Jackie Greene’s rock and roll résumé is no short list. He was a temporary guitarist of the Black Crowes, a later addition to Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh projects, and sang vocals for Tigger Hippy. Greene and his crew played a set of songs sampling from his latest record to covers dear to him at the Hi-Fi this past Thursday. PATTERN chatted with Greene about his ventures growing up in the blues to performing with some of the biggest rock legends before he went on stage.
Aubrey Smith: You decided that you wanted to be a musician in your early teenage years. What made you stand apart from the hundreds of thousands of other young hopefuls that you can attribute your success to?
Jackie Greene: That is a good question. I don’t know that I can answer that honestly or objectively because it’s me. I would like to think that people might have seen some sort of authenticity that maybe others were lacking in their acts, at least in Sacramento where I started playing. In my mind I kind of attribute it to a lot of hard work and playing all the time. There’s a saying that you shouldn’t oversaturate your market. I think that might be true in some cases. But in my case, I ended up playing every night of the week when I was 21. I actually met Joe at the Torch Club, which is this tiny place like the one we are playing tonight. I played acoustic everything Tuesday and Thursday nights 4 to 7 during happy hour. I might have made 40 bucks or something like that. Then I would go to another club called the Blue Lamp, which used to be a strip club, and would play with a band there. So I would be playing three or four nights a week, five or six hours a night. You know what I mean? At some point it caught on. I distinctly remember the first time we had a line around the block of the club. It was so exciting. So the idea that there are the music business know-it-alls with these attitudes and opinions saying you shouldn’t over-saturate your market may be true in some cases. But if you’re just starting out, I would say oversaturate your market, especially if it’s a small market. There’s no shame for learning your craft and working on your act. So that whole ten thousand hours thing is very real for this job.
AS: Compare your current influences with those you had when you were a teenager?
JG: Well some of them are very much the same. I think a lot of us are influenced by things at a time in our life when we’re very vulnerable or very receptive to it. I’m definitely more of a Dead Head now, love the Grateful Dead. Growing up, I wasn’t really hip to the Grateful Dead. I was more into Bob Dylan and Tom Wades. When I got into high school, I was into old blues, folk, and rock and roll music. And a lot of the Greatful Dead music is rooted in that place. So it makes a lot of sense; I just didn’t put those pieces together until I met Phil Lesh and started playing with Phil and Bob (Weir) and I knew the songs in a different form somehow. I get it. I can see the origin of this music.
AS: It was a smooth transition.
JG: It was a very smooth transition. So my sense of performance and how the music can be done has opened up in the recent years. I’ve kept a lot of those original influences with me. I think there are two kinds of people: there’s people who like music and people who say they like music. And if you really like music, then you’re not bound to some sort of a genre. You just like good music. If you like George Jones, you can also like Snoop Dogg, you know? You don’t have to just like country music. So that’s the way I view music. You either like music or you think you like music.
AS: In 2011, you said you may never release another record, but here we are today five years later.
JG: I said that?!
JG: Oh wow I don’t remember saying that.
AS: So what changed?
JG: I feel like a politician now. Hah. Well quite frankly it was time to make another record. I think no matter what I say in regards to making records, I’ll probably always make another record. I might not always put it out. That’s another discussion. I think at the time when I said that I might have felt upset or overwhelmed for some reason. It was just time to do it. You just have a bunch of songs brewing and you have to get them out. At the end of the day, it’s how I make a living. No matter where I’ve lived in the past decade, I always end up at the studio. I always tell myself it’s too much work. It’s a money pit. Because it really is. I live in Brooklyn now, and inevitably I hate a studio.
AS: Can you share one of your most notable memories you’ve had with Lesh?
JG: Some of the fondest memories are actually the little things. We just did a pair of gigs in Coney Island. It was very different; we had a horn section for Phil and Friends. Looking over and seeing this “Phil smile” that kind of creeps up on his face when he likes something. I look over at him, and he’s having a good time. He’s a 75-year-old man, and that dude is still up here rocking. I have great respect for that. I can tell that he’s jazzed about something. On a personal level, he’s such a beautiful guy. Such a generous guy. I remember when the iPhone first came out. He was like, “Jackie have you heard of this new thing called the iPhone?” I was like, “No what is it?” He said, “Let me get you one.” So he got me an iPhone. Hah. Such a generous human being. Bob is the same way. Their personalities are quite different but their spirits are the same.
AS: Did you find the Dead Heads or your unfamiliarity with the Grateful Dead’s music intimidating or did it push you even harder to excel as their newest addition?
JG: Well at first it was incredibly intimidating because when I went into it, I was 26-years-old. I had heard all these stories like “don’t read the message boards. It will tear you apart.” These people can be horrible to you, and I was terrified about it. People would tell me not to set my drink down so I wouldn’t get dosed! It doesn’t happen, but people will say that it will. It was so scary. I distinctly remember one the first gigs we had was at the Berkeley Greek Theater, and I was freaking out. I was smoking cigarettes at the time. Phil gave me a couple of unopened packs of Jerry Garcia’s cigarettes from his old road case where he kept a bunch of personals for good luck. It was this thing where we would touch it to each other’s head before we went out. He took the time to chill me out. It calmed me down and I did my best. And again, maybe it’s that authenticity that people latch on to. I was genuinely moved by these songs, and I was genuinely doing them for the first time. The first time I sang Sugaree was at this huge venue. Phil told me he would like me to sing it, and I had never heard that song in my life. He said I will be fine. So I was like great. And he was right. It’s on the job training really. I think that’s about as fresh as you can possibly get. He’s pretty wise in that regard. He knows his way around the stage.
AS: You claim you’re not the type of musician that can fake it. What was does transparency mean to you?
JG: If you know me well enough, you’ll know it if I’m not having a good time on stage. In song writing, I have a hard time singing things that I’ve written that I don’t necessarily believe or at least feel on some sort of level. It doesn’t mean it’s not autobiographical or a true story. It just means there’s a truth embedded somewhere in the lyric that I believe. If that is true, then I am fully capable of singing the song and doing it justice. Which is why we choose our covers very carefully. I have a hard time singing something that I’m lukewarm about. I know people that can, and they’re great at it. They’re really great at singing a song that they couldn’t care less about. But I’m not. I’ve done it before, but it’s just uncomfortable. I feel like I’m full of sh*t, and I don’t like to feel that way.
AS: You seem to be very passionate about the underlying message of a song as opposed to “fancy” guitar tricks or solos, and I think that’s reflected in the production of your latest project. Is the idea of not overthinking it something you live by?
JG: There’s definitely a trap you can fall into now, particularly nowadays, where the recording process can be so swift and quite frankly cheap. I think you can easily fall into the trap of overcooking a song or production. Because you can try just about anything. One of the things that has always fascinated me is how they got records to sound so perfect in their imperfections. But also perfect in such a limited power to work with. I just think that translates to pure ingenuity and talent. Some painters can make any color just out of the primary colors. And some painters need to have every hue of every color on their palette. I tend to be the kind of painter that only needs the three colors. When I hear music that is made from nothing, it’s what gets me off. That’s the element of truth: there’s not a lot of trickery to it. If I fall into that trap, I don’t see myself getting out of it. There’s song where I keep adding more and it doesn’t necessarily make it better. Picasso famously said that a painting is never finished. Meaning you should just leave it the f*ck alone.
Some painters can make any color just out of the primary colors. And some painters need to have every hue of every color on their palette. I tend to be the kind of painter that only needs the three colors.