David Browne’s “So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead” arrives in time for the Dead’s 50th anniversary, which the band’s surviving members will celebrate by playing stadium shows in Chicago and Santa Clara this summer.
‘So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead’
by David Browne
Da Capo Press, 496 pp., $30
A listener doesn’t have to think the Grateful Dead is “a band beyond description / Like Jehovah’s favorite choir” (to quote “The Music Never Stopped”) to find the group fascinating and culturally relevant.
As long as Dead chieftain Jerry Garcia was alive, I would have placed the Dead on my short list of bands everyone interested in rock should try to see at least once — for the sheer theater of a Dead concert with its enraptured dancing fans, if not the actual music.
David Browne’s “So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead” arrives in time for the Dead’s 50th anniversary, which the band’s surviving members will celebrate playing a few stadium shows this summer.
A music critic and journalist who has previously covered the Dead for Rolling Stone, Browne builds on the work and cooperation of previous chroniclers, particularly Dennis McNally, longtime Grateful Dead publicist and historian. Browne’s an unabashed fan of the band’s music, but he’s also unafraid to point out weak spots and bad behavior. Browne resembles Deadheads I’ve known who don’t take criticism of their idols as a personal insult and an invitation to brawl the way Springsteen and Taylor Swift fans I’ve known would.
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Browne relates the band’s long, strange trip through chapters that focus on key dates, developments and milestones, including the Acid Tests where Browne believes the Dead began finding its musical voice, the emergence of “Dark Star” as the Dead’s jam anthem, the decline and death of keyboardist Ron (Pigpen) McKernan, the development of the massive Wall of Sound of speakers (which required its own stage architecture).
From the beginning, the Dead, their crew and entourage consumed astonishing quantities of drugs — weed and stronger. An ethos emerged that as long as a band member held up his end musically, other band members had no right to tell him how to live. This was severely tested in later years when Garcia’s heroin addiction nearly destabilized the group.
One of the heroes of Browne’s book is keyboardist Bruce Hornsby, an occasional, unofficial band member (and fan), who had the courage to tell Garcia he was phoning it in and needed to work harder on the music.
Browne dismisses the notion that the Dead’s keyboard chair was cursed, but four men who held it — McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick — died young and troubled. Browne notes Mydland’s struggle with low self-esteem, but I wonder if he underplays the effect of fan animosity on Mydland — the small subset of Deadheads I knew were dismissive, even contemptuous of him.
In trial-and-error fashion, the Dead pioneered — or adopted early — business techniques that enable bands to survive today: direct communication with fans, reliance on touring rather than recording for income, branded merchandise, tolerance of fan capers in the interest of building loyalty.
You also can blame the Dead for inspiring the many jam bands on the road today. Whether you’re a tie-dyed Deadhead, late-arriving “Touch”-head or merely curious, Browne’s “So Many Roads” offers an engaging account of an idiosyncratic American musical institution.