By: Dennis Cook
We're lucky to have Mark Karan. For the past 11 years he's been the
lead guitarist and six-string foil for Bob Weir in RatDog, treading
into Jerry Garcia's territory with a skip and a hop, injecting a
classic '70s shredding fluidity and 12-bar spirit into the Dead's
catalog. But in 2007 Karan announced he was battling throat cancer
and needed to take some time off from what had been a long, winding
professional career where he'd worked all over the musical spectrum -
mainstream, underground and otherwise - on the way to putting his
stamp on one of the most spectacular American songbooks ever.
The happy upshot is Karan not only beat cancer but emerged on the
other side with a strong sense of purpose that's seen him return to
steady touring with RatDog, complete his first solo album, the
appropriately titled Walk Through The Fire (released June 30 on
Quacktone Records) and soon a new round of shows with his sometime
quartet Jemimah Puddleduck (tour starts this Thursday, August 6, in
Fall Church, VA. Find dates here).
"It started out as a Puddleduck record and didn't wind up that way.
When we started this out about four and a half years ago we
discovered how hard it was to get the four of us in the same room to
make a record; it was like pulling teeth with our tour schedules. It
was a pretty constant source of frustration for all of us, but for me
in particular because I was the one most driven to do this. So, after
having the whole cancer experience, at the back end of it, I felt
just as driven as ever to complete this thing but a WHOLE bunch less
willing to wait," says Karan. "I finally came to the conclusion that
as much as I love Puddleduck and want some version of Puddleduck [to
exist] always if I can, I couldn't limit myself to that and what I
needed to do more than anything, regardless of what name I put on it,
was move forward."
It's a treat to finally see Karan's name on the front of a CD cover.
He is often the guy one finds deep in the liner notes, doing the job
in a wild variety of settings, as at home in dingy bars as he is in
high gloss pro studios or stadium stages. While best known for his
work with RatDog and other Grateful Dead related aggregates, Karan
has also put in time with the likes of Huey Lewis, Dave Mason,
Delaney Bramlett, The Rembrandts, Jesse Colin Young, Paul Carrack and
Sophie B. Hawkins. One picks up on an easy moving vibe all over Walk
Through The Fire, an album that creeps up on you the way a lot of
early Little Feat does, just well crafted and well played rock & roll
without a lot of bells 'n' whistles. He brings a wealth of experience
and an abiding humility to his craft that's so goddamn tasty but
rarely resorts to flash or overt skill displays, preferring instead
to move by feel, melody and undisguised emotion.
"That's kinda all I got [laughs]. The truth is I've never been that
powerfully disciplined guy who sat there all day and night running
scales. That's not my trip. If I'm playing songs I can play songs all
night and all day, but if you ask me to practice scales or run licks
I'm bored in about five minutes," says Karan. This is perhaps an odd
revelation coming from one of the dude's standing in Jerry Garcia big
ol' sandals. "What's interesting about that for me is when I
reference Garcia in my head, for any kind of inspiration or approach
or take on a particular song, I'm usually referencing Garcia from
1968 to about 1974 or 1976, somewhere in there. He got into the
faster, more intricate playing with more scales quite a bit later.
So, for me, the quintessential Garcia playing, the stuff that really
turns me on is his more primitive playing."
"[How much I reference him] changes drastically night to night and
song to song. There's certain songs that I grew up listening to at
such a formative age - and also the inclusion of Owsley's little gift
in there as well to cement those sorts of things into one's
subconscious - so there's certain songs that it's impossible for me
to NOT reference Garcia because when that song plays in my head that
language is automatically part of it," Karan continues. "So, when we
go to 'The Other One,' 'Morning Dew' or any of the songs that were
really influential to me as a kid who was a fan of the Grateful Dead,
I definitely find myself, it's not quoting or consciously trying to
ape Garcia, but I do think Jerry developed a language, much in the
same way The Beatles did. You have bands like Jellyfish, The
Rembrandts or even artists like of Montreal who are definitely, at
least some of the time, speaking Beatle. So, in this stuff I can't
help but speak 'Garcia.' I'm not doing licks I've learned or anything
like that but it's putting everything through this filter, this
approach to hearing melody and how melody might interact with a song."
Karan has mentioned that some nights RatDog will approach things
trying to speak in the vernacular of The Who or other iconic artists
just to see what spin that gives the familiar tunes.
"I do that as a human, too. If I'm hanging out with a guy with a
British accent for more than an hour or two you'll start noticing me
with a British accent. And it's not like I'm trying, I just pick up
on what ever is around me," says Karan. "It's very authentically like
a chameleon, which isn't necessarily trying to be like this or trying
to be like that, it's just fitting into its surroundings."
This wonderful mutability is a common trait amongst veteran session
guys like Karan, where they're able to change their stripes as the
situation dictates but never move less than naturally regardless of
surroundings. Karan agrees, "Especially, if like myself, they've had
the experience of being in lots and lots of different bands and also
doing lots of sessions, where you're called upon at various times in
your life to do fairly radically different things musically. You
might be called upon to play punk rock one day and finessey, jazzy
blues the next, whereas if you've always been in just one or two
bands you might have a much stronger identity. I think if I had any
issues with my playing it's identity. I think I have an identity but,
as you say, it's so mutable. For some people, if they're not
intimately familiar with me, it might be easy to lose me as opposed
to say a Roy Buchanan, who's so distinctive. I'm talking about guitar
players where you say, 'I can name that guitarist in three notes!'"
Karan's flexibility and instinct for groove and soul have made him a
perfect sparring partner for Bob Weir, who is just plain weird on his
instrument. The man simply doesn't treat a guitar like other boys.
"That's for damn sure! It used to create a real challenge for me, but
in the last few years I've begun to wrap my head around Weir and his
playing that I think make it work better. It certainly works better
for me and I hope it makes it work better for him. I sort of move
ahead with a little more impunity now, where before I was always
trying to figure out how to work or fit with what he was doing, or if
what I was doing was appropriate with what he was doing. And the
truth is, at least from my perspective, is that he's a reactive,
responsive player," observes Karan. "So, you don't build things on
responses, you build things on deliveries. If I'm trying to respond
to his responding there's too much responding going on and who the
hell is laying it down? So now, at least when it comes to rhythm
guitar, I just lay it down. I don't worry about what he's doing
because he's going to dart in and out with all his interesting
expoundings and expansions on the voicings of the chords and rhythm
patterns. He's going to do all that stuff that's uniquely Weir and so
for me, particularly with rhythm guitar, I just want to lock it down
a little bit more."
One of the more appealing aspects RatDog brings to the Dead catalog
is a sleazy, bar band feel that highlights all the women that done
Weir well or wrong, pumping up a snaky blue vein that runs beneath
the skin of these tunes. And often it's Karan that nudges the band
into these sawdust and moonshine spaces.
"Well, I played a lot of bar gigs [laughs]. And the truth is I still
love 'em. I'd be a liar if I said I loved that bar gigs today pay the
same as they did when I was 20, but straight up about the music and
the energy and all that, I love the intimacy and the rawness and the
immediacy of a bar. I love the audience sweating five-feet away from
me. That's exciting to me and visceral and engaging, as opposed to
these 20,000 seat amphitheatres where the closest audience member is
50-feet away from you," says Karan. "You learn and you do the best
you can to try and find your happy place wherever you are. Talking to
Bob it's clear he and the boys changed their approach and take on
stuff as their venues grew and their situations changed."
Karan bristles at anything formulaic and tries to instigate setlist
changes away from the orthodox whenever possible.
"You always knew it was going to be a 'Bobby song,' 'Jerry song,'
'Bobby song,' 'Jerry song'... Enough of that crap! I'm always telling
Weir, 'Let's do 'Sampson' on a night other than Sunday. Let's do 'One
More Saturday Night' in the set instead of an encore. Come on!'" says
Karan, who does recognize the comfort factor such codified set
structures offer. "For Bob especially, who, not to be critical or
anything, has some control issues [laughs]. So, I think he likes
having it all figured out on the computer, where he can figure that
for the last four nights we've played these songs and the last two
years we were in this area we played these songs, so those are all
out of the running and these are the songs available for the setlist.
And he can figure out how many BPM or which key a set of songs is in.
And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow, do you ever write setlists
different than me!' I sit there and think, 'This one will be exciting
so they'll be all sweaty and shit so I can get in a good intimate
ballad there,' or, 'I just did one in 'E' so I don't want to do
another one in 'E'.'"
Charred But Standing
Karan's solo debut mixes up his originals, some many years old and a
regular part of Puddleduck sets, with choice picks from Randy Newman
("Think It's Gonna Rain"), Robert Johnson ("Love In Vain"), Joe
Jackson ("Fools In Love") and Robert Hunter ("Easy Wind").
"It's the typical thing of sideman makes solo album, but the
interesting thing my wife Maile has pointed out is if you look at the
guest artists, other than Delaney [Bramlett] (who plays dobro and
shares lead vocals on the superlative Johnson cover), they're mostly
really well known sidemen," chuckles Karan. "I didn't really call on
any rock stars. I could have called on Weir but it felt gratuitous.
There was nothing he'd really add to here except his clout, and
that's not how I wanted to do this."
Walk Through The Fire is a players record, music that's intrinsically
fun to play and one instantly picks up on the good time everyone
involved - including percussionists John Molo and Wally Ingram,
bassists Bob Gross and Hutch Hutchinson, keyboardists Bill Payne
(Little Feat), John "JT" Thomas and Pete Sears - is having.
The blues run throughout Walk Through The Fire, the dusty, rootsy
sort and the cleaner lines of Chicago, too. Karan's handling of the
genre pleasantly recalls young Shuggie Otis but with less need to
toss off sparks. Again, it is feel and tone that dominate his playing
on Fire, and the results go down real damn easy.
"I've gone through several times, including one really extended
period, where [the blues] really were my passion. I was doing other
things when necessary but pretty much all I was listening to, all I
was playing and all I was really passionate about was the blues,"
Karan says. "So, I don't know if I'm as strong a blues player today
as I was 15 or 16 years when I was doing just that, but it's always
going to be one of the deepest places in my heart and soul musically,
blues and old school R&B, church-based stuff, in a way. I'm not a
church guy but I'm a spiritual guy and I gotta give it up to Baptist
churches and shit like that. The passion and the energy people give
off when making that kind of music works even in a non-secular venue.
It's just got this thing to it; I just really connect to it."
Karan's approach to music extends back into rock's roots,
appreciating the country, folk, blues and jazz threads as much as the
more readily identifiable post-60s sound most associate with rock.
"Underground radio in the mid-to-late '60s would play Mozart then
Miles Davis and then the Grateful Dead. And the Grateful Dead shows
Bill Graham was producing were Dead shows, sure, but they were Dead
shows with the Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band. It wasn't all one
brand," recalls Karan. "That was what I grew up on. Graham would do
these Sunday afternoon things from 2-6 p.m. - he'd have the same show
on Friday and Saturday nights and do the same show on Sundays - and
if you were under 12 you got in free. And so I had two years, '66 and
'67, where I was under 12, and I saw a boatload of really cool shows
at The Fillmore for nothing. Sure, I saw a lot of Grateful Dead and
Quicksilver and all that AND I got to see Howlin' Wolf and James
Cotton and B.B. King and Albert [King]. I got an education."
Open Karan's new CD and a striking photograph awaits you inside,
where bowls and bricks of green weed sit alongside a peculiar
assortment of objects.
"Some Indian clay pipes, a real Colt .45, I think it's probably
codeine or something in that little bottle. It's a still life that
Herbie Green shot in '69. My understanding of it was it was
originally slated as the gatefold for a Santana record and Columbia
[Records] said, 'Unh-uh! That's full of all this bad stuff. You can't
use this!' And there it sat in his portfolio until he showed it to me
and I said, 'One day I'll be finishing this mythical record. When I
do can I use this picture?' It's called 'Spirit of '69,'" reveals
Karan, long a pot-positive fellow who held several 4/20 celebrations
at the dear departed Sweetwater in Mill Valley, CA. "I'm very
pot-positive. I got a script through having cancer. As somebody who
struggled with alcohol and cocaine issues, did the AA thing in the
'80s, and spent 16 years completely clean and sober, after I'd been
around the Dead community for a couple of years and saw all this
beautiful bud my take on it was, 'Bud was never my problem. Alcohol
and cocaine were my problem.' The problem with cocaine is it makes a
new man out of you but he wants a line, too [laughs]. So, I started
smoking pot around 2000, fully knowing I was an addictive personality
but that if it became a problem I knew where to go for help. For me,
I'm pretty happy on what some AA-ers call 'The Marijuana Maintenance Program.'"
Acceptance Is The Key
So, how is Karan feeling post-cancer now that he's back in the musical saddle?
"Pretty fucking lucky! It sent a scare through me initially but I'm
going to say something a little weird: I didn't stay scared for that
long because I had this sense it was here to teach me something
rather than take me," offer Karan. "That's how Maile and I approached
the whole situation from the beginning. We did all sorts of
alternative healing therapies and experiences in addition to the more
traditional Western chemo and radiation stuff. I got pretty deep into
some spiritual stuff and made it about growth. I made the physical
growth into spiritual growth."
"One of the things I discovered early in the process was when I
visited an acupuncturist and we walked into his office and there's a
picture of he and Jerry on the wall. Turns out he was Jerry's
acupuncturist that they even took him on tour with them sometimes,"
says Karan. "At my first appointment he says, 'In Chinese the word
for crisis is the same word for opportunity.' And I just went, 'Whoa,
that is powerful.' And that's kind of the place we looked at the
whole cancer thing from. What's the whole opportunity in this? Where
am I supposed to grow? What am I supposed to gain from this
experience? If it's not here to stop this story how is it supposed to
augment this story?"
"If I had to say one thing about where it did augment my story it's
where I come from now. I have to remind myself that I had 53-years
being the way I was pre-cancer but post-cancer I'm at the point where
I feel what's really important in life is acceptance - the ability to
see what is for what it is and move forward from there, not getting
stuck in 'this isn't fair' or 'they should have done something
different' or 'this isn't what was supposed to happen.' That's all
fine but you can get stuck in there for an eternity," keenly observes
Karan. "You don't have any choice. To go back to the AA thing, one of
the big things they do is the Serenity Prayer. I was familiar with it
and at least felt I knew what it meant. Boy, did I get a new
perspective on it going through cancer! 'Grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change.' Well, I could not change the fact
that I had cancer. There was not a fucking thing I could do to change
that. I could do something moving forward to get rid of the cancer.
So, it's 'grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change'
but then it's 'grant me the courage to change the things I can' as
you're going into chemo and therapy and there's going to be pain and
all sorts of inconvenience and vomiting. So, have the courage to go
and do it. And then it's 'grant me the wisdom to tell the difference
between the two,' so I'm not standing here beating my head against
the wall trying to change something that isn't changeable. There's a
sense of peace now."
"When I woke up from the surgery when they did my biopsy and the
surgeon was standing at my bedside, he said, 'Mr. Karan, I'm sorry, I
know you were really believing you were going to have a different
result but I have to tell you that we did discover that you do, in
fact, have cancer.' I was sure they were going to say the opposite. I
was sure they were wrong and they'd take it out and it'd be fine.
Well, it wasn't that, and my experience, interestingly, was that I
was instantly transported to this elevated, calm space in myself,
just kind of looking at the whole thing, thinking, 'Look at what's
ahead of me now.' It was a very weird experience; I'd never reacted
like that to anything in my life. There was no horror, no anger;
there was some fear but I was outside of it somehow, I wasn't being run by it."
Today Mark Karan has completed his "mythic album" and Jemimah
Puddleduck is on the road with a follow-up West Coast jaunt in
September/October. He continues to be an active member of RatDog and
seems if anything more ornery and energized than ever, which is
saying something for a guy that's never lacked for spark or lusty
engagement with the world. All of these forward motions, these longed
for and now completed pathways, stems, at least in part, from his
whole-hearted decision to live with renewed purpose as he faced down
"I don't know what the future holds but I do know that I not only
play music for a living, I am music. There isn't an opportunity for
me to do something other than music because that's what I am. So,
going forward I have no idea what the future holds. I assume RatDog
will be around a good long time, but if someone had asked me in 2006
if I'd ever get cancer I'd have said, 'Hell no!' So, I don't know
what's going to happen but I know I don't have a whole lot of time to
waste on bullshit. I just want to play and live the best life I can
and be the best person I can and have the best relationships with
others that I can have. I guess I feel like we're put on this planet
to grow and whatever path we take to get there is cool as long as
that's our intention and destination."