Tom Constanten is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keyboard player who was a member of the Grateful Dead from 1968 to 1970. After having limited success on the violin in his youth, Tom decided the piano was a better fit for him. He is classically trained and studied with world class instructors such as: Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. It was with Berio at Mills College in San Francisco where Tom shared the class with Phil Lesh, who would become a core member and bassist of the Grateful Dead. During this period in the mid- 60's, there was a lot of experimenting going on in the developing "minimal" music genre - and Tom was in the thick of it. With the 60's being a turbulent time with hostilities overseas, Tom enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a computer programmer. When he had leave from the Air Force, Tom would join up with his friend Phil Lesh for sessions with the "Dead". Immediately after his release from military service he joined the band. In his tenure with the Grateful Dead, he appeared on the seminal albums "Anthem of the Sun", "Aoxomoxoa", "Live/Dead" and classic live performances at The Fillmore East and Woodstock. After his time with the Grateful Dead, Tom went on to a successful solo career and collaborated with artists such as Jefferson Starship, Jorma Kaukonen, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, The Flying Burrito Brothers and many others. He also has worked at Harvard, Mills College and SUNY Buffalo. I recently interviewed Tom.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career up to this point. You've been associated with a lot of trendsetting music. How did you get involved with the piano and keyboards? Did you come from a musical family?
T.C. - My mother played the violin. She was good enough to be accepted as a student by Albert Spalding. From the few times I heard her play, I knew she was on to something special. I heard about her trying out for Phil Spitalny’s orchestra. I tried out the violin myself. I even got to be third chair in the First Violin section of the All School String Orchestra in 1959. But it didn’t take. I never got the hold it up with your chin thing, and bowing remained a mystery. So I fell back on piano. It seemed clear and logical by comparison. And there was even more literature! The path seemed so well marked.
T.C. - On the face of it, you’d think that living in Las Vegas in the 1950s would have been a mindblowing experience. But I’d moved there from the NYC area, and so to me it represented a big comedown. No more F. A. O. Schwarz, Hayden Planetarium, Giant games at the Polo Grounds. When we pulled into Las Vegas in September 1954 the population was 50,000. There was one television station - KLAS, Channel 8, “with studios on Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn.” Phone numbers ran to four digits. Ours was 4964. Mainstays of the Strip of that time are now long gone. El Rancho Vegas. The Thunderbird Hotel. The Hacienda. The Last Frontier Hotel. And the adjacent Last Frontier Village, an amusement area cast as a town in the Old West. Much fun for a preteen like me! What fascinated me as a kid was exploring the desert. In 1957 we moved into a house northwest of town, and between our back door and the surrounding mountains was nothing but sagebrush and cactus. I wandered out there often. There’s a primal comfort to be found in the desert. Being into astronomy, I could reckon direction from the stars, so there was never any worry about getting lost.
R.V.B. - The 60's had a lot to offer musically, from teen idol pop, Doo Wop, experimental music, bubble gum, of course The Beatles. Is there any event that made you go the electronic route and experiment with the avant garde? What were some of your early accomplishments as a composer?
T.C. - I saw a magazine article about 1957 or 1958 about the newer music in Europe. There was an example with excerpts from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI. I went to the piano, and tried it out, and thought, “Wow! That’s for me!” Soon thereafter, a record appeared with Stockhausen’s Zeitmaße and Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître. By 1963, I was in Darmstadt, studying with them, even having a composition of mine for two pianos performed in their concert series.
R.V.B. - In your musical studies, you've had some very important teachers such as: Berio, Pousseur, Stockhausen, Bouliz. How was your experiences with them and what influences may they have in your music?
T.C. - I met Luciano Berio when I was 17 years old. He was impressed enough by the compositions I showed him to arrange for me to cross the Atlantic and study with him, and also with Pousseur, Boulez, and Stockhausen. I was a bright kid, to be sure, but I was still a kid, and it was all so new to me. I think of Berio as a surrogate father figure, even if by happenstance. He turned me on to so many things. He was a master at orchestration, and freely shared his ideas about instrumental color, balance, and blending. But his interests were not only musical. I availed myself to his library, discovering books on phonology and descriptive linguistics. He even had an Italian translation of the I Ching! He also had Italian translations of Henry Miller novels. He introduced me to his friend, Luigi Rognoni, who had just translated Arnold Schönberg’s Harmonielehre into Italian. His humor always made me smile. One time in the Fall of 1962 he was preparing to drive us down the hill into Imperia to take care of some business, and he asked me what time it was. I looked at the clock on the steeple by the village plaza and said “ten minutes after twelve.” So on the drive down the mountain, he asked me again. I looked at my watch and said “ten minutes after twelve.” We exchanged a smile as he pointed out that it was what I said the last time he asked. So okay, he asserted, we’ll pass by the San Lorenzo al Mare railroad station, and we can see the clock there. And that’s what we did. Sure enough, the platform clock said 12:10. (“Quell heure est-il? Die Zeit steht still.” A fun moment from Stockhausen’s class.)
R.V.B. - Did the America's sci-fi fascination in the 50's and early 60's have anything to do with you studying astronomy in College? Was this field a consideration for you to eventually join the Air Force?
T.C. - No not at all. It took me a while to get into science fiction, even in the midst of those 1950s Bantam and Signet paperbacks that cost 50¢. And those were the pricey ones. The usual price was 35¢. Some were four for a dollar. Instead, I was into science fact. Willy Ley. Wernher von Braun. Fred Hoyle. The real thing was amazing enough for me. It must have been around 1958 when I took out a subscription to “Weltraumfahrt,” a periodical all about “Raketentechnik” published by Umschau Verlag in Germany. Even so, I was more into pure astronomy. I had a modest size telescope, and looked at the Moon, the planets, and such nebulae as I could find. Over a couple of seasons I hunted up all the objects in the Messier catalog. And no, I enlisted in the USAF to avoid being drafted into the U. S. Army.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me about your quintet and working at the time with fellow composer Steve Reich? Did you have any dealings with - or were aware of Terry Riley's music?
T.C. - I had been corresponding with LaMonte Young since 1959, and when I told him I’d be going to U. C. Berkeley, he suggested I look up Terry Riley. A quick drive over the bridge to SF, and there he was, already a volcano of creativity. Steve Reich was a classmate in Luciano Berio’s class in 1962. He brought recordings of orchestral pieces he’d written while at Cornell. Twelve-tone style, but likeable, in its own way. I could say the same thing about Terry Riley’s early works. LaMonte Young’s own flamboyantly Boulezist “Study” won the Nicola di Lorenzo Prize for composition.
R.V.B. - I know you were friends with Phil Lesh in college. Can you tell me about your first few times making music with the Grateful Dead? Did this happen in a rehearsal studio? How did you approach this at first?
T.C. - As much as I’d been through already, the Grateful Dead experience was something totally new. So I regarded it with delight, as another new world to explore. There were two problems, though. For one thing, during my whole tenure with the band, I never had a keyboard at home to practice on. Me...a practice addict. Don’t get me started about my Chopin Etude binge. But mainly, I could never find myself in the onstage mix. You’d think I took piano lessons from Marcel Marceau. It wasn’t as if I was flying in the fog, but it was often IFR. I knew from the chart what chord to play, and how to find it on the keyboard. I just didn’t hear it often.
R.V.B. - Was the Air Force aware of your musical activities? Did they have any cutting edge software that you may not have had on the outside to experiment with? You would take a few days leave to work with the Grateful Dead - What was your first live gig with The Dead and how did it go?
T.C. - There was no overlap of Air Force and musical interests, except for a composition program I prepared on my own time. We were allowed time on the mainframe to sharpen my programming skills. At Nellis AFB we had an IBM 1401. I was there when, which much fanfare, the CPU was upgraded from 4k to 16k. “Software,” written and/or maintained by us programmers, was in machine language. Application oriented languages were relatively new. They sent me to IBM headquarters in LA to take a course in COBOL, but I never used it. In the Summer of 1965 Air Force programmers were trained at Sheppard AFB, Texas. On a UNIVAC 1050-II drum system. By the time I got out, the top of the line IBM System 360 had a 128k CPU. And all us programmers were wondering what we’d do with so much! My first appearance with the Grateful Dead came within 48 hours of my separation from the Air Force. I met them in Ohio, and joined them for the U. of O. show and the rest of the tour.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of with your contributions to the music of The Grateful Dead?
R.V.B. - How was your Woodstock experience?
T.C. - It was too enormous to wrap your mind around. I remember flying in on the helicopter along with Pigpen, looking down and seeing the hills all covered with people. It was Gotham without walls. It was not the best set for several groups, the Grateful Dead included. For one thing, they would set up the next band on a rotating stage while another band was playing, so they could turn the crank, and they’d be good to go right away. Except our equipment was so heavy that Ol’ Betsy wouldn’t turn. So they had to move all the amplifiers et al. into place the old fashioned way. And it was very muggy. Guitarists were getting shocks from their strings. And the stage was shaky, too, under all that weight. Twilight made onstage sightlines dicey, too.
R.V.B. - Did the intake of recreational activities help or hinder your music... or both?
T.C. - One thing I’ve learned over the years is that how well I play is vastly more important than how I feel at the time. If on a particular night I might be more playful for some reason or other, it’s enjoyable for me, but it’s still more important that it makes the show work better.
R.V.B. - Any favorite concert experiences?
R.V.B. - Post Grateful Dead - did you combine making music with basic career moves to earn a living for family life?
T.C. - It was something less than a “mix.” More like an emulsion. Hopefully keeping my distance from the TMI line, before the turn of the century I became subject to the wrong kind of attention from the Taxman. Their alarming allegations as to what I owed were ultimately dismissed in court, but in the meantime I became an unpaid law librarian, and found I could no longer keep up with the California merry-go-round. I’m still picking up the pieces. After my cardiac adventure of 2012, I’m figuring I have a handful of years left. I’m just focusing on making the best of that. In 2005 I started touring with Jefferson Starship. All along I’ve appeared with many of the old time throng, including Quicksilver, Big Brother, and Country Joe. I also play in a piano duo with Bob Bralove called Dose Hermanos. Improvisatory, adventurous, and we’ve been getting away with it for almost twenty years. The past couple of years I’ve been working with a string quartet, doing arrangements of songs from the 1960s. And the solo recitals keep lumbering along.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy sharing your musical knowledge that you have gained with students?
T.C. - The best sharing occurs onstage. No other time is a real. Ask a recording engineer. I’ve “taught,” though, since the 1970s, but that can turn out to be a mixed bag. Occasionally there’ll be someone who takes what you show them and runs with it. More often you just hope you can keep them from blundering needlessly. I could’ve used a teacher like that myself, occasionally. Worst of all you get kids who are only there because they’re being forced.
R.V.B. - Do you have any other hobbies today? What do you enjoy doing as far as other interests?
Thanks to concert tours, I’ve been able to visit Civil War battlefields from Gettysburg and Antietam to Shiloh and Fort Sumter. You can’t imagine what it was like when the action was going on, but when you’re there you can’t help but try anyway. On a less competitive note, my travels have enabled me to see all the MLB teams play at home. Over the years, though, some of them have moved into new ballparks, so I have five of those to go to catch up. There have been opportunities to check out museums, like the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, the Salvador Dali Museum in Florida, and the Met in NYC, on over to The Louvre and the British Museum. When I lived in Milan in 1963 my apartment was a fifteen minute walk from The Last Supper, which I visited often. By contrast I was struck by a Last Supper by Rubens I saw at the Seattle Art Museum that wasn’t so much a “team photo” as a captured moment of passionate dialogue. Then there’s the Renoir Girl with a Watering Can at the National Gallery that looks so sharp and focused from thirty feet away but as you approach it turns into a bunch of blotches on the wall. The Van Eyck panel at St. Bavon in Ghent that glows with a light that obviously isn’t neon. Delights to be found all over. How about the United terminal at Boston Logan, with this display with balls rolling, bouncing, and careening through a Rube Goldberg like installation. I almost missed a flight on account of it once! Almost.
R.V.B. - How you feel about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
T.C. - Recognition is nice, but it’s all about the music, the quest.
R.V.B. - Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently? Any do-over's?
R.C. - Not really. I gave what I had and I got what I got.
Interview Conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Tom Constanten visit his website. www.tomconstanten.com
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