Book Review: This Is All a Dream We Dreamed – An Oral History of the Grateful Dead

Dream we dreamedLots of books have been published this year as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. As a long-time Deadhead, I’ve read most of them. Some of them are quite good, such as So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, and some are just annoying, such as drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir Deal.

It’s hard to tell the story differently from what came before, and since authors Blair Jackson and David Gans had each already written about the band, they found an interesting way to add to the history. This Is All a Dream We Dreamed (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is an oral history, or a collection of excerpts of interviews with band members, family members, crew, promoters, and fans. Organized in chronological order, these excerpts – sometimes just one sentence, sometimes as much as two pages – combine to tell the story of the Grateful Dead.

It can be a bit annoying to read a book constructed like this; it’s like a French nouveau roman where you encounter fragments of a story and have to piece them together in your mind. But Jackson and Gans know the band so well that they were able to organize these excerpts in a way that they all hang together, slowly building up a picture of the Grateful Dead. If you’re not familiar with the band, you might find yourself lost at times, as there’s a lot of background information that we Deadheads already know, and that the book leaves out. There are gaps, bits of the story that no-one has told in interviews. But if you are a Deadhead, you’ll find this an entertaining read, as you hear about the band’s history from those who made it.

The cast of characters is quite long, and it’s a good idea to read the Who’s Who at the beginning of the book, and refer back to it from time to time. In addition to the members of the Grateful Dead, interviewees include other musicians, recording engineers and producers, promoters, family members, artists, members of the Grateful Dead’s office staff, and a handful of fans and tapers. Jackson and Gans didn’t record all these interviews for the book; most come from previously published or unpublished interviews.

As with all books about the Grateful Dead, there’s much more about the early days than the later days. When you get to the halfway point of this book, you’re at the point where the Dead took their hiatus after the “final” run of shows at Winterland in October, 1974. As the years combine, there is less and less to say about the Grateful Dead, other than about how the music stagnated, how Jerry’s health declined, and how the band started playing larger venues, until they became a stadium band, very different from their early days. At the end, as many people went to Dead concerts to hang out in the parking lots, causing consternation from local law enforcement officials. After a while, the Grateful Dead were persona non grata in many cities, because of the circus that followed them around.

I have less interest in the Grateful Dead’s performances after about 1978 – after keyboardist Keith Godchaux left the band – and I think that for many Deadheads, unless they only discovered the band in the 1980s, that’s a pretty common opinion. The Dead fell into a routine from the 1980s on, playing mostly safe music, with an obligatory Drums > Space segment in their shows which were often just phoned in. Partly because of Jerry’s drug habit, and also because of the inertia of the band being such a big concert draw, there was little inventiveness in the last 15 years. This was especially the case after Jerry Garcia went into a diabetic coma in 1986, and had to re-learn to play guitar. But the band could still play some great shows at times, as the recent 30 Trips Around the Sun box set has shown. There were some periods, short runs, when the Dead was on again. But there is little discussion of this aspect of the band’s history in the book.

Any story of the Grateful Dead is a story of a band that had about 15 great years, and 15 years of coasting. This book tends to ignore much of the negative in those later years, and that’s okay. The real legend of the Grateful Dead started with the Acid Tests in 1965 and ended with that final show on October 20, 1974. After the band returned to performing in 1976, they were at their peak through the amazing year of 1977, and then things started changing.

This collection of interview excerpts, skillfully organized by Jackson and Gans, gives an interesting look at the Grateful Dead throughout their history. If you’re a Deadhead, you’ll want to read this book.

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