BETTER OFF DEADPHOENIX NATIVE VINCE WELNICK MAKES GOOD ON GRATEFUL EXPECTATIONS
Vince Welnick was never cut out to be a Deadhead. While the young "beautiful people" of the Sixties were hitching rides to San Francisco, wearing flowers in their hair, Vince was cruising Phoenix's Central Avenue with his older twin brothers, packing a tear-gas pistol in his belt. Sure, he had the same long hair as the Haight-Ashbury hippies. But Welnick never quite got the hang of cooing "Make love, not war" and flashing peace signs at the squares and rednecks who made fun of his long locks. You messed with Vinnie, and you got sprayed with a solution that'd make you pull your pickup to the side of the road and chip-seal the pavement with the remnants of your lunch.
Back then, more radical acts like the Mothers of Invention spoke to his tormented soul. Understandably, Welnick never took to the laid-back, folksy peacenik music of Frisco's Grateful Dead.
"I only saw them a couple of times," says Welnick from his home in Sonoma County, California, just north of San Francisco, where the Bourgade High dropout settled after achieving moderate success with the Phoenix-born Tubes in the late Seventies. "In fact, the last time I saw them was in the Sixties. Back when Pigpen [nee Ron McKernan, the band's original lead singer] was still alive."
It wasn't surprising, then, that when the 39-year-old studio pro had the opportunity this past summer to audition for the spot left open by the death of Brent Mydland, the Grateful Dead keyboardist who succumbed July 26 of an apparent drug overdose, Welnick was less than enthusiastic about the gig. "I kind of went in with the idea that I'd try out and see if they wanted to hire me, then I'd check them out and decide if I wanted to play with them." It wasn't until he met the affable Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the other brotherly bandmates that Welnick really became interested in becoming a Dead man. "Once I met Jerry and Bob and the other guys--and even the crew people, the people that worked for the band--I was sold," Welnick says. "They're very much a family, and that's something you don't find much in rock 'n' roll anymore."
Passing the audition for the band was one thing. But as Welnick sifted through hours and hours of live tapes, learning not only the Grateful Dead's extensive catalogue of songs, but also the unique ways the band continually reshapes its tunes in concert to fit the individual mood of each crowd, the keyboardist began to consider the other audition he would eventually have to pass. The one for the Deadheads, that intense fellowship of fans--among the most fervent and dedicated in rock--that ultimately casts the final vote on any new direction or collaboration the band tests out. (See related story on page 6.)
Would he play all the right chords but somehow, unknowingly, destroy the "vibe" that has become so essential to the Dead's shows? Would he spoil the magic that the keyboardist himself, as a newcomer to the scene, still had trouble dissecting?
"I started worrying about whether or not the fans were gonna like me," Welnick recalls. "Especially in lieu of the circumstances, you know. I knew everybody was missing the hell out of Brent, but there was nothing I could do about that. All I could do was try to make the best of the situation, and that was to try and get in the groove with these guys."
And keep a low profile. The first night Welnick took the stage with the band on its current U.S. tour, he says, "I was just hoping they wouldn't start throwing things at me."
But then, a few songs into the Dead's first set in Richfield, Ohio, Welnick spotted something a young man in the crowd was passing out to the other fans. "They looked like little miniature bumper stickers," Welnick remembers, "and on them it said, `Yo, Vinnie!' All of a sudden, everybody was holding up these `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers," he laughs. "And then the same thing happened when we got to Philadelphia--there were those `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers. And just between that and the audience's response when I started playing my first solo, I felt really good. There was even this big banner at one show: `Welcome, Brother Vince.'
"After that," Welnick adds with the heartfelt sincerity of a new in-law carving the Thanksgiving turkey, "I felt like I had really been accepted into the family."
WINNING OVER THE Deadheads is a concern that has weighed heavily on the mind of any musician who's ever played with or opened for the legendary Bay Area band.
"The Deadheads are an intense thing out there," says the band's longtime publicist Dennis McNally. "When they love you, it's just the most amazing thing. And when they don't like you, then obviously it can be pretty painful. I've never seen them not like somebody who played with the band, although I did watch them shut down Warren Zevon once, around twelve years ago in California when he was drunk and behaving very badly. But he was opening for the Grateful Dead, not playing with them.
"The `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers are more typical of the Deadheads' attitude towards the new guys," McNally continues. "That was terribly sweet, and completely from the audience. And indicative of their basically positive feelings toward anybody who plays in the band. Their attitude is, `If the band wants the guy, then he's okay with us.'"
But Welnick's predecessor apparently never felt entirely embraced by the group's audience. According to more than one member of the Dead organization, Brent Mydland harbored a lingering insecurity that the Deadheads never fully accepted him. "I get some flak from people in general," Mydland told the Grateful Dead fan magazine the Golden Road in the mid-Eighties. "There are people who like me and people who don't like the fact that I'm in the band."
"Well, his songs tended to be love songs and tended to be kind of down--you know, bluesy," offers McNally. (All of the band members have so far declined to comment on Mydland's death). "And I think there were times when people didn't particularly want to listen to down love songs. You know, that's not really the Grateful Dead's style. But in fact, Brent was a very warmly received guy. The feeling people had for him was the same as they had for the other band members. But hey, if you're gonna be insecure, then you're not always gonna hear that response, even if it's there."
The band's reluctance to talk about its fallen comrade and the swiftness with which he was replaced (the Dead was already playing Madison Square Garden just seven weeks after Mydland's death, with on-again, off-again sideman Bruce Hornsby) may owe to the way Mydland's OD dredges up the old Dead-equals-drugs image that the band has been trying desperately to live down. Citing the druggy atmosphere that frequently pervades any arena the Dead descends on, several major venues in the past year have begun banning performances by the band.
It's an action the Dead is particularly sensitive to, since most of the band's revenue--and inspiration--comes from the road. Indeed, while the band records infrequently and has only scored one Top 40 hit in its long history (1987's "Touch of Grey"), it remains something of a touring sensation, ranking as one of rock's top-grossing live acts. Mydland's overdosing on lethal injections of both cocaine and morphine came at a time when even the band itself had taken to distributing fliers at concerts urging Deadheads to just say no. It was, to say the least, bad timing.
But the opening came as a blessing for Vince Welnick, who was close to losing his ranch and in dire need of stable employment with a clean-and-sober outfit. "Everybody in the band's real healthy now," says Welnick, "and I was just real fortunate to come in at this time. I don't know what was going on prior to my joining them. All I know is that now, nobody's doing drugs."
There are some, of course, who believe the secret ingredient in all of the best Dead performances was licked off a tab of chemically treated paper, who view sending the Dead out onstage without any drugs as an artistic affront worse than sending Madonna in front of a video camera without her cleavage showing.
But Welnick insists the greatest Dead jams spring forth from alert, not altered, minds.
"When you play those kind of freeform freak-out songs and you never know what's coming up next, you tend to keep your eyes and ears open more," he says. "Players in bands that are working off strict set lists, they'll get in their own little corner and they'll baffle off the sound of the other instruments and they'll play their little bit parts night after night. When you play the kinds of sets that the Dead plays, where there's always such a spontaneous atmosphere, you have to hear and make contact with everybody, so nobody's ever off in their own little world, wanking off in the corner. It's more of a united feeling that you get, where everybody's really playing together and waiting for the next guy to step off in another zone, and lead us along."
These days, insists Welnick, just about the only times the band members get a little cloudy in the craniums is when they travel abroad. "We were all a little out of it on our first night in Stockholm [where the band warmed up before the U.S. tour]," he admits. "But that was only because everybody had major jet lag."
The Grateful Dead will perform at Compton Terrace on Saturday, December 8, and Sunday, December 9. Showtime is 1 p.m.
Would he play all the right chords but somehow, unknowingly, destroy the "vibe" that has become so essential to the Dead's shows?
There are some who believe the secret ingredient in all of the best Dead performances was licked off a tab of chemically treated paper.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.