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.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rock Scully: "Living with the Dead"

Rock Scully worked for the Grateful Dead in several capacities for almost twenty years: he was brought in by Owsley Stanley in December of 1965, and was eventually let go in early 1984 (or ’85, depending on who you believe). In 1992, having kicked the drugs that got him fired in the first place, he began writing “Living With The Dead: Twenty years on the road with Garcia and the Grateful Dead.” The first of a half-dozen primary accounts on the Grateful Dead, it was written with David Dalton; it was first published in 1996 and remains in print. Eschewing even a cursory chapter on the author’s origins and mentioning his private life only in passing, it is strictly what the title implies.

As with almost every other account, the first half of the book centers on Haight-Ashbury and the years between 1965 and 1970. The description of that period is refreshingly subjective: Scully does not situate the hippie phenomenon in any grand philosophical or cultural scheme, using it rather as a backdrop for what the band was doing. In between descriptions of acid trips, there are glimpses of the San Francisco hippie identity, that unifying spirit of independence from the mainstream in which artists and activists coexisted for a few brief years in the mid-sixties. But the rest of the book is set squarely on the road: in green rooms, hotels and buses.

Scully’s main focus is the drugs. His opening scene has the band members banging on his door looking for whatever he is holding, and the book more or less closes on a frankly disturbing picture of a heroin-ravaged Garcia. In that respect, the book is more detailed than other accounts. That drugs were a fixture is no secret, but the book reveals the encyclopedic range of psychotropic pills and liquids that circulated in the early years, and offers a brutally frank account of Garcia’s habits in the early eighties. However, this is Scully’s only real lens: methamphetamines fueled the Beat and proto-hippie scenes in the sixties, cocaine drove the Dead’s grandiose plans for self-sufficiency in the early seventies, heroin kept them going in the studio during endless nights of mixing during and after the hiatus, etc.

The book also centers on Garcia, and Scully does not seem to notice the irony in dropping the man’s name in the sub-title as he explains that Jerry’s drug use was fueled by his need to escape the spotlight. The other band-members figure barely as caricatures. Phil likes wine. Weir is spacey and does few drugs. Kreutzmann likes to get wasted on anything and everything. Mickey is a real asshole if you don’t mike his bells properly. Despite the focus on Garcia, however, the account is very superficial, outlining no more than the most rudimentary character traits in between descriptions of Jerry holed up in an airplane bathroom for an entire flight, or dirty and stinking, subsisting on Häagen-Dazs and heroin, his legs too bloated to walk. The end of the book is an ever-darker succession of vignettes reminiscent of Requiem For A Dream: get drugs, hide out, do drugs, repeat. Scully was at the time as much a junkie as Garcia was, though he doesn’t say so in so many words. By his account, the two of them enabled each other, hid out together, scored together and got high together. Scully rented apartments – secretly – specifically so that he, Jerry, and Garcia Band bassist John Kahn could smoke Persian heroin out of sight of everyone else. He is certainly the person most intimately acquainted with Garcia’s habits, but he writes objectively and avoids all responsibility or commentary.

Painful as it may be, the portrayal might have more credibility if the book weren’t so riddled with factual errors and fabrications. For someone so closely involved with the band, he makes mistakes that could have been avoided with some basic research. He writes that Weir’s parents died in 1970 (they died in early 1971); he explains that the tie-dye amp coverings first appeared on the Wall of Sound, as a response to people hurling bottles at the speakers (they existed at least two years before that); and he states that Owsley Stanley went to jail in 1969 (he was busted with the band in New Orleans in January 1970). Meanwhile, the entire seventies seem to be a blur: among reminiscences from 1978, for instance, he places an episode with Sam Cutler, who left the band in early 1974.

These errors put into question the road-stories that make up the majority of the book: Owsley's famed pill-press in the attic of the house in LA; Keith Moon chiseling a hole into his room from Garcia’s to retrieve his stash; Kreutzmann pissing in his Eggs Benedict in front of a hotel maid … There is little reliable factual information here; the atmosphere is plausibly recreated but everything seems fictionalized to the point of irrelevance. Almost all dialogue is obviously fabricated and even if the spirit of a given conversation is true, there’s nothing you can hang a hat on.

The book is not a complete loss, however. First, the focus on drugs does force one to at least acknowledge that the organization functioned under a pervasive atmosphere of insobriety, which is especially relevant to the early years before a concerted effort was made to solidify the group’s financial and managerial affairs. Ordinarily, the inefficient and ad hoc character of the early GD years is chalked up to inexperience and an almost quaint idealism. However, the Dead in those days were very close with the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, Janis, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, big names with big budgets and big record companies behind them: they could not ignore the complexities and pitfalls of running a major touring and recording act. Purity of intentions notwithstanding, communal living and partying without any professional experience or external anchors could only breed waste and disorganization, especially if pot, LSD, DMT and nitrous oxide were daily indulgences.

Secondly, it does little service to perpetuate the myth of Garcia as the wise and benevolent Buddha figure. To a large extent, this image accounts for the mythos and popularity of the band, but it inaccurate and has no value for posterity. The book’s images are ugly, almost unnecessarily so, but they are a useful commentary on cults of personality and the isolation corollary to being ensconced in a self-perpetuating organism of several hundred people. If we’re going to understand the Grateful Dead, the ugly side has to figure in the perspective.

The book can be a fun read: underage groupies, trashing hotels, getting really really wasted a lot… This is the stuff of rock and roll legend and rowdy stories in concert parking lots after a show. You should, however, take it all with a pinch salt. Rock Scully, who will turn 69 on August 1st, recently appeared in two video interviews, with Lesh and Weir, on Furthur’s festival website. He and his wife Nicki, whom he was with for most of his time with the Dead, have split. She is a priestess or a witch of some sort and is heavily involved in Egyptian spiritual rites. Scully is a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission, has a radio show, and makes frequent appearances at San Francisco cultural events.

Up next: I’m catching up with the Furthur tour; that’s on deck. I also bought Carol Brightman’s “Sweet Chaos: the Grateful Dead’s American Adventure.” I should have a review in a few weeks.