Well, the first days were the hardest days. It was January 1998, when modems still made noise and plugged into phone jacks, Bill Clinton hadn’t been impeached yet, smoking up was still called “smoking out,” and Jerry Garcia was not quite three years dead. I was fifteen years old and went with two friends to the movie theater to see Half Baked, which starred a pair of young up-and-comers named Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle. (A movie theater, children, was like a flat-screen TV, only bigger, but to watch it you had to sit with hundreds of strangers and pay the bloodthirsty cartels who controlled the popcorn trade.) After the movie we got stoned for what would be my first time.
One thing I knew without being told — though there was a joke in Half Baked about it — is that stoned people listened to the Grateful Dead. The next chance I got, I picked up Skeletons from the Closet, their original greatest-hits compilation. Unable to get high that particular day, I decided to listen to it anyway. I cranked up my stereo and the house filled with — country music? To say I was flabbergasted would understate the case. But I was also intrigued and, though I didn’t yet know it, falling in love.
Flash forward to the present: Pot is basically legal, but I don’t smoke it. Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle — well, never mind. The Grateful Dead have been my favorite band for nearly twenty years now; according to iTunes, I own approximately 8.2 days’ worth of their music, spread out over 106 albums, most of which are live recordings. The band, for their part, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year with runs of sold-out stadium shows in Southern California and Chicago. They’ve got Trey Anastasio from Phish sitting in for frontman Jerry Garcia (which, for the record, I’m predicting will be guitar heaven and a vocal train wreck). The four surviving original members of the band — drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, bassist Phil Lesh, and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir — claim that this is the last time they will play together as the Grateful Dead. They’re calling the concert series “Fare Thee Well.”
So it’s high time, if you will, for a big, solid Grateful Dead biography, which brings us around to David Browne’s So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. Browne, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, started covering the (pun intended) “Dead beat” for the magazine in the ’80s. He is the author of a biography of Sonic Youth, a double biography of Jeff and Tim Buckley, and something called Fire and Rain, which is purportedly about “the lost story of 1970” (I tuned out as soon as I realized it was named after a James Taylor song, so who knows). Browne combines a journalist’s precision with a fan’s enthusiasm, manages to refresh the well-worn stories (Acid Tests, Altamont, etc.), and sheds enough new light to make the book as valuable for veteran Deadheads as for newly minted fans. Or, for that matter, non-fans curious to know what all the fuss has been about for all these years.
Browne is exceptionally good at organization. Each chapter is pinned to a moment in time, usually a single day, never more than a span of weeks. (Browne credits his wife with this concept, though it seems possible to me that he pinched it from Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America.) Many of these dates are concert performances, but some aren’t. Chapter 1, for example, is titled “Menlo Park, California, October 27, 1962.” It opens with Jerry Garcia and his girlfriend, Barbara Meier — twenty and seventeen years old, respectively — walking from Garcia’s place, up a very pre−Silicon Valley Sand Hill Road, to picnic in the countryside. The Cuban Missile Crisis is unfolding, and they think the world might end before the day is out. “Settling onto the grass, Garcia and Meier talked and cried a bit, then began singing. The song was ‘Go Down, Old Hannah,’ an African American prison work song recorded by Lead Belly, among others. . . . In its original form the song was the inmates’ way of ending the day; ‘Hannah’ was the sun.” Meier tells Browne, “We were trying to hasten the sun setting so the day would come to an end. . . . We thought that if we got through the day, things would be okay.”
Garcia’s troubled adolescence and the rise of the West Coast folk revival scene are delivered as back-story: a way of charting the paths that put these two people on this particular hill, singing this particular song. Other significant figures — founding band members and early patrons, some of whom had yet to meet each other — are introduced in subplots and asides. The whole chapter is as tightly constructed and paced as a good short story. Near the end, there’s even a brief flash-forward to a time when “[a] few years later, with the band that would finally make him more famous than he probably wanted to be, he would begin singing ‘Morning Dew,’ Bonnie Dobson’s elliptical but haunting ballad about life after nuclear fallout. . . . The song had a mournful and resigned tone to start with . . . but Garcia brought to its lyrics a palpable ache, stretching out some of the notes as if he were digging deep into that spooked side of himself and his past.”
Browne is adept at chronicling the development of the Dead’s sound and methodology (such as it was). In chapter 5, “San Francisco, November 2, 1969,” a single performance of “Dark Star” is the central narrative event. “Dark Star” was written in 1967, just before the infamous drug bust on the Dead’s house at 710 Ashbury Street (itself the subject of chapter 4). A three-minute studio version of “Dark Star” was released as a single in 1968 but was, in Browne’s perceptive phrase, “like a charcoal sketch of a painting that wasn’t yet finished.” Why? “Something unusual was starting to kick in with the Dead that rarely happened with other rock ‘n’ rollers: to develop the songs they needed to shape them onstage, complete with audience feedback. The material had to be painstakingly nurtured, not written and banged out in a studio, and nothing proved that more than their live tapes.”
Browne understands the inherent drama in the question of whether and how a given performance will cohere, what musical frontiers it might explore. He feels the emotional stakes of the exchanges between the musicians, as well as between the band and its audience, and sees how it all comes together to make something greater — or sometimes, admittedly, lesser — than the sum of its parts. Like a man calling baseball for radio, he is vivid and enthusiastic without stooping to proselytize. There’s an assumption that if you’re sitting by the radio, you must want to hear the game. Here’s an abbreviated, stitched-together version of Browne’s play-by-play for the 11/2/69 “Dark Star”:
[T]hree and a half minutes in . . . Garcia jacked up his lead line, Lesh joined in with his familiar rumble, and the two instruments began circling each other like two puppies at a dog run. . . . Seven minutes into “Dark Star,” they still seemed to be working their way toward something. . . . Finally, around nine and a half minutes in, Garcia began to sing. . . . In the eleventh minute . . . [t]he music was no longer jazz or rock but a variation of new-music minimalism, to the point where, at twelve minutes and forty-five seconds, no one was playing at all. . . . As the seventeenth minute of “Dark Star” arrived, they began converging, even if each man sounded as if he were playing a different part of a different song. . . . Twenty-eight minutes in, Garcia began singing again, and an island of calm returned.
And yet it must be said that there were times when I felt that Browne, for all his music-writing prowess, was shirking his biographical duty. He’s either too decorous, or too cozy with his subjects, to be useful on some of the unseemly topics that any full-scale biography unfortunately ought to include, mostly having to do with Garcia’s decline and the aftermath of his death. You’d never know from reading Browne that John Kahn — Garcia’s longtime friend and bassist for a number of solo projects — was a hugely divisive figure in the Dead scene. Kahn and his wife both used heroin, and some blamed them for Garcia’s later relapses. Browne notes that Kahn snuck into Garcia’s funeral after it started and hung at the back of the room, but fails to specify that this was because he’d been banned from attending.
Worse yet, the protracted and ignominious battle over ownership of Garcia’s guitars is entirely stricken from the record. Here’s the short version: A man named Douglas Irwin custom-built every guitar Garcia played, and Garcia willed the instruments back to Irwin. The will was challenged by Grateful Dead Productions (the band’s corporate self), which claimed that because the corporation had paid for the instruments, all instruments were band property: “We all owned all of it. All for one and for all.” The idea being that the guitars were not Garcia’s to give away. That quote is from a public letter to fans that Hart, Weir, and Kreutzmann all signed in 2001. Lesh, who did not sign the letter, said that ” ‘band ownership’ of instruments was a tax strategy” and that “the concept of collective ownership of instruments was never brought up during Jerry’s life, and if it had been, I believe it would have been laughed out of the room.” He eventually contradicted his bandmates in a court deposition. Irwin — destitute, in feeble health, and living in a trailer with his mother — eventually settled and got two guitars, which he immediately sold at auction. The one called Wolf went for $789,500, the one called Tiger for $957,500. He was able to buy himself a small house.
That the name Douglas Irwin does not appear anywhere in So Many Roads is a crying shame in and of itself, but it also raises questions about the integrity of the book’s closing chapter, “New York City, March 30, 2009,” in which the fifteen years after Garcia’s death are described as a period of much earnest if turbulent soul-searching. The titular date marks the surviving original members’ first reunion since the early 2000s and anticipates the jubilee year on which Browne’s book hopes to capitalize.
But with so much to recommend So Many Roads, I can’t bring myself to end on a sour note. The book is a pleasure to read and clearly a labor of love. Despite its omissions it makes a welcome addition to the canon of Dead writing, sitting alongside Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure; Steve Silberman and David Shenk’s Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads; The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which collects “all original songs by Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, with selected traditional and cover songs” (the annotations are by David Dodd); and Blair Jackson’s still-indispensable Garcia: An American Life. And, of course, there’s the music, which always was, and yet remains, the point. “Let there be songs to fill the air” goes the line in “Ripple,” and when all else is said and done — or left unsaid and undone — songs to fill the air is what we’ll have.