It’s been 40 years since the Summer of Love. From Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, from the Grateful Dead’s emergence as the first band worthy of cross-country tag-alongs to Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassady driving Ken Kesey and his LSD-gobbling Pranksters around on a bus, the echoes of California in the late ’60s are still sounding around the country today.
When Jerry Garcia got his pedal steel guitar, he needed a band with a little more twang than the Dead to play it with. He recruited songwriter John Dawson and guitarist David Nelson as the core of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, bringing them along on tour and opening up Dead shows with his country act. About the time of the legendary Festival Express train trip across Canada, Jerry was feeling spread thin by his dual obligations. A steel player named Buddy Cage was on the train playing with Ian & Sylvia. When he sat down to jam, Garcia was floored, and Cage soon gained the honor of being the only person to ever effectively “replace” Jerry Garcia in a band.
Forty years and four million albums later, the New Riders have regathered. A few former members have passed away, and John Dawson remains at home in Mexico with health issues, but he’s given his blessing to Nelson and Cage to carry the torch of his songs. NRPS now includes friends from Hot Tuna and Stir Fried, Michael Falzarano (guitar), Ronnie Penque (bass), and Johnny Markowski (drums).
City Paper talked with Buddy Cage last week from the East Village apartment he shares with his wife in New York City. The hour-long chat had Cage talking about the aftermath of the Grateful Dead, playing with Rick James, the Sirius Radio show that he hosts, and the renaissance (don’t call it a reunion) of NRPS.
CITY PAPER: Your radio show has helped introduce my generation to your music. When I told my buddy I was interviewing Buddy Cage, he asked, “The guy from Sirius?”
Buddy Cage: I never think of myself like that. I was at this World Hunger Year dinner last night with Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and the Harry Chapin family, and everyone’s looking for “the guy from Sirius.” I guess that would be me.
CP: After reading Phil Lesh’s book, Searching for the Sound, I’m curious about your take on the scene since Jerry’s passing.
BC: When Garcia went through all the heavier doping, the forgetting, the nodding out, the jonesing, a lot of people got really tired of it, and that no longer represented a good show. Jerry’s basic thing was, “It’s all about playing for people, and you can’t burn the people,” and it was always up-front honesty and caring. We came in under that same umbrella. The last thing I ever want to do is rip off a Deadhead or New Rider freak, because I respect them too much to have them put up with less. Right before he died, people were going away in droves and picking up with whatever else seemed new and fresh and exciting. And so you get Phish coming down from Vermont and jumping on trampolines. And then ecstasy came in. It was the new LSD. I don’t have any jealousy toward Phish, I just don’t get it. It’s pretty meaningless. I think of the music of Bob Dylan and the Dead that I care about so much, spiritually and philosophically. It’s okay to have clever lyrics, but can you really pass something off that’s going to sound as remotely convincing as Dylan singing, “Power is a rich man’s son?” Fuck! Who else can come up with metaphors like that? It’s unbelievable.
CP: Are the New Riders still writing music?
BC: I just came up with this melody about a month ago, after Robert Hunter [Garcia’s lyricist] e-mailed me and said “I’m bored.” Hunter is a triple Cancer — that’s emotion, emotion, emotion — when he puts it out publicly that he’s bored, I lose sleep.
CP: I noticed Rick James on your laundry list of folks you’ve jammed with.
BC: Yeah! We were in Sausalito recording an album, and this Coke machine had Coors beer for a quarter. I was going out for a break and Rick James came in. Imagine the full picture of Rick at the time with the Egyptian pharaoh hair and the whole deal. He asked me to play on his album, so we moved the pedal steel into the control room and did it in one take. The bass player’s going, “What is this country-western instrument?” and Rick turns around and goes, “Oh, not hardly.” But he was so funny. He had all these hairdressers and chicks on the road with him. What a scene.
MP3 – Cage talks about the Festival Express trip and hearing the Grateful Dead for the first time
MP3 – Cage talks about getting the New Riders back together. Don’t call it a reunion.
MP3 – How Cage ended up playing on a Rick James album