I was stoked have scored a ticket for the limited-run (one week) theatrical screening of the new Grateful Dead documentary at IFC Cinema in the West Village. A four-hour love fest for Deadheads young and old, and more importantly for those music fans and the curious who just never got "it" and what it means to be a Deadhead. Expertly handled by director Amir Bar-Lev, there is so much to mine here that I can't imagine how much was left on the cutting room floor. (Props to executive producer Martin Scorsese, too.) Jerry's Frankenstein story frames the movie in a way that initially seems odd but by the end of the film makes perfect sense. After all, like the Monster, the band was "assembled" by the various parts (members, friends, fans, staff) that comprised it. Messy, joyous entropy in action; seemingly random, but actually spiritually connected on a very profound and metaphysically level. This could have easily been a 6 - 8 hour mini-series. Heck, I could have watched another hour just on the various keyboard players that brought their craft to the Dead. Or how the band would curate their set lists from show to show, never repeating a set list while on tour. But these are minor quibbles. This is a must-see film.
Thankfully original member and organ/harmonica/vocalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan got his much deserved props. I always loved his "Big Boss Man" and "Good Lovin'" covers to ignite the crowd. Lyricist John Perry Barlow visiting his grave and sharing his R&B influence on the band was particularly moving section of the doc. I do wish there would have been more backstage footage or banter with him. And there was no mention of Tom Constanten who played with them from 1968 through 1970, appearing on 3 albums -- Anthem of the Sun (1968), Aoxomwoxoa (1969), and Live/Dead (1970). He's still alive. Maybe his interviews were left on the cutting room floor or he declined to participate. Nor any mention of Vince Welnick who replaced Brent Mydland after he passed away. Or when Bruce Hornsby joined the band during their final years.
But still lots of amazing content and facts. Great moment on how the Dead changed their name from The Warlocks to The Grateful Dead recognizing that there was an East Coast band with the same name that would morph into The Velvet Underground.
Yes, drugs were a huge part of the scene and the writer Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped spread their Electric Acid Kool-Aid tests to parties were the Dead supplied the music. Moreover, bassist Phil Lesh summed it up best: "The acid test experience really formed the band as a group mind." And Owsley "Acid King" Stanley, whose LSD supplied the tests, touring "pharmacist," and in 1966 became the band's financial backer. He also became their sound engineer. (He designed their giant "Wall of Sound," the most dynamic speaker system ever assembled for a touring band.) There is a famous Playboy After Dark sequence where the Dead "dosed" the coffee on set, unleashing their magic on the television studio crowd.
Interesting take on the Hell's Angels being fans, too. How did that happen? What did they see in the band? Outsiders like themselves? In 1969, some say they were the unofficial security detail for the Altamont Free Concert. A concert where a young man was stabbed to death by one of the Angels. But I suspect it was the Dead's truly "cosmic" Americana music that appealed to them, just like it appealed to everyone -- left or right, fringe culture and mainstream college kids, et al. Their music was the great connector. It truly allowed you to "free your mind so your ass could boogie."
The talented writer and former Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally is featured extensively and he answers many of the tough questions, really sharing insight in the zeitgeist of the band and their process for creating a cultural phenomena. As Dennis states perfectly the Dead were about "leaving yourself open to magic!"
Bob Weir shares plenty of stories and insight into the band's process, as well. I would have loved to have had him share the process for selecting their music; not just from set to set, but how they'd decide want cover songs the band would tackle. That minutia might seem petty for non-Deadheads, but I believe it's fascinating for anyone who enjoys the artist's creative process. The band's catalog of cover tunes was enormous and genre-blending -- R&B, country, bluegrass, gospel, folk. Once a song was enveloped by them, it became their own.
Who was in charge? As longtime Grateful Dead roadie and friend of the band Steve Parish noted no one was ever really in charge. But that's how the band wanted it. Some people looked at Jerry for guidance, but he was just a court jester who could play guitar better than just about anyone else on the planet. And he had an American musical vocabulary that was deep and rich. In the end, the full weight of the Dead experience crushed him. He could no longer shoulder the enormous responsibility of the stadium size crowds that looked to him as some sort of "spiritual" leader. He was just a guy who loved to play and share music.
As Jerry states emphatically, he wanted to be involved in something that was "flowing, dynamic and living. Something that had a life of its own. [He] was just a part of it." And it had to be "fun". At the core of all of this madness were people having fun, even if they worked for the Dead -- from roadies, family members, staff or backstage pals. The joy of creating music and sharing in that communion was paramount to the Grateful Dead live experience.
For some Deadheads the Europe '72 tour featuring only one drummer -- Bob Kreutzmann -- remains one of the pinnacle tours for the band. There is some new-found footage that sheds some light on how the band functioned on the road, and how the camera crew got swept up in their insane merriment. There is a poignant moment when Jerry performs "Morning Dew" with no one in the tape truck. It is a chilling moment. It would be the last major tour for Pigpen, as his health had deteriorated to a point of no return. He would make his final appearance with them in early June of 1972; he died in 1973 at the age of 27. Pianist Keith Godchaux would replace him and remained a regular member of the Grateful Dead until 1979. His wife Donna would provide vocals on stage as well.
As Mr. McNally points out, each member of the Dead provided some musical intersection that informed their sound. Drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart's love of third world rhythms and various drums added a sonic element that provided more than just two drummers holding down the beat. He and Bill could add their own flourishes and rhythms to the dynamics. Their "drums" segment of each live show allowed them to explore those possibilities.
Former SNL writer/cast member and current senator Al Franken shares some wonderful stories about his love of the band. But where was basketball legend Bill Walton? Would like to hear him wax poetic about his love of this band. (He saw them over 850 times!) I know he has some stories about the Dead's trip and gig at the pyramids in Egypt. Not to mention other Deadheads like Bill Clinton, Ann Coulter, Will Arnett, Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke, et al. The doc does get into the "follow the Dead" experience and how fans would drive hours to see them from city to city, venue to venue. I have a few friends who did just that from their junior high school years through adulthood.
One tiny complaint.. It would have be great to have seen some additional information and footage on the Dead's splinter bands/side projects -- New Riders of the Purple Sage, Kingfish, Jerry Garcia Band, RatDog, Phil Lesh & Friends, Old & In The Way, Rhythm Devils, et al. -- and post-Jerry Dead configurations -- The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur, Dead & Co. The Dead's massive legacy lives on in these projects and could have easily provided another hour of footage and stories. Not to mention all of the amazing Dead cover bands that crisscross America.
The Dead created a fraternity of like-minded brothers and sisters that loved music and loved the ethos created by a band of musicians and their entourage that had one mission and one mission only -- bring joy and fun by sharing some of the best music ever created on Planet Earth. If you hold your nose at this sentiment, then you haven't lived in the moment of a Grateful Dead show and experienced that joy, that "fun" the band brought to every live performance. You may never get it until you had that live experience, with or without mind-altering substances, but this documentary comes pretty damn close.
Long Strange Trip is officially released on Amazon Video tomorrow, June 2nd.
Mr. Wright is a content creator and cultural curator. He was a contributor to the Huffington Post, former DJ at David Lynch's Transcendental Music Radio, the former editor of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and television. He's also a singer/songwriter who has released five solo albums and one with folk-rock quartet