Days of the Dead

The Grateful Deadís chief observer attempts to distill the bandís appeal in a new book.

Most rock bands come and go. Others stick around for a decade or more, and a few, such as the Stones and the Who, seem to have been touring since the invention of fire.

But no band has transcended the bounds of space and time in quite the same way as the Grateful Dead, according to author Dennis McNally. Although the band chose to call it quits after guitarist Jerry Garcia left the planet in 1995, the Dead continue to exert a cultural pull. McNally's new epic, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, explains why this musical legend lives on. As the band's publicist, archivist and appointed family member who observed the Dead for over twenty years, McNally is here to introduce the book not just to Deadheads in withdrawal, but to anyone who's into popular history.

When does a rock band need a historian? When it's not just a rock band, says McNally, a doctor of American history whose previous book chronicled an earlier cultural phenomenon: Jack Kerouac and the Beats. He quotes Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, who once said, "We're not in the entertainment business; we're in the transportation business. We move minds," and goes off on his own from there. "The Dead simply didn't take themselves as individuals seriously," says McNally. "It was not just six guys -- it was the magic, the thing generated among six guys and a sound system and an audience and the music itself." And his chronicle, put aside for the sake of objectivity (and lack of time) until after Garcia's death, isn't intended to be a simple band bio: "I went into this from the perspective that if you tell the story of one individual, you can tell the story of the times -- assuming they touch the times. No other group of people touched the times more."

Not everyone understood the phenomenon of the Dead, a band that was its own universe, with a gravitational pull on fans around the world. "You needed a certain level of engagement," McNally says. "It's not the same thing as being entertained. If you weren't engaged by it, you couldn't participate, and you'd be bored to tears. Lots of critics were bored over the years." That, he intimates, was a problem of mismatched frequencies: Either you were in or you were out. McNally's Dead chronicle -- and perhaps the whole secret behind the group's unique cultural stature -- takes off from the very point where the Beats left off: Ken Kesey's notorious San Francisco Acid Tests, at which the seminal Grateful Dead, then the Warlocks, played an integral part. "Other bands did not play in that completely bizarre environment, totally exploratory and experimental, but the Grateful Dead did," notes McNally. "That's where they basically created the template for all their shows right up through '95. It was a very strange thing indeed, and one worth recording in history."

To that end, Trip's headwaters flow from an inner account of Garcia's roots. In spite of the Dead's gestalt-animal consciousness, McNally notes, "Jerry was the gravitational center of the band -- not musically, not in the business sense. And others in the band even had more to say, but he was the emotional center, charismatic in the most meaningful sense of that word. Even toward the end, when he was ill and cranky, he had a presence, an authority that was extraordinary. He was the most articulate and interesting interview in the history of music."

That's a strong but heartfelt declaration, and one McNally stands by: Out of Garcia's story, he spins his exposition of the band and, ultimately, of the times. "I intended to write a history of the '60s through the Dead," he contends. "Within limits, many are saying I did."

 
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