Monday, April 06, 2015

Some Thoughts on David Browne's "So Many Roads"

I just finished reading Deal by Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen as well as So Many Roads by David Browne. It was a treat to hear the Dead's story told by their original drummer with few holds barred, but I'll say more about that effort in my next post. I have only a few minutes to compose this--I'm in Austin and returning to the Bay Area later this morning--and I want to comment on David's book while it's top of mind.

The first thing to note is how deeply reported So Many Roads is. After contacting David Lemieux about this project, David had access to the Dead's remaining members and inner circle. This was an extraordinary opportunity that David made full use of. He brought forward a great deal of new material based on those interviews, and he contextualized that material in new and interesting ways. (For example, his interviews with Barbara Meier show how the Cuban missile crisis provided the backdrop for Jerry Garcia's "live for the moment" lifestyle.) Even aficionados will find plenty of new insights into the band and its experience.

David also chose a unique way to structure his book. Instead of offering a continuous narrative, which has been done many times before, he selected seventeen days that were either turning points for the band or somehow illustrated its development. He then back-filled important information to ensure the coverage was adequate. So, for example, his seventeen days don't include the one Jerry Garcia died, but he makes sure readers know about that event and its key details. That structure allows David to bring certain moments into sharp focus without sacrificing a broader view of the band's history.

David's coverage is fairly evenly distributed over the band's three decades, and most of what I learned about the Dead from this book was set in the 1980s and 1990s. And here I want to mention a challenge most authors must address in writing about the band. Having read Dennis McNally, Blair Jackson, and Robert Greenfield, I knew I didn't want to detail Jerry Garcia's health problems during this period. It has been done, it's not very uplifting, and it tends to take over the narrative.

I decided to focus on a different theme during that period--namely, the growth and consolidation of the Dead community. This included discussion of the Dead's mail-order ticketing program, David Gans's syndicated radio program, Blair's fanzine, the Dead's decision to allow taping, the growth of the Dead Head community on the WELL, and so on. I also discussed the Reagan presidency and how it (unintentionally) fueled the Dead community. I spent no little time on "Touch of Grey"--not only its success, but also its lyrics--to show that the Dead and their community survived the Age of Reagan and collectively celebrated that survival.

In contrast, David doesn't shrink from the challenge of Garcia's health problems, including the details of his addiction. That's certainly the more straightforward approach, and David brings new and interesting material to bear on it. This decision was only one of many, of course, and it by no means dominated my reading experience. In any case, I look forward to following this book's reception--not only on this point, but in general.

Do I need to add that I relished this book and recommend it highly? I should probably also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I met David at the San Jose conference, enjoyed our time together, and am acknowledged in the book. If anything, I'm a little closer to the Kreutzmann project, if only because we shared a publisher, editor, and publicity team. But I'll get to that soon enough; mostly I wanted to recognize David's achievement while it's fresh in my mind.

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