LIVE DEAD & RIDERS ‘69
Known among friends and colleagues as T.C., Tom Constanten wrote orchestral pieces as a teenager while growing up in Las Vegas and studied astronomy and music at University of California, Berkeley, where he met future Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in the summer of 1961. The two became roommates and enrolled in a graduate-level course taught by Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio at Mills College; both composers were also influenced by Gustav Mahler. Constanten studied piano with Mario Feninger. In 1962, he lived in Brussels and Paris, met Umberto Eco, and studied with Berio, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez on a scholarship.
After briefly rooming with Lesh in Las Vegas and returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, Constanten performed with an improvisational quintet formed by Steve Reich. The group’s unusual style was influenced by both jazz and Stockhausen. In a 1964 performance, the ensemble played serialism-influenced compositions by both Constanten and Lesh. Although he walked out from the performance, minimalist composer Terry Riley later allowed the ensemble to premiere In C. However, only Reich and one other member of group, saxophonist-composer Jon Gibson, appeared in the seminal performance.
Faced with the possibility of conscription amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, Constanten enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1965 as a computer programmer. Although the Air Force was deployed in southeast Asia, he was not given a security clearance after divulging his past communist sympathies and remained stationed domestically; while on leave, he experimented with LSD and composed music on military IBM mainframe computers. By 1967, he had been promoted to senior airman (sergeant) and was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas when he first collaborated with the Grateful Dead as a session musician on Anthem of the Sun (1968); Constanten used several compensatory three-day passes to travel to Los Angeles to record with the band. After sitting in with the band during live performances as his schedule permitted, the day after an honorable discharge, TC made his stage debut with the Dead as their permanent keyboardist on November 23, 1968 at the Memorial Auditorium in Athens, Ohio. He remained with the group for three albums and left after the band’s infamous New Orleans drug bust following a January 30, 1970 show at the Warehouse. “It was like a magic carpet ride that was there for me to step on,” he says. “I would have been a fool not to.” Although Constanten nominally replaced founding keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the latter musician stayed on with the band as a frontman-percussionist; in light of their mutual abstinence from psychedelics, they became “as close as two heterosexual males could be”, shared a house in Novato, California, and bunked together while touring.
While he had successfully contributed to their complex experimental music, his instrumental style was then grounded in classical technique and bore little consanguinity with the folk, blues, and country and western styling that would largely anchor the band’s oeuvre throughout the early 1970s. Also, there was some feeling that he did not fit in with the Dead ethos; for example, he was involved with Scientology throughout his tenure with the band and thus refused to take LSD.
In 1994, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Grateful Dead. Additionally, he has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and SUNY Buffalo; in 1986, he was artist in residence at Harvard University. In 2002, Tom Constanten stated in an interview:
“I know of no path that is better marked than the study of music. Maybe I just think so because it’s the path I’m on. There’s the old question “How come there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” Well, here’s an answer. Settle down. Do it right. However long it takes.”