Phil Lesh plays “Martian Tennis”

I was given a free month of audible, the Amazon audio-book service, recently and of course I forgot to cancel it before the free part was over. I’m a huge podcast fan (#millenialAF) and I’ve recently enjoyed a few longer form listens ala audiobook. I’m currently quitting all things Amazon but I figured I’d at least use the 5 or so credits I had before I would cancel my subscription. I browsed the “stacks” for a while and finally found a couple of music bios as well as some other things that looked interesting. One of them was Searching For the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by bassist, Phil Lesh. I had a super long haul drive that day Nashville—> Philly that day and found myself alternating between Phil’s bio and and something I thought would be completely different, a social-psychological work called Range, Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. As the drive went on and on and I kept switching between the two they started to reveal themselves in one another. 

I have always been a fan of the Grateful Dead’s recorded work (American Beauty, Workingmans Dead were my first exposures). I was a huge jam band fan as a teenager but never connected with The Dead’s vast live recorded archives. I felt disconnected growing up in the 90s and felt it was hard to fully be into a band that “wasn’t around anymore”. I knew was that their leader Jerry Garcia died when I was in Kindergarten so I’d thought pretty much missed it completely. I was much more into bands who I could go and see live like Phish, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee and Moe. Recordings of the Dead never really hit me like any live show I’d been to and how could they? In college I had friends that would share wild stories of the band, some about the music and some about the scene. The band’s following, The “Dead Heads” are legendary in their fervor and commitment to seeing, taping, and sharing shows ( heres any show you’d ever want —> ) There’s all kinds of stories that come along with the Dead and their music and the more I learned about the band, the more I came to appreciate their impact on modern music. 

What finally pushed me into becoming a true fan of the music was learning how The Grateful Dead intentionally created conditions for an entirely new music concert experience; one that’s key was to share a collective energy with their fans, and dedication to never playing the same song the same way, ever. It relied on a collective consciousness between the musicians themselves and the band and the audience. No one knew exactly what was going to happen but that unknown was how their creativity was born, live on stage every night. It’s what kept it interesting. It wasn’t the first instance of this kind of approach to music (ie Jazz) but it was done on a scale never before seen.  

Phil Lesh’s approach on the bass is basically a microcosm of the Dead’s approach. His book starts from the very beginning of his life and almost exclusively relates him to music. He came from a family of music lovers, lucky for him. He started on the violin in the third grade learning play “off the page” from a public school music teacher. His parents invested in his musical interests as well, a huge privilege and advantage for Phil. In middle school, he was good enough to make it into the county orchestra where he first became interested in playing the trumpet. Again, his parents supported him and he quickly became proficient on this new instrument. Advancing quickly, he sought out musical theory classes but there were none at his high school. He discovered he could take theory and composition at the adjacent district’s high school but he would have to transfer to take them. Amazingly, his parents were willing to move to a new house so that Phil could continue his studies. The school also had a “dance” band that played Jazz and Phil tried out on the trumpet. During the audition he came to a spot on the page marked “Ad Lib” and asked what it meant. “What’s Ad Lib?” he asked to his peers’ amusement. “My life and idea of music had changed forever. Play something that’s not written, something that’s never been played before. Yow!”

Phil in High School

After floundering a bit he ended up at Jr college in San Mateo to continue his music studies in composition and play in the jazz band. To help pay the bills, he took a part-time job at the college library. He had to audition records for scratches and pops so they would know any damage incurred while the records were lent out. “Talk about a kid in a candy store! I couldn’t wait to get to work every day to see what new stuff I could treat myself to. In this way I was able to hear the widest possible range of music, from folk to bebop to the symphonies of Mahler, without having to buy the records which I couldn’t have afforded in any case.” He attended college in the late 50s with Jazz still a huge force in music but also just as the counterculture was sowing its seeds and the folk revival was just taking off. He met Jerry Garcia, who was big into the folk revival, at a house party one night and was introduced. Phil recounts “Hey Phil this is Jerry – he’s a musician too. I responded with some snotty comeback like “Yeah well I play jazz man” but Jerry just said something like “Cool! You gotta meet Lester and Jackson (other Jazz players he knew at the party)  – even then, [Jerry] was about furthering the music.”

Check out Phil playing in the San Mateo Big Band!

 He goes on to recount the cross-fertilization of the Jazz world and the folk/ blues world in that Palo Alto . He also volunteered at KFPA which “cast their net far and wide for the most unusual and striking recordings of everything from ethnic to avant-garde…” He was certainly casting a wide musical net for himself and discovering so much. Despite a broad range of experience he never really settled into what “his thing should be”. In the early 60s, post-college, he continued to compose avant-garde music and take in the varied musical scene in Northern California. He composed music (with Steve Reich!) for a a Mime Troupe- “ a bunch of actors and far-left theorists dedicated to provocateur street theater.” They flipped theatre on its head by doing “improvisational pieces that combined music, improvised dance / movement / lights to “manifest a collective conscious. It was a prototype for the now famous “Acid Tests” that would happen later in the 60s. This was all at the same time as pop music was undergoing massive changes. The Beatles were blowing everyone top and the Stones were developing an edgier rock and roll sound.

Phil’s composition with the SF Mime Troupe

Despite all this, Phil describes an intense loneliness and longing for his own way forward in music. He stayed in touch with Jerry’s musical projects and went to see his band the Warlocks play one night and it was one of the first times he’d heard Jerry play electric guitar. The band was dabbling in a kind of a new sound, something like a “jug band, but electrified”. In between sets Jerry told them they needed a new bass player ( “We gotta tell this guy what string to play!”) and asked if Phil would give it a go.

The Warlocks in 1965. Phil, Bobby, Bill, Jerry and Pigpen

 “At first I didn’t know how to respond – this was sorta out of the blue… having been at loose ends for so long, I was tremendously excited, as I’d been waiting subconsciously for some opportunity to get back into music on any level at all. Besides, I knew I could learn the instrument and even play it differently than I had so far heard it played ( Something I instinctively knew had to happen, even Jerry’s unique approach to music.).” He took Jerry up on it under the condition that he get one lesson. Jerry told him to swing by after the show. It went something like this: “See this guitar, man? The bottom four strings are tuned the same, so borrow a guitar from somebody and practice scales on it until you can get down here and we’ll start rehearsing”….it was almost as if he didn’t want to influence the way that I approached the instrument, so I could come to it with only my own preconceptions as baggage. It’s sobering to contemplate the many events and encounters that lead to such a pivotal moment in one’s life. Singly, they seem almost random, and they could have resolved differently. Seen as a sequence, the can evoke the indifferent majesty of predestination. I didn’t know or care if this trip would last more than a week – I was going to give it all I had while it lasted.

After a few hours of driving and listening to Phil, I switched over to Range. David Epstein is a journalist and investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated but also has a degree in Environmental Science (he’s a generalist!) and his wide background shines through in the text. I was drawn to this book maybe because I have been trying to broaden my ideas of playing music for a living in the last year, mostly trying to expand my possibilities both within music and outside of it. I recognized that have been working in a fairly specialized lane (playing bass in folk/americana/ rock music) for a while and I thought maybe this would prove thought provoking.


Epstein gets right to the point in his introduction: Roger vs. Tiger. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are both masters of their respective sports but how they got there is quite different. Tiger for one was brought up from day one by his father to be a golfer “Because [Tiger’s] father couldn’t yet talk with his son, he drew pictures to show the boy how to place his hands on the club.” He won his first tournament at age 2! His father was certain that he would be a “Chosen One” in golf and even would prep him on how to curtly answer questions from reporters! Tiger focused exclusively on golf and as most know became a master of master at his sport. Rodger Federer on the other hand walked a much more winding road to his legendary status. “His mom was a coach but she never coached him… As a boy played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in Skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis, badminton, and soccer at school. He found that the sport didn’t matter much as long as it included a ball.” It wasn’t until later in his adolescence that he gave up other sports to focus on tennis and even then he wouldn’t allow the coaches to move him up with older players because he wanted to play with his friends. None of this proved to be a disadvantage to him in the long run as he was still #1 in the world well into his mid-thirties, a time when most tennis pros have already retired. 

Left: Young Tiger Woods as a very young specialist, Right: Federer pictured with Rugby ball

Woods’ path to mastery is a common one, hyper-specialize, start early, practice intensely. Basically the earlier you get to 10,000 hours the faster one reaches an elite level which gives them a foot up on their peers and lands them further on their way to success. Federer’s path as a late specializer is less lauded but Epstein argues, more common than Woods’ and there is plenty of research to back it up. “In 2014 a team of German Scientists published a study showing that members of their national [Soccer] team, which had just won the World Cup, were typically late specializers who didn’t play more organized soccer than amateur league players until age 22 or later.” He goes on into many many sports examples of late specializers including Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Vasyl Lomacheko (who won world titles in boxing in three weight classes), and many others. So this just means that there’s plenty of ways to get there, right? What’s the point? The key difference and the key to Epstein’s larger point lies in the qualities of each respective sport. 

To explain this, he references a study by a psychologist named Gary Klein and his colleague Daniel Kahneman. Their central question is “Do specialists get better with experience, or not? Whether or not experience led to expertise was dependent on the domain in question. Klein studied what is known as “kind” learning environments which feature “patterns repeating over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In Golf or Chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly.” Golf is a prime example of this: one can drive a ball then see how it goes and make adjustments and repeat. “The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better. Kahnman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments, “Wicked” learning environments. In these, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may be no repeating patterns and feedback is often delayed. “Compared to golf, a sport like Tennis is much more dynamic, with players adjusting to opponents every second, to surfaces, and sometimes their own teammates. But tennis is still very much on the “kind” end of the spectrum compared to, say, a hospital emergency room, where doctors and nurses do not automatically happens to a patient after their encounter… They have to find ways to learn beyond practice, and to assimilate lessons that might even contradict their own direct experience. The world is not golf, and most of it isn’t even Tennis…. Much of the world is “Martian Tennis” You can see the players on the court with balls and rackets but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you derive them, and they are subject to change without notice. “

Maybe it was “Martian Tennis” that got me thinking about the Grateful Dead and Phil Lesh again (Mars Hotel??) but it seemed to fit his musical journey to the bass so well. Applying this to musical isn’t an exact fit but there are some very real parallels in my opinion. My mind goes to the differences in classical music “off the page” to jazz being improvised. Classical music is much more like golf, a “kind” learning environment where the player has a set of “boundaries” to execute. Jazz (or really any improvised music) is much more like Tennis, a “wicked” learning environment, where players are constantly adjusting to one another and reacting and changing to fit in with one another. They both require sometimes extreme levels technical ability but if you think about it through these lenses, the two seem like two completely different “sports” of music. 

Phil is definitely more of a Federer-type, experimenting with different instruments early on, excelling but never narrowing himself to a single musical outlet. He gained experience analyzing music on a theoretical level and composing avante-garde music (…. rules of the game were unclear…). He immersed himself in all kinds of music working at the college library and at KFPA. He saw all kinds of music in Palo Alto. What’s really amazing to me is Jerry’s trust in this experience. I’m sure that he was conscious of Phil’s many musical perspectives when he asked him to play bass. Phil’s lack of knowledge of the bass was seemingly barely even a thought for Jerry. Instead, he was relying on a creative energy that saw Phil had. Phil was willing to pick up the bass and learn to play through “wicked” ways of the Dead’s sometimes lengthy improvised sections. As Phil’s playing developed and he gained more and more experience trying things and learning what works, I believe it allowed him to develop his unique style. Of course the rest of the band was doing a similar thing individually and the more they played together, the more they learned and the further they could take it.

Phil’s telling of his journey to the bass shined a light on some of the conditions and influences that he absorbed to create such a unique, completely original style. In light of Epstein’s observations about learning it made so much sense how his unique voice on stage came to be. He may not be everyone’s favorite bassist but one cannot deny that he has his own sound and approach. In the past couple years I have come around to it completely. His choices playing rhythmically while at the same time maintaining a melodically interesting line is so different than anyone else I’ve heard, certainly that came before him. More than that I’m always engaged listening to how Phil is playing in context of the band. It’s clear he’s tapping into the micro and macro levels of twisting and turning, pushing and pulling, winding it up and then letting it go again. As a musician, it reminds me that every opportunity to play with others is one not to be taken lightly! Each one is a unique opportunity to become better at playing with others and to develop listening skills. The harder the better as well. It may feel terrible in the moment, but if I took anything away from Range it’s the fact that trying to find solutions to problems with many variables is how we better learn. 

5/08/77 Live @ Barton Hall is widely regarded as a favorite show among Dead Heads

Phil Lesh is certainly a strong example of someone who struggled to find himself at first but remained open-minded and eventually took advantage of an opportunity in something he had never considered. The struggle turned out to be well worth it. He would go on to create a completely fresh approach to the bass. Like Phil, we are much more equipped to make creative solutions in our “wicked” world when we immerse ourselves in as many unique experiences and information as possible. After taking it all in, I am moved to fully recommit to keeping my musical eyes and ears wide open. When I shun this or that in music, I’m uselessly closing myself to possibilities perhaps I’ve never considered before. I recommend both of these reads to anyone who finds themselves struggling with a way forward. Over the past decades our society has increasingly become geared toward paths to hyper specialized jobs and careers but these paths can be limiting and inhibiting to creativity. It may not be the most celebrated or direct way forward but to experiment and try new things is in fact how smart people find new ways forward and revolutionize. We could all use a bit more of that right now.

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