By Nicholas Meriwether
Dennis McNally Papers
The Grateful Dead’s famed Warfield Theatre run of October 1980 is justly renowned for many reasons: the music, which produced the LPs Reckoning and Dead Set; the newspaper announcement, which didn’t even mention the name of the band; and the lobby display, a museum-quality exhibition that was a masterpiece of Bill Graham’s promotional acumen. But one of the most interesting events of the run was far less public: during intermission one night, Rock Scully and Alan Trist brought a young historian backstage to be introduced to Jerry Garcia. When Garcia found out that this was Dennis McNally, author of the critically acclaimed biography of Jack Kerouac, Desolate Angel, he urged McNally to give the band the same treatment. McNally readily agreed, and in time he would not only complete his magisterial history of the band, but in the interim he would also serve as the band’s publicist, a role that allowed him to shape the band’s media presence and steward one of the most important sections of the band’s archive, the press.
There was an air of Deadhead synchronicity to it all. Right before the Warfield run began, McNally’s first article on the band appeared, “Meditations on the Grateful Dead,” published in the San Francisco Examiner’s California Living magazine. It provided a first-rate snapshot of the scene on the cusp of the Reagan Eighties. Although McNally’s article focused on the December 1979 New Year’s run at Oakland Auditorium, it used the shows as the platform for a wide-ranging essay on the Dead, their fans, and the cultural significance of the phenomenon they had both created. It marked McNally’s debut as a Dead chronicler, a role he continues to play to this day, and the article reveals his status as both a fan and a PhD in history:
If you have ever wanted to see 6,400 people as deliriously happy as they know how to be, truck on down to the show, because the Dead are home to play … These two square blocks are not only out of place, in a sense they are out of time, for this event is a continuation, a functional evolution of Haight-Ashbury in the sixties.
Adding McNally to the band’s organization—even if he was unpaid, he was still on the bus—was very much a Dead-like move, a thoughtful response to a confluence of factors. It gave the band a historian just as their need for one was becoming more apparent, and at a time when, as an organization, they had the ability to absorb the growth that the new role signified. As the Dead’s first twenty years had made clear, what the band’s organization could do very well was adapt—and thrive. During the Dead’s last ten years, they would emerge as one of the most durable and popular touring rock bands, and in his capacity as publicist, McNally would play a central role in shaping the band’s media image during its last decade, the era of its greatest prominence.
McNally donated his papers to the Grateful Dead Archive in 2010. Assembled over more than forty years, his collection features extensive research materials that informed his many articles on the band and especially his authorized history, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. The heart of the collection is the interview series, more than 200 hours of recordings conducted with band members and associates over more than twenty years. His research covered an enormous range of American culture and history, however, and his files reveal a meticulous and dogged determination to uncover the story of the Dead and their times, from band members’ early days on the San Francisco peninsula in the folk scene to the band’s experience in the Acid Tests, the Haight-Ashbury, and after. In addition to more than forty linear feet of notes, articles, drafts, and research files, the McNally papers added dozens of tickets, backstage passes, photographs, and ephemera to the Archive.
McNally’s papers also show how permeable the line between band and fan could be. From their earliest days, the Dead attracted talented, interested colleagues who loved the Dead’s music, and whose skills could contribute to the band’s project. McNally was one of those. As a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, he was a fan; a few years later, he became part of the team. During his first four years as band historian, he passed the staff and crew equivalent of the acid test, so that when a staffer complained about the volume of press inquiries, Garcia’s response was, “Get McNally to do it, he knows that shit.” It was the most painless job interview McNally ever experienced, and he remained the band’s official publicist for the rest of the band’s career.
McNally’s contribution also illustrated another facet of the broader Dead phenomenon, which is how it emulated the Dead’s music in so many fascinating ways, especially in the way that it tested the limits of genres and artforms; this is why both the band and its fans could become both subjects and exemplars for so many journalists and scholars. McNally is pre-eminent among them, a scholar drawn to the Dead as a topic who ended up living it, and making a profound contribution to one of the principal forms of evidence that scholars now consult, the journalism documenting the band’s cultural impact.
Working for the band was much more than just a job. At its peak, the Dead organization elicited the best from its participants, and the band was a part of that. When McNally got married, Bill Kreutzmann was his best man, and Robert Hunter’s wedding present was his hand-written lyrics to “He’s Gone.” As McNally put it, “That band was my life. There was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert,” he told MTV News in 2001. “It was the last great American adventure. Nobody has combined intellect and heart and improvisation the way they did. No one has even come close.” His papers show why.
Susana Millman, “Dennis McNally, with the Grateful Dead.” Dennis McNally Papers, Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.
Nicholas Meriwether, “The First Part of the McNally Papers Arrives.” Grateful Dead Archive, Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.
Jerry Garcia, “Letter to Media,” July 11, 1984. Grateful Dead Archive, Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.
Unknown. “Dennis McNally Signing A Long Strange Trip.” Dennis McNally Papers, Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz.