A Long Strange Trip:
The Inside History
of the Grateful Dead
By Dennis McNally
Broadway Books, 681 pages, $45
Phil Lesh, the bass player for the Grateful Dead, once said that the group had a mission "to save the world." This was -- and remains -- a touch anomalous in the realm of rock and roll, since fame, wealth, sex, drugs and the desire to write a song as good as Johnny B. Goode are usually cited as the primary motivators of the idiom's practitioners.
But then the Grateful Dead wasn't any ordinary rock band. As this book by the group's "official historian" and head publicist, Dennis McNally, demonstrates, if any group knew how to put the "mess" in "messianism," it was the living Dead -- a motley crew of electrified, acidified sonic evangelists who, over 30 years, came to incarnate the best and worst of the San Francisco scene that first rose to international prominence in the late sixties.
The Dead were the subject of not a few books during that 30-year run. But since a heart attack claimed lead guitarist and composer Jerry Garcia in August, 1995, the market has been deluged with Dead memoirs, analyses, biographies and "concertographies," tributes and photo collections. With the musings of more than 300 interviewees woven into its text and a bibliography running to 20 pages, A Long Strange Trip should, at the very least, stanch the overflow of DeadLit for the next few years.
For hardcore Dead aficionados (a.k.a. Dead Heads), there's really not that much new here except for the odd detail. (I, for one, knew that the Dead collaborated with Joan Baez in the early eighties, but didn't know that Mickey Hart, one of the band's two drummers, was romantically entangled then with the folkie.) Even the 32 pages of photos are pretty much a rehash. Still, both Dead Heads and neophytes should appreciate having pretty much the whole saga gathered in one place by an articulate insider.
The greatest virtue of McNally's work resides in its focus on the band as a band. Usually, commentators regard the Grateful Dead as Jerry Garcia and Associates. Indubitably, Garcia was first among equals, the sun around which the others revolved. But as the book makes clear, the Dead were very much a collective in their music, their lives and their decision-making, hauling dogs, kids, "old ladies," stashes, roadies, fans, guitars and tape machines from their impoverished but idealistic beginnings through the mega-successes, drug addictions and tragedies of the eighties and nineties.
McNally's Trip pretty much fastens all this onto a linear narrative, interspersing the flow with 17 "interlude" chapters that offer snapshots of particular facets of the Dead scene (the road crew, band meetings, the fans, the concerts). It's an understandable strategy, perhaps the only one McNally, who has a PhD in American history, could have adopted to realize the book's raison d'être and deal with the dazzling swirl of data available to him.
Unfortunately, it also has the effect of exhausting the reader, of too many trees, so to speak, and not enough forest. The result is sentences like these: "In addition to the Dead family, Mickey [Hart]was particularly close to Sweet William and other Hell's Angels, who were frequently around. In fact, Angelo, the Richmond Chapter president, would marry Sherry Jensen. Mickey had by now taken up with Cookie Eisenberg, the New York travel agency owner, and through Cookie the Dead had met a new circle of people, extremely wealthy New Yorkers like Roger Lewis, who owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and Marina Maguire, the heir to the Thompson submachine gun fortune." (Yes, there will be a test on this at the end of the review.)
A detail-rich book also becomes a target akin to those 100 Greatest Rock Records of All Time lists that Rolling Stone and Mojo magazine publish: They pretend to a comprehensiveness that's impossible, and sometimes wrong (i.e., Paul Simon could not have written Feelin' Groovy after meeting with one of the Dead's hip-talking managers, as McNally attests, because that song was composed in 1966, a full year before Simon encountered the Dead).
While McNally, admirably, doesn't ignore the ugly aspects of the Dead, including Garcia's heroin abuse, it skimps, for instance, on detailing the lives of the women of the Grateful Dead. (What was it really like to have to do 38 loads of laundry for the guys in the band? Did it feel like a new culture was in the making?) And what impact did the band's formless, peripatetic, insular lifestyle have on their children? ("Dad came home really wrecked last night and his cigarette torched the couch after he passed out.")
There's also the matter of proportion. McNally dedicates more than 220 pages to the band's 1966-72 period -- an understandable emphasis given the general agreement that these were the Dead's most vital years. But fewer than 60 are committed to the years 1990 to 1996, including not even five pages on the band's frustrating but nonetheless fascinating collaboration with Bob Dylan.
As a reading and intellectual experience, A Long Strange Trip probably would have been better served had McNally emulated Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America,the superb book he wrote in 1979. Not coincidentally, it was the Kerouac -- part biography, part social history, part meditation, part critique -- that first brought McNally to Jerry Garcia's attention and got him the publicist job in 1984. Indeed, even before he became a Grateful Dead intimate, McNally was conceiving what he terms "a two-volume history of post-World War II American bohemia," the first dealing with Kerouac and his world, the second hooked around the Dead. If A Long Strange Trip is, in fact, the second volume as conceived, it's decidedly weaker than Desolate Angel.
While A Long Strange Trip is inspiring and inspirational, a quintessentially American tale of "alienated prophets" lighting out for the territory to build their own shaky but shining city on the hill, it's also a cautionary tale. The road of excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, but it can be as much about falling in the gutter as staring up at the stars. The Dead brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of lives, and no doubt saved a few souls along the way. But in the end, the group's success and popularity appeared to become a vexing burden. The Dead needed to save themselves from themselves, and the only way they seemed to be able to do that was to have Jerry Garcia die. James Adams, a long-time Dead watcher, is national arts correspondent for The Globe.