Long Strange Trip and the Polyrhythmic Alchemy of The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip is the band's memento mori.

Death is fun. As long as we remember nothing about us will be remembered in the eternity. Death is also very accommodating, if we don’t stop for it, it stops for us. It’s an immortal uber driver that doesn’t care about a rating because there is only one destination. Long Strange Trip, the Grateful Dead documentary that first arrived on Amazon Prime and is now available on Blu-ray, rides shotgun with death on the tour bus. Casey Jones hasn’t even glanced at the speedometer.

The Grateful Dead wasn’t just a band, it was a family. Some deaths weren’t fun, and there is little gratitude for taking away key players. Pigpen McKernan died in 1973 at the age of 27, Brent Mydland’s gruesome death, and Garcia’s death from a heart attack at age 53 in 1995. Long Strange Trip, directed by Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman StoryHappy Valley) and executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, retrieves the memories of the band’s main four surviving members — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter. They also speak with Dennis McNally, the band’s publicist and biographer, as well as others connected to the band through their own long strange trips.

The Grateful Dead knew about the magic of numbers. Both they and The Velvet Underground chose The Warlocks as their first band name. They had a pair of drummers who could play off each other, one in four, one in six, to let the musicians choose which cosmic flow to groove in. This polyrhythmic alchemy paired with the biochemistry of psychosis, when the band took a ride with the Merry Panksters on LSD 25, to produce true manifestation.

Jerry Garcia, who the documentary is really about, knew the magic wasn’t about death, but karma, how we live and relate to other people. He was five years old when his father, also a musician, died, and Garcia discovered Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The mad scientist in him turned the knobs on music instead of reanimating a corpse and screaming “It’s alive” like a long haired Colin Clive. Garcia put an amalgamation of purely American musical styles, his banjo student Bob Weir, a blues harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, under the rhythm section of a lunatic classical composing bass player Phil Lesh and soul drummer Bill Kreutzmann, to teach people confronting death teaches you how to live. Then they added drummer Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter and Acbradabra, he created a magical formula for a new age.

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Dr. Frankenstein built his creature from lifeless limbs and organs. He sewed them together and zapped them with electricity and it came to life. The monster learned to communicate by smoking with blind strangers and taking flowers from kind children. Garcia came from a bluegrass background, actually absorbed himself so far into it he drove his beatnik girlfriend and early collaborator away. Bluegrass is a conversational music, each instrument listening and talking back to the other, but the documentary has a fun moment with Barbara Brigid Meier, Garcia’s girlfriend from the early ‘60s, where she admits that she broke up with him because bluegrass was tedious.

Garcia electrified his Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, which recorded an album at the Top of the Tangent coffee house in Palo Alto, California in July, 1964, killing the banjo player in him. He formed the Warlocks, who took their Magoo’s Pizza Parlor residency out for delivery, and deliverance. Like Kerouac’s On the Road, with extra cheese and lots of pepperoni. Lou Reed and John Cale already put a record out as the Warlocks, so Jerry employed the magic bibliomancy so the band could be renewed as The Grateful Dead. But they weren’t just paying for someone else’s funeral, as the Fucking Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition, might have you believe. They danced on the graves.

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The psychedelic cowboys gathered a wandering group of weirdoes and freaks as their tribe. Deadheads aren’t a cult, they are a traveling party, and the tour buses were a caravan filled with happy gypsies. The Grateful Dead was the ultimate American band, mixing rock, jazz, blues, folk, soul, and gospel with a consistent country feel. The conversations come across as improvisations, sometimes the conversations are hard to follow, but the audience always knows it will be a different chat every night. The Grateful Dead was a lot of things. One of them is a pretty good jazz band. This writer’s favorite Dead album is Terrapin Station and the pulsing bass of Shakedown Street, this is mainly because of the drums and the alchemy of polyrhythms. The two drummers came together at a Count Basie concert and played together on stage together on the very night the band met.

“Friend,” Boris Karloff says to the kind blind violin player who teaches him to communicate in the movie Frankenstein. Jerry loves the Frankenstein monster. “It might have been the thing of a dead thing brought to life,” Garcia says at one point in the series. “Frankenstein’s monster is, after all, a drive to reanimate, or to produce life, and it hit me in that archetypal center.” The science at the center of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is veiled alchemy. Victor Frankenstein is looking for the elixir of life. The mad scientist pours through the works of alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus to brew up a batch.

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The monster was further tricked out by MK Ultra, and one of the best bits in the documentary are vintage footage of the LSD tests in Sweden. A formerly straight man in a button down shirt really wants to cut loose when dosed at a drug institute, but the Swedish scientists keep pestering him with questions, taking all the fun out of the session. LSD 25 was being developed for potential military applications under the MK ULTRA program, but the Pranksters were taking LSD in ways it wasn’t intended and turned it into a friendly weapon as the CIA turned on America.

Garcia’s band brought psychedelic fun as house musicians for the Acid Trips of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Dylan Thomas wrote about a place where death shall have no dominion. The band’s own house in the Haight-Ashbury hippie section of San Francisco was a place to imagine Earl Scruggs playing beatnik songs of art and love on a five string banjo, but became a tourist trap. Never trust a prankster.

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The Warner Bros executive who is interviewed is sure he got a contact high from the band. He found it funny, the band recorded while playing under the effect of laughing gas when the craziest act he’d had at Warner Brothers was Trini Lopez. It was a little less amusing when Warner Bros wanted a promo film and the band dosed the crew with LSD, unleashing spontaneous creativity that couldn’t be edited out. The Grateful Dead had already dosed coffee with LSD when they played Hugh Hefner’s syndicated television show Playboy After Dark in 1969. Long-time roadie Rex Jackson separated the cokeheads from the acidheads when he wouldn’t let anyone on stage at the Dead’s October 1974 shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena unless they dropped acid. The show was captured for The Grateful Dead Movie.

Nobody failed the acid tests when the Grateful Dead gave the answers on mental crip notes cut into tiny squares. The band was graded on a curve, receiving communications from the audience. Everybody listened really hard. The musicians got into each other heads, played through each other’s fingers. The band played for Neal Cassady, and got LSD chemist Owsley Stanley to engineer the sound.

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Owsley “Bear” Stanley concocted his own signature brand of acid for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Jimi Hendrix sung its praises in the song “Purple Haze.” Stanley started doing sound for the Dead in 1965. By the early seventies he created what Lesh calls “the best PA, ever. It was absolutely apocalyptic. It was like the voice of God.” Stanley’s stack of amps was called the Wall Of Sound, it could be heard from a mile away and fans responded to the call. Classically trained pianist Keith Godchaux  told his wife Donna he didn’t want to listen to the Grateful Dead anymore. He wanted to play dead. They both joined the band in 1971.

The documentary series skips through promoter Bill Graham and many of the band’s internal struggles. Pigpen retreated into a boozy bottom when the band moved away from blues improvisations. Garcia had held the band together to pay their crew. But when the single “Touch of Grey” charted on Billboard and he was asked if success spoiled the Grateful Dead? He said “yeah.” It doesn’t go past Garcia’s death, even though the surviving members continue jamming, sometimes as The Other Ones, a name they got from the song that first mixed time signatures.

Long Strange Trip runs about four hours, just about as long as a live performance of the song “Dark Star.” It follows Garcia from his beatnik folk singer roots hanging at Lepler’s Book Store. It shows how the musicians who formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions turned the San Francisco sound into the classics Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. They catch the badass attitudes of the crew, on vintage Super 8, holding their own with Hell’s Angels backstage. The documentary shows how the Dead achieved commercial success by going country, found a cautionary tale in the Watts Towers, and how it all went down when the chemicals went bad.

Long Strange Trip is now available on Blu-ray.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.