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June 15, 2015

Book Notes - David Browne "So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead"

So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Browne's book So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead offers new insight into the iconic band's history, and will be appreciated by both longtime fans and newcomers to the Dead's music.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Like a live bootleg, each chapter digs deep into the band’s state of mind during one particular moment, and Browne enriches that moment with broader context and significance…It’s a wild trajectory, perhaps unrivaled by that of any of their contemporaries."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is David Browne's Book Notes music playlist for his book So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead:


Tackling a new book about the Grateful Dead comes with any number of challenges. As I learned in the course of researching and writing So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo), one has to deal with sources with increasingly foggy memory banks and the daunting task of trying to listen to as many of their roughly 2,000 recorded shows as possible. An even bigger mountain to climb, though, was structure: Given the number of books, articles and blogs devoted to the band, how in the world could I freshen up one of pop culture's most documented and chronicled stories?

For me—someone who discovered the Dead as a ‘70s teenager and has since read just about everything on them and interviewed all the surviving members for articles—the answer was obvious: I had to go micro. Be it books or movies, I'm a fan of microhistories—projects that focus on a particular moment in time and dive deep into it. In the case of the Dead—whose members, friends, and homes were nothing less than vivid and cinematic—this approach was particularly appealing. What if each chapter of my book focused on one particular day or set of days in their saga (complete with a back-story to each one) as a way to paint a portrait of the band at various points?

In the end, that's exactly the approach I took, using 17 pivotal or representative days to lend their story what I hope is a novelistic, narrative feel. This playlist focuses on some of those days with representative performances to match.

"Can't Come Down" (Birth of the Dead)
In one of the early chapters of the book, I focus on the nights in May 1965 when the Dead, then called the Warlocks, played their first shows--at a pizza parlor in Menlo Park, California, no less. No recordings of those sets exist, but five months later, the band—then called the Emergency Crew before they settled on the Grateful Dead—assembled in a studio to cut their first recordings, including this one written by Jerry Garcia. The song is a kicky reminder that, in their early days, the Dead were a feisty garage band—mangy, both musically and physically.

"Dark Star" (November 2, 1969, available on Archive.org)
By the end of 1969, the Dead had been through two often fraught years: singer-guitarist Bob Weir and singer-organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had either been fired or warned to shape up, the band left Haight Ashbury for Marin County, and they began stretching their music like elastic putty. That latter experimentation, the way they took their music to the outer limits, was embodied at the time by "Dark Star," one of the earliest and spaciest of songs Garcia wrote with Robert Hunter, the buddy who became their in-house lyricist. Taped at a show at the long-gone Family Dog on the Great Highway venue, this particular "Dark Star," around which I base another chapter in So Many Roads, has a fierce intensity that embodied the Dead's earliest jams—the way their back-and-forth conversations with their instruments could alternate between friendly and competitive.

"China Cat Sunflower"/"I Know You Rider" (Europe '72: The Complete Recordings)
On many levels, the Dead's fabled tour of Europe in the spring of 1972 was one of their most storied periods. With new pianist Keith Godchaux now fully meshing with the band, the Dead played old and new songs with a crisp, funky energy, and to overseas audiences who hadn't seen them before. (Those crowds were also introduced to the Dead's tough, boisterous, take-few-prisoners crew.) Personal relationships were put to the test, and Pigpen's health was in decline; he would die the following March. Still, the Europe shows were a highpoint of the band's career, and I used the final night of the tour, at London's Lyceum Theatre, as a way to explore this period. Taped that night, this rumble through Garcia and Hunter's "China Cat Sunflower" into the traditional "I Know You Rider" is roughly 12 minutes of ecstatic jammy-Americana Dead.

"Groove #1" (Blues for Allah bonus track)
In the early months of 1975, the Dead, who'd announced a hiatus from touring a few months before, began gathering at Weir's new home studio in Mill Valley. There, they began creating new music from scratch. Those sessions form the centerpiece of another chapter in So Many Roads, since they tell the story of men—now adult but still adolescents at heart—looking to reconnect and reboot after a year of stressful business and personal chaos. This wordless jam from those gatherings is one of my favorite Dead instrumental pieces—and proof that they could still seek refuge in music when everything else around them could collapse.

"The Music Never Stopped" (Download Series Vol. 1)
In the same year that saw the U.S. release of the Sex Pistols' first album, the Dead went about as pro as they ever would. The previous year, they'd signed with a new label, Clive Davis' Arista, after trying to go it themselves, and for their Arista debut, Terrapin Station, they agreed to give themselves over to Keith Olsen, who'd helped turn Fleetwood Mac into a hit machine. Olsen put the Dead through its paces in the studio in ways few ever tried before or since, and the results were especially felt when the band returned to the road that spring. Taped at New York's Palladium in April 1977, this version of "The Music Never Stopped" (originally on 1975's Blues for Allah) is the sound of a newly sharpened band: listen to the synchronized power of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart's drums and the sly jauntiness of Garcia's guitar.

"Dire Wolf" (Reckoning, 1980)
To celebrate their 15th anniversary, the Dead played a series of shows in San Francisco (at the Warfield Theatre) and New York (at Radio City Music Hall), presenting an unplugged set at each. Reckoning, the live album that resulted from those acoustic performances, remains one of my favorite Dead albums; as heard on this version of Hunter and Garcia's "Dire Wolf," originally on the classic Workingman's Dead, the band's return to some of its members' folk roots made for some charming performances. As my research showed, the Radio City shows were historic in other ways: venue executives were none too thrilled with the skeleton-themed poster for the shows nor the filmed between-set skits littered with drug jokes. Lawsuits were threatened, but the Dead, as was often the case, prevailed. By 1980, their machine was too big to stop.

"West L.A. Fadeaway" (Complete Studio Rarities Collection)
The year 1984 was a particular troubled one for the Dead: Garcia was becoming increasingly ensnared in his drug addiction, several members of their inner circles left or were dispatched, and for the first time, the band attempted to make an album and was unable to finish it. The aborted sessions for that record form the basis of one chapter in So Many Roads. The debacle was doubly unfortunate since the Dead had a number of strong songs ready—including this dark, slinky night crawl of a song, which would later be recut for 1987's commercial breakthrough In the Dark.

"Touch of Grey" (Complete Studio Rarities Collection)
Another section of So Many Roads is centered around the May 1987 evening when the Dead agreed to lip-synch for several hours onstage in order to make their first-ever music video, all for their upcoming single "Touch of Grey." With lyrics written by Hunter after an all-night coke binge, the song had a natural effervescence to it, and the video, combined with the song's hooky charm, resulted in the Dead's first Top 10 hit. The repercussions of that night—their first taste of commercial success, the new, young fans who would begin stampeding into their shows, the security and pressure issues that developed—would weigh on the band for the rest of its existence. This rough studio rehearsal take of "Touch of Grey" gives a taste of how the song developed over time.

"Built to Last" (Download Series Vol. 9)
Confrontations between Deadheads and police weren't completely new to the Dead universe, but at the band's second of two nights at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh in April 1989, the clash turned particularly ugly: bottle-throwing newcomers to the Dead concert scene were dragged off and, in at least one case, head-slammed by local cops. The night was a sign of things to come, but inside the arena, the music played on: This version of one of Hunter and Garcia's newer songs, the title track to what would be the band's last album, showed the Dead at some of their late-period best.

"Help on the Way"/"Slipknot!" (Dick's Picks Vol. 17)
After the overdose death of keyboardist and singer Brent Mydland in 1990, the Dead recruited Bruce Hornsby to join them onstage (and help ease in their just-hired Mydland replacement, former Tubes member Vince Welnick). Hornsby's sparkling piano helped re-energize the Dead during yet another troubled period in their story, as this performance, from their September 1991 run of shows at New York's Madison Square Garden; check out the way Garcia's guitar sounds like a snake slithering through tall grass. As I report in one of the later chapters in the book, Hornsby's growing disillusionment with Garcia's erratic playing would lead to the pianist confronting Garcia at their Boston shows right after the New York run.

"So Many Roads" (So Many Roads 1965-1995)
I took the title of my book from this elegiac Hunter-Garcia ballad, one of the last the two collaborators wrote together and a song that embodied the world-weariness that dogged Garcia during his final years. The Dead never released a studio-cut version of the song, but this sorrowful, pained rendition, from their last-ever show with Garcia (at Chicago's Soldier Field in July 1995), says it all about his fragile state. The surviving "core four" members will be reconvening at that same venue in July to celebrate the band's 50th anniversary.


David Browne and So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead links:

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

The Artery review
Houston Press review
Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review
Parade review
Washington Post review

Speakeasy interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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