He's the basketball legend with the super- long face, the ESPN broadcaster with the super-deep voice, and now he's also the deejay playing super-long jams on Sirius Satellite Radio. As the host of "One More Saturday Night with Bill Walton," the 6-foot-11" San Diego native has kicked off a weekly three-hour hippie-dippie barrage of music by the Grateful Dead, folk like Joanie Mitchell and Bob Dylan, rock like Santana and Neil Young, and even some classical concertos to provide tech-savvy radio listeners some historical context.
Those unfamiliar with Walton may groan a bit-a millionaire jock has commandeered a paying position in the ever-shrinking music industry (cue a chorus of local deejays bemoaning Americans' celebrity fixation). But who else can claim to have been to more than 650 Grateful Dead shows? The same dude who traveled with the band, shared a tour bus with Ken Kesey, played drums with Jerry Garcia and Co. in Egypt and was the inaugural inductee into the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor.
The skeptical among us know music can't really change your life. Just don't tell that to this guy-at 52, Walton's a sportsman's hippie who swears by the panacea of rock 'n' roll.
I spoke with Walton at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, three hours before his show airs on Sirius Channel 17. In his extremely calm and deliberate tone, he described meeting the Grateful Dead, how the Dylan-Garcia rehearsal tapes floored him, and how he forgives his sons for pillaging his stash.
Citybeat: When did you first get into music?
I grew up in a classical-music household. My father was a piano player and a singer.
Was he a big fan of this rock "n' roll stuff you liked?
No. He controlled the stereo at the house. I've been going to concerts since I was 15 or 16 years old, but it wasn't until I moved out that I was able to be in charge of the record player. How did you find out about the Grateful Dead?
I first got into them listening to KPRI in San Diego, and the disc jockey was playing an unbelievable jam. After the song, he came back on and said, "That, boys and girls, was the Grateful Dead. They played a concert in town last weekend, and they're playing another concert this weekend." A bunch of us jumped in our cars and drove to the show-somewhere in Southern California-and it was so much fun and so happy and people were dancing and smiling and having a good time. While my world is sports, there's always room for music. Music is the expression of the soul and where the creativity comes from. Listening to music drives me and gets me in the right frame of mind and the right space. How did you meet the band?
I had had opportunities to meet them when I was playing at UCLA, but I was so shy and reserved and plagued by a horrendous stuttering problem that I never took advantage of those opportunities. But then they came to Portland when I was playing for the Trailblazers. I bought a ticket, went down there early-10th person in line, waited in line all afternoon. I was about 10 rows back. And they're looking out there, [and it looks like] there's one guy standing up. [One of the band members said,] "Hey, tell the security guard to get that guy off the chair." And someone said, "Hey, that's not some guy... that's Bill Walton." "Well, get him out of there cause no one could see the show." The guys said "Hey, the band wants you to come back stage." I had a great spot for the show and didn't want to leave, but I took the backstage pass anyway. What's your favorite Dead album, favorite song?
Concerts are like championships, you don't rank 'em. I listen to a lot of the old [albums], but I love to go to the concerts. Lori, my wife, and I, went on tour this summer. We went to the entire West Coast trip. We drove our car, our Cadillac, put our bicycles on top, biked all day and danced all night. We drove 6,694 miles and it was way too short.If you were offered to become a member of the Grateful Dead or the Trailblazers, which would you pick?
You play ball all day, and then you go play music. My loves in my life are my family, playing the piano and drums. My perfect day would be to wake up the crack of dawn, play the piano, work in the garden and go to a concert that lasts well into the night. Then wake up the next morning and do it all over again.How big is your Dead collection?
I used to have an unbelievable collection-concert tapes that strangers would just give to me. When I was playing for the Trailblazers, on game days fans would leave flowers and fruit and muffins and brownies and tapes of concerts on my doorstep. I would take the tapes down and give 'em to the guy who ran the PA. You mean to tell me the Trailblazers got "pumped up' for a game by listening to the Dead?
Oh yes. We were playing "Franklin Tower" and "Bertha" and "The Music Never Stops." You said "used to" have an incredible collection-what happened to it?
My boys. When they were teenagers, they thought [the Dead] was stupid. But as they got a bit older, they were like "Hey Dad, can we get some tickets?" They found out where my closet was and they destroyed everything. And it was O.K., 'cause they were into the music and wearing the T-shirts and enjoying the music. Except one day. I had this particularly memorable tape-Garcia at his finest, all over the place-that I had listened to over and over again. And the boys had rerecorded rap music over this tape. By the time they went off to college I had nothing left. Now, my friends, realizing the plight I'm in, they have re-supplied me with everything I need.What's the crown jewel of the collection that you'll play on the show?
[Last week we played] stuff from the Dead and Dylan rehearsal tapes that have never been released. One of the great things... is that they weren't really rehearsing-they were just learning how to play songs together. They were playing traditional songs that wouldn't make a set list. It's not fluid-they'd start then stop. But it's some of the best music I've ever heard-Hart pounding away on the drums, Bobby on the vocals and the guitar, and Jerry Garcia laying it down. They play "Chimes of Freedom." On Dylan's album, he plays it almost as an acoustic song. This one is a rockin' anthem where they're just screaming on fire. Part of the Grateful Dead scene was drugs. Ever partake?
Never. Guilt by association. What about those who sold everything and followed the Dead-free spirits or drug culture dropouts?
The people who followed the Grateful Dead are people who loved life and celebrated the great music. Deadheads come from all walks of life, and I am very proud to be a Deadhead. The message of our show is a message of hope and peace. I was part of three of the greatest basketball teams in the history of the game. But to be the inaugural member of the Grateful Dead Hall of Honor was as great a tribute I've ever received. Anyone famous you converted into a Deadhead besides your sons?
I used to take people to the shows a lot, but I prefer to go with just my wife. It's actually nice when people don't want to go because that just leaves more room for us to dance. Concerts are like religious experiences. We go to be healed, inspired, enlightened, and in search of the lighting-bolt flashes of inspiration What else do you do on the show?
We take requests. We spent 36 years standing in the 10th row asking for our favorite song and [laughs] they would totally ignore us. So now, we play what we want to play. We're going to do our best to avoid most of the slow songs. We're playing some Carlos Santana. We got the Dead from Chula Vista in '85 playing "Satisfaction." We tie it all together with the events of the day.We talk a lot about life and moving forward, and a lot of lessons I've learned from my great coaches and artists. Coach [John] Wooden gets mentioned a lot. One of the lessons we learned from Coach Wooden is that things never really end. You just stop doing one thing and you go to do what's next in life. The concert's over, and yeah, it's sad. The tour's over and it's tough and emotional. You gotta turn those tough times into moments of inspiration and go out and make this world a better place. Which is what is frustrating to me bout the new music that is so violent and focuses on the negative aspects of our world, like conspicuous consumption and sexism.
Have you heard Ron Artest's album?
I haven't, but I will take a listen. But I'm not quite sure what kind of music that is. I know what I like-rock 'n' roll music.Any last words?We [ended last] week's show by saying, "Have a Jerry Christmas and a Happy Bob Weir. In this special time of giving it's always best to give your loved ones the gifts they want, not the gifts you want them to have."