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The Grateful Dead Literary-Industrial Complex Is A Long, Strange Trip All Its Own

Illustration for article titled The Grateful Dead Literary-Industrial Complex Is A Long, Strange Trip All Its Own

The Grateful Dead are with us, always—in the past year, inescapably so. In our modern, retromaniacal culture, their benevolent aims and DIY apparatuses, from ticketing to merch to bootlegging, have long been a refuge for their fans. And 2015 peaked with the band’s latest, greatest, and allegedly last full reunification, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of their first performance together (billed as the Warlocks) at a pizzeria in Menlo Park, Calif. Because rock ‘n’ roll loves nothing more than an anniversary that doubles as a payday.

In late June, the remaining core of the Grateful Dead—guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann— instantly sold out their “Fare Thee Well” shows in Santa Clara, plus a Fourth of July weekend blowout in Chicago, with Phish’s Trey Anastasio filling in for guiding-light guitarist-singer-songwriter Jerry Garcia. Those highlights are now available as a CD/DVD combo box. (The subsequent 10-date tour subtracted Lesh but added, among others, John Mayer in the Jerry role. Let’s ignore that.) An 80-CD splurge titled 30 Trips Around the Sun appeared—one complete, previously unissued show per year from their entire history—along with a more sensible (though not necessarily listenable) four-disc option featuring one highlight per year. A far more engrossing (yes, really) nostalgia trip came from someone at the Internet Archive calling themselves Sonic Wallpaper, who put together “Dark Star 1972,” a 10-hour mixdown of nearly every extant version of that song from that year. (You’re either on the bus or under it with this one, but it’s worth your time if you’re even a little curious: Dead ’72 was rangy.)

Unsurprisingly for the most written-about rock band in American history, several Dead books were published in 2015; three of the most substantial offer the same basic tale, in full, from three notably different perspectives. David Browne’s So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo), published in April, is a deeply reported big-picture bio by a fan from outside the group’s orbit. Blair Jackson and David Gans’s This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: The Oral History of the Grateful Dead (Flatiron Books), from November, comes from a pair of insiders: Gans has hosted the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour since 1988, and he and Jackson each authored three Dead books before this one. And Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead (St. Martin’s Press), from May, is the memoir of founding drummer Bill Kreutzmann (writing with Benjy Eisen).


No Dead shows were exactly the same, but they usually followed a specific arc, and Dead books are no different. They stand as the biggest cult band in rock history, moving from house band at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests to scheduled performers at all four of the hippie era’s decisive rock festivals (Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Altamont, Watkins Glen) to the biggest touring moneymaker in America for years. All the while, they weathered bad finances (Browne quotes tour manager Sam Cutler on the band’s 1972 European tour: “Most of the people around the Grateful Dead couldn’t organize a piss in a brewery”); management (the group was cleaned out by two successive managers, including Hart’s father, Lenny, who absconded to Mexico with the Dead’s coffers, prompting Mickey to leave the group for most of the early ’70s); drug busts galore (which yielded both songs—see “Casey Jones”—and, Browne reports, fee hikes that shrewdly capitalized on the band’s resulting notoriety); constant lineup fluctuations; and a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that allowed everyone their vices, unimpeded.

By the time Garcia met the great beyond for real, in August 1995, filling the Dead’s keyboard spot had long been as good as signing a tie-dyed death certificate. When Vince Welnick took the job following the 1990 morphine-and-cocaine OD of Brent Mydland — preceded by Keith Godchaux’s 1979 car crash and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s drinking himself to death in 1973—Browne reports that his new bandmates asked him, “Is your insurance paid up?” (Welnick himself would commit suicide in 2006.)

Lackadaisical as they could be onstage and rich as they’d become—by the end, Kreutzmann admits in Deal, “We were addicted to the money as much as the music”—the Dead lifestyle could be intensely rough. “For all the field-of-flowers beauty of their music,” Browne writes, “the world of the Dead was unsentimental and demanding; to survive, one had to adapt and hold on tight.” The band would listen to their taped sets afterward and offer up blunt critiques. “They were discussing the music and chord changes, and they’d bring out that someone wasn’t playing the part and put the blame on you, that you hadn’t recorded it,” soundman Kidd Candelario tells Browne. “What’s interesting about the Grateful Dead,” Garcia says in Dream, “is that we don’t share a common view about anything.”

The entire band was devoted to collective improvisation as first principle, but they were also capitalists from the start. Dream quotes Garcia, at hippiedom’s height, grumbling about “music should be free” types who crashed Woodstock and the 1970 multi-band train trek across Canada immortalized in the 2004 documentary Festival Express: “I think the musician’s first responsibility is to play music as well as he can ... any responsibility to anyone else is just journalistic fiction, or political fiction ... If ‘the people’ think that way, they can fucking make their own music.”

By rights, Garcia dominates all three books. That’s not the way he wanted it: He saw the Dead as leaderless, even as he was clearly the band’s creative nucleus, authoring most of the band’s classics with lyricist Robert Hunter. “I liked the Jerry Garcia songs the best,” Kreutzmann writes in Deal. “Getting to play those songs was the reward for being a good sport about the rest.” But it was also inevitable, because Garcia most deeply embodied the Dead myth. Having lost his the middle finger of his right hand at age four in a wood-chopping accident, Garcia was countercultural to his toenails: Kreutzmann notes that the guitarist had earned some cash by helping transcribe Lenny Bruce’s concerts for trial use, and his headfirst dive into LSD earned him the nickname—increasingly unwelcome with age—Captain Trips. “It wasn’t like a test of how stoned we could be and still be competent—we weren’t concerned with being competent,” Garcia admits freely of the Dead’s residency at Ken Kesey’s mid-’60s Acid Tests in Dream. “We were concerned with being high at the time.”


Browne captures the Tests in nuts-and-bolts detail, while Gans and Jackson concern themselves with how the colors danced, quoting Wavy Gravy on acid’s bonding effects: “Once we hit that spot, and we were in synch, I could have repaired a Swiss watch, and I don’t know how to repair a Swiss watch.” By decade’s end, former manager Rock Scully says in Dream, “Woodstock . . . really wanted us there and thought we should be there; even back then we were more of a mythological, sociological movement than a musical one.” Woodstock’s flipside, Altamont, where the Dead were scheduled to perform but never did, is recalled by Kreutzmann in Deal with swifter, more satisfying strokes than the other two. The drummer’s “bad omen story” about the Rolling Stones’ free concert, in which 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, involves a bunch of skunks (“They were civet cats, more specifically”) who walked into a barn backstage, “sniffed our feet, and left.” The Dead cancelled their third night of a series at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, where they were scheduled to play another gig the night of Altamont; Kreuzmann calls it “our moment of silence.”

Especially after Altamont, the weight of being the rock counterculture’s living, puffing symbol wore the guitarist down, however much he lived up to it. (Rolling Stone, 1972: “Dr. Garcia, how do you stay high?” Garcia: “I smoke a lot of dope.” RS: “Do you think that’s ...” Garcia: “Would you like some?”) In Deal, Kreutzmann describes how, the first time he took Garcia deep-sea diving in Hawaii in the late ’80s, a fan approached them, in the middle of the ocean, and asked for an autograph on “a waterproof notepad that you can write on underwater.” It’s also no accident that nearly all the scenes in So Many Roads that involve a genuinely happy Jerry involve him playing music, such as when he greets bluegrass musician Peter Rowan for the first time “in the garden in a T-shirt and jeans with a five-string banjo and a big grin on his face,” Rowan recalls. “God, what a welcome.”


But that open-arms stance became harder to maintain as the Dead was forced to wise up on the business side—the formation of Grateful Dead Records in 1973 was hamstrung by bootlegging, not the live tapes circulating among the faithful, but pirated copies of Wake of the Flood—and as harder drugs, particularly cocaine and then heroin, made their way to the band, Garcia especially. Gans and Jackson recount how, touring in London in 1974, the band met and decided that cocaine was adversely affecting the music. They agreed to flush their stashes, and then did—all except Jerry. By the late ’70s, writes Browne, “Onstage and off, they could screw up as much as they wanted, yet none of it seemed to matter. The fans still adored them and would cut them enormous amounts of slack merely for the opportunity to see them play.”

That robber-baron privilege soaks through much of Deal. Kreutzmann’s tone is cosmic-everyman and frequently sardonic, as when he recounts Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux—a former session singer who joined the Dead with her husband—take taking turns smashing into one another’s BMWs in the parking lot of the Dead’s San Rafael offices as their marriage fell apart in the late ’70s: “Of course, that was a little disconcerting to us. We didn’t think nice cars should be treated like that.” Kreutzmann also slips in this quiet bomb about Donna: “We all loved her and some of us got to express that love with her.”


Some of Kreutzmann’s reminiscences are pure ugly indulgence, as when he and a friend heedlessly race their BMWs though the streets from San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (following a 1975 Dead performance) to band HQ in San Rafael at 100 MPH, or the indefensible tale of trashing a German whorehouse because the women had the temerity to insist that a bunch of debauched foreign rock stars wear condoms. In the midst of a hotel-shenanigans tale involving firecrackers and George McGovern, he notes, “Also: I may have gotten into some kind of thing at the front desk, which contributed to being kicked out of the first hotel. But that’s just going by eyewitness reports; I must’ve blacked that part out.”

He seems to have done the same with the years between 1981 and 1985; Deal essentially concatenates them into two pages. Dream covers them even less, aside from two of the book’s eight codas (uh, okay), which offer an explanation why: With the solidifying of both Shakedown Street—the diehards’ ragtag parking-lot marketplace of bongs and trinkets and grilled-cheese sandwiches and goo balls—and the band formally dedicating a section to show-tapers in 1984, the Deadheads had more going on during that era than the Dead.


Browne, on the other hand, dives in, and rightly so: Darkness encroaches everything in this period. At one outdoor festival in 1982 featuring the Jerry Garcia Band playing alongside Bobby (Weir) & the Midnites, Garcia’s set was cut short because, as one observer put it, Jerry looked like “he was going to die onstage.” The normally reticent Weir began to cry: “Given the way Weir often kept his feelings to himself, it was a telling moment,” writes Browne. Two years later, Garcia’s friend Alan Arkush played him the just-released “When Doves Cry.” Browne notes that Garcia was “known for his openness to music that didn’t sound anything like the Dead’s; he’d even tried to appreciate the rap albums his daughter Trixie played for him.” But the Prince single set him off: “There’s no bass,” he huffed. Arkush: “An earlier Jerry would have said, ‘That’s cool and interesting.’ This Jerry said, ‘That’s wrong.’ The walls were going up.” At a disastrous 1984 recording session, with Garcia’s playing increasingly erratic, a visiting Joan Baez, then dating Hart, asked a simple question: “What’s going on?” Hart’s response: “You’re getting a contact low.”

It would take Jerry falling into a diabetic coma for nearly a week in 1986 to snap him back to attention. “Dead employees were told his blood sugar level was off the charts and that Garcia was one of the sickest people they’d ever seen admitted to the hospital,” writes Browne. And for a while, it looked like the cure might stick — especially when the Dead took “Touch of Grey,” a song they’d started playing live in September 1982, into the Top 10 five years later. Garcia’s cowriter had recorded it for an unissued solo album. “Hunter sang ‘Touch of Grey’ as a sort of dry, satirical piece with an intimate feel, but I heard something else coming through it,” Garcia says in Dream. “‘We will get by’ said something to me, so I set it to play big. My version still has the ironic bite of the lyrics, but what comes across is a more celebratory quality.”

The result—abetted by MTV”s “Day of the Dead” broadcast, in which VJs interviewed Deadheads outside of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands— was a new generation that the old guard dismissed as “Touchheads.” All the way up to Garcia’s death, an increasing number of people showing up couldn’t have cared less about the music, at least beyond that one song. “I went up to this kid in the parking lot at Compton Terrace [in Arizona in 1987] and offered him a ticket,” says Dead publicist and biographer Dennis McNally in Dream. “He said, ‘Oh, no, man, I just came for the party.’ I was like, ‘Oh, God!’” Adds Dead ticket coordinator Steven Marcus: “When I first started working for the Dead in ’83, the median age of our audience was about 25 to 27. In ’87 and ’88, the median age dropped to 17 or 18.”


By the early ’90s, though, the Dead were sleepwalking again. Bruce Hornsby became a frequent sit-in keyboardist during this period, playing alongside the still-wet Welnick. (Welnick’s contributions, as Jackson and Gans report, were generally mixed out of the other band members’ mid-’90s onstage in-ear monitors.) Browne notes that Hornsby “gave the band and crew a strict warning: If he were dosed, he would leave.” When Hornsby got angry at Garcia for sleepwalking through a Boston performance in September 1991, Jerry responded with the most heartbreaking line in Browne’s book: “You don’t understand 25 years of burnout, man.”

Kreutzmann was privy to Garcia’s escape mechanisms, as bandmate and fellow addict alike. (He tells of doing coke bumps onstage, in a bottle cap handed to him by the drum tech, in front of stadiums full of people.) “Hey, Jerry, you’re on stage!” Bill would have to tell him, writing in Deal of watching Garcia “nodding off onstage, unaware of what song he was playing even as his fingers picked out all the right notes.” It was a role he was accustomed to: For years, Kreutzmann had enabled his addict mother, until, on his therapist’s advice, he cut her allowance off, whereupon she committed suicide. It’s the rawest, most unsettling moment in Deal, alongside his note that his eldest daughter has elected not to speak to him since her early twenties.

By the summer of 1995, everything was out of control. Fans were not just demanding to get into shows like it was 1970 or something, they were literally breaking down stadium walls to do it. Garcia was back to banging Persian heroin; by May 1995, Browne reports, the guitarist would tell a band driver, “I won’t see the end of the year.” A riot in Indiana near tour’s end, Lesh says in So Many Roads, would have only gotten worse if the band had stopped performing. At the same show, someone called in a death threat to Garcia, who refused to take it seriously—as Kreutzmann puts it in Deal, “Who calls a police station to tell them they’re about to assassinate a hippie?”—and responded by playing “Dire Wolf”: “Don’t murder me / I beg of you, don’t murder me / Please, don’t murder me.”


A month later, Garcia was gone, dead of a heart attack at age 53 while at a treatment facility near his home. The band he left behind has reformed numerous times in various capacities—the Dead (no Grateful), the Other Ones—a state of affairs that Kreutzmann, who has avoided most of those reunions, is bluntly disapproving in Deal. It’s not hard to understand why. At their height, the Grateful Dead were interactive in a way few rock bands even try to be—and elusive in ways even the musicians themselves could have a hard time grasping. Or, as Kreutzmann writes, “In some ways, I was no more a part of it than anyone in the audience.”

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of the The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street), and contributes to Rolling Stone, NPR, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.


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