You see those guys with the hair and teeth? That was us in 1967,” says Mickey Hart, pointing to a photo of The Grateful Dead hanging on the wall of his studio foyer. “That’s where all this started.”
It’s late July at Hart’s Sebastapol ranch, a lush retreat tucked into the winding evergreen back roads of prime Northern California wine country, complete with a “swimmin’ hole” pond in the front yard and a converted barn bigger than the main house where Hart keeps a full professional studio. It was here where, minutes earlier, the latest incarnation of the touring jam/trance project known as Rhythm Devils just wrapped up day five of rehearsals.
Rhythm Devils serves partly as an homage to Hart and drum-buddy Bill Kreutzmann’s Grateful Dead glory days (Jerry Garcia christened the pair with the name many years ago), but mostly as a reminder to aspiring musicians everywhere that, if you play your cards right, you too can spend your retirement years blissfully jamming on your old reworked classics for a sea of worshipful fans, surrounded by eager virtuoso musicians half your age. And if you’re really lucky, you might even be as giddy about it as Hart and Kreutzmann obviously are.
“I was having the most fun in rehearsal today listening to him,” Kreutzmann says, beaming across the desk at Hart in the cozy upstairs office where we conduct the interview, the walls of which are adorned with abstract psychedelic digital prints of a distinctly Dead vintage. “We’re tight as mothers, you know? We’re so tight. Damn, I love this!”
If any two musicians can appreciate the band-marriage metaphor, it’s these guys, who have been at each other’s side, with little interruption, since that picture on the wall downstairs was taken more than 40 years ago. Yet right now, still buzzing with the energy of the lastest jam session, you’d think they were still in the honeymoon phase.
Having bourne a lifetime of trials both inside and outside the public eye, this dynamic duo still crackles with fresh enthusiasm. A long strange trip indeed, but one that seems fused in that ultimate hippie cliché: honest-to-goodness brotherly love. “As much as this Rhythm Devil thing is all about anything,” says Hart, “it’s about me and Bill, and our relationship, and how it’s evolved over the years.”
Like any good relationship, theirs had an auspicious start. They met at a Count Basie concert in San Francisco in 1967, and hit it off immediately. Hart recalls them “playing the streets” of San Francisco with a couple of pairs of sticks borrowed from Basie drummer Sonny Payne, on their way to watch Janice Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company shred a tiny club called The Matrix on Divisidero Street.
Kreutzmann remembers it slightly differently.
“Michael Hinton was there. Michael Hinton and Mickey are, like, extraordinary rudimental drummers. They actually won the national rudimental competition one year, which is no easy feat, and so I was introduced to both of them. I was watching Count Basie, and I went outside. I didn’t play. Mickey and Mike did, and blew my mind. Like, God, I don’t know all that stuff. So Mickey was kind enough to be the best drum teacher I ever had, and showed me all the rudiments, and gave me really good instruction, stuff that I use every minute.”
It wasn’t long before Hart began sitting in with the Grateful Dead, by then a two-year-old outfit already well regarded in San Francisco’s booming psychedelic rock scene. “We had this natural entrainment,” Hart remembers, “where we could lock up and sync up. We stalked it. We hunted it, the groove, and we didn’t really talk much about it, but we used to work on it a lot.”
“We did,” Kreutzmann agrees. “In the early days we practiced and practiced and practiced. Hey, Mickey, you remember the thing we would do? ...”
“… One arm?” Hart interjects.
“You knew where I was going with that. See, we finish each other’s sentences,” Kreutzmann laughs. “So, Mickey would play a rudiment, and he would play the right arm and I would play the left. And you had to make it work.”
“And we’d put our arms around each other to make it sync,” says Hart. “That was another lesson of entrainment, rather than just drumming. Do you understand what the laws of entrainment are? About being in sync, being in the moment, being in time? If any two objects vibrate and are in proximity, eventually they will sync.