money to come"(kind of like the hippie version of Opening Night at the Opera)- a willingness to "suck up" apparently helps, as well- I think it's a rather polite little fiction to think strangers are going to care more for you than your own kin.*] there had developed something of an "anti-Keith" faction. This faction (and they know who they are) took great pride in their attempts to break the couple up, and despite all the fighting, they did remain a couple up to the end. I felt I had more in common with both of them than one over the other, and also, that I had more in common with both of them than anyone else remaining in the band (other than Jerry.) So they (both the Godchauxs) were a big reason the GD were what they were, for me. Everything after they left felt more like devolution, and less and less like something of a scene that I wanted to hang out with. Donna put it best once when she said (I'm paraphrasing here, and not quite exact) that "the Grateful Dead is not always benign, there are a lot of ways people can get sucked into it that end up hurting them," and I could see, perhaps, writing on the wall in that regard. Life as a Dead fan cost me at least one serious relationship (not that it was perhaps the best thing in the world for me, either, but it was a choice I felt I was forced to make which would have been a false one- one of several I was being asked to make at the time) and sometimes, felt like something I needed to defend. Well, it only took the world twenty years (plus!) to catch on, but I feel my young appreciation of the band was eventually vindicated. NOW they have (rightfully) become American icons- and yet the tale of how much their music really means in terms of the musicological progress of American arts is, much as Kerouac is yet barely appreciated as a man of American letters- perhaps still decades into the future in the long perspective.
Like that song Jerry used to sing ("Catfish John")- "I was proud to be his friend."