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The Slow Trains Ten

writers on the creative life

featuring David Gans

David Gans' live debut solo album, Solo Acoustic (Perfectible Recordings), was released in 2001, adding more luster to an already shining, multifaceted career. In addition to being the host of the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio show for fifteen years, he is the co-author of Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead; the author of Conversations with the Dead; and the editor of Not Fade Away: The Online World Remembers Jerry Garcia. His musical credits include producing Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead, co-producing the Dead's Gold Record-winning boxed set, So Many Roads (1965-1995), and Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead.

It was in the mid-1990s, after more than 20 years of earning a living as a journalist and radio producer, that David decided it was "time to put my own music back on the front burner where it belongs." In 1997, he and Eric Rawlins released the CD, Home By Morning, which featured instrumental support by the likes of influential mandolin maestro David Grisman and pedal steel guitarist Bobby Black. His reputation as a musician has enabled him to sit in with many highly regarded national acts, including moe, with whom he gigged at three sold-out 1997 shows in San Francisco; the String Cheese Incident, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Merl Saunders, the Ominous Seapods, Vince Welnick, the Mickey Hart Band, Blueground Undergrass,Donna the Buffalo, Dark Star Orchestra, Keller Williams, The Persuasions, and many others.

Also in 1997, David began working weekly with a rotating cast of players he collectively presented as The Broken Angels. On January 31, 1998, the band played a sold-out show at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Joining them were Dead bassist Phil Lesh and keyboardist Vince Welnick. The Broken Angels' biggest splash came later that year, when they recorded David's "Monica Lewinsky." The CD single, which lampooned President Clinton's dalliances with the notorious White House intern, was a minor worldwide hit, greatly increasing David's musical profile. "Monica Lewinsky" also served to emphasize David's sense of humor, which continues to manifest itself on Solo Acoustic, both in "Down to Eugene" (co-written with Seattle singer-songwriter Jim Page), which pokes affectionate fun at the vast legion of Deadheads, and his cover of "Normal," Martin Mull's devastatingly accurate send-up of suburban married life among the formerly hip.

Since 1998, David Gans has played the role of troubadour, regularly hitting the road to bring his unique musical vision to an ever-growing legion of fans. Solo Acoustic stands as a document of his musical life of the past few years, and, perhaps more importantly, as a tantalizing hint at what lies ahead for this talented musician.

1. When did you start writing?

I don't remember. I think I was always doing creative writing. I was the editor of the student body newspaper in grade school one year. I remember writing some semi-bawdy fantasies when I was a teenager, along with the usual tortured teenage poetry, and I contributed some eminently forgettable material to my high school literary magazine. I wrote record reviews for an underground newspaper, and some atmospheric stuff that I have since lost for my ownself while in college. I started writing for money in the mid '70s and haven't stopped, though I earn most of my living making radio and playing (and writing) music these days.

2. What is your writing routine like?

It's torture. I never had any discipline. When I have a nonfiction writing gig, I collect the information and then stare at it until a day or two before the deadline, then duck phone calls and emails until well past the deadline, whereupon I get down to it and it always comes out pretty good.

I have never managed to develop a more wholesome way of working.

Writing music is similarly scattershot, but I don't have deadlines to work with so the craven interpersonal behavior isn't a factor. I tend to keep the lyrics in my head for a long time, occasionally pushing them around on paper, until I have a pretty solid idea of what it's supposed to sound like. Then I pick up the guitar and start to make it into music. I actually have a good reason for this: the more I can conceive of the music before I pick up the guitar, the less I am bound to the habits and conventions of the guitar. That's one of the reasons why many of my songs tend not to sound like everybody else's guitar-driven songs.

3. Who are some of your favorite writers, and which writers have had the strongest influence on you?

William Kotzwinkle -- I fell in love with "The Fan Man" and have loved just about everything of his I have read since. He has written in many styles and many worlds, which impresses me greatly -- the way John Sayles has never made two movies that are too much like the others.

Jerzy Kozinski, while not so versatile as Kotzwinkle, impressed me deeply with the fierce power of his storytelling.

W.P. Kinsella -- the Native American stores more than the baseball stuff. He evinces a great love for the people and places he writes about.

Kurt Vonnegut showed me how to use humor and fantasy to address real-world issues.

John Irving, Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, and John Lennon all lent elements of their voices to mine.

Note that I have never published a word of fiction, except what's in my songs. That's where my creative energy goes these days, and I have only in the last five years or so come to recognize my own powers as a storyteller. I don't write very many songs (I wish I were more prolific), but every song I have written in the last few years has been a keeper and a step forward.

I am slowly working toward being able to write a novel. I have some ideas, characters, metaphors and powerful emotions to bring to that task, when I can concentrate. I figure I had to get out there and live a life before I could start writing in earnest, and I have collected some important experiences.

4. Besides writing & music, what are you most passionate about in your life?

These days I am passionate about the decline of American society. I am not sure what I can do about it, but I fear we are heading in a very unfortunate direction, with an increasingly apathetic and easily-manipulated polity that can't be bothered to find out what's going on and vote to save their own asses.

5. Where do you trace your musical roots back to, and/or, which musicians do you most admire today?

I played the clarinet as a kid and learned some classical pieces in school, but it was the Beatles who turned me into a musician. When I was 15, my older brother set two of my poems to music and then taught me the chords; from that moment on, it was all guitar all the time. My heroes at first were Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Beatles, and then I got into the singer-songwriters: Jackson Browne, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Elton John, Cat Stevens, et al. My consciousness was pretty well-formed by the time I saw the Grateful Dead in 1972, and then everything had to be readjusted. From the Dead I learned about improvisation, and about storytelling: there is a narrative structure in my show that is rarely explicit but always present.

I choose songs by other writers that will help me tell my own story. In many instances it's only a line or a phrase that I connect with, but that's usually enough.

6. Where are your favorite places to travel?

My wife, Rita, turned me into a vacation-taker. We have been to Utah and Hawaii and Paris two or more times together, and I love all those places. Australia was a great experience, and I'd like to go back there when we can afford it. I want to see some other places, too, like Machu Picchu, Greece, Alaska... the whole dang world if there's time and resources enough to get us there.

7. Where do your best ideas come from, or, what creates your most inspired state?

I get a lot of ideas while consuming other people's creative output. I usually have a notebook with me when I go out to see live music. it's not about stealing licks or images -- it's about being in that place where the energy is high and the ideas are flowing. I'll write down a phrase or a couplet, then come back to it later to see if it sprouts into a workable idea.

I also have 30+ years of notebooks, journals and working papers to revisit. I wrote some very good material when I was young and lacked self-confidence; I have been amazed at some of the things that I have retrieved from old tapes, buffed up and put into the working repertoire.

8. Do you have any interesting vices that you'd care to share, and have they helped or hindered your writing?

I like to smoke a little pot when I'm doing improvisation things like playing music, writing songs and making love.

9. Yeats said that the only things worth writing about are sex and death -- what would your list include?

Those two umbrellas cover most of the terrain, ultimately. I wish I were capable of writing light, frivolous, observational stuff, but I don't get a lot of ideas along those lines. In recent years I have written some socially-conscious material, e.g. "An American Family" -- which started out as a snide portrait of a sort of prissy guy I know, but turned into a piece in the voices of three members of a family in grave economic straits. It's not too fashionable to write about important matters these days, but I think it's time for artists to get back in the business of changing minds and inspiring hearts.

10. What's next for your writing?

I have been looking for collaborators. I've said "no thank you" to a lot of lyrics given to me by friends, but I recently brought home a lyric from a Vietnam vet in Florida that I think is going to become a song.

Prose-wise, I would like to publish two more books of interviews with musicians, but aside from that I am waiting for my fiction writing to emerge when it's ready.

©2002 by David Gans

See more of David Gans' writing at the Truth and Fun Literary Archive.

For more information see David Gans' Web site.

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