Thursday, August 08, 2002

Dennis McNally, the Garage

Dennis McNally has been the publicist for the Grateful Dead since the early seventies, and also wrote extensively about the beat generation and especially Jack Kerouac. In London to promote his new book about his thirty-year sojourn in the land of fairies he gave a free reading upstairs at the Garage. The fact that the event was free didn’t stop the bouncer trying to insist on the no re-admission policy, and in fact he stamped my hand after I’d been in and out a couple of times, apparently to save me having to buy another ticket.

The ferocious downpour had apparently reduced the numbers (one deadhead told me that the Tottenham game had reduced them further) but there was still a small turnout of shaggy pony tails, not to mention an array of t-shirts which I’ve haven’t seen the like of since Thatcher outlawed the hippies at the battle of the Beanfield. Interestingly most of the audience seemed to be close family relations of Johnny Vegas, their thirty-year-old psychedelic shirts stretched tightly over excessive beer bellies. One Deadhead assumed me and my friend were reporters, mainly on the grounds that we were under 45 and not collecting glasses. McNally, however, sported a physique certainly acquired in a gym and from there on seemed incongruous with the scene he was describing.

I went along hoping to learn more about a band which, in its heyday had developed a fanatical cult following, mainly because they successfully combined heavy blues music with excessive LSD consumption. McNally quoted one of the Dead, Bob Weir, as having said that at a Dead concert the audience were the show and the band was just the backing track, an admirable philosophy which has been almost completely abandoned today.

That however was the height of McNally’s show. After interminable blues tracks had been played, apparently newly released Grateful Dead out-takes, he took to the stage and got the crowd on side with a few stories, explaining how he came to be part of the Dead set-up, why the Dead rarely came to Europe (because the crew didn’t like it), and three on the road stories of such stultifying dullness that I soon began to wonder if the Dead were so named because of their lifestyles, rather than any kind of mystical vision. One, about how a roadie punched a guy from a radio station was run of the mill enough, but the next, about how Jerry Garcia had once been frightened driving through Michigan by a bunch of marauding students didn’t draw a titter even from the acolytes out front.

To add insult to injury, McNally then related a nice if inconsequential story about flying through Utah on a private jet with the band, all tripping and seeing some lovely canyons. However, he dispensed this tale with such gratuitous smugness that I began to see the Dead not as an alternative to ordinary aspirational stardom but merely as the LSD-branch. It also perfectly encapsulated the central flaw in the Dead legacy. That is to say, it might have been interesting at the time, with all those drugs, but it doesn’t carry very well.

After yet another interval of lacklustre rock music, McNally returned to read portions from his tome, a rather large, unimpressively decorated book. This was fortunate for me because at first I was in two minds as to whether to buy it. Having listened to him drone on endlessly, making the absolutely prime error of anyone trying to write about music – which is to write about the music – I was soon cured of that notion. McNally called on the full repertoire of quantum mechanics to describe the Dead show, enlisting such candidates as ‘mobius strips’ ‘exploding atoms’ ‘cascading sub-atomic particles’ and, I don’t know, probably ‘hyperspace drives’ with which to get across that the music was like really trippy, you know. After he relented and played yet more of this out-takes CD (available at the box office, he is still, after all the publicist) he returned to answer some questions, drivelling on endlessly to the unreconstructed hippies, who seemed happy to hear absolutely nothing of interest about people they’d read about in one of the numerous Dead biographies.

The smugness, was of course, unremitting, but McNally provided a few unwitting glimpses into the Grateful Dead, none of which encouraged me to view them with any great respect. He was talking about how in the eighties a surfeit of youngsters joined the Dead scene, but there was a problem because they were mostly interested in taking drugs and having sex, and presumably a good time, and they saw the Dead shows as a good place to do that. Somehow this didn’t sit right with the Dead, since by now clearly all the fans were supposed to do was listen to six guys improvising all at once for hours and hours on end, and not to do anything interesting themselves, or have a good time. Of course its possible I got that bit mixed up.

There was then a lot of griping about how all these young people had climbed into the show, and not paid, and how terrible it was that other people in the audience had clapped them(!) all the while insisting that Garcia was the absolute opposite of a cop, a true rebel and visionary.

I left disillusioned, feeling that even if the Dead had had something to offer in the late sixties, they had never transcended their Americaness, the chief characteristics being fat, self-satisfied and intensely dull.