SECTION SIX 

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COLUMN EIGHTY-FOUR, FEBRUARY 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

BOOK REVIEWS


 (Copyright " 2003 Joyce Metzger)

A LONG STRANGE TRIP, The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally, Broadway Books, Random House, 2002 (H/B D/J 684pp) First Edition

"Dennis McNally knows the Grateful Dead as intimately as they know themselves.  His historian's eye, his immersion as a Dead "family member," and his crazed hippie heart have made this the book to read about the life, times, and twisted, double-helix road of  the band's evolution.  It's a great read."            --Peter Coyote

The author of this in-depth volume that plunges to the heart of darkness, then lifts out and into the light, is Dennis McNally, a historian, a friend, and an acutely aware observer and recorder.  He graduated from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and received a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Massachusetts.  After being selected as the Grateful Dead's official historian in 1980, he assumed the band's publicity duties in 1984 and has been running that post ever since.  He is the author of one previous book, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America.

  A LONG STRANGE TRIP The Inside History of the Grateful Dead is a definitively complete, musical biography.  We are given the cat bird's seat with a fully 360 degree angle view perspective of the joys, trials, errors, insecurity, tribulations, rewards, and final denouement outcome of a very talented, but complex, group of musicians. 

  They had spirited zest, zeal, and spirit but above all, Jerry Garcia was the hub of the wheel, the center focus, the nuclei and pivot point upon which talented lives depended and upon which  world eyes were focused.  The names still echo throughout immense halls years after the last hurrah: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Ron "Pigpen? McKernan.

  As children of the American decades (1940-1960), most born to working class parents; these talented musicians fled known comfortable surroundings to find one another after drifting. They coalesced, then grew into one of the most sought after bands in American history.  The country was going through the catharsis genesis of civil rights. The youth discovered drinking, drugs, psychedelic colors and music, all of which awaken rebellion.

  This kaleidoscopic narrative chronicles their experiences in detailed fashion.  Garcia was an indifferent student, senses alive only to art, doodling skulls and crossbones. He was funny, sarcastic but not cruel, somehow more worldly, faster, but lonelier that the rest.  Musical instruments were in the family home, and music became Jerry's passion.  In 1957, Jerry discovered, guitar, cigarettes and marijuana, five-finger shopping, and street fighting. He met Robert Hunter at Palo Alto's Commedia Dell?arte Theater.  They clicked.  Hunter had been a Pete Seeger fan.  The two became immersed in artistic culture while hanging around "Kepler's? a popular bookstore where ideas bounced from walls and poets like Ferlinghetti, Rexroth and William Everson gave readings.  They met Willy Legate, and later Garcia said; "we learned how to think a certain way from Willy " things that come out of sequence?non-linear, Zen, synchronistic thinking. How to think funny, the cosmic laugh."

Pot was memorable. Friendships were made, and finalized. The stream of consciousness flowed while the joy of listening developed.  The Kennedys defined a current that shouted change to the youth.  Freedom Riders in the south challenged segregation.  The Cadillac Hotel, and The Boar's Head figured largely in their activities.  Phil Lesh challenged guitarists to "come up with knuckle-busting perverse chords, seventeenths with flatted eighths with augmented..." Brigid Meier became Garcia's 'the love of my life, really, in a way." Youthful lust cemented their relationship into a physical one.  

Hungers grew, so did talent. Moral, ethical, doctrinal, and transcendental issues were considered, faced, and scaled.  Psychedelic use of marijuana and LSD became common, and the altered state was more desirable than a normal one.  But the spiritual quest co-mingled with an expansion of musical awareness as well as personal relationships; some, which came rapidly, left as quickly.  Everything became picturesque and irresistible. They fed gnawing hungers. Contentious exchanges arose as distractions to be abandoned.

Music and interaction were dependable, consistent and authentic. This became the moment of illumination for all and took precedent over the now soft dream of daily life that rapidly faded into the background.  Rock and roll was a passing fancy, but Garcia remained serious about Bluegrass.  Hundreds of thousands participated in the Dr. M.L. King's "March". Three weeks later, four little girls died when a bomb exploded in a church.  On November 22, 1963, J.F.K was murdered.  The country was in chaos.

Garcia once said, "I am not an artist in the independent sense, I'm part of dynamic situations, and that's where I like it."  The once organized "Warlocks? that evolved into the Grateful Dead, worked precisely around this principle.   The Warlocks found a home at The In Room, in Belmont, California.  Kreutzmann looked young and innocent. Pigpen was bearded, burly, barrel-chested, "jowly, scowly and growly". but the ugly mother could play! The more he profaned love and beauty, the more his grossness rendered him beautiful," said Ed McClanahan, one of Ken Kesey's Stanford friends.

Garcia said; "I'm really a jive lyricist."  Because of a conflict of name interest, a new name emerged; the Grateful Dead.  "Innocent as babes,? Dennis wrote, 'they had connected with a motif that twined itself throughout human history.  The term is about karma and asserts that acting from soul and the heart guarantees that righteousness will result. It is about honor, compassion and keeping promises. It implied layers of depth and suggested something very powerful." The name chose them.

Neal Cassady became prominent, almost a leading force for the new Grateful Dead. San Francisco was over-run with hippies and beats.  Ken Kesey's "merry prankster bus? was created and his place La Honda was well known.  Hunter Thompson thought to introduce


Life felt like a party
where psychedelic exploration was free


the "Angels? to the Pranksters.  Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Sue Swanson and Connie Bonner tripped on LSD capsules at Ken Babbs? place in Soquel, near Santa Cruz. Owsley "Bear? Stanley and the band were destined to unite.  LSD became an essential part of their lives.  So-called "Acid Tests? became common and they would serve as a template of unification between the band and the audience, a partnership of equals, of companions on an odyssey.  

Adventures began, wave after wave, each higher, lasting longer, leaving more profound impressions. There were more people tripping in one room than anyone had seen before.

Their fame grew. They rented paradise, Olompali, a former Native-owned commune now in the hands of The University of San Francisco.  Life at Olompali always felt like a party where psychedelic exploration was free, easy, and the order of each day.  Drugs took over and later were to have long lasting consequences. Rock music became the agreed medium for the extended bohemian tradition of the San Francisco scene.  The Grateful Dead was the first band to sign with Warner Bros. Their status changed.  Everyone recognized a "winner."

As Dennis wrote, "A band is a very fragile social institution."  Artistic self-doubt frequently handicaps mature, or normal relationships. The celebratory setting that permeates the scene becomes saturated with drug and alcohol abuse. Suspicions arise, and eventually, all suspect imagined slights and misadventures.

The Monterey happening of 7,500 paid tickets (with more splash-over) cemented a "big brother? relationship.  Promoters, hustlers and con-men came forward, each scenting something new, and big, which would make money for everyone.  LSD was playing havoc with Robert Hunter's life in August 1967.  Mickey Hart joined the band. A fundamental approach mixed two drummers, and the bass player was a "harmonic co-leader."  On Feb 4th, 1968, Neal Cassady lay dying of exposure on the railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  Two major currents began to emerge.   One, the integration of live and studio music; the other was the time used and engendered by Indian music.  In April they performed on the student union steps during the Columbia University strikes.

As Dennis wrote, "In the final analysis, the most important promoter in Dead history was Bill Graham." Later there would be charges of mismanagement and fraud.  In February at the Oakland Coliseum Arena everything that can go wrong, did.  Weir announced; "Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, the circus is in town."  Noises erupted and Weir fluffed his "just keep truckin? on." The audience loved the errors, and realized they were a part of this process. They cherished the normality of a band that could make obvious errors!

Stoned. On top of everything else, they brought nitrous oxide tanks into the studio. Garcia said: "it?creates a fast, synchronous, telepathic thing that's fantastic." Mickey dosed his horse and dog with LSD. Garcia became an adept gunsmith. On May 15th, police and CHP entered the People's Park as, Dennis wrote, "6000 Berkeleyites marched down Telegraph Hill.  The next day, the police trapped 3000 and strafed them with tear gas from helicopters."  John Lennon and Yoko Ono were holding a "Bed-In for Peace?in Montreal. Garcia considered good and evil: 'they exist together in their little game. Good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. . .We've chosen to go with the thing of "we don't care whether they have expectations, or not."  We don't want to be entertainers. We want to play music."

One thing the Dead got from Woodstock was their most recognizable logo in the world; a skull, the forehead cleaved by a lightning bolt. The bolt had thirteen points. The colors were red, white and blue.  Some 299,000 people/fans/deadheads came to see the show at the Altamont Racetrack.  The Hell's Angels had been hired as security. Later as the crowd became crazed, scuffles against the Angels broke out. Everything exploded wildly.

Angels swarmed Meredith Hunter; Alan Pasaro repeatedly stabbed him. Garcia had always been dubious about politics but Altamont was the capper. This had been a Rolling Stone and Grateful Dead combo performance.  It ended in disaster.

Joseph Campbell lived next door to Bobby Weir and was a frequent guest. Campbell came to a Dead show and was enthralled.  Everything changed, and nothing changed.  The Dead stopped breaking out garbage cans of dosed Kool-Aid. The audience increased, in size, and in loyalty, no matter the tribulations.  Garcia and M.G. (Mountain Girl) had been happy with their home in Madrone Caynon.  In June, 1971, M.G. found Sans Souci in Stinson. It was on a hilltop, backed by county reserve land. 'the panoramic ocean view was beyond spectacular," Dennis McNally describes the setting in vivid detail.

In September, Pigpen was hospitalized with an attack of perforated ulcers and hepatitis. The Dead traveled to Europe; London, Copenhagen. They played the clowns on the Bozo bus, then adopted momentarily, Hypnocracy, a theory derived from 'technology? but essentially a language joke, 'surrealism as metaphor." It died when the tour ended.

The album Rolling Thunder comprised, "Alla Rakha, Shoshone chants, a water pump, big band jazz and electronic music."

They worked a recording session for David Bromberg.  Garcia and Al Aronowitz, Bromberg's manager, had become good friends.  Aronowitz had gained fame while a feature writer for the New York Post. He asked a favor and Garcia and the Dead complied. The album was one side of Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Bromberg wasn't comfortable with the Dead.  Elegant over-dubbing polished harmonies, and Legate's liner notes were superb for Europe "72.

On March 8th, the band learned of Pigpen's death.  They held a righteous wake at Weir's new digs in Mill Valley.  It was pouring rain. Five hundred people were invited with several hundred extra on the hillside. The Grateful Dead plus many other musicians attended the traditional Roman Catholic funeral. An era of wildness was passing; a new era was knocking.  Garcia had a couple of run-ins with the police. Wives, girlfriends, and daughters of the Dead handled financial enterprises; Kumquat Mae, a travel agency, and new fan clubs. The Dead were a "Megadead Business." 

'suddenly the music is not notes or a tune," wrote Michael Lyndon, "but what those seven people are exactly?an aural holograph of the GD.  All their fibres, nuances, histories, desires, beings are clear."  Bent notes are scattered, and tossed seemingly aimlessly. Drums crashes and chords rumble lower, the music slows to become giant boulders in the trance like states of improvisation, the beating throbbing pulse of all combined into one.

Playing to audiences meant the road, a combination of motion, boredom, with a stream of jokes, sexism, sarcastic testing, the improbable, the obscene and experimentation. Their on-the-road trips became invasions.  They had fiascoes in Dijon and in Paris. Herb Caen confirmed that 'the Dead were about to retire, to rest, recuperate, rethink, and one hopes, regroup."  In May 1974, Hunter had written, "It is time to retreat. It is time to advance backwards.  No longer are there any choices. What a relief."

Garcia had been drifting away from Mountain Girl. He now began a relationship with Deborah Koons.  M.G. was at home with the three children, Sunshine Kesey, Annabelle


The leader
who didn't want to lead soon discovered heroin


and Theresa (Trixie).  Weir's romance with Frankie collapsed. In the end she would shoot herself, but not fatally.  An attention grabber with no serious thought involved?

By spring 1977, Garcia and company were nearing completion, and Jerry discovered heroin. The required role of being a leader who didn't want to lead was contributory to his need to seek out a psychic painkiller.  Garcia's intimacy with a lover had always been a problem. At times, when angry or neglected, Deborah used physical violence.  Garcia took heroin to sooth his frayed nerves.  It had horrific effects, including the destruction of his unquestioned moral authority within the band. They traveled to Egypt in 1978. It was a wild eye-opening experience for most of the Dead.  Jerry's continued drug use gained more attention.  He rarely went to bed, and had moved into the in-law apartment of Rock Scully's home.  Donna Jean, their singer, flew home.

Garcia was at Front Street when a call told him of the assassination of John Lennon.  In 1985 the Dead were influenced by the Gyuto Monks of Tibet.  The Grateful Dead became the monks? de facto American promoters; they held Bay area shows to raise funds for them. Garcia had had health problems but now as 1986 passed, he seemed healthier. Lesh quit cocaine, and Kreutzmann began to attend AA. Hard drugs were no longer stylish. After an especially hot tour in Washington D.C., Jerry returned home to gradually slip into a coma, the consequence of adult-onset diabetes, and drugs.

Every excess extracted its toll, on Garcia, the hub of the Dead, and on the band members. In 1987.  In May, the work on an album was completed, and a video was shot in the Frost Amphitheater. Thousands of Dead Heads were there to watch.  In May, Bob Dylan and the Dead spent three weeks at Front Street, rehearsing for a concert. The Touch of Grey video was an instant hit.  On July 6th, the Dead and Dylan began a six-stadium tour.  Later Dylan talked about the positive effect the Dead had on him.  Jerry took a vacation in Hawaii to return tanned, and with a appreciation for a new underwater hobby.

Hunter sent a letter in March to the Dead Heads: "Here we are sitting on top of the world?which raises the question of who we are'the answer is: partly us, partly you."  In Oakland the press focused on neighborhood gripes about public urination and D.H.s taking too much parking space.  Despite success and good works, the Dead would never be seen as saints. In 1989 Dennis McNally tells us, troubles began.  Three gigs had been cancelled.  Fans tried to gate-crash doors. Cameras caught a cop punching a D.H. who had been restrained.

Success was sweet but a price was extracted.  Garcia, 1974: "It's embarrassing to be considered part of the entertainment scene.  And weird to be so popular. That's a mystery."  Garcia, in 1979: "Ugly but honest, that's us."   The Dead hit a peak in 1991.  "Coverage of the tour phenomenon verged on the overwhelming." Many band members had developed hearing problems.  On August 1st, Jerry returned home, and the next day lay comatose.  His lips were blue, his legs swollen. His heart enlarged, lungs were diseased, and he had borderline diabetes.  As the crisis passed, Garcia went on a vegetarian diet, and agreed to change his ways. He lost seventy pounds by 1992 and renewed interest in Brigid Meier, his old flame (first love) from 1961. Jerry asked Vince Di Biase to tell Manasha that things were finished between them.

The Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 19, 1994.  Shows continued, fans adored, the musical Mobius strip rolled on as Garcia established a rhythm one could not drown out.  Everything was perfect but the underpinnings were shaken. Though beautiful music was created, a sadness permeated as a specter hovered on the horizon.

Jerry sought treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic. His physicality was failing and the drugs had masked symptoms. Other band members were troubled with dreams. August 9th, a nurse passed by his room, stopped to investigate, and found he had stopped breathing. The smile on Garcia's lips was as if to reassure everyone, things were all right, at last. In April 1996, Weir and Deborah scattered some of Jerry's ashes in the Ganges.  The remainder were returned to San Francisco, and were scattered near the Golden Gate.

With the death of the hub, the unifying center, the Dead sought independent directions. The Dead legacy was stylistic and social influence on other bands, on the hearts of die-hard followers, and the unique music itself.  Garcia said: "'sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone."   The era was over, the music still floats across, and into our ears and we feel a gifted gentle giant walked among us.  All he ever wanted was to play music, as Garcia listened to that torrent of notes that raged inside his soul.

I enjoyed every page and encourage without hesitation, for any who were fans, or for any who are curious, or are historians, to order Dennis McNally's book . . . today!  ##

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