Early this month, Amazon released the fantastic Grateful Dead documentary series from Long Strange Trip, from director and Deadhead Amir Bar-Lev and the six-part series needs to be considered mandatory viewing for both Deadheads and for anyone interested with deep interest in rock music, regardless of their feelings about the band it follows.
Bar-Levi’s telling of the story of the Dead is definitely a strong dose on cool day for the bands rabid fan’s- and I count myself among that ragged group- but the strength of the storytelling and way the director weaves the saga of this cult-phenomenon into a fable about the perils of the fame and the music business can draw in even those who can’t abide ten-minute sonic explorations of traditional folk ballads. Early in the documentary, writer and Dead-publicist Dennis McNally calls the Dead the “Most American Band,” and the documentary takes that bold claim at its full value and tells a uniquely American story, spanning from the mid-sixties through the next three decades.
Yet, even as it tells a sprawling tale of the world’s most famous traveling freak show, the documentary manages to feel extremely personal, getting close to the band thanks to the fantastic interviews with the members of the Dead, their road crew, their friends and family and the other key players in their story. The mix of the saga’s epic scope with the personal warmth that comes through from the interviews makes this series one of the great documentaries on American music ever made. It belongs in the canon with Don’t Look Back, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense.
Explaining the Grateful Dead might be an impossible task. To a small group of rabid fans, they are the most important band there is. To nearly everyone else, they are strange relic of the hippie-era, a tie-dyed artifact worshipped by outcasts. In part, the film succeeds because it doesn’t try to hard to explain the Dead to either side of that equation. Bar-Levi is a Deadhead and he makes no attempt to hide that, but he also returns time and time again to the band’s rejection of all that makes a band successful in the world of pop music. Towards the end of the first chapter, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia sums up the philosophy that would guide the Dead, saying, “Once you know them [the tricks to win over a crowd], they become lies, they become frozen.” The film follows this logic down the line to the parable of the Watts Towers, these giant sculptures that an artist build that the city could not tear down, structures that had a profound impact on Garcia. Reflecting on those towers, Garcia sums up the organizing principle that would make the Grateful Dead so successful. “For me it was more important to be involved in something that was flowing and dynamic, not something so solid that you couldn’t tear it down.”
That philosophy made everything that would follow possible and shaped what began as a not-so-promising electric blues band into one the most successful touring acts of all time. Long Strange Trip takes its cue from this philosophy as well. You will not find a tight chronology of the Grateful Dead in this series. Like musical time in a Dead Space jam, the order of events is merely a loose guideline, something to vamp around. The narrative is not imposed, but brought out from the people who lived the stories.
If the film does succeed in explaining the inexplicable, it is because it cares more about stories than structure. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from the sound man charged with recording the live material that would become Europe ’72. When a mic needed fixing and the stage crew was too spaced or pissed off to fix it, he left the sound truck to do it himself, the tape rolling without supervision. After fixing the mic, he found himself caught up in listening to the song being played and hung around just offstage instead of returning to his post. Sometime during that tune, Garcia noticed him and he knew he was busted. After the tune was done, he returned to find the tape still rolling away. Back in the US, mixing the album, Jerry tells him the song is on the album and laughs, chiding him, “ and no one was in the truck.” That track was Morning Dew, the breathtaking ten-minute-plus ballad that closes the entire double-album.
That story shows so much about the Dead. This was no professional operation. The band was notoriously leaderless, but the astute viewer will note that when you get “caught,” you get caught by Jerry Garcia. Consequences are vague at best, however, because, as in the music, the journey is the thing, not the destination. Yet, somehow, not only does this reckless, completely unruly process succeed, it does so in the most sublime way possible. If there is a way to understand what the Dead was, it is wrapped up in stories like the recording of Morning Dew. Trusting stories like this to tell paint the picture of the band is Long Strange Trip’s great strength and the sum of all the tales and philosophizing and rhapsodizing is a beautiful illustration of the Dead.
America had to be discovered and, as the Dead’s one-time tour manager points out, Americans still feel the need to discover it. Dennis McNally calls the Grateful Dead the most American Band and that claim holds up in Long Strange Trip. The Dead are not just there for you. You have to find them. This series manages to be their Columbus, their Leif Erikson and their early-Native-Americans-crossing-the-Bering-Strait all at once. It finds America in the Dead and we find the Grateful Dead somewhere on that road, just as the namesake fable suggest we will.