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Published: 2002/08/25
by Dean Budnick

Biographer, Publicist, Biographer: Dennis McNallys Long Strange Trip

{Editor's note: We ran this in two parts earlier this month in the Terrapin Station Tribune

The most anticipated book in Grateful Dead circles has long been publicist Dennis McNally’s official biography of the band. Although he signed on to begin the work in the early 80’s, he became sidetracked shortly thereafter when the group tapped him to take on the publicist gig. It wasn’t until some time after the passing of Jerry Garcia that he finally had the time and energy to give the endeavor the focus that it required.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead reflects McNally’s unique perspective. The author, who holds a Ph.D. in American history (his doctoral dissertation and first published work focussed on Jack Kerouac) draws together research he gleaned through his academic training along with information he picked up while working for the band. McNally then places all this within the larger fabric of American social and cultural history to provide the story with the rich context it requires. The following interview touches on the origins and methodology of the book as well as some of the issues that it raises.

DB- When did you begin research for A Long Strange Trip?

DM- The experiential research of being a Dead Head began as a college DJ playing just the first album. My first taste of the Grateful Dead was the fall of 67 with the new album from the band, the only album. In 68 I was at Columbia for the strike. I was an outside agitator but like an idiot I was there for the strike so I saw only about twenty minutes and I don’t count it as a concert. My first concert was in 1972 when I was introduced to Grateful Dead and psychedelia and went, “Hmm, I think I belong here.”

As far as research goes I had started working on a book about Kerouac and what I realized I wanted to do was two linked books about American bohemia. At the time I called it the counterculture but that seems a little stiff now. So I had this concept by 73 that would cover this sort of bohemia since World War I in America. In 79 I published Desolate Angel and I sent it to Jerry who eventually said, Why don’t you do us.” And I said, “Great idea.”

DB- So prior to that moment you already the idea of this book in you head.

DM- Oh sure. It was in my head but I had no inside connection. I had interviewed Jerry once about Neal Casady so I knew sort of that it all made sense but I certainly didn’t have a phone number to pick up and say, Hey Jerry, need a biographer?” And I was smart enough to know that if I marched up and said, “Hey you need a biography,” they would say, “Sure kid, take a number.” So I waited. Intuitively

DB- When did you finally first put pen to paper or finger to keyboard as the case may be?

DM- I started researching in January of 81 other then going to shows. I had an idea for the structure. It all came to me on a long car drive because I knew a straight linear trip was not going to work. That was in 83 so I started writing, maybe the first two chapters, in 84 and ’85. But I had started working as the publicist so in 85 I hit a wall where I realized (A) that I could not physically work 60 hours a week as publicist for the Grateful Dead and work on the work and (B) I couldn’t be publicist and an historian on the same week. So I set it aside and took notes.

A year after Jerry died I climbed down off the ceiling and started again. I reviewed all the publications including all the back issues of Relix, went back and did more interviews with the band members and then early in 99 started writing.

DB- Given your academic training, I would imagine the fact that you were no longer holding both the band publicist and historian gigs helped a bit in terms of getting started.

DM- Sure. Once the moral crunch about being a publicist versus an historian fell away I could see clear and write a book that is not an apology even though it’s informed by a lot that took place when I was an employee in the room. But it’s not an apology for the Grateful Dead.

In fact one of the people who read an early version asked me what a particular band member said about the book, suggesting, “You’re really hard on him.” I said, “I’m not hard on him, I’m just telling the truth.” And he loves it, as it happens. I said that to someone else who said, “You could put any band member’s name in there.” That’s because they’re not saints and there’s stuff in this book that one might not be delighted about if one wanted to live a perfect life. The fact is that it’s pretty truthful but hopefully it’s compassionate and fair.

DB- What was the nature of your initial research? What was the state of the band’s archives in whatever form they were in back then?

DM- What I started with was the origins of DeadBase. There was no such thing in the early 80’s. Nobody had an idea of how many shows there were. The Dead had a list of their own compiled from contracts but it only started in 1970 because all the contracts prior to that had been stolen by Lenny Hart. So I started with all of Bill Graham’s shows from the posters and his own list. Then I went into the tape vault and started a list. Eventually I moved on and about that time John Scott said, “I’ve got this computer program,” and I said, “That sounds good.” And Stu Nixon was a friend of mine and Michael Dolgushkin was doing the same thing by hand. Anytime we would get a new entry he retyped the whole thing. So I put the three of them together and said, “God Bless this is yours now.”

DB- So you seeded DeadBase?

DM- It’s John’s project but I gave him a lot of critical early information. I had access to places he didn’t, like the vault tapes. So for a lot of 69 we’d say, “Okay they were in Omaha and then Chicago and there’s three days,” and then go look it up.

DB- You mentioned that it was difficult for you to act as publicist and historian, is that why you devote less time to the later years of the band, after you came on board, or is that more a reflection of relative significance?

DM- I recently received my first critical review from someone who said, “How come you spend so much time on Phil’s childhood and then cover the whole eighties in fifty pages.” The answer is that covering the childhood establishes who these people are while by the eighties a great deal of what happened was simply repetition. From the early eighties yes there is new material and I try to treat that and there are important events and I try to touch on them but the basic structure of life, a certain tour calendar was set. You can’t tell that story and over and over again. Plus it’s 620 pages and at some point you want to pick up the pace. I focus more on the early years than the later not because of me or my presence but because I try to treat everything with due proportion.

DB- What was the state of the vault when you started?

DM- It was tiny, this is pre-Latvala. I met Dick in 81 but at that time he was a super taper and was starting to hang out with the crew but it was a year or two before he got into the vault. Willy Legate was the superintendent of Front Street and he was in charge of the vault insomuch as anyone was. It always did smell of plywood and metal filings, those are my associations. Of course what I was glomming onto in particular was some of the earliest sixteen track stuff and cassettes from 1969 which is about as early cassettes existed. That when cassette recording began to be commonly sold in American and they were gold.

Then when Dick became the archivist I went to him and said, “You’ve got to get me a copy of my first show. Like every other Dead Head.” [laughs]

DB- You have a quote from Jorma [Kaukonen] where he mentions that the Dead trained their fans to respond to their music.

DM- Trained them only in the sense of exposing them long enough to where they understood what to expect. I think that’s in the context of Woodstock. The Grateful Dead did not have slam bang openers with a hook. Look at a Rolling Stones show, that’s show biz. Outside of the theatrics you’ve got a song that snaps people up. Whereas the Grateful Dead had a pacing that is just completely different. This is why at Woodstock they said, “We can’t do our regular show, we don’t have three hours.” They didn’t have the opportunity to ease into something and build, so they started with St. Stephen and they panicked. They freaked. They did it badly and then cut it off. If you listen to the tape they didn’t play that poorly but you could never convince them of that. To the day he died Jerry swore it was the worst show he ever did and I kept looking at him going, “You’re so wrong, You’ve played much worse than that night, including most of 1979.”

DB- Most of 79?

DM- Well not most of 79 but I remember one night in particular, listen to the late June 79 Sacramento tape and tell me it’s not much much worse than Woodstock [Editor’s note: 6/28/79 if you wish to give a listen].

At Woodstock they were unnerved and they opened shakily because “St. Stephen” is not the kind of song you want to play unless you’re really ready. But they were on a festival schedule, standing on a stage that’s collapsing, there’s already been a delay, yadda yadda. It was not a great moment. But yes, do I think they played worse than that night. I could make a list, so could any Dead Head. That’s the joy of it. It’s not entertainment, it’s not so rehearsed that you know what to do to fix it because they take that leap of faith into improvisation and sometimes you end up on the rocks, sometimes you fly.

DB- In terms of educating the audience, they also had a team of capable field workers and teaching assistants.

DM- The education for you and for everyone who came after the mid-70’s was from your peers who prepared you for what you were going to get. Most people who came to a Dead show came because somebody said, “You gotta see this.” The process of being a Dead Head up until 1977 was organic. An older brother, older sister, a peer, whatever, took you to a show and taught you some manners. Manners in the broadest sense, behavior patterns. It’s okay to dance as weird as you like, just don’t hit that person next to you. Leave everybody a little space, be friendly, etc. and that all worked really well. In 1987 you had a whole influx of people who were coming not because a person brought them but because they heard something on the radio, went down to check it out and ran into a wild party. For a lot of people they never got through the party into the music and even if they did it was so abrupt that for some of them it took a while to learn the manners, the social rituals of being a Dead Head. We struggled though all that.

DB- Do you see ties between expectation, education and ossification, when considering the consistent shape of set lists that developed over time?

DM- Clearly they’re all connected although I think ossification implies something way beyond the reality of it. Yes there was a fairly standardized form. The first set focusing on songs, then the second set maybe warm up/maybe not then launch off into outer space, come back, drums/space, Weir tune, Garcia weeper, Weir finish. That stuff was established by the late seventies pretty well but that’s not ossification, that’s framework. The question is can you do it well over the course of the show. I don’t think it would be fair to say every show after 77 could be called ossified because it had a basic structure.

And when I say education, the point is that the more you go and the more familiar you are, the less you can be surprised. The first three or four shows I went to, this was before tapes of common currency, they would jam from one song to the other and they would be into the second song for a minute and then I’d go, “Son of bitch, they’ve been playing this new song for a minute and it didn’t even dawn on me.” And that was wonderfully exciting.

Well by 1993 unless I was a moron and I’m not, how could they do that and surprise me. Occasionally they’d surprise me by bringing out something completely new but I’d hear it on the second note. There was one show I went to at Hampton where they played “Stir It Up” without vocals [3/26/88]. Well I’m standing there and I got this buzz of excitement because they were going into something new. Or the first couple of times Jerry played “That Would Be Something” but particularly that “Stir It Up” because it took them the longest time to figure out what they were doing. I don’t think they had rehearsed that at all. Jerry completely pulled it out of nowhere and for the longest time I was going, “Is that Stir It Up’ or isn’t it, goddamn it?” It was sweet moment, a terrific moment. I was standing there scratching my head and it was pure pleasure to be so confused, because it really took a long time because he was confusing the rest of the band.

If you listen to the June 1974 Miami Jai Lai Fronton, they go from “Dark Star” to “US Blues” and at one point after “Dark Star” they are playing three songs simultaneously and you hear all of them [6/23/74]. If I had been there that day I would have been confused as hell but listening to the tape I know what I’m hearing. That’s just experience and that’s true for all of us. It can never be quite as dazzling and quite as surprising after you’ve been around awhile, that’s the price of experience. Then you’re a little more sophisticated and depending on the situation you may say, “It was real interesting they did that but they didn’t do that very well.” Or you could be one kind of Dead Head, and they’ve come up to me, “Every show was great, I danced every night” and criticism was unacceptable.

DB- On this topic, what is your favorite show on tape and favorite show live?

DM- My favorite tape of the elite group would be 3/1/69, the Fillmore which is just mindboggling. My favorite live moment or song sequence was the close of the first set, Springfield, Massachusetts, 6/30/74 which is “Playing” into “Uncle John’s” into “Playing.” It is so fricking good it makes you cry. It may be the best forty-minute sequence of Grateful Dead music I ever heard live, just mind-boggling, as good as it gets.

Also, one of my favorite moments ever was the first performance of “There Were Days.” Mostly because it was a crappy night, they weren’t playing well at all and in the middle of it this absolute masterpiece of a song. And I’m going, “They still got it, they still got some juice,” on a night I’m grumbling because they were not playing well at all. I thought, “This is just wonderful.”

DB- Final question, do you have another project in the works, yet?

DM- I want to write book about a place, a 1500 mile long road and artists along it. I just did a book about one group of artists who kept moving from place to place so I want to write a book about Highway 61 and four great artists connected with it. I did the drive in May, that was my gift to myself. I drove from the origins of the Mississippi to New Orleans and poked around. Then I realized that it’s a year or two or reading and thinking before I’m even ready to ask the right questions but it will keep me mentally out of trouble for a while. Now that I’ve done after thirty years what I set out to do so long ago, I suppose I have to grow up and figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

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