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A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of…
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A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (2002)

by Dennis McNally

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Showing 4 of 4
I'm proud to classed as a Deadhead! This is ace book. I'll get down to writing a proper review when I get back from my long, strange trip! ( )
  Dithreabhach | May 8, 2018 |
The author is the official historian for the Grateful Dead empire, so that fact needs to be considered on how the members are portrayed and what might have been left out.

I read this book concurrently with "Garcia: An American Life" by Blair Jackson (BJ hereafter), who is basically a Dead Head who decided to write books about them. It was interesting to see how the same events were portrayed in the two books; at times, the stories are not consistent.

This one does a pretty good job overall, although the audience for this book is probably pretty much limited to Dead Heads who might be well-versed in the lore already, such as the Merry Prankster and Haight scenes, all the Sixties hippie history he relates is ground well trodden by the average DH. Lots of context in relation to the other SF bands of the time here, in contrast to BJ.

Certainly the superlatives will make the occasional non-DH wonder at the level of objectivity used. McNally refers to himself in the third person as "Scrib" throughout the book; he was witness to various events yet he never uses the pronoun "I". He also intersperses the book with "Interludes", intended to give one a glimpse into various aspects of the Dead world as witnessed firsthand; these I found not very compelling and interrupted the flow of the book.

Only the last 100 of the 620 pages covers the last half (15 years) of GD history. Is it coincidental that my personal concert experiences were 3 in that time frame, as opposed to the roughly 20 in the first half? Or that 80% of their original material was written in those first 15 years, and only 20% in those last 15? Much of the 80's and 90's chapters address the various drug problems that various members struggled with, and the last 8 years with the crippling fame and the often troubling DH scenes at concert venues. One can't help but wonder whether McNally consciously spares us of the grim realities of those years, especially those of Jerry Garcia's declining health. BJ's book relates his health problems in depressing detail.

Curiously, JG's long-time writing partner Robert Hunter disappears almost completely in those last 100 pages (they only wrote about a dozen tunes together in those last 15 years), as does Phil Lesh, one of the first founding members and a driving force in the early and middle years of the band's history. Of course, Lesh had some serious problems with alcohol, but there is really not a whole lot about that in this book (Phil's memoir is the place to go for insight).

I believe that this official historian really does not emphasize two really disturbing negative forces in JG's life, and thus the negative effects on the GD: John Kahn's role in encouraging JG's repeated returns to the use of opiates, and Deborah Koon, at the end of JG's life. Her behavior after his death makes one wonder at how many episodes of her anger occurred, and how many included violence. At the very least, she comes across as manipulative and just mean, and since McNally (like BJ) is loathe to get too negative with anyone, one really wonders.

It seems to me that the band's creativity was not adversely affected by ample use of psychedelics; but when cocaine, alcohol, and heroin entered the picture, the band experienced a serious and depressing decline. It's ironic that their greatest popularity occurred so long after their best work.

The reviewer "featherbear" does not remember what the Fillmore East was called previously -- it was the Village Theater, which was easily found via the excellent index in the book. ( )
1 vote nog | Aug 23, 2015 |
I first heard the GD in 67 or 68, my freshman year in college, in New York. It was at a theater later called the Fillmore East; I don't recall what it was called then. I had my choice of seats since the place wasn't full.

The opening act was a female vocalist trying to make it in the pop genre (e.g. Petula Clark) of the times. She was out of tune both in pitch and with the main attraction; the embarrassment I felt for her is one of my uncomfortable memories of the evening. As I recall the small audience did cut her some slack.

I'm not sure I recall my incentive for attending a concert alone in a dubious part of a city that was new to me. I owned a copy of the first GD album and played it quite a lot but I'm not sure whether it was before or after hearing them live. I was interested in SF bands because of the electric blues element. It turned out the opening number was Pigpen on harp doing Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, my first experience of live electric high volume music. Got what I came for, but the bonus consisted of extended periods of primarily guitar improvisation, although bass guitar and percussion were right behind. Based on the book under review, the GD sound system was still in its infancy, but I was struck how the lead guitar seemed to float over the ocean of sound: clear, linear, like a stream of fresh water.

Although I later owned the LIve/Dead LP it did not spend a lot of time on the turntable. For me, it was certainly worth it for the live Turn on Your Lovelight, another highlight of my first live show experience even though the smaller audience probably didn't inspire Pig to some of the legendary versions he performed elsewhere. But the GD doing improvised variations on American roots music had been imprinted on me from the several concerts or club dates I heard in NY before 1970, and the Robert Hunter lyrics of L/D seemed to be aimed at listeners who needed to enhance the experience with drugs. Chacun a son gout but personally I have enough distortion in my mental life for any desire to buzz it some more chemically. Their later acoustic transformation seemed at the time to be too close to CSNY. CSNY I still find loathsome though the acoustic GD sounds better as time has passed. I did not follow the Dead much after the early 70s and almost not at all after Working Man's.

Later, middle aged, I found Hundred Year Hall & the Closing of Winterland live concerts at a used CD place. Played HYH a lot relatively speaking. Unlike some of the more committed deadheads I thought the ''chick singer' was a nice enhancement to the sound (at least in recorded form). HYH is from around 72, so I did wonder about the personnel changes over the years. I knew in HYH Pig was nearing his end, and by the time I started to listen to the CD (a live recording in Germany during the first European tour) Garcia was already gone. I basically picked up Dennis McNally's history of the band to get a handle on the changes and how the GD story ended.

It was an easy read, much enhanced by pictures of band, family, and staff. McNally keeps the story moving along, and gives a good sense of the period when the band was coming together in Haight and the Northern California environs. There are "interludes" where the linear history is interrupted to portray the intricacies of keeping a band on the road, the development of the sound system, recording, and performing -- illuminating (at least for the non-fanatic).

The book makes it clear that for the core members, there was a strong commitment to music rather than to fame, politics, family, or money. This for me is largely positive, but the obverse is that fame, business, and politics seemed to cause discomfort, while family and emotional complexities were neglected or avoided. On the other hand, staff were treated like family, and were on occasion actual family, sometimes to the detriment of business. It is noteworthy that the author does not dwell much on personal problems and losses, although this may also be characteristic of the band's ethos, which some may find off-putting.

Disappointments. I was left wondering what happened to Donna Jean Godcheaux after the Godcheauxs left the band, and McNally could have spent more time on Mountain Girl, who seems to have played a crucial role in the band and seems to have had more character and common sense than Garcia's later lovers (or many of the other players in the GD saga). Many will consider that the author allows the female and gay staff to be overshadowed in the narrative by the hypermasculine road crew, not to mention the band's relationship to the bikers, although there is no denying that hair trigger testosterone reactions (not forgetting Bill Graham) do play a significant role in the band's history, if not necessarily the band members themselves.

The GD were an experiment in popular music who took and played popular music seriously, while hardly ever losing the sense of play that makes improvised American music of world interest. Their music respected and did its best to incorporate some elements of classical, jazz, and all varieties of popular music. Not culture wars but an attempt at musical multiculturalism, integrating high and low.The economic and cultural conditions for this experiment may never be closely duplicated again. McNally makes an interesting contrast of the West Coast musical openness and flow with East Coast rock critics like Dave Marsh who preferred the tighter pop structures that were originally based on commercial considerations but in their minds became an underlying aesthetic model for all popular music (Ramones are the Platonic ideal, Television is like GD so Verlaine & Co. were -- to channel South Park's Eric Cartman -- Hippie Trash)

Some 13 years after its original publication, the group's business "plan" now seems ahead of its time, i.e. during their mature period the GD's income was derived from performing rather than recordings. Bootleg recordings were not discouraged but rather served to whet their fans' appetites for more concerts; this was before the Internet. The tipping point seems to have been the development of a mail order system under the control of the band (computers ticket orders would be used today) that opened up their audiences to working baby boomers. My understanding is that the jam bands of the 21st century were influenced by GD business as much as their aesthetic practices.

Despite its limitations, the book inspired me to get further into the GD oeuvre, time and finances permitting. Although the HYH recording was my true gateway to recordings of their live performances, the book provided sufficient context to persuade me to revisit both the Live Dead and Winterland recordings, & to enrich the experience, though I'm still not much of a fan of their original lyrics. Still, Mickey Hart's Fire on the Mountain is beginning to grow on me ...

Very good music journalism of its kind. Self recommending if you like the band's music, and of interest if you want a sense of the positive and negative cultural elements of the 60s and its impact on subsequent decades of the 20th century. ( )
1 vote featherbear | Apr 29, 2015 |
An exhaustive, painstakingly-sourced study of the seminal American folk rock band. An entertaining, revealing read. ( )
  wesh | Dec 13, 2007 |
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A Long Strange Trip is dedicated to the memories of Gerry Garcia and Dick Latvala
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Out on the edge of Western world, the Golden Gate channel cuts through the coastal range to link the Pacific Ocean and a bay, creating a haven called San Francisco.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0767911865, Paperback)

The complete history of one of the most long-lived and legendary bands in rock history, written by its official historian and publicist–a must-have chronicle for all Dead Heads, and for students of rock and the 1960s’ counterculture.

From 1965 to 1995, the Grateful Dead flourished as one of the most beloved, unusual, and accomplished musical entities to ever grace American culture. The creative synchronicity among Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan exploded out of the artistic ferment of the early sixties’ roots and folk scene, providing the soundtrack for the Dionysian revels of the counterculture. To those in the know, the Dead was an ongoing tour de force: a band whose constant commitment to exploring new realms lay at the center of a thirty-year journey through an ever-shifting array of musical, cultural, and mental landscapes.

Dennis McNally, the band’s historian and publicist for more than twenty years, takes readers back through the Dead’s history in A Long Strange Trip. In a kaleidoscopic narrative, McNally not only chronicles their experiences in a fascinatingly detailed fashion, but veers off into side trips on the band’s intricate stage setup, the magic of the Grateful Dead concert experience, or metaphysical musings excerpted from a conversation among band members. He brings to vivid life the Dead’s early days in late-sixties San Francisco–an era of astounding creativity and change that reverberates to this day. Here we see the group at its most raw and powerful, playing as the house band at Ken Kesey’s acid tests, mingling with such legendary psychonauts as Neal Cassady and Owsley “Bear” Stanley, and performing the alchemical experiments, both live and in the studio, that produced some of their most searing and evocative music. But McNally carries the Dead’s saga through the seventies and into the more recent years of constant touring and incessant musical exploration, which have cemented a unique bond between performers and audience, and created the business enterprise that is much more a family than a corporation.

Written with the same zeal and spirit that the Grateful Dead brought to its music for more than thirty years, the book takes readers on a personal tour through the band’s inner circle, highlighting its frenetic and very human faces. A Long Strange Trip is not only a wide-ranging cultural history, it is a definitive musical biography.


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The complete history of one of the most long-lived and legendary bands in rock history, written by its official historian and publicist-a must-have chronicle for all Dead Heads, and for students of rock and the 1960s' counterculture. From 1965 to 1995, the Grateful Dead flourished as one of the most beloved, unusual, and accomplished musical entities to ever grace American culture. The creative synchronicity among Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan exploded out of the artistic ferment of the early sixties' roots and folk scene, providing the soundtrack for the Dionysian revels of the counterculture. To those in the know, the Dead was an ongoing tour de force: a band whose constant commitment to exploring new realms lay at the center of a thirty-year journey through an ever-shifting array of musical, cultural, and mental landscapes. Dennis McNally, the band's historian and publicist for more than twenty years, takes readers back through the Dead's history in A Long Strange Trip. In a kaleidoscopic narrative, McNally not only chronicles their experiences in a fascinatingly detailed fashion, but veers off into side trips on the band's intricate stage setup, the magic of the Grateful Dead concert experience, or metaphysical musings excerpted from a conversation among band members. He brings to vivid life the Dead's early days in late-sixties San Francisco-an era of astounding creativity and change that reverberates to this day. Here we see the group at its most raw and powerful, playing as the house band at Ken Kesey's acid tests, mingling with such legendary psychonauts as Neal Cassady and Owsley "Bear" Stanley, and performing the alchemical experiments, both live and in the studio, that produced some of their most searing and evocative music. But McNally carries the Dead's saga through the seventies and into the more recent years of constant touring and incessant musical exploration, which have cemented a unique bond between performers and audience, and created the business enterprise that is much more a family than a corporation. Written with the same zeal and spirit that the Grateful Dead brought to its music for more than thirty years, the book takes readers on a personal tour through the band's inner circle, highlighting its frenetic and very human faces. A Long Strange Trip is not only a wide-ranging cultural history, it is a definitive musical biography.… (more)

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