Movers, Shakers, Music Lovers: John Yob, National GOP Campaign Consultant

Since our first interview with Politico’s Jake Sherman in January 2014, HeadCount has been taking a deeper, bipartisan look at the consultants, reporters and others who make and report the news in New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political and reporting landscape are as passionate about music as they are about their jobs. We’ll continue to talk with them about the bands they love, and the shows that changed their lives. All interviews in this series are conducted by HeadCount Board Member Gordon Hensley (@GordonHensleyDC)

Today, we chat with John Yob (@Strategic), Rand Paul’s National Political Director and Chief Strategist for Paul’s Michigan Operation. Previously Yob served as National Political Director for John McCain during the 2008 primary season and ran state and national convention delegate operations for Rick Santorum in 2012.

Let’s talk about the obvious since you attended the two Santa Clara and three Chicago shows: What did you think, and what were the highlights in your mind?

I thought the shows were awesome and that their playing as a team improved as the tour went on.  I was front row in Santa Clara in front of Trey, and it was obvious that he was holding back a bit and that all the band members were a little out of sync at first.  The set list was a gold mine for fans of 1960’s Dead – the kind of set list that fans of the 1990’s only dreamed about.

I found it surprising how much Phil stepped up and was a little surprised that Trey and Bobby both seemed to be less proactive at first.  That said, it still was better than my expectations and had moments of magic.  The second night had stronger playing by the members, but arguably didn’t have as historic of a set list.  I thought the first night in Chicago was the best night of Fare Thee Well, but Scarlet is probably my favorite song — so there may be some set list bias built into my analysis.

The second night of Chicago wasn’t my favorite night of the run, but I was partially focused on the private parties we were putting on with John Kadlecik before and after the shows — so my mind was sometimes on other things. The third night in Chicago was magical for being the final show and it is certainly a moment that I will never forget.

From the first show in Santa Clara to the final show in Chicago, Trey really stepped up — show-by-show — and increasingly asserted himself. What are your thoughts on Trey’s playing, his cumulative involvement, and how Bobby and Phil in particular interacted with his style and his performance persona?

I was tremendously impressed by Trey’s playing.  This isn’t so much a statement of my support for him being chosen, or being a Phish Phan, it is more a statement of the seriousness with which he took the task at hand.  A hard core Phish Phan might argue that it was a different Trey because he wasn’t up there shredding like he did in the mid to late 1990’s.  The Trey I saw at Red Rocks in 1996 is a lot different than the Trey I saw at Fare Thee Well.

He took this task very seriously, played much more precisely, and arguably improved his playing as a result.  He was much more focused on getting the notes right, rather than jamming the note, but over time, he started threading that needle and I think that is when he was at his best. And he handled his presence on stage with Bobby and Phil perfectly and deferentially – but feeling confidant enough to step up at every appropriate occasion.

Tell us about the private party you put on in Chicago w/ the Merry Miracle Makers (MMM).

merry miracle

I think John Kadlecik is an awesome musician and really wanted him to be a part of the Fare Thee Well experience for our friends who came to Chicago.  I also thought that the early stages of the ticketing process had created some bad vibes in the community.  So I started a group called Merry Miracle Makers where we gave away a ton of Miracle Tickets to try and bring some positive energy to Fare Thee Well.

We modeled the contest after various songs. We gave a ticket to “a solider from the looks of him” that was struggling with PTSD, a woman who had a rough time with her husband’s suicide, and several other people who were struggling in life.  A Dead concert is one of the best experiences some people will ever have, and we wanted to do our part in sharing the joy with people truly in need.  And they sure were appreciative; many people who were struggling called it the best experience of their life.

We also did a few art contests to determine winners.  Judging from the high fives we got at the shows – and the posts on the Facebook page – I think people really appreciated the efforts of the Merry Miracle Makers and we intend to keep the group going into the future in one way or another.

MMM brought in Kadlecik to put together a band of his pals to play at a private party at Buddy Guy’s, and I think everyone who was there would tell you that it was a truly special moment.  It was a small gathering that was opened up to some lucky fans that happened to be in the area, but it was truly a special celebration of everything that the weekend deserved.

It turned out that Peter Shapiro was a genius in the way he handled the ticketing by slowly and quietly releasing additional tickets that only hard-core fans would ever even realize were going on sale.  Retrospectively, I think the community should give him a collective hug rather than some of the negativity that was directed his way in the early stages of the process.

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A lucky recipient of a miracle

Let’s step back in time and ask how you stumbled upon the Grateful Dead? When was that first time you were like, “Wow, I love this band and love this music?”… When did you “get it?”

My first concert was March 1993 at the Richfield Coliseum.  The first show got cancelled because of a snowstorm so the second show of the run was my first show.  They opened up with Cold Rain and Snow, and played one of the better Terrapins of the 1990’s.  They also played Throwin’ Stones and given my interest in politics, and being a newbie, I loved that song.  It was also a crash course in parking lot culture.  The Mayor declared a state of emergency and they opened up the Holiday Inn Holidome for anyone who wanted to sleep inside.

There were literally thousands of deadheads sleeping on the indoor putt putt course, they kept the bar open all night, and lets just say the indoor pool probably needed a good cleaning when the deadhead community left town.  I never saw another scene quite like that in the hundreds of jam band shows I have seen in the twenty-two years since 1993.  I fell in love with the band in Richfield and it hasn’t faded away since.

You also did a lot of taping; tell us about that, and how you became proficient in the craft?

I wouldn’t say I was one of the better tapers.  I relied much more heavily on other friends who were much more experienced than I was at the time.  I was more into experimentation of taping methods rather than perfecting one particular system.  I spent a couple of years going to dozens of Widespread Panic and Phish shows in order to learn for the Grateful Dead shows.

We did front of board from the fifth row at Red Rocks, and setup mics in multiple locations simultaneously. This was also when low wattage not for profit pirate radio was more accepted by the FCC and so we would broadcast the shows from the parking lot before and after the show, driving down the road in caravans, and on campus in Ann Arbor before and after tour.  For equipment I had a Sony TCD D7 at first and then got a Tascam Dap1 pro-deck and some AKG 460’s.

tascam

These days I would probably rather enjoy the show and find a place to download someone else’s recording online.  Digital music really changed the taping hobby.  In those days, with quality loss from analog dubbing, and the delays in getting tapes through the mail, having digital quality quickly was very important.  Today good digital recordings are easier to come by.  But I have always preferred video when it was available so I’d give a big shout out to Voodoonola for making so much video available in the ecosystem.

I grew tired of hearing people say shows weren’t worth going to after, say, 1992 or 1993… That was total B.S. as there were still some excellent shows throughout the final years. You toured in the latter years… don’t you agree?

Obviously the playing in the late 1970’s and late 1980’s was superior to the playing in the early 1990’s.  That said, the music was still magical, but in different ways.  The song we referred to as “Jerry’s lullaby” after drums and space was always very special to me.  Sometimes it was So Many Roads, Standing on the Moon, Black Muddy River, or Days Between but you always knew that you were watching history, and if you missed a show, you might just be missing the last show.  There was an emotional aspect to the shows that may have been different from the euphoria of previous decades.

My favorites that I attended in that era were my first show at Richfield for the reasons already described; Shoreline in the summer of 1993 just because it was just a cool experience going out to California to see the band in high school.  It was one of my first times going ‘on the road’, although we did fly. We also had tickets for Phish at the Greek Theatre after the Dead shows but unfortunately missed those due to travel difficulties.

Jerry’s birthday at the Palace in ’94 when the crowd sang Happy Birthday was a high point.  That was my first time being front row at a Dead concert, and seeing the band members communicate with each other and with the crowd.  When Bobby went into Victim or the Crime to open the second set we pointed at Jerry because it was his birthday and the crowd was expecting Scarlet Begonias because it hadn’t been played in several shows.  Bobby slightly put up his finger like ‘hold on a minute’ and a minute later was Scarlet.

While a freshman in college we went out to Vegas to see the band at Sam Boyd Silver Bowl.  Dave Mathews opened and there was memorable Morning Dew.  As you know the band didn’t do much talking on stage in the 1990’s but Jerry did comment on the tremendous heat.  He and other members of the band said something like “as people pass out pass them to the front and we will collect them like Lincoln logs”.

Jerry was smiling throughout these shows – probably the last time I saw him truly happy on stage when he didn’t look like he was struggling in one way or another.  It was 100+ degree heat and the fire department was spraying fire hoses of water over the crowd for the whole concert as a safety precaution.

The show at Three Rivers in Pittsburgh in ’95 was like magic in the rain.  It rained most of the 2nd set and the band busted out one rain song after another.  It was also the first time I remember seeing the post drums/space “Jerry’s lullaby” in a stadium setting and having that eerie feeling that Jerry knew it was all about to end.

I even had a good time at the infamous Deer Creek show where there was the death threat and Dire Wolf was played.  I was up in the very front and the lights were on, and I had an awesome time.  But it was clear that something was wrong, even in the parking lot before the concert.  The vibe was different; many of the people on Shakedown Street seemed to be there for the wrong reasons.  “Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will”… You get the picture.

I didn’t go to Riverport in 1995 just because I was tired of it after Deer Creek, so I went home to Grand Rapids for a couple of days and assumed my year was complete.  But I had an uncomfortable feeling that I needed to get to Chicago so after missing the first show, a friend and I headed to Chicago for the final night without tickets.  It was a very hard ticket to find, but I did get one shortly before the show and was able to tape the final concert.

What are your favorite eras of Grateful Dead music? If you could go back in time, what year would you have liked to tour full time with the Grateful Dead? 

I will give the traditional response of the late 1970’s because I think it was when my favorite song Scarlet was at its best, and I love Terrapin Station, but I can understand those who argue for the late 1980’s and the Brent era.  The interplay between Garcia and Brent was obviously strong.  I don’t think health problems had caught up to the bad members yet in the late 1970’s and so I would argue those were the best years.

Tell us about your cool collection of Grateful Dead memorabilia and artifacts.

I have a solid collection that includes Jerry’s shirt from the last Soldier Field Show.  It is a men’s XXL, traditional black with the pocket.  I have the microphone that he brought on the Europe 1972 Tour and used in several studio recordings.  I also have the book Celestine Prophecy that he was reading at Serenity Knolls with his notes from that fateful stay.  I have the original He’s Gone lyrics as written by Robert Hunter and given to Dennis McNally as a wedding present in the early 1970’s, and the official trademark documents for the Grateful Dead as provided by the federal government.

I view these items as important to our cultural history, and I think it is important that someone buys up this stuff as it goes on auction so that it can someday be displayed in one collection.  I think that is a much better long-term solution than the items being spread out in private homes across the country.  Hopefully some day I can connect these items with other collections that are out there and find a home for them where people can visit and enjoy the historical significance.  We setup a free museum in the parking lot in Chicago and thousands of people had the opportunity to view them there.  Maybe we will take them on the road at some point.

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Jerry in his iconic black shirt

Now that the Grateful Dead is no more, what do you believe their legacy will be in terms not just of American music, but American culture? Are there any hard and fast conclusions you’ve come to about the tens of millions of Deadheads themselves, and the larger Grateful Dead community?

The Grateful Dead’s legacy is in the eye of the beholder, but I think the legacy is one of freedom.  They created a new community, a new culture, by doing things the way they wanted to do it.  They didn’t conform to societal norms, and created their own subculture. They will go down in history as one of the best bands to ever play, right there with Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and others, but there was something magical to their music that other musicians lack.

People are quick to point out Jerry’s foundation in folk or bluegrass with the jug band years.  If you truly want to understand the magic of the Dead, then you need to appreciate famous Jazz musicians like John Coltrane, or Miles Davis, or even Stan Kenton.  There is a magic to live improvisational music that famous jazz musicians understand, and the Grateful Dead were able to bring that magic to the masses unlike any other band in American history.

The community is like any other community in some ways.  There are good people, there are bad people, and then there are desperate times that make good people do bad things.  Unfortunately the parking lot includes all of those.  People learn a lot on tour about being better people, and ironically about capitalism and business if you are selling your wares in the parking lot.  But you need to be careful and understand that when the shows are over most of us have to go back to our lives with our family and our day jobs.

When I was active as a public GOP spokesperson during the late 80’s through the 90s, I would occasionally catch (mostly) good-natured shit from some of my GOP colleagues about my heavy touring between campaign cycles … they just didn’t get it. As a Republican, did you ever encounter any anti-Grateful Dead bias?

Traditional GOP operatives rise up through the system by waiting their turn for their elders to decide its time for them to have a certain role.  I went about it a very different way. I found candidates who I liked and could work with regardless of what the party elders thought.  If their candidates were better than mine, and they ran better campaigns, then they would win. But it didn’t turn out that way. No one is perfect, but we have mostly won.  We’ve taken long shot campaigns and ended up with a significant role in electing Governors, Lt Governors, US Senators, several Congressmen, and helped nominate a Presidential candidate – John McCain.

I never advertised my affinity for the Grateful Dead but I never hid it either. I don’t see why my love for their music and live audience improvisation should have any impact on my work product.  I have had various responses from clients who found out; some called me an artist, others found it interesting and wanted to learn more; one I even took to a concert.  I don’t think I have ever lost a client based on my taste in music.

Ultimately these days I am an entrepreneur and we have about a dozen technology companies whose revenues aren’t impacted much by my political consulting portfolio.  That combined with our history of winning primaries has given us the ability to choose our clients in many cases rather than the other way around.  Hopefully I didn’t sound too much like Trump! But we have been fortunate — and as you mentioned  — success has a way of maximizing flexibility.

In terms of my role with Rand Paul, the campaign’s chief strategist is a musician who travels to see Bruce Springsteen shows.  Bruce isn’t exactly a Republican, and I reluctantly agree not to judge him for his choice in music as long as he returns the favor!

Image: Rand Paul

What is it about Rand Paul’s issue agenda you most like?

I think that if the Republican Party is going to survive as a national party then it needs to nominate leaders that are attractive to non-traditional GOP audiences.  Rand Paul reaches out to young people with a pro-freedom message, goes to the inner cities to reach out to African-Americans, and expresses a constitutional conservative message in terms that make sense to broader slice of the electorate.  I think he is the right leader at the right time to save our party and inspire younger generations of Americans.  People forget that we have only won the Presidential popular vote once in almost thirty years.  We aren’t going to get to 51% by appealing exclusively to old white males.

I would also strongly push back on any Republican who argues that we shouldn’t be reaching out to the millions of young people who attend concert festivals, appreciate live improvisational music, electronic dance music, and other forms of today’s art.  Occasionally some prehistoric Republicans seem quick to decide who they don’t think should be in the party, rather than understanding that we need more people with tattoos.

The truth is that many young people are pro-freedom and are attracted to segments of our message. I think it is important to reach out to young people in the community and let them know that in the real world freedom works and socialism does not.

If there was a candidate for office who didn’t want to hire me because I liked a certain type of music or thought it was helpful to communicate with young people at concert festivals, well, I probably don’t want to see them elected anyway. I tend to be a libertarian leaning Republican and strongly think the government should stay out of my life.  I think being pro-freedom and for smaller government is consistent with the overall Grateful Dead culture.

We also believe in 2nd chances, and don’t think lives should be ruined for minor youthful indiscretions, and I question mandatory minimum sentences.  We are concerned that laws from previous decades may unfairly target the less fortunate in society, and that locking up non-violent offenders on the taxpayers’ dime is not necessarily the right solution.

Getting involved in political campaigns, and successfully climbing the ladder from local to national politics isn’t easy. What’s your advice to young people today about doing so?

I would argue to first think with your heart as well as your head, and find a candidate you’re passionate about; see if its something you enjoy. You should volunteer, and get involved. I’d say the school of hard knocks is the best way to learn politics, and it can be painful. It’s a hard industry to make a living in, but the best advice I ever got was figure out what you like to do, and then figure out a way to get paid doing it.

Tell your friends!