Connecting the Unbroken Chain: A Chat with Dennis McNally
The Grateful Dead has long been described as a school of thought or at least a lifestyle, but it’s a rare day when the legendary group gets its due in an academic setting. However, a few years ago, Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead’s longtime historian and publicist, began working with his alma mater the University of Massachusetts to turn Grateful Dead Studies into a legitimate academic pursuit. As a result, from November 16-18, UMass will host Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture and Memory, a weekend-long symposium exploring the Grateful Dead’s history and impact. The event will use the Dead as a jumping off point to explore a variety of topics in history, literature, sociology, art and, of course, music, including a keynote address from McNally himself. Below, the longtime Dead historian talks about Unbroken Chain, his personal history with the Dead and what Jerry would have thought about the symposium.
MG- Let’s start by talking about how the symposium came together. What inspired you to put a series together at this point in your career?
DM- I got my Ph.D. at UMass and, about two or three years ago, they started inviting me to come back. So, I went back there to do a lecture about writing for the public, which is a specific program they have. I gave an address and everybody said, “That’s nice, why don’t you come back for a week and teach classes” and I said, “Sure” and I did. The only complication is that I had to do it in January or February, which is the only time I’m sure RatDog isn’t touring. Which of course is not the best time of year to visit Mass! [laughter]. But, other than that, it has been great and I’ve really enjoyed it and they seemed to have put up with me well.
But, what happened the last time I was there, I was taken to lunch by the Dean [John Mullin], who is not your average Dean. He is also a Brigade General in the National Guard, a very interesting mind. So we got to talking and I said, “You know? You could teach an entire college semester of literature, history, engineering, business, religion, sociology, you name it, with a class centered around the Grateful Dead.” And instead of saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he looked at me and he said, “That’s interesting.” And we talked about it. And the end result was that they have two classes focused on The Dead: one is an undergraduate class in literature and one is a graduate class in history. The history one is, of course, being taught by, believe it or not, no bullshit, a guy named Robert Weir who was not a Deadhead [laughter].
So, anyways, this symposium, will bring together all kinds of academic people that have been involved with the Grateful Dead in some fashion for years and years. People like David Dodd, who did that wonderful book about The Dead’s lyrics, Rebecca Adams, who took a sociology class on tour to study Deadheads back in the 80s and wrote a book about it, and photographers like Herb Greene will be there. Susana Millman, my wife, will be there, talking about shooting The Dead. Dan Healy will be there. There are some people from the Grateful Dead office that are coming just as guests just to see what goes down- Alan Trist for instance. And you will have this meeting of Deadheads and students and scholars to talk about the Grateful Dead and talk about it very seriously and also have some fun in the evenings.
MG- There will also be a musical component as well, correct?
DM- Oh yeah, they are going to have the American Beauty Project coming one night and Dark Star Orchestra another night. It should be fun. DSO will never have had such a remorseless audience after studying the Dead all day, but I’m excited about it.
I gotta say, I’ve been talking to college classes for a long time and because I have to give the keynote address—-and because it is a somewhat more formal setting—-I’ve had to do some serious thinking about what the hell I’ve been up to for the past 30 years [laughter]. And it’s been interesting and it has affirmed what I basically thought from the beginning: that it is an amazing phenomenon, the Grateful Dead, as we all know, and it is worth serious thinking and very serious study.
MG- I’ve always thought that tracing the Grateful Dead’s history is like tracing the history of American music, from bluegrass and country to even disco and electronic music.
DM- They are the ultimate American string band and they have assimilated everything that went before themwell, virtually everything that went before them. Plus, sociologically, they were very, very much a part of the America bohemian tradition that goes back to Thoreau, Whitman, and, of course, the Beats just before them. At least that was the theory I was operating on when I started my dissertation on them and I have only confirmed it since.
MG- Can you talk a bit about your dissertation and how you were able to connect the Beats to the Deadheads?
DM- Yeah, I was looking around for a doctoral dissertation topic and knew this very smart guy who was a math major and also a Deadhead. A couple of months later he also took me to my first Grateful Dead show, so you might say he has had an impact on my life [laughter]! The show was October 30, 1972 at the Springfield Civic Centerthis is how far back it was. We were driving down the freeway, down the interstate from Amherst to Springfield, and we spotted what we knew were other Deadheads in the car. We held up a tape to indicate we were going toosign language!. They held up a tape, a commercial tape, to indicate that, yes, they were indeed going as well.
Anyways, so we hung out a lot and, one night, he said to me, “You ought to do a book.” I was saying, “I want to do this, I want to do that,” and he said, “You ought to do a book on Kerouac.” You can stay with my friends. They are going to school at Fordham and so you have a place to stay in Manhattan. And all these papers are at Columbia, which turned out not to be trueI went to 10 of the University libraries. But a lot of what he said was true.
And what I set out to do at that moment is what Paul Krasner, the yippy and satirical writer, later called “the roots of the hippie generation.” I wanted to set out and find my intellectual roots. As a person, I didn’t particularly think of myself as a hippie. I was going to college, I hadn’t dropped out particularly. But I was particularly a fan of the American culture and, when I started studying, what I realized was that I was kindred to the beats who tended to be a little more intellectual, a little more artsy. I drank red wine, listened to jazz. That is where I came from. And it turned out, of course, to make a very long story short, is where Jerry came from and he read my book, which I sent him, and he said “why don’t you do us?”
MG- Garcia’s roots always seemed more in line with the dark Beats than the tie-dye hippie-movement.
DM- He is 16 and he is going to art school on Saturdays in the north beach part of San Francisco, where the beats hung out. His teacher is a guy named Wally Hedrick, and Wally is a painter, but he’s a beat. He’s got a beard, he sends Jerry and some of his buddies to the City Lights bookstore. He says, “Get this book, read it, this brand new hot bestselling book, called On the Road.” And Jerry ends up reading it, and hanging out in the coffee houses, and listening to poetry and jazz. And he said that was his model for how to live life. For what he called a “system of ethics” is what we would now call, in general, a lifestyle. That money didn’t play a big role in and what it was really about was living a spiritual life—- although Jerry’s spirituality was mostly in the fingering of a fret board.
And, you know, that was the life he chose. He chose it very consciously and, because he was a very smart guy, very well educated, mostly by himself over time, he realized that this was part of this historical path that goes back to Thoreau. That goes back to what happened when the industrial revolution took place and people started realizing, well we are more prosperous, but we are kind of hollow. And that has been the story of the last 160 years in American culture, of people saying, yeah it is really nice to eat better, that is important, but we are feeling a little hollow and that is what Jerry’s historical understanding was.
And by the time I started that in 72, by 73 I had gone to my first show and listened to a lot of tapes and realized—-actually there weren’t a lot of tapes back then, it was a lot of records with this math guy. I went to my second show in March of 73, also in Springfield, and by the summer of 73, as Richard Nixon started to go down during the Watergate hearings, I’m doing more research and digging into Kerouac and all this, it occurs to me that what I really wanted to do is a two-book history of bohemianism in American since WWII. And Volume I is Kerouac in the 1940’s and 50’s. And Volume II is the Dead in the 60’s and 70’s, and because I took so freaking long, you get the 80’s and 90’s for free [laughter]. I didn’t realize it was going to be my adult life, but I kind of got hung up being the publicist. And that is exactly what I did. And like that class, that history class, that is what he is doing. Not from my book, but he is exploring the same topics —-which are the roots of bohemianism and, in particular, since WWII.
MG- Would you say that it is correct to describe the modern jam-scene as a “hippie movement?”
DM- I think they are heirs to that scene. There is just no question that the basic element is improvisation in both cases. Improvisation commits you to a path of music that invokes magic. Magic that codes for a whole lot of things. You can certainly be inspired by playing classical music that is note for note, but it is a different kind of inspiration. And I submit improvisation is even tougher and that sort of the magic was the remarkable thing that the Grateful Dead discovered when they suddenly realized, to quote Bobby, “The song’s over, but we’re not done playing with it.”
They found something, and the hippie bands that we know about now—-the so called hippie bands—-are clearly following in those footsteps. Most of them seem to me to honor some of the social aspects of the Grateful Dead whether its psychedelics or just a general honoring the bohemian or hippie tradition. But, you know, I don’t hang out with these guys. I know some of them, I’ve met some of them, and I think, yes, some of them are very consciously part of that tradition. But, you know, I don’t’ want to speak for them, because they don’t pay me to speak for them [laughter]. No, I mean I’m happy to work for free, but I just don’t know, so I’m a little reluctant to generalize too much about the jamband scene other than the fact that they are committed to improvisation and that is a very powerful tool.
MG- When would you say the modern “lot” scene or “shakedown street” movement came to be?
DM- In December of 1979, December 26th, the Grateful Dead started playing a series of New Year’s runs at what is now Henry J. Kaiser auditorium. I think then it was Oakland Auditorium. And there was a park out in front and in a completely improvised, not consciously thought out way, the management of Bill Graham Presents started to allow camping. The first night there were like 20 people, by the end of the week there were a couple hundred. By the next year there were a lot of hundreds [laughter]. Around then, we also started responding to a need for a ticket office. One of the reasons, initially, was to sell books of tickets of an entire tour, so people could go to an entire tour if they wanted. After a while we realized “Uh oh.”
What happened was, of course, we had our darn hit [“Touch of Grey”]. And people, instead of learning about the Grateful Dead through friends and learning about how to act along with the fact that this was an interesting scene, started going down to the shows just because they heard the song on the radio. They didn’t have a clue otherwise, but they’d heard the song and they liked the song and they tried to get into the show. Of course, they can’t because it is sold out, but there is this raging party going on outside and they realize well, “I like to party, here I am!”
After a while there are 5,000 people like that. Well, like any ecosystem, if you overload the number of elements in the ecosystem, the number of deer per square feet or the number of people, you fuck it up. And that is what happened. First, now you have commercial vendors, not just people selling t-shirts out of their backpacks, and you have guys in trucks selling counterfeit stuff. That alone was a pain in the ass enough. And then you have 5,000 people who don’t have tickets, who are taking parking spaces from those people who do have tickets, which backs traffic out into the city off the grounds of wherever you are playing, etc, etc, etc.
And it was a problem we fought till the last show. And some stuff we were able to manage easily and some stuff it was just so tough. The camping ended. That had to end because, as somebody pointed out, “Do you realize if you allow camping that this means for 5 days, the day before the show, the days of the shows, and the day after somebody—-that would be us—-has to supply city services to 10,000 people because that is how many people would end up camping. By city services, I mean police, water, food, sewage ——that is to say pumping out the porter potties—-etc, etc. Well, that’s an enormous expense and, besides that, it’s like you are making Jerry the mayor of a traveling counterculture city and he was just trying to tune his guitar. That was his attitude, it was like, “leave me alone.”
The most annoying thing was the BS in the parking lot about how we eliminated camping because we wanted to make the money ourselves. Never has more bullshit been spewed. We stopped vending—- we tried to stop vending—- and we never really stopped it. We banned vending because it was what they called in “urban planning circles,” an attractive nuisance. It gave people an excuse to hang out.
The fact was that it was the least of our concerns. Merchandising was never a top priority of the Grateful Dead. If it had been, we could have made more money than you’d be stunned. But we didn’t, because you know, nobody gave a rat’s butt about really making money and it took a lot of work that nobody felt like putting in. What we were doing was trying to be able to tour, which, of course, is what we did make a lot of money at, liked it, earned it, and felt it was okay. And the point is that all those people who were selling t-shirts were, in fact, threatening to end that touring, andby the end of that summer I don’t know what would have happened if Jerry had stayed alive. We would have been severely crippled as to touring. The next to last tour was, “God Almighty!” At the very least, we would have to take some time off and breathe. And I mean it was miserable, that is a whole other story.
MG- Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the song “Shakedown Street” itself?
DM- Shakedown St. was Front Street. It was a real street. It was Hunter’s nickname for Front Street, which was where the Grateful Dead studio was, or really the rehearsal hall, it was more of a rehearsal hall than a studio. Front Street in San Rafael and, oddly enough, for a relatively small town, it happened to have a lot of women of the easy virtue working on that street and shady types. So that was, so Hunter did a take on that. But so that’s life imitates art in that way or vice versa.
MG- Finally, what do you think Jerry Garcia would say if he knew there was an entire academic symposium devoted to his work?
DM- “Far out man.” I think he’d be amused. Bob’s response was, “Well, you know the academic world has always taken us more serious than we take ourself. But if it indicates the enduring value of improvisational music, I’m all for it.” Or words to that effect. I think Jerry would say something like that. He would be a little surprised, but remember, he picked me [laughter]. It wasn’t like he thought the academic world was utterly without value. He had a lot of interesting conversations with Stanley Krippner or Fred Lieberman. I think he would have been a little bemused, but kinda interested.