2015 will be remembered as the “re-dawning” of the Dead. Aside from the “Fare Thee Well” dates that closed the chapter on the original remaining members, there was the rebirth of Dead & Company, which pulled in a new generation guitar player in John Mayer, and likely a younger audience as well. Some were there for Mayer and, some, perhaps because they missed the Dead the first time ‘round. We’ve also seen a boon of new books about the legendary band — from Bill Kreutzmann’s entertaining romp Deal to No Simple Highway and the excellent So Many Roads.
That leads us to This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History Of The Grateful Dead from Dead authorities and insiders David Gans and Blair Jackson. Oral histories can be a mixed bag at times, but when they are good, they’re really good. This one is really, really good. In fact, the format makes it the most “Grateful Dead” of all Grateful Dead books; a community of unique viewpoints stitched together —at times complimentary, at times singular —that create a richer tapestry and a story far greater than the sum of its parts. Now who does THAT sound like?
Jackson is the author of The Music Never Stopped, Garcia An American Life and the publisher of the beloved tour ’zine "The Golden Road." Gans has also published several books on the Dead and produces and hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows on the band. What they’ve done with this book is provide a remarkable history of not only the band, but of the culture and times that birthed them, and the relentless touring and breaking of new markets. That approach, would, of course, lift them to become one of the top-grossing live acts in America.
The Dead are alternately smart, playful and abstract (oh…and “groovy,” especially Jerry) but that should come as no surprise. The book pulls from period interviews with the band and it’s fascinating to hear their perspective as their career unfolds. Garcia discusses the “crowd problem” at their shows way back in 1971. It would, in part, precipitate their 1975 retirement, and then again become a major issue when “Touch of Grey” exploded in 1990. It was also interesting hearing Jerry namecheck Coltrane’s “Ascension,” and Eric Dolphy and Steve Lacy as guideposts for his MIDI horn sounds; that’s a deep well. Lesh, Weir, Bill and Mickey all contribute funny and insightful stories. Hell, Pigpen's here as well; I had not read many interviews with him before this.
I was also impressed with the supporting cast of characters that the authors weave in and out of the story. Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, Owsley and various Pranksters provide the skinny on the Acid Tests and their origins and intent. The commentary from the women in the extended Dead family, including Mountain Girl, Rosie McGee and Sue Swanson, amongst others, is really good. It’s a viewpoint not often heard and they are all very insightful on “the scene”; it’s too bad their voices trail off in the later years. Likewise, former managers Jon McIntire, Sam Cutler and, especially Rock Scully and Cameron Sears bring a unique “business” vantage point to the tale. It’s amazing to me how the Grateful Dead organization, this self-described band of freaks, adapted to, modified and eventually revolutionized parts of the music business. Certainly many parts of their live performance (they practically invented the pay-per-view experience) and grass roots ticketing approach have now been absorbed into today’s music web-based and social media economies.
If publicist Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of The Grateful Dead is the definitive “straight” biography, this is definitively the most fun to read. Gans and Jackson’s book is ultimately a rolling caravan of Dead stories designed to take you Further into the Grateful Dead universe by the people who were on that bus, from beginning to end. Now, as ever, I’d recommend getting on this bus; it’s an informative trip, a fun ride and good for the soul.
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