Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dennis McNally: A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead

Dennis McNally has been both a Grateful Dead employee and a Deadhead, which makes him less than objective when it comes to evaluating and chronicling the band that kept the '60s psychedelic experiment going for nearly 30 years. A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead does reveal the author's bias against non-Dead musical trends, from the gloomy romanticism of The Doors to the minimalist psychodrama of The Velvet Underground (and, inevitably, the cynical pop mill of MTV). But the book also contains harsh criticism of The Grateful Dead's inordinate number of mediocre albums, and of the contradictions between the band's "everybody get high and happy" image and its members' commonly spiteful, abusive behavior offstage. A Long Strange Trip lacks a clear explanation as to why a band capable of making significant contributions to the genre of mystic, mythic American roots music couldn't maintain a consistent level of quality or integrity. But McNally suggests that, like the hippie culture at large, bandleader Jerry Garcia began making the transition from brotherhood drugs like marijuana and LSD to self-satisfying drugs like cocaine and heroin, which made the complicated, improvisational style of The Grateful Dead harder to achieve. McNally has a doctorate in American history, and he began officially documenting his favorite band in 1980, before becoming its publicist in 1984. He's a thorough researcher and good at keeping track of minutiae, which leads to ripping reportage when he details The Grateful Dead's participation in the era-defining festivals at Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont, or the ways a band of dropouts and burnouts coped with the corporate-rock realities of the late '70s and '80s. McNally's dutiful fact-gathering also leads to a periodically unappetizing soup of names—crew members, business managers, and hangers-on who usually come and go so quickly that it's not clear why they're in the book at all. McNally also attempts to force social, political, and historical context into the narrative, with frequent asides that make his take on, for example, the Reagan years too clear. Mostly, though, A Long Strange Trip delivers the "inside" information it promises. McNally dwells on the fragile humanity of the free-floating, intuitive, pop-culture-addicted Garcia, the insecure yet often arrogant Bob Weir, the moody intellectual Phil Lesh, the unwavering Bill Kreutzmann, and the rest of the rotating membership. He digs into their squabbles and foibles without skimping on the grind of day-to-day membership in a group renowned for its relentless touring. McNally even pays a remarkable amount of attention to the challenges of building a good concert sound system. The scholarship is valuable in one way: It covers a period in pop-music history that routinely serves as an exaggerated example of the best and worst of youth culture. And while there's no denying that McNally has a little mist over his eyes when he relives the heyday of The Love Generation, he also knows what it's like to look an icon in the eye and see his own fears and weaknesses reflected.


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