NOVATO, California — Unlike your typical celebrity tell-all, Dennis McNally's "A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead" reads like a history book — well, a really cool, sort of psychedelic, rock and roll history book.
A trained historian, as well as the band's longtime publicist, McNally uses the improvisational rock phenomenon's occasionally sordid history to tell the story of America in the equally sordid late 20th century.
"If you know enough about a person's life and you can integrate it with history, you can tell the story of an era," McNally said recently at the Dead's rehearsal complex in Marin County, California. "When you say 'the '60s,' you generally mean the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene, and there are certainly parallels between that and the Grateful Dead scene. ... [After the commercial success of 1987's In the Dark, featuring 'Touch of Grey'], the scene, which is an ecological system the way the Haight-Ashbury was, became overwhelmed with too many new people, ... and it fell apart."
McNally's lens zooms in and out between Grateful Dead land and the world at large in such a way that the Dead's story feels allegorical — their story analogous not only to that of 1960s San Francisco, but to the American experience as a whole. And the Dead appear in the strangest places in history.
While guitarist Jerry Garcia had a side job in 1964, transcribing tapes of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce's live act for use in Bruce's defense against obscenity charges, lyricist Robert Hunter was among the first batch of guinea pigs to be dosed by the CIA with the experimental mind-control drug LSD. When 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern asked the Dead to play the White House if he were to win, the Dead responded, "We won't play until you legalize marijuana."
Oh, sure, it's about rock history too. The Dead played at Woodstock, though few know it because they didn't allow the promoters to film or record their set. And not only did the Dead's free concerts in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and on Haight Street inspire the Rolling Stones to stage the disastrous Altamont festival, some of their friends helped promote the fiasco (and the Dead's friendship with the Hell's Angels didn't help matters much, either).
Interspersed within the straight narrative are "interlude" chapters that describe life on the road in the '80s and '90s and a backstage view of a typical show, from equipment load-in to the wee hours, when the trucks speed off to the next town.
Along with stories of how classic songs and albums were birthed, McNally presents the ugly, such as the band's inability to confront the late Garcia's descent into heroin addiction. McNally said that while he tried to remain fair to subjects who are, after all, his friends, he omitted no details that are crucial to the big story — nor did any bandmembers ask him to, he said.
Garcia himself asked McNally to write the Dead's history in 1980. The guitarist was a fan of McNally's "Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America," and both men perceived a similarity between the beats and the Dead scene.
"Kerouac really was Jerry's hero," McNally said. "And Jerry was always much more of a beatnik than a hippie. ... I saw these connections between these two great social phenomena and, fortunately for me, so did Jerry."
With "publicist" added to his job description in 1984, McNally spent the next decade touring with the band, unearthing what amounts to more than 600 pages of great stories.
In line with its title, "A Long Strange Trip" offers plenty of acid trip tales, but the notion of Dead history as free-for-all drug fest is tempered by McNally's discussion of the intellectual and metaphysical ideas that drove the bandmembers' explorations into the chemical and musical unknown.
While the Grateful Dead were often perceived as drug-addled hippies noodling around for too-long stretches between poorly sung lyrics, McNally shows us that the Dead's intellectual-spiritual approach to music set them apart from their '60s rock peers. He underscores this difference by quoting no less an authority than jazz legend Miles Davis, who, despite his utter scorn for most rock musicians, digs Garcia and his knowledge of jazz and describes hanging out with the Dead at the Fillmore in 1970 as a good-time learning experience.
McNally maintains that their philosophical approach places the Dead firmly in the long tradition of American bohemianism that includes the beat generation, poet Walt Whitman and author Henry David Thoreau. But even while Garcia was conscious of such a connection, McNally stressed that it was no matter of ego.
"Jerry always made a very clear distinction between what the Grateful Dead was and him as an individual," McNally said. "His opinion of himself as an individual was that he was a bumbling doofus who was lucky not to have to work a straight job."