Tom Constanten is a musical legend. He served as the keyboardist for the Grateful Dead from 1968 to 1970. He is known for his classically-influenced playing. Tom recently wrote in to discuss meeting Phil Lesh, his compositional process and life on the road with the Grateful Dead.
What was your first musical memory? Did you come from a musical family? Were your parents musical?
My mother played the violin. Quite well, actually, but a skiing accident left her unable to play. It left her unfulfilled and frustrated, and might be a part of the reason she actively discouraged my interest in music. Growing up in the NYC area in the late 1940s was great for exposure to music, though. Arturo Toscanini was the NY Philharmonic conductor then, and I know of no one since who attained to such stature on the podium. From there we moved to Las Vegas in 1954, and so did a lot of NYC musicians!
Who are some of your favorite composers and why?
Claudio Monteverdi was always a favorite of mine. Aside from his melodic gift, and his pivotal position between the High Renaissance and Baroque eras, I like the way that in his part writing he gives everyone something interesting to do.
Gustav Mahler is high on my list, as well, for similar reasons. He can get so many things going at once, but rather than making the image muddled and obscure, they all contribute to the flow. Likewise the symphonies of Dvořák, which were on my listening list back then.
In my teens I got into the music of the Second Viennese School: Schönberg, Berg, and Webern, and their postwar heirs: Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio.
Of late I’ve come to appreciate the great pianist/composers more, experiencing their music through my hands as well as ears or mind. Rachmaninoff, Scriabin…I have works by Balakirev and Liszt in my current practice rotation. A few years back I went on a practice binge involving all the Chopin Etudes. Quite a merry chase!
How did you first meet Phil Lesh?
It was at Morrison Hall, the music building at U. C. Berkeley. We were there taking the placement exam for the music department, and fell into conversation during a break in the hall. We discovered we were like-minded on a variety of issues, and things went on naturally from there.
Do you remember your first time onstage with the Grateful Dead?
That would be in 1968, when they came to play at the Las Vegas Convention Center Rotunda. I was still in the Air Force, but they invited me onstage to join them, embarrassingly short hair and all. It was the same venue where I’d made my debut seven years earlier, backed by the Las Vegas “Pops” Orchestra. “Homey” might not be the best word to describe how it felt, but it’s the best I can come up with for the nonce.
What were the biggest challenges of touring with the Dead?
The usual vicissitudes of travel. The music is the easy part, I’ve often said. Some people get stage fright. Not me. I get stage calm. After the day’s hassles with flight connections, hotel reservations, and all, it’s when I’m finally seated in front of the keyboard that I feel most in control.
How did the recording process work on Anthem of the Sun?
Very chaotically. Many of our procedures were unprecedented. Partly because of the burgeoning technology, offering possibilities not available before, partly because of our adventurous nature. We were trying to recreate the excitement from a live show, something the first album didn’t accomplish. So we overcompensated. The result was nothing like a live show, but it did represent our musical thinking at the time.
It was exciting having eight tracks to work with, but what that meant is the balance of attention would shift from the actual recording process to post production.
How did you approach creating music with the Dead differently than your own compositions?
Not very different. It’s all fresh. It’s all new. There are some piano pieces I had to practice hundreds of times to appreciate their newness.
You played with the Dead at Woodstock. What did you enjoy most about that experience?
It wasn’t especially enjoyable. Not one of our best outings. The stage was shaky, no thanks to the weight of all our equipment, and the weather was sucky. There were electrical issues. Guitar strings shouldn’t give you a shock! That kind of aversion therapy wasn’t helpful.
They flew us in by helicopter just before we played, and we headed out right after. Our next show was at the Fillmore East, and we always had a good time there, so at least we had something to look forward to!
How has your approach to playing grown over the years?
As more of the puzzle pieces snap into place, you get a better idea of the picture. The learning process itself improves. If I’d had my current study habits in my teens, who knows what I might’ve amounted to!
How often do you find yourself composing music?
Very rarely. I usually lose myself composing music.
What are your hobbies outside of music?
Astronomy. Baseball. Languages. History.
Do you have a quote or motto that you live by?
Many. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance is a good place to start.
What advice would you give musicians just starting out?
Be fearless. In the face of the work in front of you, the hassles, setbacks, and inconveniences. Again – the music is the easy part. But it’s what’s most under your control. And when it works like it should, the music is the engine that drives the whole operation. The wind in the sails. Mix your own metaphor.