Most rock biographies are scrappy affairs, botched together from cuttings that recycle the same half-truths and lies. Dennis McNally's book is in a different league. It comes seven years after the death of Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist, vocalist and de facto leader of the Grateful Dead. The years give the book a respectful distance, but the author has been researching his scholarly history for almost a quarter of a century. His 1979 biography of Kerouac so impressed Garcia that he asked its author to become the band's official historian and then, in 1984, its publicist. Both positions afforded him unparalleled access to the Grateful Dead and its extended family.
At heart, McNally is a family man. Some of his most brilliantly impressionistic moments are the "interludes" that break up the narrative. Life in the band is exposed in quasi-novelistic fashion, as McNally depicts an "idealised" show from the late Eighties, the players perfecting their improvisatory alchemy, the crew going through the rituals that will turn a faceless stadium into a field of dreams for legions of tie-dyed fans. These passages are the most vivid depictions of life on the road I have ever read.
The colourful backstage characters were always a vital part of the band. Here are such figures as Bear, the Dead's first soundman and the chemical genius who supplied San Francisco with its finest LSD; Ram Rod and Parish, roadies loyal to the Merry Prankster tradition of practical jokes; Ron Rakow, the wheeler-dealer whose love of a scam attracted the anarchist in Garcia but led to financial disaster.
As the story progresses, the focus shifts. It takes McNally 480 pages to record the heady first nine years, to the point, in 1974, when the band momentarily stepped back from the madness. The remainder covers the 21 years that saw the Dead grow to become America's biggest-grossing live act, selling-out huge stadia on thrice-yearly tours.
Most fans would agree that the Dead's finest musical achievements belong to the first years, and McNally records each advance as a manifestation of the American spirit of exploration. His psychedelic troubadours boldly push back sonic and social boundaries. Growing success brings growing pressure, and cocaine brings increasing madness.
After the magnificent mayhem of the Europe '72 tour, the fun is replaced by a deadweight of scale. Everything becomes bigger, from PA systems to drug intake, escalating debt to hare-brained schemes. With the huge increase in fan base come responsibilities the Dead are ill-equipped to handle. The last 200 pages depict what, by 1980, had become "the world's most dysfunctional family". The Dead might still be able to produce magic on stage, but their scene has descended into a quagmire of bitching, backstabbing and bad behaviour. Amid this chaos, smiling benignly in a fug of heroin, sits Jerry Garcia, the leader who refuses to lead.
Yet the group were, first and foremost, about music, and that music lives on. The Dead sang of themselves as "a band beyond description". McNally has come as close as anyone could to painting a true picture of the bunch of Beat bums who became an American institution.
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