Without research, I will say that approximately 94% of all bassists started out as guitarists but were somehow relegated or intimidated to become the band’s bassist. That happened to me when I was 18 years old and had just joined my first band. Along with my drummer brother (or brother drummer), previously-mentioned Head-friend Dave and a drama school mate of my brother’s, we formed a Grateful Dead cover band. I vaguely remember that first jam where I reluctantly picked up some lousy Japanese 4-string leaning against the wall and proceeded to play lead guitar on it. This went on for the better part of three months as I learned that to be a bassist, one actually had to understand how to play the bass guitar. For better, or for worse, the bassist I was studying day and night was none other than, declared non-bassist, Philip Chapman Lesh.
The reason I say ‘for worse’ is the following reasons. And understand there is hyperbole at play when I say it. My love for Phil knows no bounds, not just because of how he played the bass, but also because he wrote the best song ever written.
The first reason is, I reluctantly came to play the bass and the model I referenced for this instrument was one that didn’t and possibly couldn’t exist in any other format or band. Phil Lesh didn’t start out as a bassist. He barely even started out interested in rock music. I didn’t have a root-bound or pocket bassist to study and copy. I got a guy schooled by LSD and Stockhausen. My teacher was more likely to send me out to find a lesson on meter through holding my breath underwater so I could only hear the beating of my heart as a metronome. In fact, my teacher didn’t really adhere to time in a normal way. My teacher was always looking to play between the beats. The second ‘for worse’ reason is actually a veiled benefit. When my initial start portraying the role of Mr. Lesh came to an end, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play in a more conventional combo. I never learned to be a basic bassist. Instead of learning to slowly take my foot off the clutch while applying the gas with equal weight, I was taught to just push the car off a cliff and find a more celestial form of transportation. When I finally did join the world of ‘normal’ music, it was easier to pick up playing simplistic and not standing out too much. But it still required work to keep a leash on and not play too many notes.
Using Phil Lesh as a roadmap to playing the bass was the best ‘decision’ I made as a musician. What I didn’t learn from listening to Phil slotted in easily by listening to, well, any other bassist. I doubt I would have the palette of notes and style I have today had I come to the instrument via any standard rock bassist. But most importantly, there was a grand moment as a bassist when I stopped listen-learning from Phil. After my high school band fell apart (as they always do) and I fell out of listening to the Dead habitually, my second expansion as a musician began. Not to say that I hit the limit of study and was told by my sensei to seek a new one, but after having only one source for knowledge, one sonic template plus the solid foundation that the musical life of Grateful Dead music provides, I was ready to learn from other masters. I found my way to James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and Chuck Rainey while being given a new set of ears to hear players like Chris Squire, Aston Barrett, Mick Karn, Steve Harris and of course, my first and forever love, fellow Toronto Hebrewite, Rabbi Gary Lee Weinrib. In so many ways, I was handed a bit of vision from Phil, which began from the place of ‘What the fuck is he doing?” Along with some other teenage mind twisters, I was raised on a steady diet of WTF. I recommend this to all budding musicians, under doctor’s supervision, of course. Fully charged with ideas, I was then ready to find and develop a style of my own.
What brings me to writing this post and putting it out on my mentor’s 82nd birthday (born in the same year as my MOM!), is that after 34 years as a Deadhead and just a bit longer as a musician, the importance of all this has come full circle. As I wrote before, COVID pushed me to seek comforts, the big one being a return to the Grateful Dead. But one very positive aspect of this push is my return to playing music daily. Pretty much every night, I go down to the basement, strap on a bass and hit shuffle on a few thousand songs from Dave’s or Dick’s Picks and get to work and study. Some nights, I close my eyes and commit to an entire near half-hour of mid-70s Playin’ In The Band and work at the jam. Those nights, I find a pocket, I look for a space for repetition and slowly modulate out of it. I listen as deeply as I can and try to anticipate where it all goes. Those nights, when I’m done, I open my eyes and it feels like I’m emerging from a deprivation tank. Other nights, I will meditate on the restatement of Fire On The Mountain, a baseline that I once had nailed and now requires a lot of work to play over and over again. And on other occasions, I’ll look for something simple like a slow Friend of the Devil and just work at being in the song while giving space and support for everything and everyone else. Lately, I’ve been working on the deep levels of melody found in both Candyman and Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo. And I generally spoil myself with something fun each session like They Love Each Other, Row Jimmy and Terrapin Station as a way to end.
The amazing thing about this rediscovery is how deeply seeded all this music is. I hadn’t played the majority of Dead music in decades, but once I picked up the bass to play along, I didn’t need to refer to a chart to remember the songs. They were already there in some dormant part of my brain. I would venture that there’s a good chunk of hard drive space in my cabeza that stores everything GD-related. It’s the reason I can recall damn near every lyric. I also learned that with Dead music, when in doubt of a change or a bridge, play a C. 60% of the time, it works every time, as the quote goes.
Often complex, Dead music is very often very simple. And for music that is improvised, there’s a predictability to its structure, once you get it. I think a part of this is how all-genre these songs are. I played along with Weather Report Suite for the first time ever and despite all its changes, I got an instant feel for where the chord progressions were going all based on memory. That’s how well these fuckers wrote music more than how well I play bass.
To close, I raise a glass of sparkling water to the man who in so many ways helped me find my way to my instrument. So many guitarists found their’s via Jerry Garcia, and as a musician who started out playing guitar, I get that, and that’s a thousand blog posts unto themselves. But for me, I think about all the things I would never have learned, seen and discovered had I not been coerced to pick up the bass that day many years ago. I can’t even fathom that right now. It makes me feel like I owe Phil even more than I ever thought.
I guess the best way to end this is to honour Phil as he does at each show. If you’re not already, please sign up to be an organ donor. If you’re in Canada, here’s the way to do it. If you’re in the US, go here.
Happy birthday, Mr. Lesh. May your rotations around the sun be as numerous as the notes you’ve played and the musicians you’ve inspired.
Header image by By binkle_28 from St. Louis – Phil Lesh & Friends – July 3, 2008 – The Pageant, St. Louis (276), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35019744