Like a Grateful Dead concert, McNally’s authorized biography of the great band is amiable, digressive, and transporting, capable of minor misadventures but always worth witnessing.
McNally was anointed official Dead historian in 1980, by Jerry Garcia, who admired the accuracy and sensitivity of McNally’s book on Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (Desolate Angel, 1979). He hasn’t let the band down. Working in linear fashion—punctuated by chapters that convey a you-are-there atmosphere: equipment setups, interview snippets, stage snafus, and moments of glory—McNally keeps the writing liquid, mellow despite all the detail it sheds, exhaustive without being exhausting. McNally’s job couldn’t have been easy, considering the general chaos and disorganization that surrounded the band, not to mention the unbridled use of recreational intoxicants. (It is a measure of the anecdotal pleasures here to learn that the Dead were introduced to LSD by the CIA.) But he does a yeoman’s job of tracking both their footsteps and their mindsets, setting them within (or outside) the context of the country’s evolving politics and culture, conjuring a sense of their genuine eccentricities, the irritants that generated their pearls: the lightning in a bottle of “Live Dead,” the endlessly unfolding “Dark Star,” and “St. Stephen,” with its “medieval vision set inside a psychedelic ambience.” The Dead made music that defined their lives and then shared it with friends; the stage was their living room. They were cooperative, leaderless, real-time, Dionysian, ready to follow their emotional and artistic vicissitudes. So they did, as McNally chronicles, alone and together, brilliant and abysmal; some survived, others did not. But what a time: be-ins, Woodstock (yes, they were there), Fillmore East and West and every stage in between, turned on and tuned in—and the music, it was always about the music, though “we never failed to have some fun,” Garcia pointed out.
A series of lively postcards from a peerless journey. “Definitely long, definitely strange—and definitely a trip,” said band member Phil Lesh. Wish you were here.