Righteous testimonial to the anarchic goodness that was the Grateful Dead.
You don’t have to be stoned to listen to the Dead, but it can help. While it’s unclear what Rolling Stone contributing editor Browne’s (Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, 2011, etc.) diet was when writing this book, he is quite clear on the band’s unfortunate trajectory from a little grass here to heroin and speedballs there, with fatal consequences. But while the author doesn’t shy away from the band’s pharmaceutical inventory, neither does he let that get in the way of his assessment of the music, from the early brilliance of their country-tinged psychedelia to evolving jam classics such as “Dark Star,” the likes of which, one fan remarks, surprised the band as well as the audience. Fittingly, half of the book is devoted to the first 10 years of the band. Just as fittingly, the second half takes the Dead from ragged band of hippies to post-’60s corporation—a friendly and groovy corporation but with all the headaches and internal politics of any multinational corporation. Browne misses a few points—the song “Dire Wolf,” for instance, takes its name not from a wolf named Dire but from a Pleistocene critter that once roamed around Marin—and can be a little clunky (“By then some of the Warlocks had already tried the legal, odorless, and colorless hallucinogen discovered by Dr. Albert Hoffmann in Switzerland about three decades before”), but he’s right about most everything. He also appropriately places emphasis on things other biographers have overlooked: the importance to the band’s sound of Robert Hunter as a lyricist and arranger, the incessant intellectual curiosity of Jerry Garcia, and the unerring sense of bad judgment that brought the band to ruin—but also the good luck that allowed it to keep chugging along for so long.
One of the better books on the band and welcome reading in this 50th anniversary year.