Much has been written about the Grateful Dead and their music, their iconic leader Jerry Garcia, their legion of fans and the “scene” — drugs, the parking lot, and otherwise. The most prominent and essential of those is publicist’s Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Longtime associates Steve Parrish, Rock Scully and Sam Cutler have all penned “insider” books, but other than Phil Lesh’s Searching for the Sound, the band has been content to let their story be told by others.
Which leads us to Playing In The Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of The Grateful Dead, a 1985 collaboration by David Gans and Peter Simon and one of the first books to examine the Dead and their music. The book is very much in that era’s style of a more digestible, capsule approach, much like Simon’s indispensible reggae books with Stephen Davis. David Gans is the longtime host of “The Grateful Dead Radio Hour” and has consulted on numerous Dead reissue projects.
While not a straight (no pun intended) narrative, there’s brief bios of each band member, how the band came together and, of course, the Acid tests — an essential piece of the Dead mythology — to set things ups. The best parts of the book come next: songwriting, recording, the improvisational musical flights and the music itself, all told by the band members. That’s one of the reasons this book is so good. In between the authors' narrative, the band guides the reader through the world of the Grateful Dead as only they can; insightful, funny and wise, self-assured and self-deprecating. Snippets of lyrics appear to help illustrate the point at hand more poetically (lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow also help tell the story.)
Some of the best banter includes:
Garcia: Coming to see the Grateful Dead is like getting a kit from Radio Shack —
Weir: Yeah. The audience gets to help put it together.
Garcia: And it might not work.
Lesh: We had to follow Miles Davis, three nights in a row, at the Fillmore West. I don’t want to hear anybody snivel about following anybody else…it was cold-blooded murder.
Weir: Even among musicians, we’re an acquired taste. Even if you can perform the music we perform, it’s questionable whether you want to. We’re just those kinds of people.
There are longer, more detailed books about the Dead, but I doubt there’s one that captures what the band is about as well as Playing In The Band does. The relative brevity and thoughtful layout of the book make this one indispensible; there's not a bum note to be found. If you're a fan of the band, you should search this one out.
In a book chock full of memorable quotes about this singular band and their music, Garcia sums up what the Dead means to him and vice versa perfectly: “Go hear me play. That’s me — that’s what I have to say. That’s the form my thoughts have taken.”
And if you get confused, listen to the music play…