Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part Two: Locale

Although the Grateful Dead eventually toured all over the United States and around the world, their origin story is inexorably linked with the San Francisco Bay Area. The late sixties, when the Dead came to prominence, was a heady time for music, with numerous bands playing in local establishments and then attaining greater fame. The Haight/Ashbury area became a haven for all sorts of misfits, free thinkers, and experimenters in unorthodox social situations. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, after making their legendary psychedelic cross-country journey in a flamboyantly painted bus called Further, returned to the Bay Area and began putting on a series of acid tests, of which the Dead’s music became an integral component.

All of this is recounted in this absorbing book, as is the story of how the Grateful Dead got their name. After numerous name changes they had been playing as The Warlocks, but one of the members discovered a recording by a band that was already using that name. According to McNally, the group came across the phrase “grateful dead” in an old dictionary. It referred to a folktale about someone who pays for the burial of the corpse of a debtor; in return, the spirit of the dead person assists the benefactor with an impossible task. In other words, it involves righteousness and karma. This is one of the many fascinating details to be found in A Long Strange Journey.

To return to the setting of the Dead’s early history, though, it was the Bay Area before big tech took over, when rents were cheap and lifestyles were variegated. The Bay Area used to be one of my favorite places. Some of the writers who were most germinal to my own literary growth spent significant amounts of time there, including Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller. As I mentioned already, I spent a year at Santa Clara University, majoring mainly in drugs and other distractions. Later, after I had initiated my travels, I thought at one time that I might settle in the Bay Area. I had just returned from Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.

I hitchhiked from Seattle to San Francisco and for a brief time found a room in the Haight/Ashbury area, thinking to absorb some hippie culture firsthand. Alas, by the mid-seventies the Haight was a shadow of what it had been. There were still a few pseudo-hip shops, but I did not feel the genuine thrall or heady individualism of the sixties. In frustration I moved downtown and rented a hotel room on a street lined with porno cinemas. I took long walks through the city as I tried to figure out what to do next. On one of those walks I met a lovely young French woman accompanying her parents on a U.S. tour. We spent the next few days in a haze of passionate infatuation. I begged her to stay in the States and travel with me, and when she left on the next stage of the tour with her parents, it broke my heart. After this shattering interlude, my love for San Francisco was not enough to keep me there. I left the city, wandered up the coast, and eventually returned to India.

I lived overseas for thirty-five years, raising a family in Greece, and when I finally returned to the States, living anywhere around the Bay Area was no longer an option. Rents and the general costs of living, driven up by means of the high salaries of the tech companies, were (and are) prohibitively expensive. Seattle, where I live now, has got more expensive too, of course, but not nearly as much as the Bay Area. This book helps to remind me that it was once a free, happy, relaxing, peaceful, and affordable place.

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