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A Fitting Documentary for The Grateful Dead

A sprawling, four-hour, episodic documentary featuring both familiar and recently uncovered footage is fitting for The Grateful Dead. Whether it was the sprawling improvisational jams, the grinding tours, or the Herculean drug use, the band was known for that sort of excess. As pointed out in the Amir Bar-Lev directed and Martin Scorsese produced film, the Dead were known for a “both/and” mentality, for throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. And though Long Strange Trip might be as exhausting and meandering as a Dead show, its quality is consistent. Don’t be surprised if, in time, it becomes over and above other docs like The Other One (which focuses mainly on rhythm guitarist Bob Weir) and The Grateful Dead Movie (an in-house creation, co-directed by Jerry Garcia) the definitive cinematic portrayal of the most American band ever. 

The question is, why now? Why did it take so long for this behemoth to get made? Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist and undisputed heart of the band, died over twenty years ago. The band itself peaked long before that (when exactly this peak occurred is a contentious topic of debate among Dead Heads). And yet the music of the Dead is experiencing something like a resurgence. Dead & Co., a variation of the band featuring three of the original members and John Mayer on guitar, is touring and selling out shows. Last year Day of the Dead, a compilation of Dead covers performed by young, hip musicians was released. Bob Weir was recently on tour with The National as his backing band, and a few years ago the surviving members played a series of well-received “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago. So in some sense, it seems that Long Strange Trip is riding this cresting wave of pop culture attention.

But perhaps a deeper and more interesting explanation is that the Grateful Dead, by carving out such a unique niche in contemporary American music, made themselves perennially relevant. The Dead have always gone their own way, and were never quite popular in the same way that their contemporaries were. That’s partially due to their unique (in rock at least) improvisational style and nonstop touring, but also because of their transmission of an older, weirder, and wilder vision of America to audiences. For all of their flaws, and there were many, the Dead were tuned in to the myriad musical strains and cultural traditions of American freedom. They combined jazz, rock, blues, bluegrass, and country as sounds, but they also combined the various ethoses embedded in those styles of music. So it wasn’t just the twang of country that was regurgitated, but the high and lonesome spirit of the plains itself that was conjured out of the sound. It wasn’t simply the chord changes of the traditional Highland murder ballad, but the heavy and quasi-spiritual weight of sin that the band tapped into. Their subject wasn’t their own time and experiences, but a melange of myths, gossip, prayers, and ghost stories. It was a truly American aesthetic.

The film, which is roughly chronological, begins with Jerry Garcia’s coming of age in the coffee houses of a post-Beatnik San Francisco, bored out of his wits and waiting for something, anything, to happen. He would himself, along with a few friends, become what happened. Taking us from his early days as a bluegrass banjoist, through his teaming up with author Ken Kesey as the house band for Kesey’s infamous Acid Tests Garcia et al. weren’t just present at the birth of the sixties counterculture, they were the midwives. It was after an Acid Test (a free for all party where everyone is heavily dosed on LSD) in Watts that Garcia had something like an epiphany at the Watts Towers. The towers, outsider art constructed by Sabato Rodia, were intended to be pulled down the city after the artist’s death in case the 17 interconnected structures were structurally unsound and posed a risk to the community. After cranes unsuccessfully attempted to pull the towers down, the city decreed that they were safe. Garcia wanted to build something like a photo negative of the Watts Towers, something that wouldn’t last forever, but ebb and flow and eventually die like a living organism. But achieving that Heraclitian flow in his art had the opposite of the intended effect. It strengthened the structural integrity of the band’s craft, ensuring that their art will exist seemingly indefinitely despite the personal hardships and, let’s be honest here, moral failures of individual members of the band.

And of those sorts of failures, there were many. It’s a testament to the film (and to the surviving members, who helped to produce the documentary and appear frequently in it) that it doesn’t necessarily descend into hagiography, that everything is shown, warts and all. There’s the chaos of what was essentially a leaderless organization. There’s the amorality and destructiveness, families abandoned and children neglected. There’s the psychological and physical disintegration as hard drugs were introduced to the scene in the 70’s. And then there’s of course death. The film is haunted by the dead: Pigpen, Brent Mydland, and various roadies like Rex Jackson. Not least of all is Jerry Garcia himself, who flirted with death for decades before finally succumbing in his 50’s.

The film is also haunted by people who were integral to the band but go unmentioned. Tom Constanten, who helped the Dead record one of their best albums, Anthem of the Sun, and acted as a touring organist during some of their best years, isn’t in the film. Neither is Vince Welnick, the Dead’s final keyboardist. But, in an odd paradox suitable to the Grateful Dead, fans of the band enjoy nothing more than to nitpick over details and omissions, so there will be a few things for them to enjoy kvetching about. My personal favorite is how the film abruptly jumps from the Dead’s hiatus at the end of 1974 to their pyramid concert in Egypt in 1978, almost completely omitting their legendary ‘77 tour.

Omissions aside, there’s a lot here for all fans to enjoy, both seasoned Heads and potential fans alike. If the reader hadn’t already figured it out by now, I’m a fan myself. I listen to, on average, a few hours of the Grateful Dead a day. So it was nice to see quasi and legitimately famous fans discuss the particulars of their love for the band. Whatever you think of his politics, it’s more than a little endearing to see Al Franken pinpoint his favorite version of the song “Althea” (from the May 1980show in Hampton, Virginia).

There was much that was revolutionary about the Grateful Dead—their business model and sound equipment in particular. But there was just as much to the group’s significance that was elemental, almost chthonic. I’ve writtenelsewhere that the band embodied a kind of neo-Epicureanism. Their goals were fun, adventure, and living what Garcia called an “uncluttered life.” There’s was a naivete in that sentiment that’s as touching as it is fundamentally mistaken about both human nature and the entropic effects of time. Garcia said that he wanted to give people an alternative to the “new, lame America” of empty consumerism and obsession with superficial safety. But then there’s evil. Garcia and the rest of the band seemed aware of it. They sang about it. They were intimate with it. But in the end, they couldn’t really figure out a way to effectively oppose it. Lyricist John Perry Barlow recalls a conversation with Garcia where Barlow complained about the constant presence of hard-living bikers backstage. Garcia responds that good doesn’t mean much without evil. Sure. “But that doesn’t mean that you necessarily always have to have a seat for evil at the table,” retorts Barlow. It cuts to the heart of what made the band so interesting and, in the end, so tragic.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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