A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally

A few weeks ago I found out that a man I’d lost touch with killed himself last spring. He’d been a magnificent influence on me in the early 1990s. We wrote for the same magazine, but his writing was many leagues beyond my work horse prose. Where he would wax romantic, I would wane maudlin, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me so. But he was kind. One late night in his office cluttered with rock specimens, empty bottles of great wines and hundreds of books, he let me recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety. I was nervous, so he handed me a stress ball to squeeze. That’s a good friend. I’d forgotten his kindness.

Without benefit of any hallucinogens, we often took dreamlike long walks after wine-related events at some of San Francisco’s best restaurants. I walked many times beside him up the steep hills to Coit Tower. In heels. Lit at night, the fluted tower looked draped with fabric like a Roman goddess. The Bay Bridge glittered to the right and the Golden Gate glowed to the left. If my feet started hurting I’d take off my shoes, roll off my hose and we’d keep walking.

We went to one Grateful Dead show, in Mountain View, together. I think I saw the Dead four or five times and only in the Bay Area. My friend had seen them more times than he could remember, and all over the country. He’d been back stage, he’d been on the road and he knew every song. When it came to the Dead, I couldn’t play “name that tune” until years later. Now that I know he took his own life, many of my favorite songs seem to be about suicide and death: Broke Down Palace, Box of Rain, China Doll…

In my friend’s honor I pulled A Long Strong Trip, the biography of the Grateful Dead, from my library. It’s also fitting that it follow Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. Jerry Garcia and company were well-read and very aware of the symbolism and mythic elements of their band–music, logo, lifestyle, the whole thing. Even from my narrow experience, the Dead were a beacon, illuminating the possible. I lived in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood from 1989, the year of the big earthquake, to 1995, the year Jerry Garcia died.  The Haight still shimmered with a faint vibration from association with the Dead, and Terence McKenna did an inspiring reading at our neighborhood bookstore, but there was darkness at the corners, and then a Gap store moved in…

McNally’s book is rich in detail. Before the Grateful Dead took its final shape and name, Garcia and company played under many monikers, sometimes changing the band name every time they played. Players came and went, but lucky for die hard Dead historians, McNally follows every permutation and practically every show. This information is somewhat roster-like and not that interesting to me, but woven through it is great biographical stuff on the band members and their influences, especially Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey.

The Dead were extremely philosophical in their approach to their work. They were, at least at first, unbelievably inclusive and gentle (at least, the way McNally tells it), insisting that their audience be part of the experience.

Individuals joined the Dead based on need and proximity more than talent oftentimes, for example LSD producer Owsley became their sound engineer without having any knowledge or skills in that arena, (Note: Owsley’s nickname was Bear, which explains the inside visual joke of the colorful dancing bear bumper stickers and other swag that identifies Deadheads to each other.)

During a concert, when his guitar broke, Garcia sat by while a well-meaning stranger struggled to repair it. Rather than become irritated or rushing to find someone competent to fix the guitar, Garcia was overwhelmed by the sweetness of the guy’s attempt. Of course, he was probably very high, but Garcia had amazing patience and sense of the big picture. (The stranger was Bill Graham who later became a huge part on the promotion end of the Grateful Dead).

The name of the band was controversial at first. Bob Weir hated it, as did the now legendary promoter, Graham. But the name had appropriately mythic roots as did the logo, which was found and developed by the incredible poster artists Alton Kelley and Stanley “Mouse” Miller. In a copy of The Rubaiyatof Omar Khayyam they found an illustration of a skeleton with a crown of roses. The verse was: Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the wise/to talk; one thing is certain, that life flies;/one thing is certain, and the rest is lies;/the flower that has once blown for ever dies.

Garcia was always practicing. He was either practicing or playing for an audience. He started out with the banjo and bluegrass and got into folk music, but after Dylan went electric, Garcia couldn’t deny the power of electricity to turn people on.

One of the bits of info that blew my mind is that Jerry played the electric guitar on some of the Jefferson Airplane “Surrealistic Pillow” tunes, including the sexy, bittersweet “Today,” a particular favorite of mine. Garcia also named the album with a throwaway line describing the songs, “it’s as surrealistic as a pillow.” Kind of a Zelig moment. In the 1960s Garcia’s influence came up in a lot of interesting and important places–the acid tests, the Prankster bus, the Haight Ashbury scene, etc etc.

The middle of the book deals with the band’s increasing solidity, strengthening musical genius and growing original songbook. It details concerts and the mechanics of setting up a show as well as the business end and the frequent cheating of the band that was practically par for the course.

Mickey Hart joined the band in 1967, bringing the total of musicians to six. I’d always imagined original dead drummer Bill Kreutzman might have had issues with adding a second drummer, but the stories of how the two were in sync from the beginning and even used hypnosis and other exercises to create a sort of telepathy are incredible. Their relationship exemplifies the art-above-self, big heartedness of the band.

That said, Pigpen and Weir were fired from the band in 1968 because of perfectionists Garcia and Lesh’s irritation with their lack of musial advancement. Both eventually promised to work harder and came back into the fold.

Unfortunately, the magic period of 1965 to 1970 was very short, and as the rigors of touring and families and audience demands built up, the relationships between band members broke down. Drug use went well beyond the mind-expanding hallucinogens and started causing problems, including less than stellar performances. And there was Altamont.

People started dying; In 1968 the Dead’s Beat spiritual ancestor and fellow acid test Prankster Neal Cassady died of exposure on the train tracks outside San Miguel de Allende (he was born on Feb 8, my best friend’s birthday and died on my birthday, February 4).

The first of the Dead’s musician friends to die were Jimi Hendrix, quickly followed by Janis Joplin, both age 27. The first band member to die was Pig Pen, in 1973, also age 27. The trip began to have its majorly bummer moments.

Bill Graham died in a freak helicopter accident in October of 1991. I went to the memorial along with 300,000 other people to hear Robin Williams, Crosby Stills & Nash and the Dead, among others, pay tribute to the visionary promotor. A plane dropped thousands of carnations from the sky. I bought a peach colored crown of roses. It was one of those experiences that felt like a trip without any drugs.

Jerry’s many back and forth with women, his drug use, his obesity and, most sad of all to me, his cowardice in dealing with any financial, personnel or romantic issues head on, started to cast a large shadow. When he died in 1995, I thought, based on his appearance, that he was in his late 60s. I’m still amazed that he was only 53. Talk about Broke Down Palace–a beautiful ruin.



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