Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part Four: Music and Dead Heads

As I mentioned before, offstage (and sometimes on) the Grateful Dead were often not exemplary in their behavior. In fact, with few exceptions, their personal lives seemed to stagger from one dysfunctional situation to the next. Although everyone regarded Jerry Garcia as the leader, he was adamant in his refusal to lead. As a result, the Dead’s professional organization and economics were in near-constant states of chaos. They would more than once get ripped off for large sums of money by managers, end up broke, but refuse to prosecute. Money, after all, was way down on their list of priorities. Being late for meetings and rehearsals was standard behavior. It’s a marvel anything ever got done.

Their salvation, of course, was in their music. As musicians, as artists, they loved what they did. They performed so often not because they had to but because they didn’t see life as significant if they couldn’t play their music before audiences. Even when the band was on one of its infrequent breaks, the individual musicians would go off and perform with other groups. The music, in fact, was their salvation. When they got together and performed as the Dead, the whole became far greater than the sum of the parts. This musical group-think didn’t fall into place all on its own. It took years of playing together constantly and learning to recognize cues and clues. The Grateful Dead as a band evolved into a gestalt, and that evolution became a part of the band’s repertoire. Each concert in their heyday became an act of evolution, beginning at one point and morphing into something far different before the close; no two concerts were alike. As McNally describes the Dead’s originality in music: “After psychedelics, everything is new, is possible; the future is shown to be within. And so the Dead took traditional song stylings and mixed them with a postmodern self-created mythology to create a new American frontier.”

That’s what the Dead Heads, the thousands of fans who followed the Dead on tour and camped out in parking lots outside their venues, understood and appreciated. When they joined the Dead in concert, they became an integral part of the experience. By osmosis they joined with the musicians in a profound (if chaotic) musical bond that transcended the imperfect realities in which they otherwise lived. During the period of their greatest popularity the Dead drew massive crowds in stadiums and further massive crowds in the stadium parking lots.

It all sounds idyllic, really: fame, great respect among their peers, and eventual fortune. However, the personal lives of the musicians and the members of their road crew were almost always problematic. One reason was the drugs: alcohol, marijuana, hashish, LSD, peyote, magic mushrooms, nitrous oxide, STP, cocaine, heroin… When any conscious-altering substance was available, almost everyone would partake without restraint. This lack of restraint ultimately killed several band members, including Jerry Garcia. After Garcia died in 1995, the group got together and decided that no one would ever perform under the name the Grateful Dead again.

A Long Strange Trip is a fascinating account of a unique American musical phenomenon. It is entertaining throughout; however, for me there is such a large cast of characters I found it difficult to keep some of their identities straight. I could have done with less detail too; McNally describes almost every concert the Dead ever performed, and also often goes into descriptions of how the music sounded each time. Still, I was willing to put up with the extravagance of detail so I could reminisce about the Dead and their singular musical journey.

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