Dennis McNally was the Grateful Dead's longtime publicist and is the author of "A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead." But before Jerry Garcia invited him to join "the family," McNally earned a master's degree and PhD in American history at UMass-Amherst. His dissertation about Jack Kerouac was published in 1979 as "Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America."
McNally, who delivers the keynote address Friday at UMass-Amherst's three-day Grateful Dead symposium, "Unbroken Chain," called recently to chat about the band's legacy, the fans' devotion, and what Garcia would think of all the hoopla.
Q: I have to ask. How many Dead shows have you been to?
A: I'd been to around 200 before I got hired. The ones after that don't really count . . . but they did around 80 a year, and I was with them for 12 [years], so roughly 1,200. That's about half of all the Dead shows, although records are a bit patchy from the early years, as you can imagine.
Q: What will you talk about in your keynote address?
A: College audiences love pot jokes, but as the publicist, I always tried to get people to understand that the scene was a lot more complex and nuanced than the stereotype. And I pretty much failed, because the stereotype of the Dead, of what being a hippie meant and what the band meant, was enormous. It's so easily manipulated and it's reductionist, and that's the point of the conference.
Q: In what ways do you see the Dead as a topic for scholarly inquiry?
A: I would argue that we're still living with the heritage of the '60s, and a superb way of paying attention to the '60s is to pay attention to what the Dead did. Ask Karl Rove. He and his kindred souls have manipulated voters with fearsome images of the '60s.
Q: Why now? Is there some significance to this moment in time as regards the Dead's cultural legacy?
A: To some extent, yeah. We live in dark and tragic times. The whole Grateful Dead thing was a dream of tribal consciousness, of a genuine community where you gather to celebrate. These are healthy human needs. Ask the anthropologists.
Q: What was the essence of the band's lure? Why all these years later are people still drawn to it?
A: It's two things. On the musical side it's improvisation. Certain things can happen via improv, when skilled musicians cast aside the rules, that rarely happen in structured music. It's called magic, and it invites a certain response. The Dead jumps off cliffs. Sometimes you fly and sometimes you land on the rocks. But most musicians don't take that risk. The other is a set of ethics that are part of a very old tradition, through Thoreau and Whitman, which is the bohemian response to industrialization. That involved . . . anti-materialism, spiritual search, and a double-sided coin called hedonism. These things have been going on for a very long time, and the Dead came to embody them. It has tremendous appeal.
Q: What do you make of the band's musical legacy, the so-called jam-band scene?
A: The principle of improv is the Dead's fundamental legacy, and frankly, most of the current jam bands are locking down a groove and letting somebody solo over it. It's not true improv.
Q: Do you keep any of the Dead's secrets?
A: There was one moment where a person used a racial epithet, and I was going to include it in the book and somebody else convinced me not to because, although it was extreme, it was anomalous. I kept Jerry's drug addiction secret for a long time as their publicist. We all did.
Q: What would Jerry think of the symposium?
A: He'd think what Bob Weir said, which is that academics always took the band more seriously than it took itself. One of the reasons Jerry struggled with depression and self-medicated in dumb ways was that people took him too seriously and didn't treat him like a person. He became god-like. He could goof on it, but there were times when it got to be too much.