Dennis McNallys Ongoing Road Trip
Dennis McNally is probably best known as the publicist for the Grateful Dead as well as the band’s official biographer. Following the death of Jerry Garcia, he began working with some of the group’s offshoots, including Bob Weir’s RatDog. McNally holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and in addition to A Long, Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (Broadway Books, 2003), he has written Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America (Random House, 1979). At present, Dennis works as an independent publicist for several artists, including Little Feat, Boris Garcia, The Subdudes, The Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Matson, and Grammy winning percussionist Zakir Hussain. The following conversation touches on the full sweep of his life and work, including his third book, which will encompass Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and the culture, art and history of the Mississippi River.
Backdrop . . .
Let’s start with some basic stuff . Where’d you grow up?
My father was a Sergeant in the Army and I was born in Fort Meade, Maryland, which is located half-way between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Being a military family, we moved around a bit, so I also spent some time in Germany, and eventually we even moved out to Los Angeles, where my father planned to retire. But he decided to become a Unitarian minister, so we moved again to Maine, which is where he attended seminary school and where I went to high school.
What year was that and how old were you?
The year was 1963 and I was 13 years old. Our move to Maine coincided with my first year in high school.
Where in Maine did you live?
We lived in a little town called Dexter. Among other things, our [cross country] trip there led to my driving, well, riding in the passenger seat, across Route 66. That's one of my great memories of that time period. We traveled across the [now legendary] old highway just before it was covered over by I-40.
That sounds like a great trip. What other memories do you have from that time period?
I remember that my father still had family in Baltimore, so we stopped there along the way, and my uncle, who was a steel worker and a member of one of the very early predominantly black unions, though he didn't happen to be black, was getting ready to head to D.C. [in August of 63] to participate in the big march. I was very close to being invited to go along but we had to keep moving on, so I missed that opportunity. It’s one of my few regrets.
Were you a rebellious kid?
No. I was a military child. I was mostly obedient and bookish. My father was an army Sergeant, so rebelling was really not an option. I always found it more useful and interesting to go around and over rather than through. Mostly I read a lot.
Well I figured because you were attracted to subject matter such as the Beats.
It was an intellectual thing (laughing). You know I marched against the war and I did all that, but in college when everyone was running around talking about strikes, one of my favorite memories was being in the class of a really marvelous but, socially, very conservative philosophy teacher. He was a military veteran and still sort of pro war in the fall of . . . I think it was ’69. Anyway, some students chose to protest by not going to his class. Well I didn't see what not going to class at a small school in Canton, NY [St. Lawrence University] was going to do to stop the war in Vietnam. So I opted to attend and spend the entire class period arguing with him about the war. I found that to be a lot more educational and useful than not showing up. Eventually, I succeeded in taking over the class. The agenda effectively got shifted to my agenda. He accepted it as a useful educational moment and later I think he did come out against the war. I like to think I might have had something to do with that.
What kind of music were you listening to before you ever heard of the Grateful Dead?
I started and ended, because it's still one of my fundamental musical interests, with jazz. The first record I ever bought, in 1965, was Thelonious Monk Live at the Five Spot featuring Johnny Griffin [on tenor sax]. My local candy store, which was also the local soda fountain, had a record rack. This was a TINY town in the backwoods mind you . . . well, the shop had a catalog from which you could order records and I said I wanted to order that one, and the woman who worked there, bless her heart, ordered it for me. It's the only piece of vinyl I still have. I wasn't sentimental about the rest of my records, which I've since sold, but I've held onto it.
Following the Sound . . .
So, you were into jazz.
Yes. And later on when I got to college, I started hanging around the campus radio station, which featured a jazz program on Sunday nights. The DJ really knew his stuff, and by regularly visiting the studio and listening while he did his show and talking to him a lot, I managed to get quite an education on the topic. So a few years later, when he left, I replaced him. I also did another radio show, which was more of a free-form thing and it was on that show, in the Fall of '67, that I played the first Grateful Dead album, which had come out earlier that year [in the spring]. I remember liking the record a lot and playing it a lot on the show.
So that was your initial brush with the music of the Grateful Dead?
Well, that was the start of what was to be a long involvement with the group's music. It wasn't until I got to graduate school [The University of Massachusetts at Amherst] that I really dove in. I was an insanely industrious student in graduate school, so I didn't socialize a whole lot, but my one friend, Chris Byrnes, who was a genius mathematician, also happened to be a pot smoker and a huge fan of the Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna. Chris was kind enough to share both his stash and his record collection with me. He used to say "Pot is like manure, it's only good if you spread it around!" (laughs) So, we'd hang out in his room, when not working, and listen to his many records, this was before tapes, of the GD and Hot Tuna.
Sounds like your friend Chris provided your real introduction to the Dead.
Indeed. And in October of 1972 he dragged me to see the group, for my first time, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He also gave me my first hit that night. I remember it being a great show and it was all downhill from there (laughing).
How would you describe your level of dedication to the GD scene at the time you started working for the group? How much of a Deadhead were you?
I was pretty hardcore about the music. But, you know, I never had long hair because I have this weird gnarly hair that when it grows long makes me look like a haystack or something. And by the time I became the biographer (1980) I was already 30. I didn't really fit the stereotype of a Deahdhead. I never wore tie-dye, I never spare changed, I never miracled. The image of the Deadhead was something that came about later in the '80s after I was already working for the band. By the time that whole concept came along I was an employee of the band and was GIVING OUT miracle tickets [not asking for them], but that's another tangent.
You have to understand that being a Deadhead has seen a whole number of successive waves. The very first wave of heads, which wasn't that large a group, was in the late '60s in San Francisco. The second and larger wave, of which I'm the tail end, and of which all my friends were the front end, consisted mainly of college students from the Northeast who graduated somewhere between '69 and '73. And by and large we didn't live in VW buses and sell stuff in the parking lot, because the parking lot scene really didn't exist yet. The Deadhead image wasn’t really created until later, mostly in the ’80s.
Did your family/parents have any opinions about your choice of a beatnik as subject matter for your doctoral work or your later affiliation with the Dead?
My natural mom died when I was 11 and my father at 23, so actually they were not around for much of my adult life, but they were very proud of me when they were alive. I was a good student and a good son. They might have been a little bemused by it maybe. I think my father would have liked for me to become a minister. He was a Unitarian, which is a liberal faith by definition, so he couldn’t exactly heavy up on me. He remarried after my mom died, and my second mom, who I also considered to be very much my mom, was very supportive. She passed away about 10 years ago. But she was happy if I was happy and she knew that I liked what I did. And again, by the time I started working for the Dead I was 30 years old and a fully functioning adult. So as far as she was concerned I had a real job working for a very successful rock band.
How many Dead shows had you seen by the time you were hired?
Approximately two hundred. When I lived back East, I was taking in about one show per year, from 1972 through 1976. In the first part of the '70s people didn't really follow tours yet, so I'd catch a show whenever the band came to town. But once I moved out to San Francisco [in 1976], I started following the group up and down the coast and the shows started to stack up. My friends won't even let me count the shows I got paid to attend (laughs). They say it's cheating.
Once you were working for the band, starting in 1980, I’ve heard you say you could no longer pay full attention to the shows, did that bother you? Did you miss being part of the general audience?
I accepted it as a fair trade. I'd work during the first set and still be able to focus on the second set, which for the most part was what Dead shows were about. And it wasn't easy at first. They didn't hand out laminates like licorice in ’80/’81. I was on the backstage list, so I’d get a sticker that allowed me to go backstage, but I didn’t have a laminate for the first two and a half years with the band. Generally speaking, a laminate allowed you to go onstage with the crew. And they also had to like you or they’d throw you the fuck off. So, yeah, it took me a while to really break in.
One day in Las Vegas in 1983, [the band’s head roadie and stage manager], Steve Parish looked at me and said, “Hey you’ve been around long enough,” and he finally pulled me onstage. From then on I was officially in and could come and go as I pleased, though there were times when being behind the band [on stage] was not where I wanted to be. For example, The night the group broke out “St. Stephen,” [at Madison Square Garden in October of '83], which they hadn't played in a very long time, I realized there was no way I wanted to experience that moment from behind the band. So I opted to go back out front [into the audience] to get the full experience. For the record, hanging out backstage isn’t really that fun. Unless you’ve been invited to hang out in someone’s private dressing room or whatever, there's not much to do. Sometimes I'd hang around back there and take notes, but generally it's a somewhat bleak space and it’s more fun to be in the audience.
The Golden Gate, Garcia and Anachronistically High-grade Marijuana . . .
When did you move to San Francisco?
I finished my doctoral work [at Amherst] in September of 1976 and the next day I headed straight for the Bay Area. I might add that it was an indication of my extreme poverty at the time that I didn't get to see the two big shows the Dead played in October of that year in San Francisco, where they were joined by the Who. I also missed the Last Waltz [at Bill Graham’s famous Winterland]. It was a 25 dollar ticket, and that was pretty pricey at the time. I did get to go to the New Year's show that year, with Santana on the bill, which was wonderful.
So when the Grateful Dead approached you to work for them, were you somewhat overwhelmed or was it no big deal for you?
Well, let's rewind a little. I interviewed Jerry for the first time while I was working on my doctoral dissertation about Kerouac and, long story short, I got involved with a guy named Al Aronowitz, who had been a reporter for the New York Post. He was a friend of Jerry’s. He’d done a series of really good articles about the Beat Generation for the Post and so I tracked him down and got to know him. Well, he hooked me up for a thing where we both interviewed Garcia on the subject of Neal Cassady. This was in 1973. I'd only been into the group for about a year at that point, but yes I was, “Uh, wow, you know, this is Jerry!” I remember lots about that day, but one of the things I remember in particular was that when we were done, Garcia broke out a joint. This was long before the era of fantastic sinsemilla and all that stuff. We were used to smoking occasionally good Columbian, but in general pretty mediocre pot. Anyway, Jerry pulls out a joint, and I was happy to share it with him. A little later, I remember riding back to Al's house in New Jersey, sitting in the shotgun seat, and I was SOO ripped. All I could think was . . . well, geez, if anybody on the planet should have great pot, it's gotta be Jerry! (laughter). In any event, that was an apt moment.
Am I correct in assuming that Garcia was the guy with whom you connected the most in the Dead?
Well yeah. Jerry invited me to be the band’s biographer because he was profoundly influenced by Kerouac and he had liked my book and he thought I could do a good job with the Dead. So we had that bond. And being the band’s publicist, most people wanted to talk to Jerry, so I wound up dealing with him the most. He was the best boss I’ll ever have, I’ll tell you that much.
How’d you initially get in touch with him?
Right after the Kerouac book was first published [in 1979], I mailed it to him at the old GD fan address, PO Box 1073, which was the address that appeared on the Skull and Roses album [under the heading “Dead Freaks Unite.”] But to make a long story short, I didn’t really make a connection until an audition [in 1980] that was connected to the Warfield Theater run of shows. This was the string of shows that ended up at Radio City Music Hall in NYC on Halloween of that year. The band would play three sets and in between sets [at Radio City] they did skits by Al Franken and Tom Davis. The gist of the skits was a spoof on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethons, with a Jerry Garcia Telethon that featured a bunch of wasted looking Deadhead kids, or “Jerry’s Kids.” So, I actually auditioned to be one of those kids and I got to meet Jerry during the audition. Within the first minute of talking to him I mentioned my Kerouac book and he got very excited and we started raving about Kerouac. Well after about twenty minutes of that, Tom Davis, who is, to this day, one of my very best friends, stepped in and said “you know we’re working on a Grateful Dead project here, not Kerouac, so it’s been REALLY nice to meet you but you have to move on . . .” or something along those lines.
Did you get the part?
No, they ended up picking a guy named Tumbleweed for the skit, who looked, well, like a tumbleweed, but the good news was that my hook had been set.
So how’d you mange to keep in touch with Jerry after that?
It’s somewhat complicated, but I knew Eileen Law, who worked for the band, and I had told Garcia [at the audition] that Eileen had my phone number. Well, one day, a little after meeting him, I got a call from Rock Scully, who was kind of Jerry’s publicist at the time, and he said “Hey I’m calling on behalf of Jerry and he was wondering why don’t you write a book about us [the Grateful Dead]?
So he had read the copy of the book that you sent him?
Well, in another good example of how I was helped by people along the way, I happened to know Bill Graham’s assistant, Jan, who did me a huge favor. When the Dead were in New York that year (1980), Jerry was being besieged by his fans, so much so that he couldn’t stay at the hotel where the band was staying, so he decided to stay at Bill Graham’s condo in the city. Well Jan purposely left a copy of my book there and Jerry read it and liked it. It was a subtle move and it worked like a charm. Had I asked Jerry if I could write a book about him he probably would have said something like “Sure, right, take a number!” It was something that had to be HIS idea. My standard line to how I reacted when I was finally asked to write about the group was “Wow what a great idea, I’d never thought of that!” (laughs). But of course it was something I’d been dreaming about for years.
What was your relationship with Garcia like?
Well, at first I started out as his peer and he was the kind of guy who didn't take himself seriously as mister rock star. And because the subject of my work was important to him, as he was profoundly influenced by Kerouac, I was just someone whose work he admired. Once I became his employee, obviously it became a different relationship.
All of a sudden he was your boss.
Well, yeah, though he didn’t want to be a boss. He sort of assumed that we were all in this together and everything just kind of worked itself out. He avoided riding herd on people and getting into the whole boss thing, but yeah.
Did your relationship change much over time?
Eventually he became less accessible and he was also fighting drug dependence. So there were times when I simply wouldn’t book any interviews and such because I knew he just didn’t want to do them. By the end of his life he mostly hung out in his private dressing room and kept to himself. He’d stay in there and play his guitar and so forth. He was happier that way.
Work, Family and the Future . . .
How do you feel about being the subject of interviews?
I got to live out a lot of peoples' fantasies. It was my fantasy too, but a lot of other people shared that concept. So, when people want to ask me about it, I understand why and I'm happy to share, within limits.
Do you always grant interviews when people ask?
I guess I'm a little hesitant about doing interviews in the sense that as a publicist my job is to get coverage for my clients instead of for myself. But I always say yes. I work under a set of principles, given to me by Jerry Garcia, among others, that on a lot of levels you just say yes, if it's reasonable, and don't make distinctions. Sure, when the New York Times calls, I'm probably going to respond more quickly, but I'm also going to respond to a call from a small college newspaper or whoever. When I was working on my Kerouac dissertation and no one knew my name AT ALL a lot of people said yes to me and I'm thankful for that and I try to pay that forward. I've been treated well by too many people in the past to be haughty now.
How much are you traveling at this point?
Not a lot. Not many bands can afford to bring along a publicist. When I was working with RatDog, I was also helping out with some of the road manager's duties, which helped to justify my being there. You can't be along for the ride and work for just one hour a day or people are going to look at you and go, “What the hell is that guy doing here?” (laughs). Outside of my personal travel, I'm going back east to give a lecture at a prep school in April and that's about it for the near future.
What Prep School?
Cool. I went to a boarding school in New England and that’s where I caught the Dead bug.
Oh yeah, New England boarding schools are hotbeds of Deadheads.
Do you enjoy lecturing?
Yes! God, paying for me to show up and blabber about the Grateful Dead is like stealing money (laughs). I should be embarrassed.
I attended one of your lectures in the fall of 1996 at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Cool. I lectured there in the same room where the Dead once played [The Glenn Miller Ballroom]. It's a pretty small space, though I bet they sold more tickets than I did (laughs).
Yeah, that’s the auditorium at the student union.
There's a standard line in show biz, that comedians use a lot – "I worked that room” which I also like to use. So if I see the White House, which is where I had the privilege of introducing Jerry Garcia to Al Gore [in 1993], I'll say "I worked that room!" As you might imagine, I've worked a lot of rooms, but to be featured in the same space where the Dead once played was really wild.
Do you like to travel?
Yes, I have the road in my blood. I like going from town to town and seeing different people. If you were doing a soundtrack of my life you could definitely include Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” I enjoy traveling, and with the Grateful Dead we had it down to a science. For the most part we'd only stay in one place for three days at a time. Just about the time you're getting bored with a given town, the show would end, you’d walk down the stage stairs and get into a van, then drive 20 minutes to a private airfield, where you’d get out of the van and then hop on a fancy corporate jet, sit down, fly for an hour, get off and then reverse the process. Then two hours after the next show ended you were in a new town and the next day would be a day off. What was to complain about? It wasn't a hard life physically, though emotionally it could be intense.
Do you like hanging around home or do you get itchy and want to get out on the road?
There was a point in mid September of 1995, after Jerry had passed away and the band was no longer touring, when my wife looked at me and said “You know, Dennis, it’s not exactly easy having you at home.” I looked back at her and said “It’s not exactly easy being at home!” (laughs) I'm adjusted to it now, but I was happy to go back out on the road with Bobby and RatDog while it lasted. It wasn't as luxurious as going out with the Dead but that didn't bother me at all. But, you know, I'm not getting any younger, so I'm not crying that I'm not on the road.
I know that you have another book in the works. How is it progressing?
To give you a little background, when I finished the Kerouac book I fell into what I can only describe as a postpartum depression. I was clinically depressed for about three months, which had never happened to me before that and has not happened to me since, thank God. So when I got near the end of the Dead book, 20 years later, I had the notion that the only way to avoid postpartum depression is to stay pregnant. I needed a new concept, an idea to contemplate, not necessarily to do right away, but to know, “Hey, I’ll do this when I have the time.” To answer the question, I still need to do about three years of research before I can really start writing, and so for now it’s going slowly. It’ll be a while, but I figure if I can write three solid books in my lifetime I’ll be happy.
Do you have a process when you write?
The process is all out craziness (laughs).
What’s the book about?
The book is about the cultural history of the Mississippi River. It traces various socio-cultural connections between Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and other people whose lives are connected to the river. It covers a diversity of things and people, including T.S. Eliot, Lester Young, even Rush Limbaugh. The book starts with a preface that involves Thoreau. When I finished editing my Grateful Dead book, I treated myself to the nicest present, which was to drive the length of the Mississippi along Highway 61. That trip confirmed some things in my head, but then I had to get back to work. I hope to be able to stop working sometime in the next seven or eight years, in terms of the booking and publicity, etc., and, assuming the country doesn't collapse, I plan to get back to it. I sometimes joke that my Keroauc book covered the East Coast and my Grateful Dead book the West, so I still need to do something that deals with the middle of the country.