Too Much of Anything: A review of A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead
Most recognizable as the public voice of the Grateful Dead organization for the past 20 years, Dennis McNally also holds a Ph.D. in US History from the University of Massachusetts. McNally came to the attention of Jerry Garcia when, in a grand act of confidence that some among my spiritual brethren would call chutzpah, he sent Garcia a copy of his biography of Jack Kerouac (published 1979) called Desolate Angel. Little had been written with any serious purpose about the Beat Generation icon at the time. Directly connected to Kerouac and the entire Beat ethos through his friendship with Kerouac’s inspirational friend Neal Cassady, Garcia found in McNally someone he believed understood the essence of what that small group of self-conscious artists had tried to do through their art as well as their lives. As a result, McNally was invited to become the Grateful Dead’s official biographer. Soon after, in one of the odd circumstances that had long been standard in the Dead organization, McNally also became the group’s publicist.
McNally’s second job with the Dead ended up slowing the progress he made in pursuing the goals of the first, as it’s taken two decades for him to produce A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. As you might expect from a book clocking in at over 600 pages of text, this book was certainly bound to cover at least a little more ground than any of the other numerous tomes on various aspects of the band and its members that have been produced since Garcia’s demise in August of 1995. Though there seems to be little new to report about a band that may have more books out about them than any other except possibly The Beatles, the questions of style and authority come strongly into play here.
Most of the books that have come out on the Dead have been written by friends, colleagues, and employees of both the ongoing and former variety. With the Dead, the distinctions among these categories, as with any attempts at categorizing any aspect of their collective existence, was difficult to pin down. Such is true of McNally’s book as well. Clearly, he is as inside as any non-band member could be, and remains on their payroll. The perils of such a position for a historian intent on creating a multifaceted view that includes the positive and negative aspects of the actions and intents behind the dealings among relevant actors, as well as those which are more difficult to interpret as positive or negative appear throughout the book but for the most part are handled with honesty and straightforwardness. Perhaps most difficult was getting factual stories from a group of people who, because of their often shady activities, erudition, questionable social skills, capacity to spin a yarn, group identity (never trust a Prankster), legendary status, chemical enhancement, or any of a whole host of other reasons, are notoriously unreliable. This said, on with the review.
McNally describes the creation, rapid evolution, and fitful decline of a collective with a common goal, and a generally reluctant but definite leader. The San Francisco Bay area has been a hotbed of altogether odd behavior since people of European descent began trading with the local Natives hundreds of years ago. Things got weirder with the mad speculation of the California Gold Rush of 1849 and they haven’t gone mainstream yet. A strong, multigenerational avant-garde arts community had developed by the 1920s, refreshing itself year in and year out with both homegrown and immigrant talent. In the 1940s, a hotbed of jazz, painting, filmmaking, writing, by the 1950s a focal point for the east meets west gestalt of the Beat Generation. Then LSD became part of the scene in the early 60s, as the first wave of baby boomers began to reach the age of reason, and social ferment began to seriously percolate.
All fiercely independent with anti-authoritarian streaks as wide as the bay around which they came together, the members of what would become the Grateful Dead found common cause in personal expression through music. The teenage energy of early rock and roll gave way to the drive for the authenticity of the folk music revival. Energy and authenticity eventually merged when the Beatles in turn revived rock music and Dylan demonstrated that integrity could be maintained through amplification. Drugs, physical numbers, and politics turned up the volume to inspire the production of an electric folk music that acted as the means of communication for a large segment of youth interested in challenging an increasingly authoritarian American power structure.
Many of the bands of the late 60s confronted the issues of the day directly. Where the Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco, the Doors in Los Angeles, and the MC5 in Detroit addressed politics and culture in terms dictated by society, the Dead attempted to transcend those dictates. Rather than address the “straight” world in the hopes that it would change or advance beyond its ages old behaviors, the Dead created a society outside of society. McNally is clear in explaining that, contrary to the observations of many critics unfamiliar or unwilling to understand cultures different from their own, the society the Dead found themselves in the center of, was not anarchic or chaotic. The world around and associated with the Dead developed its own rules, norms, and expectations —- passing them down as in an oral culture from person to person and eventually through approximately three distinct generations of fans.
As history, this is the most important part of McNally’s book —- that the Dead managed to create and sustain a viable alternative to mainstream society, one which could merge the best of modern society, its technology (and its chemistry), with the human qualities of the soul and spirit that can be found in all cultures everywhere from the beginning of time. The music found consonance in anyone who would take the time to recognize it, often made easier through the derangement of the senses from the use of psychedelics. Taking part in such an ancient rite —- which can be found in Indian peyote rituals, Asian meditative practices, African trance dancing, and fundamentalist revivalism —- reaches for the identical goal: to take the individual out of their “normal” mode of perceiving reality in order to become conscious of a direct connection with the universe and everything in it. At its best, taking such a journey at a Dead show ultimately allowed the seeker to use the music as a means of finding connections with other people engaged in similar activities, then retaining that connection after the show when all returned to their different daily lives. Something deep is shared and appreciated and known to be good.
Most of the book is fairly conventional in that it tells a chronological story of the lives of band members, their crew, friends, lovers, and other characters of the extended Grateful Dead network. Interspersed among these chapters though, are smaller snapshot chapters addressing a variety of subcategories within the Grateful Dead world: Deadheads, road crew, business dealings, the discovery of LSD, among many others —- arranged to reflect the form of a typical Grateful Dead concert as it existed essentially intact from the late 70s until Garcia’s death in 1995. Life, McNally seems to suggest, can be understood as a Dead show.
It should occur to even the most casual reader that though many of the trappings of the rock music lifestyle, business, and stereotypical attitudes could be found in the Dead community, for a while anyway, this rather odd bunch of characters managed to do something much larger than simply create and perform really good music. From the beginning until at least well into the 70s, time, place, talent, circumstance, and collective disposition allowed the band members subsume their rock star hedonist egos enough to remain dedicated to the greater goal of transcendence through music. But the seeds of destruction found fertile soil in some of the very same factors that had early on allowed the band to become something different.
Once the doors of perception opened by the focused use of psychedelics had been fully thrown open and the messages found on the other side gathered together, the energy to translate it all led the band, Garcia in particular, to the heavy use of cocaine. The frazzling effects of long-term abuse of that drug may have played a part in turning Garcia towards the use of heroin, and the long decline began. After the many successful musical, technological, cultural, and psychedelic experiments, as well as the learning process gained from almost as many failures (all the tweeters on the massive “wall of sound” PA blowing out on the first note of the first show they were used at, for example), one gets the sense that the only question to be answered from show to show was “yeah, but can we do it high?”.
The transcendent, transformative journey slid into escape and addiction with the ones faring worst tending to be those in the permanent keyboard seat. Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland all died as a result of their various excesses and sensitivities, and Vince Welnick reportedly had grave emotional issues following Garcia’s demise (Tom Constanten wasn’t in the band long enough to be called permanent and Bruce Hornsby was always temporary). The gruff attitude adopted as normal within the Dead organization sometimes leaves the feeling that those on the inside loved the legend of the Dead more than the people that comprised its various parts. The sense of “feeding the beast” almost comes to mind as tours became mechanical and shows became a series of interchangeable parts —- altogether machine-like as one could hear very often during a “space” segment in the later years rather than the shifting organic, nearly ephemeral embodiment of thunder that one hears in shows from 68-74.
Clearly McNally favors the early, formative, purely psychedelic years over the later, slicker, bigger, more professional, perhaps even more comfortable years. He takes a full 400 of his 620 pages to make the move from those formative years to the period when “cocaine had become an essential part of the Grateful Dead’s scene” in early 1971. The 70s fly by with interludes for the Europe ’72 tour, the year and a half break which resulted in Blues for Allah, and the special event of playing in Giza, all part of an apparently unsuccessful effort to reinvigorate the scene for the band and growing staff. McNally’s impression seems to be that by the 80s, the beast had been built and it was running almost on auto-pilot, except for the new material, Jerry's various physical collapses and the inevitable changes of keyboard personnel. What had been so much fun, so funny, so clearly cutting edge in the sixties became rote and mundane by the 80s. Finally, towards the end, knowing what’s to come, it becomes hard not to get sad or more than a little upset at the grinding and decay that is clearly happening to Garcia, “the leader who wouldn’t lead.”
There is much to like about this book. The level of detail is exactly what one would expect from someone who has the professional training as well as the unfettered access that McNally has had for so long. When he is discussing individual songs, cultural activities, the social and political context in which the Dead navigated he is at his best and doing what none of the other books about the band have done well or at all. When he describes every detail about nearly every person ever connected with the band, he is at his most chatty and redundant of what others have already done.
So many people go by in this story that it is frequently hard to keep track of them and their individual significance. This is especially true in two cases: Pigpen and Neal Cassady. That Pigpen was one of two photos that Garcia kept up in his dressing room throughout his playing life suggests the level of significance Pig had for Jerry. We get a few stories here and there of a rousing Pig performance, his dedication to the blues which played a part in his heavy drinking as well as his later lack of contribution to the wide-ranging musical tastes his bandmates brought to the music they were creating, and his sweet disposition despite his hard appearance. But these tales don’t seem to quite get beneath the veneer of what has been passed down through years of GD folklore.
Neal Cassady is the other great character that deserves more space to explain his significance to the foundations and development of the Dead. Cassady was the embodiment of much of what the Dead ever hoped to represent in the way of creative spontaneity and in-the-moment existence that bespoke of past, present, and future in all space and time, as well as any theoretical astral planes that might be, all at once. The legitimate source of inspiration and focal point to the major figures of the east coast Beat Generation writers, later the driver of the Prankster bus in all of its earthly and metaphysical manifestations, Cassady was the Alpha male of the tribe. A true microcosm of the Dead’s later macrocosm, his life incorporated the positive as well as the negative of what would become the totality of the Grateful Dead’s experience right down to his death from exposure to cold at the side of some railroad tracks in Mexico following another in the seemingly endless speed-filled frenzies he visited upon himself. Surely more could be said of so central a figure than what I just repeated along with statements that he could carry on five or six or more conversations at once.
Therein lays the peril of writing an authorized history from the inside among a group of folks, most of whom are still alive, and looking forward to seeing their names in print. McNally has made much in his interviews about how the people in and around the band are all a rather thick-skinned lot, prepared to see their triumphs as well as their all too human foibles cast out for all to see. Maybe if every character had not always been shown in such meticulous detail, more space could have been spent making the argument for the overall significance of the Dead in the pantheon of American art, music, and culture. Make no mistake, McNally ranks the Dead as important as any of the other major figures of American music: Ives, Cage, Miles, Trane, Bird, Ellington, Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Dylan, and yes, Bill Graham; not to mention art in general, science and technology, mystical thought, folklore, history, poetry, spiritualism, politics (statements of being outside politics to the contrary —- the Dead did more benefits for more causes connected to politics than anyone else), and just about any other activity that a person or society can engage in —- and he’s probably correct.
But so much room is given over to minutiae on individuals that, though nice to know, serves to obscure the grand message McNally is conveying: that the Grateful Dead attempted and sometimes touched the edge of the potential for enormous cultural evolution. Central to that evolution was the reality altering effects of LSD and its capacity for allowing the mind to break free of the usual barriers to perception of the self and the world the self occupies. Once those barriers, built up by centuries of authoritarian religion and generations of material pursuit, fear, and violence, are shorn away, the celebration of humanity through musically inspired spiritual release allowed all the participants in the tribe of the Dead to feel connected to their best selves, each other, and their physical surroundings in ways that stayed with them long after the drugs wore off. A fuller reality beyond skin and cash. An empty cup, only love can fill —- and ready for it.
Bryan Adeline toils in obscurity in forests of northern Florida.