While the Grateful Dead last appeared on stage twenty years ago this summer, capping a thirty-year run that began in 1965, they remain popular and influential today. That remaining band members continue to perform and, to a lesser extent, record music certainly helps them remain relevant, as does their reverently cited influence by many other performers and music fans and their iconic merchandising. They are one of only five groups or individuals– along with Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, and Pearl Jam– to have a dedicated satellite radio channel. All of the living core members– Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir– will, along with part-time member Bruce Hornsby and other subsequently affiliated and related friends, acknowledge their fiftieth anniversary by reuniting this summer for three performances at Soldier Field, the site of the band’s final concert.
Based on the sheer volume of the band’s output and the size of its audience across a three-decade lifespan, the Grateful Dead certainly is among the most important musical outfits of the twentieth century. Without a conscious effort to do so (and without any real hit songs), but instead through the sheer force that accords and abides massive bodies, they permeated the broader culture, whether as a talisman of psychedelia or through their members’ appearances in educational videos screened in public middle schools, which was the vehicle for my first direct encounter with a Dead band member, drummer Hart, who was talking about the importance of caring for and preserving musical recordings and archives (I think).
Beyond Hart, I certainly was aware of Jerry Garcia at that time, having inherited from my father some of Garcia’s neckties, which confirmed that he (Garcia) had recently died by reading a tag attached to one of them. Later, Lesh and Weir came into view as I discovered record albums in the basement– first Dead Set and later Europe ’72— with centerfolds, sleeves, and inserts covered in photographs. The two-drummer lineup caught my eye, but it would be a while longer before I really got a read on Kreutzmann, perhaps because I already knew about his percussive counterpart Hart, perhaps because Kreutzmann’s appearance allowed him to fade into the background behind his more dynamically featured bandmates, and perhaps because I simply did not know much about drumming.
I eventually gained an appreciation for Kreutzmann’s playing when I heard him backing Garcia on Garcia’s 1972 solo album. The first track, “Deal,” has remained one of my favorite entries in the Garcia/Dead songbook largely because of Kreutzmann’s playing. (See, e.g., this stripped-down session outtake.) No one ever will confuse Kreutzmann for power drummers like Keith Moon or John Bonham or more dynamic drummers like Mitch Mitchell or Jon Fishman, but I enjoyed his ability to create complimentary feels that contributed to the grit and depth of the songs.
In light of the breadth and depth of interest in the Dead, it makes sense that people would want a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the band’s inner happenings in backstage dressing rooms, recording studios, tour buses, and hotels. A fly in that environment would be subject to the sounds, sights, and smells– or, say, vapors– of the psychedelic juggernaut. The fly would become intoxicated, is the suggestion, and while it might have fun as an immediate result, it might not be the best reporter of what it observed from its on-the-wall vantage point after the fact.
Of course, musical autobiographies come in various styles. Some, like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I, trade precision, accuracy, and transparency for feeling, atmosphere, and emotion. Others, like Keith Richards’ Life, offer detailed clarity and genuine reflection seemingly in spite of hard living throughout most of the relevant periods.
I found myself revisiting my thoughts on and memories of Richards’ book as I finished reading Kreutzmann’s autobiography, which was published earlier this month. The drummer, it seems, combined the lifestyle of Richards with the shrouded delivery and reserved personality of Dylan. Kreutzmann is our fly on the wall, and the wall was papered with blotter paper.
In at least one respect, Kreutzmann is not shy: he likes acid and marijuana, and he combined plenty of both with intense periods of cocaine, alcohol, and heroin use during the life of the Dead. He generally demarcates the period from 1965-1995 by band album or tour; wife or girlfriend; residence occupied; and predominant narcotic of use or abuse. On the surface, Kreutzmann is not unlike anyone else in this regard– most people are likely to organize their memories and events in some way according to their professional, personal, and geographic relationships. The trouble for Kreutzmann, and for his book, though, is that his drug use either wiped out his memories of happenings in his life or rendered him unable to form them by participating in the moment. While coauthor Benjy Eisen promises to deliver something other than a mere band retrospective (“Lots of people can tell you about the Grateful Dead, and all of them will allow that there are many sides to that tale. This is Bill Kreutzmann’s side. This is Bill Kreutzmann’s story.”), the final product reads like a loose history of the Dead as told by someone who was there and not there. Bill Kreutzmann & Benjy Eisen, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead 4 (St. Martin’s Press 2015).
While Kreutzmann– who has lead a variety of bands since the demise of the Grateful Dead and has both criticized and performed with his former bandmates during the last twenty years– has his wits about him today, he admits both that he does not remember a number of events significant enough to bear mention in a book like this or withdrew from them at the time due to some combination of drug use and what appears to be a generally reserved personality. While Eisen fills in the historical blanks with facts and statistics, readers are here for Kreutzmann’s observations and opinions. Too often, unfortunately, the inside scoop dips shallow.
The book does check some basic boxes. We learn which short-lived associates Kreutzmann considers true members of the band (yes for Hornsby, no for Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten); that he was mad when Hart made his initial return to the band after a personal leave of absence following Hart’s father’s theft from the band in his capacity as manager; which songwriting duo he preferred (Garcia-Hunter to Weir-Barlow, like most, possibly including Weir and John Perry Barlow); and that he often found better social company with the band’s roadies and staff than with his fellow musicians. Interesting trivia disclosed, though not here for the first time, includes that Kreutzmann’s grandfather was Clark Shaughnessy, who successfully coached various football teams at the collegiate and professional levels during a five-decade career, and that the Dead’s most commercially successful album, In the Dark, derived its title from a recording session conducted with the lights off in order to facilitate musical collaboration. One episode Kreutzmann did delve into at some length was the band’s 1978 performance in front of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, a visit that included Bedouins observing the concert happenings from afar and a midnight horse ride to a mysterious desert drum site.
What is missing, however, is any palatable expression of emotion with respect to Kreutzmann’s relationships with the people in his life. I have no reason to doubt that Kreutzmann loves his family members and friends, but that love largely does not translate to the pages of his book. His wives, partners, and children, like his bandmates and friends, appear as sometimes indiscriminate placeholders, simple trail markers along the book’s historical path, which is occasionally littered with throwaway quotations of song lyrics and the non-contextual talking points of a social liberal (e.g., marijuana good, genetically modified food bad).
Whether that is a reflection of a shy personality, Eisen’s failure to draw him out, or memories forgotten or never made, is impossible to say. But when he says a death saddened him (“darn it,” he almost always writes), the reader sometimes feels moved to ask, “really?”, not out of any doubt that the emotion is or was real, but because the expressed development of the relationship that naturally would precede a sensation and expression of sadness upon death is missing. Authors can tell or they can show, and, many times, there seems to be too little of the latter in this book. (On the other hand, perhaps I should have better appreciated these simple expressions of feelings, as other reviewers have, particularly in the case of Garcia, as telling contrasts to the bands well-noted excesses.)
Deal was an easy and enjoyable read. Although I have been listening to the Grateful Dead’s music, watching their movies an video footage, and reading magazine and internet articles about them for years, this was the first full-length book I have read by or about them. That it left me wanting more, in a sense, probably puts me in good company with the still-insatiable legion of Dead fans from Golden Gate Park to Giza.