Reflections on the Grateful Dead drummer’s Apocalypse Now era
As a freshman in college at the University of Maine in 1974, I got tripled up in a dorm room with a long-haired, acoustic guitar playing, Deadhead from New Jersey named Bruce.
We got along fine, but fought for control of the room’s competing stereos, and sometimes when Bruce got the upper hand it was a reel-to-reel roll of the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 triple live album, surely the damn dullest record known to man. Me, I’d pump Blue Oyster Cult’s Secret Treaties, which is not that.
On the upside, Europe ’72 worked as a late-night sedative. That and pot. For some reason that escapes me, I saw the Dead at an outdoor festival in Maine and it did nothing to change my mind, just making me think, “I do not belong here.” What I remember most is the hordes of big-ass scary Hells Angels – and they were everywhere, protecting the Dead or harassing the hippies I can’t say. (I did see a group forcibly tattoo some hapless kid.)
When punk rock kicked in a few years later, the Dead became the band on the other side of the divide. Well, maybe the Eagles, too.
But as a professional rock critic and feature writer – a developing one then, but now a grizzled veteran of 45-plus years – I had to grapple with the Dead and its various offshoots more than a few times. Subjectivity was part of the process, but so was fairness and accuracy. (That was a real thing, before FOX made a mockery of the phrase.)
In 1980, the Dead took on a slightly different shape in my world and for that I credit percussionist Mickey Hart who turns 80 on Sept. 11th.
This was my up-close and personal introduction: A dinner in August of that year at the Lenox Hotel’s London Pub in Boston. Yes, of course, it was transactional – promotion was the the raison d’etre – but the evening went swimmingly, in part owing to Hart’s lowball assessment of what he was ostensibly promoting. Not the quality of it, mind you, but its commercial potential.
He knew he didn’t have a hit on his hands and it didn’t concern him in the least.
“You must realize this is not a commercial thing,” he said, “It gets no airplay, it doesn’t fit, it’s not trendy, it’s not in style. It’s ugly, but it has beauty in its ugliness, its primitiveness.”
VIDEO: Film clip from Apocalypse Now
Hart, 36 at the time, was discussing The Apocalypse Now Sessions – The Rhythm Devils Play River Music, a newly released album Hart recorded with fellow Grateful Dead members Billy Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh along with Airto Moriera, Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, singer Flora Purim and others.
Hart characterized it as a disturbing album – not the kind of record to sing along with or relax to. “People like to hear the hooks and verses,” he said, “and I can’t, in all honesty, do that. This stuff is beyond that; it needs understanding.”
The penetrating jungle rhythms created by Hart and his comrades are often haunting and jarring, not unlike, Hart said, the pulse of war as he perceived it from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie.
We all know the power sound has in a movie, particularly a war movie. And this one was A-level.
“The aural sensation of war was my primary concern,” Hart explained. “I mean, is war supposed to be likable? I intended to bring back the feeling of the war, and war is not played in melody and harmony. War is a rhythm – listen to the guns or the choppers or the motor of the boat. It’s so interlocked and overlapping.”
Hart, like other Grateful Dead members, liked to get involved with offshoot solo projects, noting that the Grateful Dead was never threatened but always nurtured by the them: “I get stronger and learn so much more.”
At the point we talked, the Grateful Dead was 15 years old, virtually an American institution already, well on its way to even more massive mainstream/cult success over the ensuing decades, with or without Jerry Garcia.
At some point, I mentioned to Hart my take on the Dead – see top of story – although I’m sure I toned it down for the sake of civility. He told he disliked most of the Dead’s records, mentioning the last two, Shakedown Street and Go to Heaven, were “not what I would call inspired at all.”
Hart took pride in the band’s concerts, four-hour experiments where the set list changed every night and the Dead ventured out on musical limbs. That, too, he thought, had a variable hit/miss ratio. “We depend on magic and we succeed a lot and we fail a lot,” he said. But, during the high points, “we can really move a lot of people to an emotional state where they grieve or they’re happy – we run the gamut and that’s success.”
Here’s how the connection with Coppola came about: In mid-1978, Coppola went to see a Grateful Dead concert at Winterland in San Francisco and during a point in the show called The Rhythm Devils – “That’s when me and Kreutzman explore, we go into the zone and try to find out who we are that night,” said Hart – he heard the sound he wanted for the already completed film. (The Rhythm Devils section of the show has long been renamed Drums / Space.)
Coppola went on stage and jammed with the Dead that night, an unannounced guest star.
“He was just this bearded guy, could have been a Hell’s Angel for all anybody else knew,” said Hart, laughing. “I handed him a simple percussion instrument and we started playing and he really got off.”
How did he do?
“He did just fine. He has rhythm – look at his movies.”
A week later, Coppola asked Hart to compose and play the percussive underscore to Apocalypse Now, to add the colorations and subtleties that would enhance the horror Coppola wanted to convey. The other soundtrack music – including synthesized music, an orchestral score, several ’60s songs — most notably the Doors “The End” — had already been selected.
Hart went to the studio screening room to see the film. “It really moved me,” he recalled.
“His image was so sharp. Francis made war stink. It’s awful. And he kept saying over and over that the sound was 50 percent of the movie. I thought it would be quite easy to put percussion music to it.”
Hart, who had been collecting and building percussion instruments for 10 years, realized he needed to gather even more instruments to fashion the sought-after primitive sound. Coppola gave him a checkbook and told him to build whatever was necessary. “He didn’t interfere artistically at all,” Hart said
Three months and “dozens” of glass, stone, metal and wood instruments later, Hart had what he needed. Some of the instruments were Hart’s invention; others were reconstructions of primitive instruments Hart said had been lost in time, that he read about in history books, found in museums or heard about through “the drummer mafia.”
The Rhythm Devils’ job was not just to play music to match the action.
“It was percussion,” Hart said. “We were playing to the Apocalypse Now’ vision, a musical interpretation of moods. We set up screens and performed the movie.”
Hart considers the opening sequence – scenes of flaming destruction on screen as The Doors’ nightmarish The End’ is played – as one of the most striking. What the Rhythm Devils did in that instance was to embellish the surreal mood. Hart used a bullroarer – a wooden slat on a cord that produces a roaring sound when whirled around one’s head – to make the sound of the helicopter blades more forceful.
VIDEO: Mickey Hart on the Apocalypse Now Sessions
Hart said the Devils’ 30-plus minutes of music on the album was culled from “quite a few” hours of jamming; some of the music made it into the film, some didn’t. He notes with a mixture of laughter and pride that Coppola told him, “You know, you’ve got more time on the screen continuously than Marlon Brando.”
Hart figured his primary market for the album this way: “I think drummers will buy it, jazz people will buy it, and Deadheads will buy it.”
Other than that, he’s gotten a good response from two other groups: Vietnam veterans and, uh, cats.
“When we played it on the radio in San Francisco, the Vietnam vets would call up and say, ‘Hey man, I was in Nam and now I’m back again. This is really beautiful. You got it.’
Hart’s response? “Gee, that’s great. That’s what I intended – to bring out emotions in people, to bring back that feeling of war.”
“Cats like it. I was on WNEW-FM in New York and we spun a little of it and somebody calls up and says when the music went on his two cats came in, stood next to the speakers, looked around and went crazy.”
Mickey Hart and the Rhythm Devils: Cool for cats.
And Bruce, my college room-mate? We became best of friends. He became a tech exec in the microchip world, retired a few years ago and lives outside Portland, Oregon with his wife. We don’t see each other often, but we talk and e-mail a lot and whenever we do we golf and dine, as men of a certain age do. Sometimes, the Dead comes up and Bruce chuckles, conceding maybe Europe ’72 wasn’t the be-all-to-end-all he thought it was in 1974.