Tom Constanten has had a long and successful career in music. He is best know as being the Graetful Dead’s keyboard player between 1968 and 1970. At 75 he is still performing, still touring and he will visit the Banham Barrel at the end of the month – a venue he compares favourably with New York’s famous Fillmore East
I spoke to him at his home in North Carolina, naturally we started with the weather.
TC: Its grey and cloudy with shades of Donald Trump, its pretty ugly!
TB: You are best known for playing with the Greatful Dead, but you were not there for long.
TC: No, but the archives of recordings of my era are very thick, so something is happening!
TB: Did you feel that you fitted into the band well?
TC: Yes and no, it is one of those cosmic conundra, I’m sorta like one of these outer space things that came in from out of the orbit, through the solar system… in several ways they were really like me. When I first heard the avant-garde music in the 1950s – a lot of people hated it and covered their ears. I said hey, thats for me. The band had the same spirit of adventure and exploration that I had. In that measure we fit each other quite well.
TB: You came from a background in the military, straight into rock’n’roll…
TC: Oh it was way worse that that! I received a draft notice, they wanted to send me to Vietnam to get shot at! I did not want to do that actually. I realised that there was a way out of it at the time. If I enlisted in the Air Force, as a volunteer, so the Army wouldn’t come after me because I was already in the military… these are not the droids you want.
They also taught me computer programming – the computers of fifty years ago – but before that I had been to Europe to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio and that was the world that Gery Garcio and Phil Lesh knew about. The fact that I’d made buck sargeant, it didn’t impress them – but having studied with Stockhausen did.
TB: What makes you get up in the morning and start playing?
TC: It is nature’s way. You wake up and you do what you do. There is no effort, intention or decision involved. It is like a discussion I had recently with an old girlfriend: love is not a decision. You realise that here you are and we’ll play it like this. Mind you, the scenery changes, as it does with women. I have a practice regime, I have a couple of Chopin etudes in my rotation now – that sort of brushes away the cobwebs and I love the way it makes everything else seem so easy.
TB: I love that line about love, now I am totally distracted.
TC: Of if you wish, I could be more vague. I’m not a real person at all, but I play one on television.
TB: Your autobiography is called ‘Between Rock and Hard Places’ what were the hard places?
TC: Oh… economic depravity, about twelve years of having the Internal Revenue Services on my ass – that was not a lot of fun. Pounding the pavement in LA lookin’ for work. I had a career in sales for a while, one day I made one sale, I think it was an accident. I didn’t last with that.
TB: What were you selling?
TC: It was a photo studio, somebody from the studio would come to the house and take pictures of them and their kids and they had the option for $50 or $100 getting 8×10 or wallet sized images. I also had an extended period at the Post Office, I learned all of the streets in San Francisco, I cannot get lost in thet city! But really I had it rather mild compared to some artists.
TB: Music has changed drastically of late. Do you think it is for the better or worse?
TC: I think its not may call. I have been a student over the past decade of African music, listening to it, reading about it and they have a similar thing over there. There was a musician from Ghana who was interviewed by a University of Chicargo professor and he said that when he was a kid all the musicians, the estblishment, told him he was doing it wrong. He became famous and they asked him what he might think of the music of two generations from now. He said I will probably tell them they are doing it wrong.
I trust my own judgemnet – you know about the Heisenberg uncertaint principle? Its, quantum mechanics, nuclear science. There are several statements all of them end with the phrase ‘or both’…”You can tell where the particle is or where it is going but not both” or “You can have perspective or objectivity but not both.” When you are in the game, you don’t see the game.
TB: Is there anyone you wish you had played with?
TC: If you go back in history there are so many, you might know something about this: in real life it doesn’t look the same if you watching from your seat. I have seen artists whom I thought would really get along but who were like adversarial cats checking each other out. Sometimes it is the notes closest to each other that resonate most dicordantly.
TB: Let talk about the Banham Barrel…
TC: Oh, I remember when it was just a six pack – I am so proud of it!
TB: You are returning to the Banham Barrel after a successful show there last year.
TC: I am so looking forward to that, I am sure it will be warmer.
TB: What can people expect from Live Dead ’69 at the Barrel?
TC: We are not a tribute band. I have heard that we are called a legacy band because we all have a direct personal connection to the source of the music. We are not re-creating an experience, we are not impersonators. I am not pretending to be somebody else, the fire of imporvisation and inventiveness that we are bringing with us. But we have been there before so the audience should know what to expect.
I remember playing a gig at Fillmore East with the Greatful Dead. New York audiences let you know how they feel. They were picky, they were exacting, they were critics everylast one of them. But when towards the end of the first set we realised that they liked us – that was something special. The Banham Barrel had a feeling similar to that, tell them I noticed.