Who’s Got My Extra: Dan Healy

June 12, 2007

Today in our continuing Jerry Garcia storytelling saga, we keep on truckin' (have we really not made that joke yet?) with extended riffing from Dan Healy, who handled the Grateful Dead's sound—both live and in the studio—from 1966 until 1994, a year before Jerry Garcia's death.

In 1966, right when the Warlocks changed to the Grateful Dead, they decided to change a lot about how they were approaching their music. I was working in a recording studio called Commercial Recorders in San Francisco. I lived over in Marin on a houseboat and on the houseboat next to me were the Quicksilver Messenger Service. They were playing at the original Fillmore and the opening band was the Grateful Dead. One of the pieces of equipment broke during the Grateful Dead’s set, I think it was Phil [Lesh]’s bass amp, and so it was one of those “is there a doctor in the house?” kind of things. So I go up on stage and fuck around with the equipment a little bit and somehow it got working. At the end of the set Jerry came up to me and introduced himself and thanked me for lending a hand. I made some comment about the sound and he immediately challenged me to get involved. I began going to their rehearsal sessions and I began to innovate some simple equipment ideas and just kind of teach them some ways of doing things. Several weeks later there was another gig at the old Fillmore. Somebody gave me a bunch of pot and I sold it and I went to two of the sound rental agencies in the Bay Area and I rented all the stuff I could get. At that time the Fillmore was operated by the Fillmore Corporation and it was basically an old lady in an office. I conned her into letting me go in a day or two early. I turned it into this monstrosity soundsystem and the Grateful Dead played and it was a smashing success. It was the level of the music and the sound and the electronics all becoming integrated into one concept. In order for this music to really grow it needed to have the involvement of all the facets.

Jerry and I made a great many of the Grateful Dead records. The rest of the band played the tracks, but when it came right down to assembling it all and mixing it down and doing a lot of the preparations and arranging how things were going to be recorded and stuff, that was Jerry and me. I spent tens of thousands of hours in the studio with him. So my connection with him was working largely in the studio just the two of us in addition to the gigs. We invented a lot of sounds and a lot of things in the studio over the years. Nothing that the Grateful Dead played through was factory off-the-shelf stuff. It was either completely made from scratch or seriously modified. Nowadays a lot of stuff that I designed for the Grateful Dead that was just a means to an end are standard procedure and accepted equipment within the industry. I invented the Countryman Direct Box. I’m the guy that commissioned Carl Countryman to do it, because of the nature of how it reproduced the sound of a bass. The methodology prior to that caused a bass guitar to not have really good pure low frequencies, I came up with an idea that solved that situation. Now, to this day, every studio in the world that’s anything has a Countryman Direct Box in it. And the talking desert for Blues for Allah…that later became the vocoder.

The Grateful Dead really would stand up for new ideas and had the guts to back the plays of people like me who were trying to be frontiers people within the industry. It used to be the sound mixing equipment was to the side of the stage, well you can’t be on the side of the stage and hear what’s going on in the audience. So I decided I want to be out in the audience. Not only do I want to be out in the audience, I need to be right out in the middle of the audience. Those are, from a promoter’s point of view, prime money making seats. I’ve had promoters threaten to have my arms and legs broken to offering me condos on the French Riviera if I would just stop being ridiculous and go back to mixing on the side of the stage. The reason I was able to pull it off—because it was the right idea and now everybody does it—was that Jerry Garcia said, “If Healy doesn’t get to mix where he wants to, then I ain’t playin.”

Jerry should have been a movie director. He was a good guitar player, and a fair to middling musician that for some reason became adopted by the audience, but there were things behind the scenes that he was even better at. He was an enabler of creative talent. I think he really believed in me and I can tell you that I really believed in him. The last six years or so, Jerry became such a hopeless junkie. He got eaten up by the scene. He didn’t really want fame. The drugs became a method of escape. I had to stand there and mix and watch him every night on stage. I would be in tears at the end of the gig, watching this once great man slowly decay. I just got to where I couldn’t do it anymore. I dropped out. It still upsets me.

Posted: June 12, 2007
Who’s Got My Extra: Dan Healy