By Casey Lowdermilk
Says musician, songwriter, and producer David Gans: “I like Rex’s commitment to grassroots, direct-action humanitarianism. In a world that is often weighed down by the excesses of the blockbuster mentality, Rex has seen to the creation of a thousand small wonders.”
“I’m a sovereign soul/ And I do what I can to make sense of it all,” proclaims David Gans in one of his songs. As a singer and songwriter, he attempts to make sense of our crazy world through his perceptive lyrics. His contributions and significance within the Grateful Dead community are noteworthy: as a journalist he contributed insightful interviews, books, and entertaining analogies for our passion; he also hosts the nationally syndicated weekly radio show Grateful Dead Hour, listened to by Deadheads across America.
His two most recent albums, Solo Acoustic and Solo Electric, feature a repertoire of songs stripped down to the bare essentials, a man and his guitar. He’s on a solo adventure with thoughtful lyrics, expressing wisdom and emotion with poetic grace. Other lyrics deliver social commentary that speaks to the reality of our times. Gans admits that he enjoys songs that tell a story, something he picked up from listening to the Grateful Dead, and through his repertoire of songs he tells stories of American life. On two occasions (“Like a Dog” and “Shut Up and Listen”), he’s collaborated with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
David Gans is also actively involved in supporting charitable efforts. He brings music and charity together through his music and his radio show. He serves on the advisory board of Rock the Earth, primarily contributing to the publicity of the foundation. He’s also a firm believer in the Rex Foundation’s mission, supporting Rex through his own music. In the summer of 2001, he and a band called Guilty Pleasures played a Rex Foundation benefit concert at the Ashkenaz in Berkeley. This summer, he’s scheduled to play at two festivals that will support the Rex Foundation through a portion of their ticket sales, Grateful Fest and Gathering of the Vibes.
On behalf of the Rex Foundation, I was recently able to catch up with this friendly musician to discuss, among other things, his songwriting, his recent project the Rubber Souldiers, and his charitable efforts.
Rex: What’s your involvement with the Rex Foundation?
Gans: I’ve played a few benefits over the years, and I have supported their efforts by publicizing their events on my radio shows, but aside from that, I’m just another citizen who appreciates Rex’s good works.
Rex: Why do you think the Rex is important for you to be involved with?
Gans: I like Rex’s commitment to grassroots, direct-action humanitarianism. This is one charity that doesn’t spend money to raise money, and they make sure the money they give away goes to people who need it. In a world that is often weighed down by the excesses of the blockbuster mentality, Rex has seen to the creation of a thousand small wonders.
Rex: It’s clear that the Grateful Dead has had a significant influence on your life and your music. How do you conceptualize the values and spirit of the Grateful Dead in your own music and sense of community?
Gans: I learned so much from the Grateful Dead, and from the community that formed around the love of their music.
The first GD show I ever attended was a benefit concert, and over the years I attended many more benefits with the Dead topping the bill. I remember a weekend in San Francisco that they called “the shotgun benefits” because they were distributing the proceeds to a variety of causes; not long after that, they formed the Rex Foundation as a means of focusing their charitable energies. The audience members learned about the beneficiaries via information tables at the shows, and that allowed us to contribute in other ways beyond the purchase of tickets.
In my own musical career, I have had the opportunity to perform at many charitable events. I’ve felt free to talk about humanitarian matters both in my music and between songs, and I have also used whatever power I have as a radio voice to promote good works and kindness.
Rex: What’s one of your humanitarian matters that you enjoy supporting the most?
Gans: I am on the advisory board of Rock the Earth: “Defending the planet one beat at a time.” I have done some audio production work for Headcount, promoting voter registration in the jamband community. I’m a strong believer in taking back the political process in the name of human decency.
I have served on a few nonprofit boards: Unbroken Chain Foundation, Ashkenaz, and the Pickle Family Circus. I have also followed Rex’s lead in organizing and taking part in various very small-scale support efforts in the online communities where I live.
Rex: In my opinion, one of the reasons this community is so unique is because of the connection between music and charity. What is it about the Grateful Dead community that encourages charitable efforts?
Gans: The Grateful Dead embodied those values from Day One. Playing benefits is an aspect of the founding philosophy that endured, long after playing for free became impossible.
Rex: What’s your songwriting process like? Short bursts of inspiration, or do you have to work at it more?
Gans: I don’t have a set process. It’s never been easy! I’ll take inspiration wherever I can get it. Sometimes a phrase will kick the song off. For example, “A kick in the ass is a shove in the right direction” is a lesson I have learned from my own life. A year or so ago, I sat down with Lorin Rowan one day and we built a song around that idea.
I have a song, “Desert of Love,” that I wrote over a period of several days while swimming laps, working through my grief over a romance gone sour.
“Down to Eugene” happened in a hotel room in Florida. I was playing my guitar with fingerpicks, and a nice piece of music presented itself. Once I had the picking organized, it occurred to me that the words of Jim Page’s song “Down to Eugene” would fit it nicely. I love that song, but I can’t sing it the way he does – so I borrowed his lyrics for my musical setting (with Jim’s blessing, of course).
“An American Family” began as an exercise in pure fiction writing. It felt to me that all of the songs I’d written in recent years (this was in the mid-’90s) were personal, and I set out to write something that was not at all about my own life. I started with a character sketch based on a person I know, but as almost always is the case, the story took on a life of its own and wound up being told in the voices of that guy, his wife, and their son.
“That’s Real Love” is another song that began as a musical exercise. I had a feel I was going for, and I’d play this pattern as a warmup, soundcheck, etc., and eventually it formed itself into a complete musical statement. I remember the moment I knew it was a song: soundchecking at a private party (an annual tribal gathering of a Deadhead clan) in a beautiful rural setting in Oregon. Then I just lived with it until the words came.
More recently, I have been composing through improvisation. I started using a looping device a few years ago, and now it is an integral part of my live performance. Just about every show I do includes at least one extended improvisation, adding layers of guitar one at a time. In some cases I’d take the recordings home and edit them into more concise musical expressions. Once a piece was finished, I’d analyze the result to figure out which three or four musical gestures gave it its character, and then I would call that a composition and put it on the song list. A good example of this is “Dawn’s Early Light,” which began as an improvisation in my living room in January of 2005. A short excerpt of a much longer improvisation (I worked on it off and on for more than a day) appears on “Solo Electric,” and there’s a live performance with Darol Anger on fiddle on my Web site.
(You can find the lyrics to all of the above-referenced songs at www.dgans.com.lyrics; some of the songs are posted at www.dgans.com/tunes, and more about the looping devices and other tools at www.dgans.com/links.
Rex: To continue with songwriting, the first time I heard “Who Will Save Us From the Saved?” I was blown away. In my experience, no other songwriter has so poignantly addressed the topic of religious zealots as you did in this song. How’d you come up with it?
Gans: Part of the inspiration was seeing a juxtaposition of signs on the main drag of Farmington, New Mexico. There’s a big sign that reads, in plain red type on a yellow background, ADULT VIDEO. And a hundred or so feet away, a much larger billboard with a picture of that bland Caucasian Christ of theirs and the words, JESUS IS WATCHING YOU. My friend Stu and I both took pictures of the scene; Stu’s is at www.flickr.com/photos.
The phrase “save us from the saved” came first. From there, the challenge was to present my case in the most, uh, fair and balanced (in the genuine, non-Fox-News-bullshit, senses of the words), non-judgmental, non-inflammatory of terms.
Rex: Do you ever get any opposition or critics of the message you are sending in songs such as “Who Will Save Us From the Saved?”
Gans: Virtually all the response I get to that song is favorable. It seems a lot of people are as concerned as I am about the possible encroachment of theocracy on our society, and the feedback I get on the song is that I express their concerns well. That is a satisfying thing to hear.
Rex: In a recent survey on jambands.com you were ranked as being one of the top artists who does not receive the critical praise you deserve. Any reaction to that?
Gans: I certainly think it’s true, but what performer doesn’t? It’s nice to get some recognition, even if it’s in the form of “he isn’t getting enough recognition.”
Rex: Tell us how this new project of yours, Rubber Souldiers with Lorin and Chris Rowan, began.
Gans: I’ve been a fan of the Rowans for years. When their double CD Now and Then came out, I invited them to play live on Dead to the World. During the sound check, I tossed in a harmony line on the Beatles’ “Baby’s in Black,” and they invited me to sing it with them during the broadcast. And then after we got off the air, the three of us sat around and sang Beatle songs just for fun. That was the start of it: bonding over the Beatles!
Rex: What do you see for the future of Rubber Souldiers?
Gans: I’m putting together a demo with selections from our May 13 debut, and we’ll see if we can get some more gigs for this lineup. We have some fine musicians backing us, all of whom have worked with me and with the Rowan Brothers separately – so it should be a nice little package to tour with, schedules and opportunities permitting.
Rex: You recently compiled choice selections for Well-Matched: The Best of Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia. How’d you go about choosing the tracks? For those who haven’t already bought it, what can they look forward to in that album?
Gans: I listened to all the available material and chose what I thought would show off the best of their collaboration. This is a Merl and Jerry thing, so I wanted to be sure Merl’s composing and playing were showcased as much as Jerry’s. In addition to a pretty reasonable collection of tracks, Blair Jackson’s liner notes are sweet and informative, and the photos are great. Plus the package design – in the shape of a matchbook! – is terrific.
Rex: This summer, your tour schedule brings you to two festivals that will support the Rex Foundation through a portion of their ticket sales: Grateful Fest at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Nelson, Ohio and Gathering of the Vibes in Mariaville, New York. Would you mind telling us about these festival experiences from the perspective of an artist, as well as the charitable aspect that’s included?
Gans: Grateful Fest, at Nelson Ledges, is a really nice annual celebration with Dark Star Orchestra, Zen Tricksters, and lots of other musicians who are also good friends. We began a tradition a few years back of raising money for Rett’s Syndrome research, because Evan and Christina, who own NLQP, have a daughter who suffers from it. So there’s been a nice charitable impulse there all along; adding Rex to the mix is just fine with me.
Gathering of the Vibes is a very large festival, with dozens of artists each day. It’s great fun to hang out with friends in the audience, shooting the shit in the hospitality tent, jamming (onstage or off), checking out the vending area, and so on. If there’s a Rex table, and/or other activists and causes sharing information, that’s good for all concerned, too.