So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead
By David Browne
Da Capo Press, 482 pp., $30
It was a high level of career success that most bands would get their left guitar pedal for — a hit single, massively successful video in constant rotation, high album sales, and rapidly swelling crowds at their shows. Swelling so much that the band had to keep uptrading to larger and larger venues. And this band was no flavor of the moment fronted by hot young rockers. This was a group 20-plus years into its history with a front line of graying, often bearded, seemingly lethargic men whose waistlines were now expanding more their previously LSD-soaked minds.
Still, when pop success came for the Grateful Dead via their catchy 1987 single “Touch of Grey,” it also marked – as one insider is quoted in this excellent new single-volume history, So Many Roads – “the beginning of the end.” While some of this “new” breed of Deadheads (dismissively called “Touchheads” by longtime fans) were certainly turned on by the music, a larger and much rowdier group came to Dead shows for the “scene” of parking-lot parties, freely available drugs, and hot hippie chicks. These fans didn't know Workingman’s Dead from American Beauty from Terrapin Station, but that didn't matter when there was an awesome bong being passed around.
And these Touchheads failed to heed to the loose code of community and respect by taunting police, destroying venue property, and scaling or tearing down barriers to get their ticket-less asses into the show. Then, on April 3, 1989 near the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, one Dead fan was found…well…dead. As the band’s admirer and sometime collaborator Bob Dylan would later sing, things had changed.
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Browne’s highly skillful, well-written, and comprehensive book takes that date – and many others – as chapter flashpoints to tell the story of the group and its music in a non-chronological fashion. So, say, the recording session for “Dire Wolf,” or the funeral for original keyboard player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, or the shows at Egypt’s pyramids, or playing house band and one of Ken Kesey’s San Francisco Acid Tests, or even the filming of the “Touch of Grey” video provide a jumping-off point for the author.
And for a group whose version of a song might last five minutes one night and 50 the next, the unconventional approach to storytelling works wonderfully.
Browne, who has covered the band extensively for Rolling Stone, masterfully quilts this patchwork of information together, relying both on previously published sources (including former Dead publicist’s Dennis McNally’s invaluable A Long Strange Trip), as well as many original interviews with band members, associates, wives and children.
Perhaps better than any other Dead book, Browne offers a clear and deep picture of the members' interpersonal relationships and stature (both real and perceived) within the group. Thus, singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia is a benevolent Buddha of a man whose genial nature and musical exploration is the glue that holds the band together. But he was also an incorrigible drug addict always in pursuit of the next high, often indecisive when he needed to take a stand, and sometimes odd and hurtful in his relationships with women.
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Browne also gives credit to the band for its strives to be a self-contained unit not just in music but in business practices. Wild thoughts then, standard issue now. And that includes their successes (running their own ticketing and merchandise arms), half successes, failures and wild ideas. The last is best exemplified when the idea to sell Grateful Dead records along with ice cream from actual Good Humor trucks was briefly floated — and considered!
When Garcia died in 1995 of a heart attack (likely the end result of years of punishing chemical and culinary abuse), it marked the end of the group. While various members would perform in various permutations under various names, he surviving members will put a seemingly final chapter on the history of the Grateful Dead with their upcoming hotly-anticipated “Fare Thee Well” summer shows.
Of the spate of Dead-related biographies, memories, and musical appreciations that have appeared in bookstores recently, the informative and evocative So Many Roads is the best. And it now stands alongside the McNally book as the two must-reads for fans – Deadheads, Touchheads and anyone in between.
Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jerry Garcia died in 1996. The Houston Press regrets the error.