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Full Review
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A Long Strange Trip
by Dennis McNally
Publisher:
Broadway 
Year:
2002 
ISBN:
0767911857 
Reviewed by Donut, 6/6/2005

I remember being surprised when I first encountered resistance after bringing up the Grateful Dead in conversation among younger members of the psychedelic community. Even in light of some annoying public perceptions shaped by the embarrassing behavior of part of their audience and their own personal disintegration towards the end, I always assumed that their crucial contributions to the tapestry of American Psychedelia were well understood. Perhaps I was naive to think that of a generation of young ravers who’ve never had the option of attending a show; although they have plenty to offer musically, none of the current crop of jam-bands has ever been on a social/spiritual mission of comparable power. In any case, while it is undeniable that they have helped inspire certain stereotypes that remain an albatross around the community’s collective neck, the fact remains that for anyone seriously interested in a comprehensive understanding of psychedelic history, the Grateful Dead’s story represents an essential chapter that cannot be overlooked. Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip tells that story more accurately and completely than ever before.

The Dead were an utterly unique aggregation among rock bands, and in documenting them McNally has fittingly crafted a book that is unlike any other of the many rock biographies I’ve read over the years. For example, the traditional narrative approach to the history of the band is cinematically intercut at crucial points with interludes that attempt to explain how the Grateful Dead touring machine operated by describing a composite “archetypal” Dead show from load-in to load-out. As the band’s publicist for many years, McNally obviously gained a special insight into the behind-the-scenes alchemy which facilitated what no less astute an observer as Joseph Campbell recognized as one of the great unsung mystery religions of 20th century America. Being the first band-authorized title of its kind, the book is practically bursting at the bindings with fascinating backstage tidbits, illuminating perspectives on well-known countercultural figures and events, and exciting dope tales that add up to a tremendously entertaining read.

Speaking of dope tales, although the Dead story is sadly not without its share of tragic rock & roll excess, most of the drug-related content in this book is of an entirely different order than what one encounters in the average episode of Behind the Music. In my experience, few other books not aimed specifically at the entheogen community contain this much detailed, accurate information on psychedelics. Then again, this is a band whose name was chosen out of the dictionary by Garcia after smoking DMT, which shows up frequently over the course of the narrative (most often in connection with bassist Phil Lesh, for those of you keeping score at home.)

That’s not all there is for psychonauts to appreciate here; inside one will find plenty of first hand information and revealing anecdotes about many legendary people. When they weren’t making some of the finest LSD ever known, uber-chemists Tim Scully and Owsley Stanley were key members of the Dead’s sound crew (who revolutionized the design of high-end concert audio in their own right). Ken Kesey’s Perry Lane residence in Palo Alto was one of the loci around which the group came together, so we see a good deal of him and the various Merry Pranksters, of which the band were considered junior members (Kesey called Garcia & Co. the Prankster Spaceship’s “faster than light drive”). Also well-represented are the Diggers and many of the rest of the colorful cast of characters that made the Haight-Ashbury scene what it was. The detail in which the birth of Bay Area acid culture and the early days of ludibund psychedelic experimentation in America are covered compares favorably with the readily available popular works on psychedelic history. Indeed, this book makes an excellent complement to titles like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Storming Heaven in that regard. Terence McKenna and Timewave theory also merit mention from McNally, as Garcia and Lesh especially were early supporters and long-time fans of the departed bard.

A Long Strange Trip also clarifies many aspects of the Grateful Dead legend that have been fodder for considerable myth and innuendo over the years, given their roles as unofficial spokesmen for the psychedelic community during the late ‘60s and ‘70s and the fact that for much of that time, none other than Owsley “Bear” Stanley was first their patron and then their soundman. As to the ubiquity of psychedelic substances at shows, there has remained some speculation about what role if any they may have had in LSD trafficking. McNally helps to debunk such myths by explaining that Bear actually took voluntary sabbaticals from “professional” chemistry during his stints behind the board so as not to add to the already considerable legal pressures on the group. However, although they weren’t trafficking in acid, they apparently gave it away in spades, as McNally reveals in detail. Even though the Acid Tests ostensibly stopped in the fall of 1966, according to some insiders and concertgoers complimentary LSD was at times discreetly gifted (and sometimes not so discreetly, according to McNally) to fortunate patrons at the occasional Dead show up through the early ‘70s. Another point about the band that McNally admirably makes clear is that contrary to popular opinion, a convincing case can be made that the Dead’s own sensibilities were intrinsically more beat than hippie. The future Grateful Dead family came of age at a time that found them perfectly poised to pick up on some free-floating energy left in the Bay Area air from the recently deceased beat era. Indeed, many of their biggest extra-musical heroes were beats, with the larger-than-life figure of “Cowboy” Neal Cassady playing an especially important role as the living bridge connecting the two.

Of course, the story did not end happily for either the band or the hippie movement that cherished them, and McNally pulls no punches while insightfully exploring the tragic decline that befell them both. In this regard, the Dead’s saga can be viewed as a valuable cautionary tale that contemporary psychonauts could learn much from. Garcia’s story is a vivid and powerful reminder that simply eating entheogens is no express train to enlightenment, especially when one has all of the pressures and temptations of the entertainment industry (plus the stress of dealing with the percentage of his fans who’d gone a bit ‘round the bend and considered him literally their guru) to constantly pull them in the other direction. Speaking of entertainment, if anyone’s wondering when I’ll get around to seriously discussing the music, you’re unfortunately out of luck. People tend to have rather strong feelings about it, and I don’t want them to cloud the issue; love the music or hate it, there is still plenty between the covers of this book to enjoy. For those with an interest, McNally provides a wealth of detail about their methods of working, the conditions under which their style developed and their albums were recorded, the origins of significant songs in their repertoire, and the Hunter-Garcia & Weir-Barlow songwriting partnerships. Ultimately, I feel confident that if you’re enjoying the Erowid website, you will find McNally’s Long Strange Trip well worth taking.

3 Comments »

  1. Great review. I’ve got to read it.

    Comment by mark robinson — 7/8/2005 @ 11:20 pm

  2. I wish all reviewers were this perceptive…sounds like a great book, too!
    -David Arnson

    Comment by David Arnson — 7/31/2005 @ 3:16 am

  3. While I’m a big Dead fan,I’m not a “Deadhead” per say(never even been to a show),so there is lot I probably don’t know about the band,but I think Donut(previous reviewer) probably hit the nail right on the head with this one.

    Don’t think because McNally was the band’s official biographer that he portrays the band as some kind of demi-gods. He pulls no punches.

    Some people that see the dead as modern day saints might be dissappointed that their favorite band are not heroes,but those digging will still find plenty of great tales about something that while imperfect,was certainly magical at times. The Dead were human after all. That’s what made them such a great,unique band. They all had imperfections as human beings,but they still managed to find their niche and inspire a lot of people.
    That said, those reading this should take the chance to see it as cautionary tale as well. Hopefully,along with the inspriration,readers will learn some things not to do if something like this ever happens again. The band’s at times massive intake of drugs (often cocaine and opiates,not just psychedelics) can be very unflattering at times.

    Those that don’t even particulary like the dead’s music,but are interested in the culture and the happenings of the Band will also find much to like in this book. While McNally of course covers the music as well,there is much,much more to learn. If a section gets a bit boring (it happens in a book this long),readers can easily skip around and read the juicy stuff.

    If there is indeed a heaven,I picture Jerry looking down and smiling on this book as someone portrayed him in a very honest light,even with some of his shortcomings as a human being being shown.

    4/5 stars

    Comment by monoamine — 9/15/2005 @ 4:09 pm

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