Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Long Strange Trip

Amir Bar-Lev’s rockumentary, Long Strange Trip, about the Grateful Dead, is aptly named for what is arguably the band’s most famous lyric: What a long, strange trip it’s been. The film takes you on a four-hour ride (much like the band's live shows) but this is not just another indulgent music doc.

Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, the film digs deeply into the bizarre phenomenon that surrounded “The Dead” for decades—obsessive fans, called Deadheads, became a cult-like following that elevated the band’s ringmaster, Jerry Garcia (Aug. 1, 1942–Aug. 9, 1995), to a status he never wanted.

The must-see film includes 17 interviews, 1,100 rare photos and loads of footage you’ve never seen. Deadheads will be ecstatic. Bar-Lev doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead he offers many points of view. One theory is that the die-hard Deadheads were the major cause of Garcia’s descent into heroin. I didn’t buy that so I reached out to Grateful Dead insider Dennis McNally, whose book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, provided Bar-Lev with much of the band’s story. McNally spent 30 years with the band beginning when Garcia invited him to become their biographer in 1981.

When I asked McNally if he thought it was the Deadheads that drove Garcia to abuse heroin, or if he felt, as I do, that it was a progression from one addiction to another. McNally answered:

“I don’t think there’s an inherent progression [of addiction], I mean everybody starts with milk, too, you know? He turned to self-medication for any number of reasons…. His father died when he was four, he didn’t get the attention from his mother that he felt he deserved. Eventually, yes, but not specifically the fame. It was the responsibility. Jerry wanted to be Huckleberry Finn, well, if Huckleberry Finn was allowed to smoke joints and play guitar and cruise down the river on a raft.”

McNally pointed out that Garcia “employed 50 people, me among them. We expected paychecks every couple of weeks. There was a weight of responsibility on him for employees, their families, but also the million Deadheads who were addicted to the music and the shows. They expected him to come out and play 80 shows a year. That wore on him. He was 53-years-old and a walking candidate for a heart attack. Still smoked cigarettes, had a terrible diet. He was a diabetic who did not take it seriously.” (...)

The movie mimicked Garcia’s life. It began as a celebration but ended with a trip down the dark cellar of no return. Garcia probably didn’t set out to become a heroin addict. Maybe he just thought he could handle it. Or maybe, like my own drug use, just got to a point where he wanted out. Many people didn’t know the flip side of his jolly exterior was a dark depression.

The Dead’s casualties also included Ron “Pigpen” McKernan who drank himself to death in 1973 at age 27. Keith Godchaux died at age 32 in 1980 from a car crash after he and friend Courtenay Pollock had partied for hours to celebrate Godchaux’s birthday. The intoxicated driver—Pollock—survived the accident. Brent Mydland, mostly known as a drinker, died from a “speedball” (morphine and cocaine) in 1990. After Mydland’s death, keyboardist Vince Welnick joined the band but died in 2006 when he committed suicide. Phil Lesh’s drug use led to contracting hepatitis C. In the fall of 1998, his life was saved by a liver transplant.

Next I tracked down former president of Warner Bros. Records, Joe Smith, the executive who first signed the Dead. His presence brought a lot of fun into the film during the celebratory first half. “They were totally insane at times,” said Smith. “Trying to corral them was a very difficult thing, but we developed a friendship and Jerry Garcia was very bright. They were all bright. I established relationships with all of them, but not without difficulty because they didn’t want relationships. They were stoned most of the time. Phil Lesh was a particularly difficult guy.”

“How so?” I asked.

“He disputed and contested everything. One time, when I was trying to promote them, he said, ‘No. Let’s go out and record 30 minutes of heavy air on a smoggy day in L.A. Then we’re gonna record 30 minutes of clear air on a beautiful day, and we’ll mix it and that’ll be a rhythm soundtrack.”

by Dorri Olds, The Fix |  Read more:
Image: Michael Conway