If you happened by GPI Publications’ offices on Stevens Creek Boulevard here one afternoon this week, you might have thought you had stumbled across a rehearsal of the new Bob Dylan-Grateful Dead tour.
Even if you didn’t get any closer than the sidewalk in front of the two-story wooden building, you could hear Jerry Garcia singing Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” thanks to a sound system that carried the music far beyond GPI’s open-air garage-storage room.
But Dylan wasn’t on hand and neither were any of Garcia’s cohorts in the Dead.
In fact, it’s doubtful you can find the names of the eight musicians backing Garcia on any album cover--unless they happened to write the liner notes.
Garcia’s musicians were editors and other employees for GPI (Guitar Player International), the parent company of Guitar Player, Keyboard and Frets magazines. Among the players: drummer Jim Crockett, who is president and publisher of GPI, and guitarist Tom Wheeler, editor of Guitar Player.
Though a few people from the neighborhood heard the music and wandered over to see Garcia in this rare informal setting, it wasn’t really a public performance.
For years, Crockett and other GPI staff members have been getting together each month after putting the three magazines to bed to simply relax and play music. Garcia is one of several big-name musicians who have stopped by to join in (others include B. B. King, Chick Corea and David Grisman).
There was a definite party spirit at the jam Tuesday afternoon (a buffet of cold cuts and fruit was set up and many of the employees’ families were on hand) but Crockett said the monthly sessions also serve a practical purpose.
“I am 50 years old and I have probably played for 30 of those years, and if we didn’t have these jams, I wouldn’t ever get much of a chance to play--and that would concern me on two levels,” the bearded Crockett said during a break between the afternoon’s electric and acoustic sets. “I would miss playing, and I think it is essential for all of us to remember what it is that we are doing here.
“Most of us--I’d say 70%--play instruments, but it would be easy for us to slowly just become magazine people . . . end up with a staff that could be working on a sports magazine or on an industrial trucking magazine, anything. And, that’s not what I want. I want a staff that really deep down can only be working on these three music magazines. The closer we are to music the better we can serve our readers . . . the more we can think like them.”
It’s this attitude that has made the magazines so respected among musicians. The Guitar Player advisory board includes Garcia, Will Ackerman, Chet Atkins, James Burton, Billy Gibbons and Les Paul.
Unlike Rolling Stone or Spin, Crockett’s magazines are aimed at people who play instruments--not at casual pop and rock fans. That’s why you don’t always see superstars on the cover (red-hot Bruce Hornsby is on the front of July’s Keyboard, but July’s Guitar Player features a cover shot of lesser-known Alex Lifeson, Rik Emmett, Liona Boyd and Ed Bickert).
Rather than talk about the tensions of stardom or the personalities of the performers, the articles tend to touch on technical matters that sometimes would interest only another player. Guitar Player (whose 180,000 circulation makes it the largest of the three publications by far) contains album reviews, but the heart of the magazine is columns that deal with such insider topics as “pivoting exercises for both hands” or “reading rhythms” or “repetition and stamina.”
Garcia, back on the road with the Grateful Dead after an illness last summer that included three days in a diabetic coma, appeared in great spirits, looking forward to the release next month of the first Dead album in seven years and to teaming up with Dylan on a series of stadium dates.
Playing guitar on both the electric set (leading the group through a spontaneous version of the infectious New Orleans gem “Iko Iko”) and the acoustic set, Garcia said he wanted to demonstrate his support for the magazines, especially Guitar Player.
“It talks about the skin and bones of playing the guitar, which is something that you don’t find anywhere else,” he said. “The great thing is these people all love music. They would probably be professional musicians if a space opened up for them, but not everybody can live that kind of life. Being a musician is risky stuff, especially if you have families to support. But it is important that they keep in touch with music. How could you write about something you don’t know about firsthand?”
In starting Guitar Player magazine as a quarterly in 1967, Bud Eastman was following his own instincts. As a guitarist and owner of a San Jose music store, he felt the need for a magazine that dealt with matters of interest to him and his customers. Potential advertisers were wary. The didn’t think there was enough of an audience or enough subject matter to make the publication work.
Ignoring the experts, Eastman put together the first issue and mailed boxes of the magazine to music stores like his around the country. Growth was slow but steady. Crockett--who had been a professional musician and journalist--joined Eastman in 1970, responding to an ad in a local paper for an assistant editor.
By 1972, Guitar Player was a monthly and Crockett had been elevated to publisher and co-owner. Though Eastman remains as chairman of the board, Crockett oversees the day-to-day operations of the $10-million-a-year firm, which also includes a book division. Crockett also continues to set a purist tone for the company--a purity reflected in everything from choice of cover subjects to an advertising policy that rejects anything not tied directly to music.
Part of that purity is philosophical but part of it also makes business sense, Crockett said.
“We know that if we put the obvious people on the cover that it would mean extra money in our pocket,” he said. “But we also know we owe it to the readership we have nurtured to put the ‘right’ people on the cover because they are not coming to us for our fan coverage. They are coming to us because we treat the instrument seriously.”
On the matter of advertising, he added: “It makes economic sense to restrict the advertising to music (accounts). If we had non-music ads--candy bar ads, for instance--we would not be able to have as dense an advertising-editorial ratio that we have now.
“We can run 60% advertising now for the same reason that women’s magazines can run so many fashion ads. As long as we stick to music ads, people don’t mind (that high ratio) because they are interested in the ads as well as the articles. If we went 60% advertising with jeans or cars, we’d lose much of the readership that has come to us in the first place. We might develop other readership but it would be a different magazine and this is the magazine we have all worked so hard to achieve.”
CD DIGEST: New compact disc releases include the Cure’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” L. L. Cool J’s “Bigger and Deffer,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” ELO’s “Eldorado” and “Out of the Blue,” the Grateful Dead’s debut album and “Aoxomoxoa,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “So Far,” Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” and Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets for the Bob Dylan-Grateful Dead pairing July 26 at Anaheim Stadium go on sale Sunday. . . . Tickets go on sale Monday for Frank Sinatra’s shows with Sammy Davis Jr. on Aug. 19 at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Aug. 20 to 22 at the Greek Theatre. . . . Tickets are already on sale for the Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order bill on Sept. 12 at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13 at the Forum. . . . Tickets go on sale Sunday for six Universal Amphitheatre dates, including Hank Williams (with Dwight Yoakam) on July 24-25, Joan Baez on Aug. 27 and Charlie Daniels on Aug. 29.