Arts & Entertainment

How the Watts Towers inspired Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia – or didn't?

The Grateful Dead backstage in 1977. Left to Right: Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux. Photographer: Peter Simon
The Grateful Dead backstage in 1977. Left to Right: Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux. Photographer: Peter Simon
Photographer: Peter Simon Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video."

Listen to story

07:04
Download this story 4.0MB

"Long Strange Trip" is a four-hour documentary that chronicles the rise of The Grateful Dead, one of history's most unique and iconic bands.

It's playing at theaters throughout Southern California, including the ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle's Playhouse, and it will be available early next month on Amazon.

Amir Bar-Lev, the filmmaker who put together the documentary, talked to Morning Edition on Thursday about what it was like to measure the band's cultural impact and to wade through the mind of the band's most recognizable figure – guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia.

Below are a couple of highlights from that interview.

Amir Bar-Lev on the forces that drew him to the project:

To me, it always felt like a utopian story, it’s a story of people with big dreams who had a collectivist enterprise. Music was a huge part of it, but there was more to it than just music, and a culture grew up around these guys … and in some ways, the culture negatively impacted itself.

On the surprising revelation that followed after Jerry Garcia talked about the Watts Towers in L.A., noting how the landmark showed that if one worked hard enough, you could build something huge and permanent.

The punchline is totally out of left field. Instead of saying he wants to build a legacy and have something left over after he’s gone, he says, "I don’t want that. I’d rather have fun." And he doesn’t mean fun in the superficial, hedonistic way, I think he’s talking about something else, I think he’s talking about living for the moment.

And as a storyteller, as a journalist, it’s funny to hear your subject say, "I’m not interested in there being something about me after I’m gone." In fact, he says, "I’m uncomfortable with that." He wanted to be a part of something protean, and malleable, and The Grateful Dead was that. That's why they changed the way they approach every song, concert to concert, and I think that's why he was uncomfortable as kind of an orthodoxy, as kind of a culture.

Click on the play button above to hear Alex Cohen's full interview with Amir Bar-Lev, in which he talks about how the band bucked a lot of music industry trends and how the perception of the band over the years has become a somewhat warped version of the band's reality.