5 Q's: David Browne, author of "So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead"

With all of the hoopla and revived interest in the Grateful Dead, their recent "Fare Thee Well" tour and legacy and what they mean today, we put
"Five Questions” to David Browne, author of the new book on the Grateful Dead titled So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead.  Browne has also authored "Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1971" and "Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley."


What do you think the Dead and their brand stand for today?

For years, their “brand”— such a funny term to apply to a group of misfits like this — amounted to tie-dye garb, twirling hippies, and drugs. But now that the dust has settled, the Dead represent an uncompromising, take-us-for-what-we-are integrity. With the exception of the hot minute when Garcia agreed to license an instrumental track on his first solo album to a Cher perfume ad, the Dead tried their best not to sell out. The band’s music never appeared in commercials. They played however long they wanted onstage (as I saw in contracts with promoters dating back to the ‘70s). They refused to have footage of their set used in the Woodstock movie. Some of those decisions cost them exposure and cash, but they didn’t seem to care. How many other bands, old or new, can rattle off a similar list? Very few, which only makes the Dead more fascinating as the years go on. Despite their mellow NoCal-hippies image, they were actually ball-busters, all for the sake of their music and principles.

I find it fascinating how the Dead adapted to their evolving keyboard situations. Their sound and structure was clearly different with TC than Keith and then again changing with Brent and synthesizers, coming back to the Keith style (in my opinion) with Hornsby. Do you know if this was considered, or strictly organic or based on personnel?

The decisions were both organic and considered. TC was added to the band due to concerns over Pigpen’s health and also to push the band into more experimental areas (he was a close friend of Phil Lesh, the band’s resident classical-music guy). Keith’s piano felt organic in the way it fit beautifully in with the psychedelic Americana songs Hunter and Garcia (and sometimes Weir) were writing in the early ‘70s, and Brent’s versatility on keyboards was, in the band’s eyes, a necessary corrective to Keith’s reliance on acoustic piano (Brent’s synths and organ added more sonic textures to fit the more produced sound of rock and pop in the ‘80s). Then again, there was always an accidental quality to these hires, from the time Donna Godchaux finagled her shy husband into a Dead rehearsal to the swiftness with which Brent was hired as Keith’s health deteriorated. (When Brent died, the band actually did engage in rehearsing with several possible candidates before hiring Welnick and, for a while, Hornsby.)

Any theories on why that piano bench was so “hot?”

From what I was told in interviews, all of the guys who are no longer with us — Pigpen, Keith, Brent and Vince — had similar personalities: they were quiet and sensitive, with lingering low self-esteem issues. (In the case of the first three, they all abused one or another drink or drug.) Why the band gravitated to people with those traits for that bench is one of the enduring mysteries of the Dead.  The band already had forceful personalities by the time Keith and Brent, especially, joined up, so maybe the idea of a low-key guy in that spot appealed to the others.

A friend recently hipped me to the concept of “disruptive innovation,” which I think applies really well to the Dead’s model. Their DIY ethos presaged punk, tape trading could be viewed as an early model of file sharing, etc. What do you think is their greatest contribution (other than the music, of course)?
“Disruptive innovation” sounds about right for the Dead, since they kept rewriting the playbook as they went along. Their music comes first, as you say — the Hunter/Garcia songbook will endure for many more decades, if not a century or two, to come — but their sense of self-sufficiency may be their second most enduring legacy. They generally took their career into their own hands. They fostered a direct bond with fans dating back to newsletters in the ‘70s and extending to the opening of their own ticket office the following decade. Before Radiohead, NIN, Wilco and others, they released music on their own indie label. They worked as much outside the system as within it, and their fan base only grew, year by year, as a result. Not all of these plans worked out (their label only lasted a few years), but they showed that it could be done.

There’s a lot of excitement about the “Fare Thee Well” shows but there’s been an equal amount of criticism, focusing mainly on ticket costs and claims of a money grab. What’s your take?

There’s no question the four surviving “core” members are going to make a lot of money from those shows and all the attendant merchandising, broadcast rights and boxed sets (one recent estimate put the total at $50 million). And I’m sure money was a motivating factor in getting all of them to agree to share the stage together after years of acrimony and business-related bad blood. But I also think there’s something naïve about the “money grab” accusations. While they were generous with charity contributions, the Dead were never exactly altruistic; even back in the day they liked their BMW’s and the lifestyles that came with selling out stadiums year after year. They didn’t do it for the money, but the money was damn good and kept them on the road for years. A true money grab would have been a full-on tour with the $300-or-so average ticket for current tours by Taylor Swift, Madonna or Fleetwood Mac. "Fare Thee Well" topped out at $200, at least in terms of official prices.


#GratefulDead #DavidBrowne #SoManyRoads #FareTheeWell #Dead50 #Jerry Garcia #BobWeir #Phil Lesh #BillKreutzmann #Mickey Hart #Pigpen #KeithGodchaux #BrentMydland #VinceWelnick #BruceHornsby