By Ashley Zimmerman
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Whether as an author, producer, or radio-show host, Gans's name has been intimately linked with that of the Grateful Dead to those inside the scene. Sure, Gans doesn't mind the numerous accolades he has earned from his work -- including his hosting of the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Radio Hour show, his writing of (among other books) Conversations with the Dead, and his producing of the Dead's gold-certified boxed set So Many Roads (1965-1995). Of course, he's also excited about Postcards of the Hanging, a collection of Bob Dylan songs performed live by the Dead, released last week. But it's not only about the Dead anymore. It's about him.
"I've been trying to do a little more of my music and a little bit less of everybody else's," Gans explains by phone from his home in Oakland, California, where he waits to embark on a small tour promoting his own material. "I've always been a musician, and I've been writing songs all along. I wanted to go out alone -- just me and my songs -- and not have anyone expect anything like the Grateful Dead. I think Deadheads tend to have a style that they want to hear, and maybe what I'm doing is not Dead enough for some people and too Dead-like for other people. It's a weird spot to be in. People think the Dead are really great or they really suck."
His 2001 Solo Acoustic effort, recorded live between 1999 and 2000, in many ways represents Gans coming full circle. Sure, Gans enshrines his Dead roots on songs like "The Minstrel," which pays tribute to the late Jerry Garcia, as well as his own unplugged renditions of the Dead's "Black Peter" and "Brokedown Palace," but the songs themselves steer more toward Dylan than Dead, navigating around fleshed-out compositions rather than long-winded jams. "I was a singer-songwriter before I had even heard of the Grateful Dead," he says. "I was into all kinds of pop and folk and country music. When I decided to do music more prominently, I wanted to go back to my origins and not play in a band where people would expect to hear Dead music and jams. I wanted to get back to the basics: just me and my guitar and my songs."
Born and raised in Southern California, Gans started playing guitar at age 15 after picking up his brother's instrument. "In 1969, when I started, the most important people in our culture were musicians," Gans says. "[Music] was the most important thing in life, and I got on the bandwagon like everybody did in those days, and I stuck with it." Gans cites artists such as Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Elvis Costello as influences, while genres that inspired him run the gamut from western swing to traditional country to folk. In the '70s, he turned to journalism, writing for music magazines including MIX and BAM, and later becoming the West Coast editor of Record magazine. "I think my journalism career turned out to be a good preparation for what I'm doing now," he explains. "It was a great way to meet people and musicians." Among those artists he met were the Dead, with whom he later became friends. Another career choice that helped him as a musician was his now-15-year involvement in the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Radio Hour, which started as a result of an on-air promotion for his first book (Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead), in which he broke out some rare Dead songs. The episode led to the full-blown show that he currently hosts.
"I never in my life would have thought that playing Grateful Dead songs on the radio was going to be how I would make my living for 15 years," Gans says. "It was certainly a liberating way to make a living. It brought me a lot of freedom over how I could spend my time and resources." Other Gans projects include his production of Stolen Roses: Songs of the Grateful Dead, which includes remakes by Dylan, Patti Smith, and Widespread Panic. He also produced Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing the Grateful Dead, an album that fused the Persuasions' gospel and R&B soul with the spirit of the Dead.
In 1997, Gans released Home by Morning, a band effort that featured Eric Rawlings, mandolinist David Grisman, and pedal steel guitarist Bobby Black, among others. Gans also sat in during live performances of jam bands including moe. and the String Cheese Incident. The following year, Gans and the Broken Angels scored a minor hit on radio with the lampooning "Monica Lewinsky." The combo played a New Year's Eve show in 1998 at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium joined by Dead bassist Phil Lesh and keyboardist Vince Welnick.
Still, Gans wanted to gradually detach himself from the music that helped spawn his career. With his acoustic guitar, he hit smaller clubs and bars across the country. "I needed to get out of the Bay Area," he recalls. "Every musician can tell you they can feel underappreciated in their hometown at times. I'm like old news around here. So an opportunity to get out somewhere else and sort of get a fresh start seemed like the way to go." And with tunes in hand and a new perspective on his mission, he rides off toward a horizon where the only psychedelic colors he hopes to be associated with are those of the sunset.
"It's been a great ride," he concludes, "but it's time for me to get back to what I originally meant to do with my life."