Dead again: Band returns on stage and page

July 28, 2002


Seven years after the death of its spiritual and musical leader, Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead remains an inescapable force on the pop-culture landscape.

In addition to the dozens of groups that follow in its jam-happy footsteps, from Phish to the Dave Matthews Band to Gov't Mule, the surviving members of the Dead themselves are all back on the road this summer, playing together as part of a sold-out two-day festival called Terrapin Station this weekend at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.

Now, hot on the heels of last Christmas' impressive box set, "The Golden Road 1965-1973," comes the eagerly anticipated A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (Broadway Books, $30), by long-time Dead publicist Dennis McNally.

Try to have a good-natured debate with some Deadheads about the musical merits of their heroes and you'll quickly discover you'd be better off talking women's rights with a member of the Taliban. For some, the Dead is a religion, and its basic tenets are not be questioned. Not so with McNally.

Despite his position as the band's chief propagandist (and a driving force in its management team since 1979), McNally has always been willing to scuffle with non-believers, of which I am admittedly one (at least regarding the live experience--I love many of the studio albums, a point I made when reviewing the box set).

McNally and I had a long and good-natured debate about the box, his book, and the legacy of the band in general. It was fueled by his ever-present desire to convert a skeptic, as well as our mutual admiration for Gerry Howard, the New York editor who published my biography of Lester Bangs, and who also edited McNally's tome.

Q. Dennis, so much has been written about the Grateful Dead, and so much music is out there, officially or unofficially--is there really anything left to put in a box set or to say in a book?

A. Absolutely, on both counts. If I may say so, most of the books have been very narrow in span. I will add one caveat, which is that I did not read Blair [Jackson]'s book Garcia: An American Life because of fears of plagiarism.

Q. My personal favorite was Bob Weir's sister's book, In the Spirit: Conversations with the Spirit of Jerry Garcia, where she interviewed Jerry from beyond the grave.

A. [Laughs] My agent did that book, and she's a wonderful agent, but I said to her, "Look, we have to agree there is one subject we'll never discuss." She said, "I understand, but you do have to admit--I'm a great agent to sell that book!"

Anyway, all the books that have been written so far--and I'm not going to badmouth anybody--but they've all had a very narrow focus of one sort of another: either the Deadhead focus, or [former manager] Rock Scully's personal focus, or Dark Star, which was not so bad a book, but it was completely skewed toward the end days of Jerry Garcia. That's not really a great way to look at the span of the Grateful Dead. Even Blair's book, the one thing I'd say philosophically is that the essence of Jerry Garcia's approach to music and the whole essence of the Grateful Dead experience was that of group-mind and collaborative music. It was the best example of six guys all improvising together since, frankly, [John] Coltrane.

The point is, none of the books have really tried to touch on as broad an approach as what I tried to hit on in this essay in the box set, much less in the greater room that I will have in my book. As far as the music goes, without being just a raving Deadhead--which I was and still am, I suppose--some of the discoveries that David Lemieux made--the so-called "Clementine" jam for instance, which is an add to "Aoxomoxoa"--are fabulous chunks of music that literally no one has ever heard. The tapers don't have those. You start with the fact that so-called "Skull-[expletive]" is a classic album, it sounds better than it ever did with the remastering, and add the worthy bonus tracks ... well, as a complete package, going from "The Birth of the Dead," which is a classic selection of what the Grateful Dead were like as babies leading up to when they signed the contract with Warner Bros., through "Europe '72" and "Bear's Choice," you've got a very well-rounded portrait of who they were, with stuff that mostly hasn't been put out.

Q. The reason I was somewhat disappointed by the box set is that I was thinking it was going to be an opportunity to re-evaluate the studio albums. I know I'm being contrary here, but I think that for the first 10 years of their career, the Dead made very good albums, while the live performances were always really overrated. There's that whole Deadhead thing of, "One in three shows is magic!" But that's a bad batting average, because it means two shows fell short!

A. You are perverse!

Q. Maybe, but I appreciate the concise focus and songcraft of the studio albums. And the box set muddied them up by adding all of these extra tracks.

A. I agree that the recorded legacy is underrated, but I would challenge that we've "muddied it up." You're just being a perverse critic now. We wanted to give our audience value for money. They want 75 minutes of music on a CD, and "American Beauty" is 40 great minutes. Now, if you're going to be a typical critic and say, "That's 40 great minutes, I'll take it," fine. But your Deadhead is going to go, "Wow, Bob Weir is singing whatever extras are on that CD!" That makes them very, very happy.

Q. To me that's part of the problem: The Dead has always felt like an exclusive club requiring all of this arcane knowledge of ponderous trivia. To borrow Ken Kesey's line, "You're either on the bus or off the bus."

A. Right. The Grateful Dead is an experiential thing. Either you do or you don't. It's a quasi-spiritual thing. Either you are mentally and emotionally acceptable to a certain zeitgeist--you're either open to a certain approach to playing music which involves randomness--or you're not. Not many people like John Cage, either, and there's a healthy dose of Cage in the Grateful Dead. Either you're open to what I call magic--or the potential for magic--or you're not. Now, sometimes it's just the potential for a grand train wreck. But let's go back 3,000 or 4,000 years--there are Apollonians or Dionysians. Critics tend to be Apollonians. They want order, even when music is at its craziest.

Q. Not at all! I think rock 'n' roll is a visceral experience that is Dionysian to the core!

A. But the point is, the Grateful Dead is not a rock 'n' roll band. They use rock modalities, but to evaluate them purely as a rock 'n' roll band, they're not. They are a 21st century American electronic string band.

Q. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before. But I like rock 'n' roll, and what I'm saying is that on occasion, on album, the Dead made good rock 'n' roll. I wish there was more Warlocks--the early stuff on the box set--and less pretentious faux-Cage and Coltrane.

A. You and [former Sire Records chief] Howie Klein both. He'll still tell you the first album was the best because it was the crudest and the funkiest. But the fact is the Grateful Dead grew up and assimilated a whole lot more music. They were using bop chords that nobody in rock 'n' roll had ever heard of.

Q. Oh, come on! The Velvet Underground during the same period was incorporating Karlheinz Stockhausen and LaMonte Young and Ornette Coleman.

A. But they were so God-awful depressing, singing about "Heroin"

Q. In the end, Jerry Garcia died as a junkie, despite preaching psychedelic transcendence, while Lou Reed is still alive, like a cockroach after the nuclear holocaust. So who was more depressing?

A. The Velvets' whole thing was they were dark and wrestling with the demons. The thing that has always [ticked] off critics about the Grateful Dead was that they were deliberately happy, despite the fact that they were wrestling individually with their own demons. The problem with the Grateful Dead is that, A.) Critics would be pissed off because of the fanaticism of their audience, and B.) There was the general notion that they were the frontmen for whatever happened in San Francisco in the '60s. But their attitude always was a fairly consistent, "Hey, I'm just a musician."

Q. I'm 37; I missed the '60s, but I saw a dozen Dead shows. To me, the best thing was the audience. The Dead threw a great party in the parking lot, but unfortunately, they played this pointless, meandering music during it. What do you think of the bands that are following the Dead model? I don't mean musically, but in business terms.

A. Musically, I don't think anybody follows the Dead. It's one thing to say, "We improvise," and God bless them, that's great. But I don't hear a lot of Grateful Dead in any of the bands that are commonly connected to them. What they've learned from the Grateful Dead is an attempt to take care of their own business and their relationship with each other and the audience on a more satisfactory level than being a full-time employee of Orlando, Inc.--whatever that company is that produces all of the teen-pop.

Q. That would be Jive Records. Still, I have to insist, the 13th Floor Elevators were a better band than the Grateful Dead. I like the early albums included in the box set, but the Elevators' four albums were better.

A. Oh, kiss my [butt]! For God's sake! What a typical thing for a critic to say!

Q. More critics kiss up to the Dead than don't.

A. Most critics never actually listened to the show that was in front of them. They came, but they'd already written the review in their head, good or bad.

Q. Hey, if I added up all the time I wasted listening to different versions of "Drums in Space"-- I want those seven hours of my life back!

A. There are five or 10 critics that I can list that ripped us when we sucked and said, "Wow, that was a good one" when they heard a good one. The problem is that the party and the colorfulness of the parking lot obscured whatever was going on musically. Very few people approached them on anything like fair terms. Too much had already been written.

Q. Again, I'd be a rich man if I had a dime for every Deadhead who told me, "One in three is magic." Now if I saw the two shows in Chicago, and they were both rotten, should I have driven to Minneapolis for the good one?

A. It depends on what you wanted to do. I will certainly concede that the last five years of the Grateful Dead, as Garcia's health failed, were not the peak of Grateful Dead playing. By then it had become distinctly erratic, no question about it. And yeah, there was a lot of bumptiousness the last few years in our audience. The worst thing that ever happened to the Grateful Dead was that damn hit record ["Touch of Grey"]. Until then, kids became Deadheads in an organic, logical way: Somebody turned them on. It was a human way--they became interested and they went to the show and they had their little epiphany of recognition. In 1987, suddenly we're on the radio and you've got people going down to find out what all the buzz is about and when they get there they discover a parking lot full of beer and girls to hit on, and the end result is thousands of people who are there for all the wrong reasons who haven't got that sort of training in basic good-visitor manners.

Q. Don't you think a band gets the audience it deserves to some extent?

A. To the point where we had that damn hit record, we did. Whatever you want to say about that audience, it was benign. We were able to get through towns with 5,000 people without tickets with no trouble. Then we were suddenly exposed on MTV and radio and we had no business being there. The Grateful Dead fell victim to their own unwillingness to be cops. There's no question. Jerry's laissez-faire anarchy worked beautifully at a certain size and scale, but by the time we were done it was out of hand.

Q. They were also making more money than ever when they were refusing to be cops. Sure, there was this hippie-community thing, but there was also a lust for lucre. They wanted to play to stadiums full of people.

A. That's absolutely not true. You can take a pound of salt, you can believe it or not, but I will tell you flatly: Nobody liked playing stadiums. We played stadiums because we couldn't figure out a way to tour in the summertime with people out of school unless we did play stadiums. The conversation and the tone in the room when we said, "Well, I guess we've got to step up to stadiums" was not, "Oh, wow, we're gonna make more money." The fact of the matter is Garcia complained endlessly that the band's playing became almost like a cartoon in the stadiums because you have to make the broad strokes both musically and visually. At that point we were victims of our own popularity.

Q. All right, one more question: Do you see the other guys and yourself and all of the various and sundry people associated with the Grateful Dead machine just continuing to put out product until you all die off?

A. It's not a machine, it's a bunch of people! Your dislike of the Grateful Dead is showing.

Q. I'm sorry. It's just that I've lived in the shadow of the Dead for 37 years, and I'm wondering if I'm going to have to live with it for the rest of my life.

A. Who says you have to pay attention to it? Just ignore it!

Q. It's an inescapable part of popular culture; it's constantly in my face. And I'm a critic: I have to deal with the Dead! I've been grappling with the music for my entire professional life, and I have to confess: I still don't get it.

A. The answer is it will go as long as the audience wants to hear that music. We've put out--I'm guessing, and discounting this big box set--40 or 50 shows so far. If you'll give me the "one in three" rule, there's 300 good shows to choose from. We're certainly not going to put out 800 shows in my lifetime, but as long as the audience wants it--well, poor Jim, he's just gonna have to suffer with the Grateful Dead.