I don’t think I ever heard of the Grateful Dead until in 1970 at the age of seventeen I headed down to Santa Clara University from Seattle for my first and only year of college. I was immature, naive, and introverted – in other words, totally unprepared to become immersed in a San Francisco Bay Area still reverberating from the youth revolution of the late sixties. I didn’t really have much motivation for going to college other than it was expected of me so that is what I did. Without a specific focus on the future or any inclination to study, I was swept away into a subculture bursting with drugs and music. My next door neighbor in the dorm smoked cannabis like a chimney and always had plenty to pass around. Besides marijuana, I experimented with hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. And along with the acid and other psychedelics came the Grateful Dead. As my compatriots and I smoked dope or spaced out on stronger stuff, the Dead’s albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were often playing in the background.
On one occasion, some of my stoner buddies and I went to the Fillmore West in San Francisco to experience the Grateful Dead live in concert. It was a very informal occasion. The band seemed to be on the same level as the audience, almost as if they were part of it; everyone, performers and listeners, seemed part of a gestalt. The Dead’s improvisation extended the songs I had heard precisely and succinctly played on the albums into prolonged and unique creations. This was the only time I have ever been to a Dead concert, but it was definitely a memorable one. I must have been high, but even so decades later I still clearly recall my wonder and amazement at that singular musical event.
I never saw the Grateful Dead live again, but Workingman’s Dead remains one of my favorite albums of all time. A few years ago, after listening to the album over and over, I wrote several science fiction and fantasy stories based on about half a dozen of the songs; some have already been published, while others have been bought by magazines or anthologies but have not yet come out. Several of the songs on American Beauty are also indelibly imbedded in my psyche. I know them so well that I can play them clearly in my mind, lyrics and all, even if I don’t have access to a recording. When my thoughts are jangled and confused or I can’t get some wretched commercial jingle out of my head, all I have to do is put on “Uncle John’s Band” or “New Speedway Boogie” or “Ripple” or “Sugar Magnolia” and it really flushes out the pipes and refreshes me.
Of course, the Grateful Dead were only one facet of a complex kaleidoscope of musical and cultural innovation that took place in the Bay Area in the sixties and beyond. In this book, McNally not only traces the stories of the individual members of the Dead and how they all came together and began playing their idiosyncratic music, but the evolution of the entire west coast rock scene, the drug culture, the hippies, and more.