Being British, and having only developed a deep love of the band’s music in the last five years or so, I got a lot out of Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, which I caught up with last week on Amazon Prime.
The strongest episodes may have been the last two, which tell the interconnected stories of the groups’s legion of fans, the Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia’s relationship with fame. A natural anti-authoritarian, he refused to assume the role of mayor of a travelling hippie carnival. So while Phil Lesh did PSAs asking Deadheads who didn’t have tickets not to come to the show anyway to party outside (Deadheads routinely did this in their thousands), Garcia couldn’t bear to tell anyone else how to behave. Instead he allowed the fans to do as they pleased, even as his iconic status effectively imprisoned him in hotel rooms for months on end where he ate and smoked himself to death.
The story of Garcia’s final years is as dispriting as late-period Dead shows (on the whole) are to listen to. The band could still rouse themselves occasionally, but Garcia frequently sounded disengaged, his voice worse for wear. The playing, too, could be ragged, the double drums of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann often at odds (truth to tell, I’m a Kreutzmann guy, and he was at his best during the period in the seventies when Hart left the band. Not having to worry about where Hart would be putting his emphases, he could just play his own feel). Yet the fans still turned up by the stadium load, loving Garcia to death, not allowing him any break from the rigours of being a countercultural icon.
Bar-Lev is extremely good at showing how this happened – how the machinery of a veteran band is so big and relentless that no one inside it (or at least, no one actually in the Grateful Dead) really understood what was happening until it was too late. He handles the whole issue sympathetically, and clearly doesn’t blame the band, although one of the talking heads obliquely accuses management of enabling Garcia in his addictions, simply because rehab would have meant cancelling tour dates. The toll such a life took on him was evident simply in his face. When he died, Garcia looked a couple of decades older than his 53 years.
As powerful as those final episodes are, there’s great stuff earlier on too. Joe Smith, the former head of Warner Bros. Records, talking about his strained relationship with the band in its early days is always a hoot. The group’s 1969 appearance on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after Dark is a when-worlds-collide jaw dropper. It was fascinating to hear, too, about how Garcia’s obssession with bluegrass banjo bored his then girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier so much that she ended things with him.
The highpoint of the early episodes is the section about the Wall of Sound. Owsley “Bear” Stanley, maker of (it’s said) the finest LSD anyone on the West Coast ever had, conceived (and largely built) for the band the largest PA set-up in the world at the time. Weighing over 75 tons and requiring four semi trucks to haul it, the system contained 44 amplifiers developing over 26k watts of power, driving nearly 600 loudspeakers and 54 tweeters. Each band member had his own stack directly behind him, and a differential microphone system that cancelled the noise on stage resulting in only their voices being amplified. The sound could be heard clearly a quarter-mile away without wind interference degrading it. It was an awe-inspiring creation, and when the crew and Lesh reminisce about it their enthusiasm for it is palpable. “I loved that thing,” said Lesh, his face shining like a schoolboy’s. “It was like hearing the voice of God”.
There’s good stuff all the way through the documentary. If you’re a fan, it’s a must. I’m one of those who tend to enjoy music docs even when I’m not into the musician being covered, as you still find out things about the era and the history of the music business they operated in. So even if you’re a sceptic, I think you’ll still get a lot from it.