If the road doesn’t go on forever, if the Dead's reign really ends here, David Browne’s volume on The Grateful Dead may well prove to be the go-to encyclopedia for fans.
With The Grateful Dead, you’re either in or you’re out.
A legendary band with a following that has long since surpassed cult status, The Dead and their loyal trope of Deadheads created a movement that can’t be ignored within the history of rock 'n' roll music. If you’re a Deadhead, you get it; if you’re a casual fan of The Dead (do those even exist?) you like the music, but you don’t get much into the movement—the cross-country trips, the bootleg tape-trading, the insistence on drug use—and, if you’re neither, chances are, you vehemently hate the Dead and may roll your eyes at the mere sight of one of their T-Shirts decked on an uber hipster. (Confession time: in middle school I thought the Grateful Dead were a metal band because of their name and all the skeleton memorabilia, while my wife thought they were simply a T-shirt company, not a band.)
Not that Dead fans fall easily into one of the aforementioned categories; if anything, David Browne’s enormous tome on the Grateful Dead, So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, presents a compelling argument for an unseen diversity within the band and their musical preferences, a legacy of American music that often goes unnoticed. While the legacy of the Grateful Dead is one that most popular culture scholars can provide a high-level overview of, Browne isn’t interested in high-level overviews; instead he digs deep into the minute details of the band, from personal sources to intimate anecdotes, their relationships, and, ultimately, their effect on popular culture—an effect that is still being interpreted today.
And when a band’s history is as vast and compelling as the Grateful Dead’s, the writer’s utmost challenge is how to frame the story. Starting at the beginning and moving forward sets up complications that Browne subverts with his book’s structure. Instead of trying to encompass all of the major and minor events of the Dead’s personal lives and careers, Browne selects 15 important dates in the band’s tenure (17, if you include the Prologue and the Epilogue) and weaves his story outward, catching all of the points in-between in his web.
For example, Chapter 1, titled “Menlo Park, California, October 27, 1962”, drops the reader square into the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day before it ended when the world watched on television as we came as close as ever to the brink of nuclear war. Jerry Garcia and his girlfriend Barbara Meir are bracing for the fallout and hightailing it to higher ground. Garcia, then a “parttime music teacher, fledgling banjo picker, budding bohemian,” didn’t sport his trademark beard, opting instead for a goatee, giving him a “Latin-lover look”, according to one of Garcia’s earliest musical friends. Details such as this one cast the scene in an entirely different light; to the casual fan (such as myself) it’s difficult to picture a fresh-faced Garcia, one with a semi-regular job, and not the grey bearded aged hippie image I always associate with him.
Browne understands, more than many music writers, that a well-placed detail can be the difference between an engaging read and a fulfilling read. Untangling the history of the Dead, from the farm in California where Garcia and his mates wrote a form of bluegrass and “jug band” music, all the way to through the rock 'n' roll madness they created onstage, and on to the effect of Garcia’s passing on a new generation of fans, requires someone who is as dedicated to the cause as the Deadheads are to attending concerts. And disseminating the details in an easily manageable and digestible way is a talent that Browne possesses that goes far beyond mere research; it’s integrating the details in an insightful way so the story of the Dead can appeal to the widest possible audience.
If there’s a single point of contention for So Many Roads, it's that Browne’s audience is likely a bit scattered. It goes back to the “you’re in or you’re out” paradox I mentioned earlier. Either you’re hungry for every possible morsel of Grateful Dead detritus, no matter how small, or you watch (dis)approvingly from the outside of the circle wondering what all the hoopla is about. If you fall somewhere between the two poles, So Many Roads is daunting in its size and scope—a piece of musical history well-worth the time it takes to read, but probably more knowledge than you would ever need to know about America’s most popular lifestyle band.
If you require further proof of the Dead’s lasting effect on multiple generations of music lovers, look no further than this summer’s final five-night run of shows of The Grateful Dead (minus Garcia, of course). Billed as the “Fare Thee Well” shows, the four remaining members of the Dead (plus Trey Anastasio and Bruce Hornsby), will take the stage for the last time, marking the end of their reign as jamband supreme. Live streams of the show are being broadcast and ticket sales are through the roof. The Dead have outlasted many of their contemporaries in terms of viability and intellectual property. There are no embarrassing reunion albums, (little) to no poaching with an endless stream of deluxe reissues on vinyl, and no embarrassing plastic surgery debacles.
What a long, strange trip it has been for the Grateful Dead. If the road doesn’t go on forever, if it really ends here, this summer, Browne’s volume on the Grateful Dead may well prove to be the go-to encyclopedia for all fans.