Tom Constanten - Grateful Dead keyboardist


Tom Constanten (at left in band photo) was in the Grateful Dead from 1968 to 1970, contributing to three of their albums : Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, and Live/ Dead. Many additional performances with the band, including Woodstock, have also been documented and circulated among collectors. TC (his nickname, especially among deadheads) and Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, met in 1961 and became friends. Both studied classical music and composition.

In Skeleton Key : A Dictionary for Deadheads (1994) by David Shenk and Steve Silberman, the authors write “Constanten joined the Dead in November ’68, adding his piano, organ, harpsichord, and taped electronic music to the band’s sound at a time when the music was its most experimental… [He] had the widest range of musical reference of anyone who has ever occupied the Dead’s keyboard hot seat.” In his solo concerts and compact discs, Constanten includes his original compositions, arrangements of pieces from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, other famous rock songs, blues, folk, rags, classical pieces, and what he calls “horrifications” : devious variations on familiar melodies or styles.

The liner notes to a CD of Tom Constanten and guitarist, fiddler, and vocalist Ken Foust called Moved to Stanleyville (2006), describe TC as “A Renaissance Man-in-Black with flowing white hair, purposeful mismatched socks and avant-Garde humor, is fluent in several languages and comfortable with many cultures. He has penned his colorful journey in his memoir, Between Rock and Hard Places.”

I first saw Tom Constanten perform in 1991 in Toronto in a band called Gratefully Yours, with members/ former members of the Jerry Garcia Band (Merl Saunders), New Riders of the Purple Sage (John Dawson), Kingfish (Barry Flast, Matthew Kelly), Zero (Steve Kimock, Martine Fierro), and Jefferson Airplane (Papa John Creach). The next time was 1992 in Montreal in a band called Dead Ringers, which included some of the same players. The Dead Ringers have a CD on Relix Records.

The interview took place August 9, 1998, at a festival in Pennsylvania called Pocono’s Musical Gathering on the Mountain. The day before, I heard TC play a long set alone at the piano. Besides his arrangements of Grateful Dead originals (“Friend of the Devil,” “Mountains of the Moon,” and “Dark Star”) plus songs the band popularized (“Turn on Your Love Light” from Bobbie Bland, “Morning Dew” by Bonnie Dobson, and the traditional “Cold Rain and Snow”), Constanten did versions of the Who’s “Boris the Spider,” Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and Donovan’s “The Fat Angel” (which interpolated “Strange Brew” by Cream). Along the way, he also played Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” (1899-1900) and Franz Liszt’s “La Leggierezza” (1840s).

Constanten has had a vast and varied career as a teacher and composer and has toured and recorded extensively. To go to his website, click here.

Craig Morrison : I’m interested in how psychedelic music started. I’ve created a model of how styles evolve, comparing ragtime to rockabilly to psychedelic music and come up with seven phases, including creation, first wave, commercialization, and fade out.

Tom Constanten : Cool, I like charts like this.

CM : It’s a work in progress. You can keep it if you want.

TC : I’d love to. I play ragtime also.

CM : I know that ; I have your Nightfall of Diamonds CD.

TC : There’s a couple of ragtime pieces on it.

CM : I really appreciated that you included William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost.” Isn’t that a beautiful piece ? I saw him perform once a long time ago.

TC : He’s wonderful.

CM : What came together to create the psychedelic style ? Do you have a definition of psychedelic music ?

TC : No, I’m really not interested in one. The idea is that everyone was just exposed to these various influences and just did whatever they did. It’s kind of like the Virgil Thomson story about how to be an American composer. He says first be an American and then do whatever you damn please. It isn’t that we consciously said, yes I think I will do that. It’s just that there were these influences which we were around or were around us—it worked both ways—and they naturally became part of our expression. It’s like an effortless stew effect. It isn’t like a college course where you say, okay I’m supposed to hold my feet like this and wear this kind of suit. It’s just that we went after the psychedelics, the eastern mysticism, the blues music in many cases, and some of us happened to go out on stage. You do what music means to you. That’s what Bill Monroe did : he created bluegrass because he thought that that was what music ought to be like.

CM : If you look at ragtime or rockabilly, you see there’s a black component and a white component, and this influence and that, but with psychedelic music it seems like it’s one of the first styles where people said, let’s throw in something from every one of our influences.

TC : Maybe, maybe not. If you go back to the ragtime era, there were Native American melodies.

CM : That is true, and there is a Latin tinge.

TC : And Egyptian and Hungarian. The tangos of [Ernesto] Nazareth. Trinidad, the Caribbean.

CM : But those were little spices. In psychedelic I get the sense that people were willing to go completely…

TC : I don’t know if we were willing to, it was that we got to. Sometimes it’s what the act, the producer or the promoter says you can do. For instance, I grew up in Las Vegas. During the psychedelic era, rock bands were permitted to dress as far out as they wanted to, provided everybody in the band dressed the same.

CM : Were you in a uniformed band ?

TC : No, I missed out on that, thank heaven.

CM : But you saw it.

TC : Yeah, I knew most of the musicians around.

CM : How outlandish could you get all dressed the same ?

TC : There was no limit as to how outlandish you could get, provided it was a uniform. The long hair, the crazy colored suits, Fat Max ties. There was no limit to that.

CM : What you’re talking about is framing, putting up barriers.

TC : Yeah, but they’re arbitrary. And it’s what you find at the time, and even that’s arbitrary.

CM : It was pretty arbitrary with psychedelic music. Do you think it was more arbitrary than any other style ?

TC : No I just think that the cubicle walls were lower so people could see over them better.

CM : And was that the timing or the drugs, or…

TC : Part of it was timing. I think a lot of credit should be given to the Beatles and to Bob Dylan, who cracked the commercial world and were far out. Jefferson Airplane : they were cracking up over what they could do on the radio. It was like this big joke among the bands. It had to do with cracking down those walls of the cubicles so we could see one another better, which is definitely a noble task.

CM : In your current performing, do you still feel that you’re doing that ?

TC : Sure, I never left. I don’t know how to do anything else. I have an album with Brahms, Debussy, and Bach on it [Live In Concert at the Piano ; see also Deep Expressions, Longtime Known], and I played ragtime and other stuff. The Dose Hermanos stuff is all improvised.

CM : What is that ?

TC : That’s a duet I have with Bob Bralove [former Grateful Dead sound technician]. We have a CD out. We’ve done about 30 shows. And it’s all improvised : 100% made up on the spur of the moment, as close as we can get to it.

CM : Ornette Coleman was one of the first people to try to do that in the studio.

TC : Well maybe, I don’t know. You go back to the Futurists and the Dadaists in the ’20s.

CM : Weren’t they doing it more with art ?

TC : They were performance artists as well : [Kurt] Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp was both. A percussionist friend of mine, Don Knaack, has performed Marcel Duchamp percussion pieces, and they’re just as far out as performance art. The Futurists were into performance art, the Dadaists no doubt. Eric Satie. Have you ever seen Entr’ acte, the [1924] movie with live music [by Satie] ? It’s wacko. Salvador Dali, of course that was film, and that was late ‘20s, early ‘30s.

The Charlatans, photo by Herb Greene

CM : We just saw someone wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Charlatans on it. You had said they were your favorite.

TC ; Oh yeah, they were wonderful, they are wonderful. I used to hang out with Mike Ferguson before they formed the band. They are great guys. Mike Wilhelm is totally wonderful. I remember a time at the Last Day Saloon in San Francisco [when] he sang “Sixteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest” - “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” all the verses, brought the place down. He has this classic basso voice. It’s so deep, it’s so coarse you could strike a match on it. Really strong that way. [The song was developed from the chorus of a fictional sea chanty included in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island. He was inspired by reading the name of a tiny island, Dead Man’s Chest, in the British Virgin Islands.] Dan Hicks came on the radio show a couple of times. I call him the Foster Brooks of Mars. Of course George Hunter and the other guy [Richard Olsen] who’s name I’ll think about in a minute. It’s on the tip of my brain.

I saw them in ’65 and around then. They took an unusually long time before they came out with an album and I think it might have been a bit late. You might remember that the Grateful Dead took a long time before they came out with their first album. I remember being disappointed in the Charlatans first album, not because of the material, but because it didn’t really capture their wildness and all the things that were going on. There was the western thing with Mike Wilhelm, there was the straw hat/ riverboat gambler sort of thing, and there was Mike Ferguson with the derby hat and the arm [armband].

CM : It was kind of like the Village People of the Wild West or the ’20s.

TC : Sure, or Virginia City, of course they reflected the Nevada thing. Or the old time minstrel shows, which had a formula of Mr. Tambo, the end people, the Interlocutor, Mr. Bones.

CM : Do you think they had a sense of that’s what they were doing ?

TC : It’s impossible to tell. As with all of us, there’s some degree that it’s intentional and some that’s merely a product of where you are. You do that because you know it, and you know it because it’s been around you and you might not necessarily be conscious of it, but it’s still there. It’s one of those things I think is impossible to tell in retrospect where the line is. Arnold Schoenberg in one of his essays on heart and brain and music even made the point that it’s impossible to tell that difference, citing examples of compositions which he knew were totally laborious and hard to work out but were very emotional sounding, and ones that sounded complicated and yet they were very easy to write. So there’s a curious flip flop that way, and it’s just part of the strangeness of this universe I presume.

Tom and Craig, Pocono’s Musical Gathering on the Mountain Festival, 1998 - photo by Todd Bolton

CM : Back when ragtime was happening it was very big in San Francisco and not big in Los Angeles.

TC : Well, that was back when San Francisco was a preeminent city in California.

CM : Maybe Los Angeles wasn’t then.

TC : The last 50 years. There was a lot of ragtime published. Of course, it moved from New York and the big canters. There was a big ragtime scene in Indianapolis, especially with some women composers, [also] Kansas City. Savannah, Georgia had a ragtime scene. Tom Turpin was from down there. They still have a Tom Turpin ragtime festival in Savannah, Georgia.

CM : That I’ve heard about. But if you look at the San Francisco in the 1960s, the only places where you hear anything like that showing up are maybe New York with the Lovin’ Spoonful, and San Francisco.

TC : Of course, LA sort of caught on and did its version of it later. I don’t know if I can go too much into the sociology of the reasons for stuff like that. I will say this though : there was an interesting network of hip scenes around the country, especially round colleges : UC Berkeley, University of Texas, University of Michigan, Oberlin, Antioch, places like that where it was ripe and fertile ground for that sort of thing to take root and start growing.

CM : In which period ?

TC : Oh, ’55 to ’65.

CM : Right through the beat thing.

TC : Yeah. They might have even been the connecting cartilage between the beat thing and the hip thing.

CM : The colleges.

TC : Yeah. That’s where all the intellectuals, all the students went. Think of it. Where did you go when you first filled in the blanks ? It’s usually between the ages of 16 and 20, and where are kids at those ages ?

CM : It was a rite of passage.

TC : Yeah, or either that or it was just coincidental. You can never tell. It might not make any difference.

CM : Do you think that the Charlatans were the first psychedelic band as many people say ?

TC : I don’t know. Maybe. Sure. First of all, I don’t know how that you would judge such a thing. Were they the first band to give a show and be called that, or the first band to ultimately become psychedelic to ever perform. What date to you hang onto ? It’s a little too vague for me to imagine. I think it was a movement. I don’t know if anyone can really claim to be first in that and I don’t even know if it matters who was first, especially since it was so much of a social movement. I don’t think it would have been able to take off to the degree that it did, if there wasn’t a scene with a bunch of different bands playing. Not that there was any musical movement where there was just one person. Even Franz Liszt : there were other pianists at the time. Or even Beethoven.

CM : Maybe we don’t remember too much about who they were.

TC : Sometimes we do remember. Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann. He wasn’t there alone. And of course, there were the Hertz and the Gertz and the Mertz that we don’t remember as well, who were pretty good too.

comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006