Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Further reading

I read two books last weekend: Sandy Troy’s Captain Trips and Steve Parish’s Home Before Daylight. They are different in a number of ways but have their focus on Garcia, their length and their scholarly weight in common. To be honest, someone lent me Captain Trips and I burned through it pretty quick, so I figured I was on a roll and dove into Home right away. Anyhow, for those of you who haven’t read them, here are my two cents.

Captain Trips, (Garcia’s prankster name, which he didn’t like) chronicles his life, like many other books, but was completed soon after Garcia’s February ’94 wedding to Deborah Koons and published later that year. It consequently lacks the fatalistic thread that runs through later accounts. It has the same chronological pattern as McNally’s and Phil’s books, which is that about half of the text addresses the period before 1970; it also completely skips over the early 80s, which were to my mind a pivotal period in the logistical dynamics of the band.

The factual content is, to my knowledge, perfectly adequate. Not that I know everything, but I didn’t come across anything I knew to be false. It did include certain pieces of information I appreciated: addresses of the Chateau and St. Michael’s Alley, gross earnings for a couple of years, release dates etc. Aside from the odd precision, however, the book rolls through events and facts without much commentary or reflection. On one hand, it keeps the author’s interpretation out of the way, but on the other it keeps things superficial.

The focus on Garcia and the simplistic approach to various events obscures the wider dynamics of his life. For instance, the evolution of the Jerry Garcia Band is described as though Jerry was singly responsible for the changing lineup. It does not address the logistics of the life of musicians, which is that people often simply drift to where there’s work, or get married, or move to Kansas, or whatever; nor does it discuss the trends of the music itself, which has no intentional guide but can make one person more or less suited to the slot or prompt a change in instrumentation. Likewise with the GD’s various side-projects: a passage on the establishment of the Rex Foundation mentions only Garcia, ignoring the untraceable, committee aspect of every decision. Finally, the departure of Keith and Donna is presented as a firing, whereas McNally paints a the decision as a mutual agreement.

Jerry’s personal issues are almost completely absent. In fairness, since the book was being written while he was still there to comment on it, it would have been disrespectful to delve into his issues with women in general or heroin in particular, areas that have since been addressed elsewhere. His 1985 arrest in Golden Gate Park is mentioned in passing, with details available in the arrest report, and an excerpt from an interview has him admitting that he had, at one point, gotten into some pretty nasty stuff. The book’s admission that there was, at one point, cocaine and heroin involved is mitigated by the suggestion that that problem had come and gone: “Garcia’s drug addiction was under control, the band was more popular than ever…”
As far as his many complex relationships, they are barely present in the story. I would speculate that Deborah Koons, a woman known for her close control over Jerry’s affairs, perhaps born of insecurity, had an editorial hand in the book.

Anyhow, in retrospect, this biography lite was perfectly well suited to the time and audience. Jacketed in tie-dye and titled to evoke Jerry’s counter-culture iconography, it provides a broad overview of his life and projects: his childhood, bands, recording gigs, etc, while avoiding deeper underlying processes and issues. For a deadhead in the 90s, I imagine this would have been everything you wanted to know.

A completely different picture is presented by Parish in Home Before Daylight. The book is an autobiography and is centered on Steve Parish’s experience as a central member of the Grateful Dead family, but Parish was one of the people closest to Garcia throughout the 80s and 90s. I should mention that at no point does it come across that he is trying to either exaggerate his involvement or capitalize on their relationship. His portrayal of Garcia is much more character-driven, and specific dates or facts are incidental to the story.

The story starts with Parish’s early adulthood: at seventeen or so, he hatches a plan to finance a relocation to the West Coast by selling a batch of LSD. He winds up at Riker’s Island. Eventually finding his way into the Grateful Dead crew via Weir’s ranch, Rex Jackson’s couch, Quicksilver and Alembic, he spends the first few years driving trucks across the country, then reveling in the non-stop party occasioned by Dead tours.

There is no shortage of drug-fueled-rampage stories. He flipped an equipment truck on a tight curve while driving wired on amphetamines; he had a four-way marriage going for a while; he used to sleep with every groupie he could get his hands on, he threw a promoter off the stage because he didn’t recognize him, he lived on nitrous and pot for years, and so on and so forth. The tales of his life on the road are exactly what you would expect, and Parish is unapologetic to the last.

Being intimately involved in the day-to-day life of the band and crew, he is more honest about the rampant drug use, especially cocaine, though he maintains he only liked the “occasional” toot. He details the end of Rex Jackson’s life in a months-long coke bender (fueled by a gallon-size ziplock of blow that he somehow scored), and the paranoia and irritation that infested the family in 73-74. Parish is reassuringly matter-of-fact on this subject; I say reassuringly because I don’t get the sense he’s exaggerating or glorifying the drugs they took; he is quite honest about the downsides of over-indulgence and the personal shortcomings engendered by their use. He especially bemoans the early-70s switch from communal drugs like nitrous, pot and LSD to harder stuff like cocaine and heroin.

His close relationship with Garcia developed in the 80s when he became manager of JGB along with being the main guitar roadie for the GD. His duties would evolve almost towards a personal assistant position by the nineties; the last time he saw Jerry, he was instructing Parish as to how he would like to see the new Club Front laid out. They traveled together while on the road, they went on vacation to Hawaii together with their families, he helped a very nervous Jerry get dressed for his 1994 wedding, and the only really emotional moment in the book comes when, standing over the casket, he absentmindedly brushes a little dandruff off Jerry’s shoulder, as he had so many times before.

Garcia’s use of heroin was constant, according to Parish, even if there were ebbs and flows, and it was an awful sight to see. He writes of being very conflicted about what to do; while his main job was to protect Jerry from the outside world, there was a grey line between protecting Jerry and letting him insulate himself. Whereas he had been able to refuse Jackson when asked to hold his stash, he found he could not refuse Jerry. The volatility and defensiveness that Garcia exhibited in response to any intrusion on his private life is pretty well documented, and applied as well to the outside world as to his closest friends. One aborted intervention saw him hold the door while everyone came in only to slam it behind them and walk off down the street. I have no experience with drugs of that sort, but it seems to me that on some level, he chose to stick with heroin, since no amount of interventions, arrests, health issues, friends, girlfriends or wives were able to stop him. Consequently, those close to him could either tacitly disapprove or risk further isolating him.

Parish does have a fondness for one member of the band in particular, and that’s Weir. It becomes apparent in his description of Bob as the most level-headed guy in the group, forced into an unenviable position of taking up Garcia’s slack when he started slipping in the late 70s, and who did more than anyone else to confront Garcia. He seems to agree with everyone else in that he describes Weir as an honestly kind, generous person who cares deeply for others; one who did the fewest drugs, who was always uncomfortable with the Hell’s Angels etc. The friendship seems mutual; the book has a foreword from Weir that is quite funny but conveys a real familiarity and affection: “Let’s be clear about this,” it begins, “Steve Parish is definitively a mixed blessing.” It goes on to reminisce about road trips and equipment snafus, and these memories are complemented in the main text with Parish’s memories of inadvertently getting Weir picked up for unpaid parking tickets, and later wrecking Weir’s BMW when he parked his truck uphill of it and the handbrake failed.

There are no major revelations in the book, but it certainly has a unique angle on the Grateful Dead. On a broad objective level, it’s really about a man who refused to grow up, one who got out of jail on a drug-dealing rap only to run off to the west coast to take a lot of acid, who drove a Harley as fast and as recklessly as possible until California passed a helmet law and he lost interest, who was content to get off the phone with his wife, who had just given birth to their daughter, and run upstairs to have a three-way, one who got stoned in a church with a guy about to get married. And yet he lived the rock-n-roll lifestyle to the fullest and came out just fine on the other side. He’s married now, to a wife who has no background in that world and no tolerance for his screwing around, and they have two kids. He’s still close to the GD family (I suppose those kinds of bonds don’t break easily). I couldn’t tell you what he’s doing these days, but he seems to have survived rather well, considering.


  1. I have not read the Steve Parrish book but I have read Rock Scully's book, Phil Lesh's, and the McNally book but Bob Weir was and still is majorly into drugs in the 60s it was LSD and psilocybin and pot, in the 70s and 80s it was coke and alcohol, and he did try heroin once when he was with Kingfish, in the 90s he tried Ketamine but that was in a band rehearsal you can find on archive,org but even to this day he still smokes pot, does mushrooms, is one of the biggest alcoholics in the music industry, and has a problem with prescription opiates. Kreutzmann was big into coke and alcohol and still does get very drunk and does coke, and smokes pot. Phil Lesh is sober apparently. I like the GD's music but a lot of the band members did have a lot of personal and substance abuse issues that are not resolved.

  2. Huh. Personally I never really gave a fuck about what the members of the band did with their time. As a randy lad of 17 I was too busy chasing little hippy girls once I got in the saddle about 1980 or so. The music was good. The party was better. The only even remote "band story" I ever had was one time I met this hot little beach chick who was tripping her brains out in the front row and she decided to start rubbing against me so naturally I started rubbing her tits and Garcia looked down and saw and looked right at me and we both started cracking up....I can't remember the song but it was a Bob tune and Garcia was just sort of looking around and I am sure no one had any clue why he was laughing
    Never even occurred to me to wonder what those guys did after a show. I usually had my own hands full. Good times.