A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead
A Book by Dennis McNally
First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2002, Volume 9, #10
Written by John Metzger
There are many books that have been written about the Grateful Dead. No doubt many more will come. But none have ever or will ever match the majestic beauty of Dennis McNallyís A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
The problem with many music biographies is that they are written by people who just donít have access to the details that are necessary to tell the full story. Others are written by such avid fans that important, though often less than flattering, details are deliberately excluded. Still others are written by someone with such a grudge or level of self-interest and self-importance that facts are twisted, stories are not corroborated, and tabloid journalism runs rampant. McNally certainly had access, and he most definitely bears no ill will. But skeptics, no doubt, will wonder if McNally falls into the middle category. After all, itís no secret that he has served as the bandís publicist since 1984, but keeping the roles of historian/biographer and publicist compartmentalized proved to be a simple matter. Said McNally, "Thereís a line in history that no man is a hero to his valet. Well, nobody is a hero to their employees. They were heroes when they were playing because that was separate. But I kept my own opinion as to what was going on, always, and sometimes I thought they did dumb things."
Indeed, there are plenty of instances in A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead in which the band and its entourage are portrayed in a less than flattering light. But McNally also manages to keep the text even-handed and well-balanced. "There was craziness and there was occasional conflict, but there wasnít a lot of delusion. People were pretty honest. Everybody in the band ó the four founding members ó have all read it; they vetted it for facts. Not once did anybody say, ĎOh, leave that out ó itís embarrassing.í Never. And I say things that are quite critical of the band," he commented.
His role as a publicist granted him the access he needed to witness the daily happenings in and around the Grateful Dead. It also gave him plenty of opportunities to fully research the history of the band and interview those who were there for the years prior to his involvement. Itís here that his background as a historian ó McNally holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Massachusetts ó fully comes into play. The book offers a twenty-page bibliography and a five-page list of interviewees as proof that McNally did his homework. This wealth of information is synthesized together to form one of the most fact-based and fair-minded biographies in rock history.
The seeds for the project were first planted thirty years ago when McNally decided to make Jack Kerouac the focus of his Ph.D. studies. Said McNally, "The actual choice of Kerouac came about for a couple of reasons: one intellectual and two practical. He was chronologically my immediate forbearer ó in the í50s I read On the Road ó and I was consciously resisting the flattening effects of the academic world by looking for something that was outside the conventional culture to study. Kerouac seemed appropriate."
"At that time, my parents lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts which is 20 miles from Lowell, where Kerouac was from," he added.
Eight months later, McNally attended his first Grateful Dead concert and came to realize that his study of American history was really a two-volume set: the first covering the í40s and í50s in relation to Jack Kerouac, the second covering the í60s and í70s through the world of the Grateful Dead. "Because Iím slow, I rang in twenty extra years just for fun," he quipped.
Of course the progression is a natural one, given that On the Road was an extremely influential book to Jerry Garciaís life. As such, it was McNallyís first volume on Kerouac ó Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, which will be reissued in early 2003 ó that provided the introduction he needed to get close to the band.
Yet, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead is far more than just another band biography. True, it covers in extraordinary detail the history of the Grateful Dead from its very early beginnings through its sad demise. And, while many of these stories have been told before, McNally puts them in perspective within the context of the Grateful Dead organization as well as the world at large, adding volumes of additional information and insight along the way. But, the bandís story also proved to be a natural fit with American history. Despite being an apolitical band, the Grateful Dead often found itself caught up inside the tumultuous whirlwind of political and social change in the late í60s and the early í70s. Said McNally, "Itís really easy to talk about the history of America (of what was going on at that time) through the experiences of the Grateful Dead because they kept bumping into things ó not even intentionally. They didnít care about student rebellion. Yet they were at a college when Kent State happened. They played at Columbia in the middle of a student strike ó not because they supported the strike, particularly, but because it was an adventure. They never issued a Grateful Dead statement against the war in Vietnam, but they played a lot of anti-war efforts. It was very easy to connect them to American history."
In addition, the manner in which the history of the Grateful Dead is told gives one a complete understanding as to how this extraordinary story unfolded. McNally paints the various personalities from childhood through middle age, allowing the reader to get close to the band and understand the reasons for each individualís behavior. "The ends are found in the beginning, always, in everyoneís life," said McNally. "And if you canít see the patterns emerging in childhood, then you donít have enough information about the childhood. Thatís just the way it works in peopleís lives. Basic personalities are clear very early on and everything else becomes obvious after awhile."
Of course, drugs ó and specifically psychedelics ó played a critical role in the development of the Grateful Dead and its surrounding culture, McNally is careful to show how the group used them in an attempt to understand the world and its place within it. In the introduction to A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, McNally relays a tour bus conversation among the band members in which they discuss the evolution of consciousness, reality, and the universe ó a far cry from most rock bandsí road ramblings on wine, women, and song. Cut together with the history of America, one gets as thorough and complete a picture of the band and the times in which it found itself as one could possibly get without having actively lived through it.
As if that isnít enough, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead also includes a primer on the music industry, offering everything from how promoters can steal from a band to how a band can get an education in recording on a record labelís dime. Offering further insight into the Grateful Dead, its crew, its audience, and the entire touring process, McNally deconstructs a hypothetical year from the í80s. And all of this information is put together in a rather interesting way. Said McNally, "I had been working on the book for about three years, and I knew that a straight linear accounting was not sufficient, but I hadnít figured out the structure of it. I took this drive, and a couple of hours into it, the structure suddenly started falling out of my head. So, I grabbed a piece of paper, and I had it on the steering wheel. I almost drove off the road four times because I was very excited. In effect, there were three types of chapters. There were linear chapters. There were subject chapters. And, there was this hypothetical year."
He added, "As Louis Sullivan [Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor] would have said, form follows function. Originally, I came up with the idea of 64 chapters for the I Ching. But because you donít force things into a framework, I eliminated some because they didnít make sense any more. But that basic structure ó those things sitting together and evolving ó fell out even then."
For certain, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead is a magnificent tome telling an epic journey of a band set within the context of a significant and defining moment in Americaís brief history. As a result, it is a book for Deadheads, music fans, scholars, and historians alike. Itís well-written and stuffed to the brim with facts, anecdotes, and insight illustriously making the case that the Grateful Dead was not only a cultural phenomenon, but also was as important as any artist to emerge in the 20th Century.
Of Further Interest...
A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box