American Bohemianism: An Interview with Author, Historian & Grateful Dead Publicist, Dennis McNally
I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering aroundwho go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures
- The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
The thin, fine, complicated slip, stitch and pass thread from jazz and bop, linking the Beats, piercing the Grateful Dead and hooking Phish, sliding into the mystic future is an epic journey that combines personal freedom and divergent hardship. As Bob Dylan once said, “to live outside the law, one must be honest.” Dennis McNally, former Grateful Dead publicist and current RatDog, Dead-related and freelance publicist, wrote the second biography ever written about Kerouac in 1979. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America still stands among the finest books ever written about an American author. McNally’s thesis revolving around Kerouac’s slow, ponderous voyage from French-Canadian roots in Lowell, Massachusetts to the Voice of the Beat Generation is deeply rooted in a rich historical study that links jazz with spontaneous writing and improvisational music with the structure of hammering out unedited manuscripts. McNally has a beautifully unique writing style that seems to link history with architecture. In A Long Strange Trip, he created historical interludes that segue from chronological storytelling and comment upon the biography being written from several points of viewinsider’s vision or otherwise. Perhaps, most remarkably, McNally constructs a three-dimensional form of history centered upon space management, instead of time as a narrative device.
The Beat historical torch would be passed onto the Grateful Dead via several cultural off ramps, not the least of which was the groundbreaking compositions of John Coltrane. After nearly two decades working as the Grateful Dead publicist, McNally completed his biography of the band, A Long Strange Trip, in 2002. He had been endorsed by none other than Mr. Garcia himself, after the musician had read his Kerouac book and exclaimed: “It’s the best biography I’ve ever read!” On the recent occasion of the Comes A TimeJerry Garcia Tribute show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, we sat down with the historian. The discussion centered upon the threads of American Bohemian culture from World War II through the Beats and the Dead and reaching out into the Great Unknown of tomorrow’s “great rucksack revolution.”
RR: From Kerouac to the Dead and beyondwhere’s it all going to connect up?
DM: What I’ve always said connected Kerouac and the Beats with the Grateful Dead was what Kerouac called spontaneous prose and what Jerry would have called improvisation. In both cases, they arrived out of an African-American tradition of jazz. Jack played homage to, and in his case, it was Lester Young, more even in the bop. Allen Ginsberg, being a poet, later re-named it spontaneous bop prosody. In any case, improvisation, defined by jazz in the twentieth-century, is the richest cultural touchstone in American culture. It has spawned almost an infinity of other things, of cultural forms but it all starts from jazz improvisation.
Your questionwhere’s it all going to connect up? My reply is blunt and simple: fuck if I knowI’m a historian and I trace evolution but I am not in the business of trying to predict things. The jambands that we see that feel indebted to the Grateful Dead to varying degrees, in my experience, they understand improvisation in a large sensethey go back to modern jazz improvisation, which is to say that four musicians hold a groove and one musician solos. That’s the modern version. The Grateful Dead at their best actually went back to old jazz, Dixieland improvisation, in which everybody improvises. There was a central core of music that everybody sort of circled around but it was genuine group improvisation, which happened again with [John] Coltrane. Most of what we think of jazzthe drummer is not improvising, the drummer is holding a groove and he’s not attempting to improvise. Grateful Dead drummers did, which is one of the things that made them and the Grateful Dead generally unique. There are subtleties and nuances that, frankly, most bands don’t necessarily attempt to cover.
RR: Do you feel that there was a lack of mainstream media coverage for the 10th Anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death?
DM: There’s a part of me that says that I’m glad. The people that cared about Jerry genuinely cared about Jerry and they know and they hold them in their hearts. They lit a candle or just played a song or kissed their partner or whatever. They thought about him special that dayprobably every day for most of us. For the media to go, “ah, ten years” and grind out articlesthere was a couple of articles that I liked. The ones I saw I liked because, obviously, they were coming from the heart of the reporter and not because some editor said: “give me 500 words on Jerry Garcia, ten years later.” That was cool. If it’s genuine, then that’s great but sort of a ritual tenth anniversary thingyou know, the American media has gotten into a pretty sad state so it doesn’t shock me.
RR: What was the historical importance of the Grateful Dead?
DM: Certainly, it was a fusion of many kinds of American music. As far as the overwhelming thing that they did that was distinctive was that they fused rock tonality and instrumentation with jazz changes, which nobody had done before. Rock and roll through 1965 was essentially three minutes with a good hook. Blues jammed but, you know, rock didn’t jam. Grateful Dead, under the influence of John Coltrane primarily, decided to pump some air into rock and roll and stretch it out. That’s their fundamental contribution to music in terms of structuralismif you were a structural critic, you’d have to acknowledge that. Over and above that, they had among the most literate lyrics. Phil Lesh created an entirely new approach to rock bass. He followed an approach that was treating the bass as simply a low-end guitar and not as simply a timekeeper or a bottom end keeper.
All kinds of things that the Grateful Dead did were genuinely revolutionarywhether you can say that you like this or not. They created, among other things, the finest psychedelic music ever made. They made many contributions to music in a general way but, to me, that’s the essence. They also brought a whole social web of circumstances to their music just from who they were that, for many Deadheads, had more far reaching consequences than the music. For me, I frequently look at those people and say that that’s kind of missing the point. There’s the guy that I offered the free ticket that was hanging out in the parking lotbecause we had some free ticketsand he looked at me and said: “nay, I just come here for the parking lot.” Missing the point but what are you going to do?
RR: Why did Jack Kerouac have such a hard time transitioning into the 1960s?
DM: Because he was doing the transitioning in the very early 50s, which was an especially rigid time in American tastes. I made a joke about structural critics before. They ran the American literary world in a sort of one step removed way in the early 50s. You have to rememberyou’ve gone from a stunning Depression that makes anything we know about or can even imagine economically look nickel-dime; then, the biggest war in history so you come back from that and people do not want to be bothered. The result? A cold war in which conformity is everything. You can’t diverge and [Kerouac] diverged and he paid for it by being ignored.
My admiration for Kerouac is based on the fact that as a writer, he consciously committed writer’s suicide. He made a decision to write in a way that he was pretty sure would never be published. He followed it anyway because, of course, he had to, he just had to. And, of course, in the end, thanks to a couple of, in some cases, coincidences, if you read my book, you find for instance, much of what happened to Kerouac, can be traced, quite a lot, can be traced to the New York Times Reviewback in the time when the Times Review meant somethingof On the Road written by Gilbert Millstein who ordinarily wouldn’t have been the reviewer, it would have been Orville Prescott. It came out in the summer and Prescott was on vacation and Millstone fell in love with it and called it the “generational document,” which was a quote that went into every ad. It lit a fire and there were people around for whom it meant a great deal. That was luck. Prescott would have hated his book. That gave Kerouac a lot of celebrity so he had good sales and that enabled his other books to be published.
RR: There’s the story about Kerouac shaking his head when he read the Times review. He either thought it was praise too late in his career, didn’t believe it or, something much darker. On the Road, introduction, pp. vii-viii, Penguin, 1991]
DM: Well, you know, I don’t even know that story and I wrote the biography. It would not surprise me in the slightest. I think one of the things he would have said is that in 1957 it came too late. There was something that happened to him between ’51, when he started writing the advanced style, and 1957 that really damaged him. He had always been damaged but it took some kind of stuffing out of him. From ’57 until he died, he was drunk most of the time. That was self-medication, as it were, for a lot of pain.
RR: Now where was Kerouac in terms of sales when you wrote your dissertation, which turned into Desolate Angel? Nowadays, his sales are very good.
DM: Very respectable.
RR: Were Kerouac’s sales respectable in 1979?
DM: No. That book came out in ’79. I started it in ’72. He had been dead for three years. He was sort of off the charts. There were books that were out of print. He was held up as being passy many people. Remember in the 60s, as he retreated into a lot of drinking, he was always politically conservative. He was pro-Vietnam and a lot of other things that came from being a working class child of French-Canadian immigrants. That did not go over so well in the 60s with the young people who presumably would love On the Road so he was ridiculed in many places.
RR: What was your plan before you joined the Grateful Dead?
DM: I wanted to write. What happenedmy life story, quite frankly, which turned about to be my entire adult life without going into detail because it takes hours (laughter)I was in graduate school and one night a guy said, “you oughta write a book about Kerouac.” Long story shortI followed up with that and eventually did so. He also, six months later, took me to my first Grateful Dead concert and I fell in love with the Grateful Dead on the first night. Six months after that, I had been working on Kerouac for a year, I suddenly had this Eureka moment. I said I want to write a two-volume history ofat the time we called it the counter-cultureI would say now, American Bohemianism. Since the period after World War II, through biography and volume 1 would be Kerouac and would cover the 40s and 50s, Volume 2 would be the Grateful Dead and would cover the 60s and 70s. Because I took so very long, I had the 80s and 90s thrown in for free. That, to make a long story short, is what I did. I wrote the Kerouac book in ’79. Sent a copy to Jerry and he, eventually, invited me to write a book about the Dead, to which I said, “great idea.” I started on that and I got busy working for them and I had to put it aside for twelve years. Then, he passed on and eventually I got it together and it came out in 2002.
RR: What takes up the majority of your time, now?
DM: Well, I’m still publicist on a retainer basis for Grateful Dead Productions. I work for RatDog. Yeah, I’m a freelance publicist. I’m working on a book on the Mississippi River when I get time, which isn’t very often.
RR: How far are you along on that?
DM: When you’re crossing the ocean in a rowboat, all you know is that you can’t see shore. I’d say I’m in the middle. (laughter)
RR: I enjoyed the inner-mechanism approach of Phil Lesh’s book, Searching for the Sound, but you wrote the definitive, overall Dead biography.
DM: I tried to produce a very, very complex, multi-faceted portraitdifferent people’s points of view and writing it in an entirely different way. [Lesh] was pretty consistent and he wanted to tell his point of view and, obviously, a very valuable one! (laughter)
RR: What was your overall reaction after all of those years of planning_A Long Strange Trip_ comes out, its three years later, how do you feel about the experience?
DM: It was a wonderful experience. I had a fabulous editor. Once I finally got going on it, the actual creating of the book, the writing was satisfying. I had a wonderful agent who created this amazing situation and I’ve got this great editor and, thank you, made a very sufficient sum. I got on the New York Times Best Seller’s list for one week, which, of course, means that you can refer to yourself as a best-selling author for the rest of your lifeif you want to. Deadheads loved it and understood what I was trying to do. Most of the reviews I found exactly the same as Kerouac. They didn’t review my book; they reviewed my subject. If they loved the Dead, then fine. If they didn’t, they hated it. They nevereven the Dead HeadsI’ve got no review where I can say that this person really reviewed my book. They reviewed the band and whether or not they agreed to my approach to the band.
RR: Ah, I sense a writer’s challenge that is very interesting to me.
DM: There’s a structural technique that I worked on, as a writer, in terms of the structure of that book that I think, as a writer, is pretty darn elegant. In the classic writer’s sense that form must follow function, your writing can’t simply be to tell the story. It must be the story and I think I did that very well in a lot of ways.
RR: I’m puzzled by the fact that people didn’t catch that.
DM: No. No. Nobody ever catches that. That’s OK. That’s what I expected. I knew that. My first review of my Kerouac book, the first sentence of my first review in a very important newspaper was “Dennis McNally isn’t going to like me.” I sort of read this and I realized afterwards that this lady didn’t like Kerouac. She thought he was gross and nasty. She was a proper Boston matron. I met her husband because he was the editor of the Atlantic. She hated Kerouac. I can’t do anything about that. It really takes your ego out of it. I got one review that just about nominated me for Pulitzer Prize. It was the review every writer wants. Even _that_there were very nice things about my writing and the book and everything else, no question, but the underlying aspect was: this guy liked Kerouac! Well, OK. (laughter) When you write about, well, fringe isn’t the right sort of word but you know what I meanpeople that aren’t the center of the mainstream culture, people that diverge; you’ve got to expect that.
RR: That’s interesting because if you write about the Mississippi River, the reader will almost be forced to get into the structure supporting your narrative.
DM: I’ll be talking about the Mississippi River and I’ll be talking about people like [Mark] Twain and blues and jazz and this and that and Tennessee Williams. It certainly will be more mainstream. I’ll also be treading on very, very well trod ground. I’m not going to say something entirely new about Mark Twainpretty tough. Yet another biography in today’s New York Times. Unbelievablewhich is hard to believe because one of the great biographies ever written was about Mark Twain. The guy’s been dead a hundred years; people still are writing new biographies. There was one biography out when I published the Kerouac book.
RR: The one by Ann Charters.
DM: Charters’ book, yeah. There have been, I don’t know, five since but none with my point of view because, remember, I’m a historian, not a literary guy. I wanted to tell a story; I wasn’t interested in analyzing literature.
RR: I noticed you’re a board member of the Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
DM: I was term-limited off the board and, now, I’m the chairman of the San Francisco chapter. The essential fact is that I contribute my time and work on fund raising, which is what board members of non-profits dothey go out and ask people for money, which is what I do. I’m a true believer in the ACLU and the Bill of Rights and defending it and it’s a very bad time to do that stuff.
RR: Definitelyit’s a dark time.
DM: Keep fighting.