The Tubes, Dead and Onward: An Interview with Vince Welnick
By Brian L. Knight
Vince Welnick has been playing keyboards is the San Francisco music area for quite some time now. He first moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s early 1970s with his band from Arizona. This band soon blossomed into The Tubes who shocked the musical world with their blend of political satire, social commentary and on stage sexual ambiguity. The Tubes then slowly moved from the fringe and ushered in the mainstream MTV era with their video hit "Shes a Beauty."
After the disbandment of the Tubes, Vince Welnick slipped away from the limelight with his only music contributions being with Todd Rundgren. In 1990, Vince Welnick arose from a musical hibernation when he was invited to try out for the Grateful Dead to fill the vacant keyboard spot which was created by the death of Brent Mydland. During the subsequent years, Welnick helped the Grateful Dead recreate their sound for the 1990s and he enjoyed some of the happy touring days of his life.
After the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead stopped playing together as a unit and Welnick dropped out the music scene once again. Now Welnick has experienced a second revival and he is approaching his music with youthful vigor. He has just formed a new band, Missing Man Formation which has just released its first self titled album. The band has had to different lineups in the last three years and the album reflects the diversity of musicians that Welnick has been associated with over the years. The new album signifies a turning point in Welnicks career as it is the first time he has written his own songs. This was accomplished with the seasoned help of Grateful Dead lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlowe and the end result is a touching album in which Welnick sparks some deep emotions. The Vermont review had a chance to speak with Vince Welnick in his Californian home where he talked about his long and brilliant career.
You have been synonymous with the San Francisco area for quite some time now. Where are you from originally?
Vince Welnick: Phoenix, Arizona. I came to San Francisco with the early Tubes - they were called The Beans at the time. We came out in 1971. We all migrated out here together and became The Tubes later. It was the thing where a band could make a go of it in San Francisco because you could get by on Food Stamps. So we all lived communally on food stamps. They were about thirteen of us living together in a three bedroom house called "The Bean House" on Noriega Street.
BK: What was San Francisco like fours years after the Summer of Love?
VW: I guess the love part dispersed from the Haight Street. I missed out - to put it bluntly. I missed out on the good parts. My wife Laurie was there hanging out in the middle of it all. Her take on it was that by 1969, the scene was turning ugly from amphetamines and people exploiting the scene. It was still really cool. I remember that the way that you could get into any show for free back then was to say that you were the bass player for Steve Miller Band.
BK: Was that a secret code?
VW: Steve Miller had a lot of different bass players during that time so it would work. You would just act important and say: "I am the bass player for Steve Miller." and they would say: "Yes, Sir. Come Right In." As a band, we were just eking out a living. We were playing anywhere that would have us. It took a really long time to break in.
BK: Who did you listen to when you were growing up?
VW: Lots of stuff. I started off with classical music and I learned a lot of classical stuff from a nun at my high school. My first gig was playing for the church at St. Gregorys when I was nine. That was my first actual playing gig. My first paying gig was at age 11 when I played at a judges kids birthday party. After classical, I listened to a lot soundtrack music and then popular music. When the Beatles came out, I took to more serious rock and roll. I was in a band doing cover tunes by the time I was 11. I was self learned from rock and roll on. I stopped all formal training except for a couple of night courses I took at the San Francisco Conservatory when I was living at "The Beanhouse."
BK: How old were the other band members when you were playing at age?
VW: We were called The Equations and we were all the same age. We all went to school together. Its funny, we used to play these Rebel-Rouser instrumentals and surf songs and our bass player used to scream. Kind of like Duane Eddy. During our gig, Judge Mickey(the kids father) would run into the room and yell at the girls for screaming and say : "It is a disgrace to scream." He didnt realize it was our bass player. He wasnt a great player but he had a lot of soul.
BK: Have you always played the piano/keyboards?
VW: I never had a grand piano until I got into the Dead couple of years. I have always had a piano around the house. That was my thing - piano and organ and then later on, synthesizer.
BK: Can you claim any particular piano or organ players as your primary influences?
VW: Too numerous to mention. Perhaps, Floyd Kramer. I didnt try to emulate any particular piano player. I was more into the songs. I wasnt into the particular players and their styles. Like I didnt get behind Emerson, Lake and Palmer just because they had a fabulous organ player. I didnt try to emulate any particular piano player except for Chopin when I was into that sort of thing. I got influenced by so many people that it would take a whole another interview. John Coltrane influenced me a lot, his piano player, McCoy Tyner, was a big influence for me when I started to listen to jazz.
BK: Does anybody else in your family play music?
VW: My mom was a music major at school. She played boogie-woogie which is actually what got me to play the piano. I would wake up in my diapers, walk , crawl or whatever to the living room an watch her do this boogie woogie. It just astounded me that her hands could fly around on all those keys. In addition to that, she sang in a barbershop quartet and she sang in the choir at church. She would practice Requiem on the piano and sing it as well. She was in a lot of styles. She liked jazz. She had 78s of Nat King Cole before he decided to become a singer, when he was out there recording as a piano player. The story goes that Nat King Cole got together with Oscar Peterson and they said that there wasnt room for the both of them in the town. They decided that Oscar was going to play piano and Nat was going to sing. I have recordings of Nat playing piano....my mom really turned me on to lots of music.
BK: Are you a collector of music?
VW: Somewhat. I dont go out to all the record stores and go fishing around. I know a lot of people who are hooked up and connected. They feed me stuff which is very cool. I like that about as much as anything in the world when somebody sends me something that turns me onto some kind of new music. Dick Latvala, the keeper of the Grateful Dead vaults, gave me early Dead stuff that the Dead have never done in the 1990s. That turned me onto a few songs that I brought back for the Grateful Dead to do.
BK: What were those songs?
VW: Here Comes Sunshine. After Jerry died, I resurrected St. Stephen and Cosmic Charlie which Phil and Friends do now.
VW: Phil Lesh(former Grateful Dead bassist) and Friends. He has been doing these benefits. We sang Cosmic Charlie together a couple of weeks ago. Phil does the shows once a month. Out of the last four months, I have done two shows with him. The last show I did with them sold out in 6 minutes.
BK: Before your tenure with the Grateful Dead, you had a long stint with the Tubes. Does any particular moment stick out in your mind from that era?
VW: The biggest moment would be the "White Punks On Dope "(A Tubes Classic) at the end of a show. It was the grand finale where every available crew member and band member and guest and anybody we could put a tutu on would come up and perform in the finale. It was really funky, raunchy, madcap, magical, experience. There would be explosions all over the place and amplifiers falling down.... naked girls....muscle men.....you name it.
BK: "White Punks On Dope" was the Tubes anthem songs. Any comments about it?
VW: "White Punks On Dope" was a spoof. It wasnt about us, it was about our rich, white friends who were completely debauched all the time. They had lots of money-mom and dad were wealthy-and did nothing but come over and hang out with the Tubes and get completely out to lunch. They were the people we were singing about.
BK: My exposure with The Tubes came with the Shes A Beauty and Talk To You Later stages of the band - when MTV was starting to make it big....
VW: That was when we hit the Top 10. We were playing Solid Gold and going on the Letterman Show. It was ironic because some of our biggest shows were before MTV ever happened. They were never captured or performed on MTV. By the time MTV came, we had blown all of our recording money on the shows and we were deeply in debt.
BK: How was your tryout with the Grateful Dead?
VW: That was exciting. They sent me plenty of learning tools - lots of tapes and CDs. The CDs were useless because I did not have a CD player. I studied diligently up in the hayloft of my barn where I was living. I went in and I did about eight songs. The most exciting part or white knuckle part was the waiting after the audition for what was two weeks but felt more like 2 years.
BK: When you auditioned, did you jam with the band or did they put you up on a pedestal?
VW: We sort of set up in a circle. They let me call a couple of songs and they called a couple of songs. We played a lot of songs that had vocals in them for they were looking for a synthesizer player who could play the high male vocals. Both of which I had always done with the Tubes. We did stuff like Row Jimmy, Estimated Prophet and they would see if the could lose me. I didnt freak out when things started falling apart around me. The band wanted somebody who could sing Donna Godchaux and play keyboard. To be honest and to pat my self on the back, there are too many people who can hit that shit. I have always been a real squealer. That fact that screamed a lot as a child paid off and got me into the Grateful Dead.
BK: How was your first concert?
VW: Real scary. Right after sound check, Harry Popick, the sound monitor guy, jumped on my piano seat to test my mic and broke it into a hundred pieces. It would have been me, sitting down at the very first set that it would have happened if it didnt happen to Harry. I though that it was a lucky break. I was somewhat paralyzed playing at first. I remember doing a real wimpy organ solo during Cold, Rain and Snow and thinking to myself: " Come on fingers, lets get unstuck. Lets get loose here." Then I heard this ripple in the audience and there was a kid who yelled "Welcome Brother Vince!" and there were stickers that said "Yo Vinnie" stuck to the side of my keyboard. The crowd was very forgiving.
BK: During the first year and a half playing with the Grateful Dead, you played with Bruce Hornsby. Did he help out with the transition into the Grateful Dead?
VW: It was two edged sword. He helped out because he had been doing the tunes longer because he was in a Grateful Dead cover band. He was more authoritative with his playing. On the other hand, I had learned very single Grateful Dead tune on an acoustic piano and Hornsby was playing the acoustic piano, so I was inventing myself as I went.
BK: What was it like touring with the band?
VW: I couldnt believe how easy life on the road could be. You would actually go to a city and stay for more than a day. I had never seen the like of that. It couldnt have gotten any better than that. Touring with the Grateful Dead was the finest touring experience that I think anybody on earth could encounter.
BK: Any stage moments stick out in your mind when you were with the Grateful Dead?
VW: Yeah... having Jerry Garcia beaming at you onstage. He would look over the top of his glasses and smile at you. Also playing songs that moved me so much that I broke out into tears. That would happen quite a bit.
BK: Your new band name, Missing Man Formation, is a military term signifying a fallen comrade. Does that name have any obvious relevance?
VW: I guess you go it. My sister Nancy overheard some Deadhead surfers use the term to describe life after Jerry. She then passed it on to me. Later on I got the military part which gave the name more righteousness. Not only is Jerry missing, but we are missing him. He is still very much in my heart.
BK: You have had two different incarnations of the Missing Man Formation. Why the change?
VW: The members of the first band were busy in other bands as well. It got to a point where I had to get players who could put Missing Man on the front burner. I was sitting on the bench too much while the band members band were out on the road. I had to wait for these guys to get back. Another problem with the old band was that nobody sang but me. All of sudden, I was the lead singer of the band and in essence, the band leader. The new guys I got are all terrific singers and musicians.
BK: With your new album, you have started to write lyrics for the first time. How is that process for you?
VW: It came out of necessity. In the past, I found it difficult to articulate myself. My feelings came across musically. The death of Jerry put me in such a depression that when I came out the other end of it, there was stuff I felt compelled to talk about. I started to take my words seriously. There were no longer superficial. They became heartfelt.
BK: What it is like to be part of the Grateful Dead family?
VW: It is and was a very magical thing. There is nothing like the spirit of Jerry Garcia...the spirit....the generosity...the friendship...the love of music....and the sharing of humanity through music. I have never seen the likes of it ever and do not know if I ever will.