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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Let me say that this past week was a Grateful one. On May 4th, the fifth annual Grateful Dead Meet Up at the Movies took place, where we Deadheads were treated to excellent concert footage from 1989. My friend, Poof, and I headed to Clarence for the show. That same day, I received Dave’s Picks Volume 14 in the mail, a unheard gem from March 1972. The very next day saw the release of Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs With the Grateful Dead. It arrived at my house in the mail on the 7th, coincidentally, Mr. Kreutzmann’s 69th birthday. I put aside my other books just to dive into Deal.

First off, I have to tell you that I was pretty excited about the release of this book. Bill Kreutzmann is the second member of the Grateful Dead to write a book about his life and experiences in and around the band. Several years ago, bassist Phil Lesh also penned his memoir. As for the others, it’s been fairly quiet. Of course, we’ll never hear about the life and times of Jerry Garcia in his own words, though I’m pretty sure he would never consent to such a book if he were still alive. It just wasn’t his cup of tea.

The big interest for me with regard to this book was the author himself. Kreutzmann was a fairly low-key member of the band. He wasn't as flashy as Bob Weir. He wasn't the outspoken defender of world music like Mickey Hart. Nor was he the reluctant religious icon for legions of Deadheads. Kreutzmann sat behind the rest of the band and kept time in a band that seemingly had no concept of time. The possibilities of learning more about the band and its evolution was endless with this new voice. I eagerly opened the book and awaited new revelations.

Bill Kreutzmann does not shy away from some of the darker sides of life in the Grateful Dead. He talks about rampant drug use, the struggles life on the road caused with his relationships, and how some of the band members really felt about each other. To those of us on the other side of the speakers, the band was a happy-go-lucky group of troubadours who epitomized the last vestiges of the Peace, Love and Happiness of the 1960s. Reality was far different.

Kreutzmann tells an interesting story about the first time he met Garcia. Bill’s dad was selling his banjo and some kid with a fistful of cash showed up at the door to take ownership of the instrument. It was Jerry, though neither of them would cross paths again until the Dead was ready to be born. In the meantime, Bill caught the drumming bug and started playing whenever and wherever he could. I’m not going to rehash the birth of the band. There are many, many books that cover that, and it really has no bearing in this review. Needless to say, caught in a snapshot of the 60s, Kreutzmann says it was a cosmic occurrence.

Keep in mind, the author is remembering some of these events 30, 40 and even 50 years after they happened, through the haze of acid, coke, heroin, alcohol and weed. Some of the memories may be embellished. Even Kreutzmann forewarns that some of the things he and the band went through are related through stories other people told him.

Bill does have some definite opinions on some of the members of the band, whether some could even truly be considered members. He felt that keyboardist Tom Constanten was more of a temporary fill-in who was great in rehearsal but couldn't carry that “magic” to the live performances. Of course, as with all other stories about Pigpen, he couldn't say one bad thing about the original lead man for the Dead.

The Grateful Dead had a revolving door of keyboardists over their thirty-year career. From Pigpen, to Constanten, Godchaux, Mydland, Hornsby, and Welnick; Kreutzmann had some new insights on all of them. In his opinion, Keith Godchaux, in his prime, was the best piano player the band ever had. At least until he got burned out, lazy, or drugged out. Then he was merely a shadow mimicking the guitar leads of Garcia.

Speaking of Jerry Garcia, Bill explained how the guitarist seemed ready to take a break in the years leading up to his death. However, the giant machine that was the Grateful Dead was not conducive to a hiatus. They had crew members, merchandise workers, and ticket sellers who had mortgages to cover, so they simply couldn’t stop. The beast needed to feed, and they just kept booking tour after tour without much of a break. At the same time, Kreutzmann tells us a little about the relationship between Jerry and his last wife, Deborah Koons. Jerry’s personal life was not a pretty picture.

After the death of Jerry, Bill Kreutzmann couldn’t bring himself to continue as the Grateful Dead. He speaks about how some members of the band changed their philosophies after the death of their leader, and how it drastically altered the atmosphere between the band members. Despite Jerry’s reluctance to be the leader (in anything), he was the glue that kept the band together. And it probably ultimately killed him.

Bill escaped away from the music after Jerry died. That break gave him a new appreciation for everything he had done and allowed him to learn to love it again on his own terms. He derided some of the post-Dead projects as being too fake. He didn’t like it that a couple guys who no longer really got along could stand next to each other on stage, pretend like nothing was wrong and then collect a check. It felt like it was cheating the music and the fans. He was also annoyed with what he felt was a “copycat of Jerry” performing their repertoire. In his opinion, if you wanted that, there were 30 years of bootlegs and releases that could be played. He was pretty adamant about not liking the way Furthur went down.

From reading this, I learned that Bill Kreutzmann is a pretty opinionated guy. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you are standing by your convictions. When you stripped away the tie-dyes and the wall of music, the underlying skin was raw and irritated. Those of us on the outside had no idea about some of the animosity that fueled the fires.

While it seems that Bill generally got along with everyone without much of an issue, it read like there was some tension between he and Lesh over the entire career of the band. He didn't talk much about Bob Weir, though he did say that he had a much greater preference to playing Garcia songs over Weir songs. He also believed that the songs the band had worked on prior to Garcia’s death could have been some of the best work they had ever done -- if only there had been time to work them and let them explore the realms deep within each.

I understand that the Grateful Dead has been defined by the drug use that runs rampant through the band and among its legions of fans. I can honestly say, that was never a thing for me. I never even tried any of that. I can also say, I had no idea how much drug use was going on with the band nor how casual they seemed about it. Even when it was evident that the music was suffering for it, it still was pretty laid back.

LSD defined a whole generation. While today the drug is illegal, it’s easy to forget that it wasn't always that way. This group of musicians honed their craft through their formative years with a regular course of the psychedelic. As time went on and they became the highest grossing rock act, their choice of drugs changed into darker and more dangerous drugs. Heroin and cocaine appeared and remained staples for most of the rest of their career. Part of it was an escape from the constant pressures of trying to live up to the Deadhead hype. Part of it was for the thrill, I think. And part of it was, who was going to say no? Even as they saw some of their peers drop from their addictions, they still couldn't stop. It was the same way with their music. It was all or none, according to Kreutzmann.

There were a few things that stood out as slightly annoying as I was reading. Kreutzmann’s habit of utilizing Dead lyrics at the end of a paragraph started out sort of cool, but after a couple dozen instances, lost its appeal. They seemed like an afterthought that took away from the feel of the narrative. In addition, his repetitive, overuse of the phrase “far out” grated on the nerves while reading. If you’re describing how an event made you feel, the phrase just doesn’t cut it with readers who are not as intimately familiar with “far out” as those who lived through its heyday. You actually need to describe your feelings to enrich the memories for the readers.

In Deal, Bill Kreutzmann relates his life and times in and out of the Grateful Dead. As you’re reading the book, you get the feeling that Kreutzmann is sitting around the campfire, beer in hand, regaling his listeners with stories of myth and magic, love and sadness. His delivery makes you feel like you’re one of his friends, laughing about the good, old days and crying about what could have been.  There were some old, familiar stories told from a new perspective, and a whole new set of stories that we heard for the first time. It was an exciting read that I could not put down once I opened the first page. After 368 pages, I still wanted more. With fifty years of music, I’m sure there are still a lot of stories that can be told. Maybe we can get Bob Weir to pen one of his own? Only time will tell.

+Craig Bacon , as he writes this, is listening to the infamous Cornell ‘77 show even though it “never really happened.” You can follow his semi-coherent ramblings on Twitter at @hippieboy73.

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