Written for The Fix
“They were freewheeling people and drugs were the wheels.”
— Warner Bros. Records president Bob Smith
Amir Bar-Lev’s rockumentary, Long Strange Trip, about the Grateful Dead, is aptly named for what is arguably the band’s most famous lyric: What a long, strange trip it’s been. The film takes you on a four-hour ride (much like the band’s live shows) but this is not just another indulgent music doc.
Executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, the film digs deeply into the bizarre phenomenon that surrounded “The Dead” for decades—obsessive fans, called Deadheads, became a cult-like following that elevated the band’s ringmaster, Jerry Garcia (Aug. 1, 1942–Aug. 9, 1995), to a status he never wanted.
Jerry Garcia backstage before a Grateful Dead concert in Golden Gate Park 09/28/1975. Photographer: Roberto Rabanne
The must-see film includes 17 interviews, 1,100 rare photos and loads of footage you’ve never seen. Deadheads will be ecstatic. Bar-Lev doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead he offers many points of view. One theory is that the die-hard Deadheads were the major cause of Garcia’s descent into heroin. I didn’t buy that so I reached out to Grateful Dead insider Dennis McNally, whose book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, provided Bar-Lev with much of the band’s story. McNally spent 30 years with the band beginning when Garcia invited him to become their biographer in 1981.
When I asked McNally if he thought it was the Deadheads that drove Garcia to abuse heroin, or if he felt, as I do, that it was a progression from one addiction to another. McNally answered:
“I don’t think there’s an inherent progression [of addiction], I mean everybody starts with milk, too, you know? He turned to self-medication for any number of reasons…. His father died when he was four, he didn’t get the attention from his mother that he felt he deserved. Eventually, yes, but not specifically the fame. It was the responsibility. Jerry wanted to be Huckleberry Finn, well, if Huckleberry Finn was allowed to smoke joints and play guitar and cruise down the river on a raft.”
McNally pointed out that Garcia “employed 50 people, me among them. We expected paychecks every couple of weeks. There was a weight of responsibility on him for employees, their families, but also the million Deadheads who were addicted to the music and the shows. They expected him to come out and play 80 shows a year. That wore on him. He was 53-years-old and a walking candidate for a heart attack. Still smoked cigarettes, had a terrible diet. He was a diabetic who did not take it seriously.”
Garcia’s four wives, and all of his children, except daughter Trixie, declined to participate in the film but his girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier offers keen insight. She speaks in the film about her early romance with Garcia. They met when she was 15 and Garcia, 18. He was playing folk songs with lyricist Robert Hunter. They broke up in 1962. He was already on drugs then. They got back together in the early 90s and it was wonderful, but bittersweet, watching her talk about that time. Her love for him is clearly still there as she relives the pain of finding out he was using heroin again. When she tried to talk to him about it, he abruptly ended their romance.
I reached out to her but she declined an interview. In our emails back and forth she gave me permission to quote her writings about Garcia. Talking about their split she wrote, “The reasons were complex but Jerry’s heroin use was a contributing factor.” Meier’s reaction to the film was very positive. She wrote that it “clearly shows what a complicated, creatively talented and unconventional person he was, that he had an equal proclivity for transcendence and self-destruction.”
McNally said he’d seen Garcia cut people off if they brought up his addiction. “I watched him resist his bandmates. People he’d been close to, intimately involved with for 30 years. If Robert Hunter and Phil Lesh weren’t effective in taking it up with him, I wasn’t going to be, so I said nothing.”
When I asked McNally if he did drugs himself, he said, “Thirty years ago, I stopped doing what I’d call drugs. I don’t call pot drugs, by the way.”
In a rare interview the reclusive lyricist Robert Hunter told Rolling Stone about a 1985 attempt at getting Garcia off narcotics: “We all went over once to his house and confronted him, and he opened the door and saw what was going on and said, ‘Get out of here!’ He was trying to shut the door and we all filed in and did the confrontation…. [H]e said he’d do something about it. That’s about all you can do, isn’t it? All I can say is that it more or less ruined everything, having Jerry be a junkie. I remember a time when “junkie” was the nastiest thing Garcia could call anybody. You had such contempt for anybody that would get involved in that.”
The band was a huge success but inexorably linked to the drug culture. Director Bar-Lev, an admitted Dead fan since age 13, surprisingly presents a balanced view that doesn’t gloss over the drugs, nor the multiple tragedies they caused. The story unfolds through never-before-seen footage and photos, and candid interviews with the band’s surviving members: rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, percussionist Mickey Hart, former backup vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, and lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow.
Garcia formed the group in 1965 at a time when getting high seemed innocent and user-friendly. His drugging odyssey began with popping pills in his early teens. He added pot in the late 50s. In the early 60s, novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) introduced the Dead to LSD, which was then an experimental government drug. The Dead became the official unofficial house band for Kesey’s famous Acid Tests—parties with his 13 Merry Pranksters, including the beat generation’s Neal Cassady, (the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road).
Along the way, band members came and went. In 1970, backup singer Donna Jean Godchaux met Garcia at a concert and announced that she and her husband, pianist Keith Godchaux, were joining the band—and they did.
By the 70s Garcia was heavily into cocaine and the drug that gobbled him up: heroin. Garcia died eight days after he’d turned 53 in August 1995. He had a heart attack in his sleep in a drug rehab where he’d been trying to quit heroin again. Detoxing from opiates is rough enough, but due to his other health issues—obesity, diabetes—Garcia was at higher risk than most.
The movie mimicked Garcia’s life. It began as a celebration but ended with a trip down the dark cellar of no return. Garcia probably didn’t set out to become a heroin addict. Maybe he just thought he could handle it. Or maybe, like my own drug use, just got to a point where he wanted out. Many people didn’t know the flip side of his jolly exterior was a dark depression.
Deadheads in the Taper’s Section at an outdoor venue late-1980s. Photographer: Michael Conway
The Dead’s casualties also included Ron “Pigpen” McKernan who drank himself to death in 1973 at age 27. Keith Godchaux died at age 32 in 1980 from a car crash after he and friend Courtenay Pollock had partied for hours to celebrate Godchaux’s birthday. The intoxicated driver—Pollock—survived the accident. Brent Mydland, mostly known as a drinker, died from a “speedball” (morphine and cocaine) in 1990. After Mydland’s death, keyboardist Vince Welnick joined the band but died in 2006 when he committed suicide. Phil Lesh’s drug use led to contracting hepatitis C. In the fall of 1998, his life was saved by a liver transplant.
Next I tracked down former president of Warner Bros. Records, Joe Smith, the executive who first signed the Dead. His presence brought a lot of fun into the film during the celebratory first half. “They were totally insane at times,” said Smith. “Trying to corral them was a very difficult thing, but we developed a friendship and Jerry Garcia was very bright. They were all bright. I established relationships with all of them, but not without difficulty because they didn’t want relationships. They were stoned most of the time. Phil Lesh was a particularly difficult guy.”
“How so?” I asked.
“He disputed and contested everything. One time, when I was trying to promote them, he said, ‘No. Let’s go out and record 30 minutes of heavy air on a smoggy day in L.A. Then we’re gonna record 30 minutes of clear air on a beautiful day, and we’ll mix it and that’ll be a rhythm soundtrack.”
When I asked Smith if he laughed or got angry, he replied, “No, I didn’t get mad at them. I realized what I was dealing with—guys who lived in a fantasy world. It was hard to pin them down. We were in L.A. to record their first album, with engineer Dave Hassinger, who had done the Rolling Stones, and even he threw up his hands and said, ‘Wow, these guys are difficult.’ Years later, Phil Lesh said, ‘My grandmother taught me good manners but I never showed them to Joe Smith.’”
“Did you ever suggest, ‘Hey guys, why don’t you knock off the drugs?” I asked.
“No, that was their number. They were a band that promoted drugs with strange song titles and when they went on the road, the crowds expected them to act daffy…. They were freewheeling people and drugs were the wheels.”
Smith added, “If you went to San Francisco, in between recordings, either you hung out with guys from Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe, you’d find drugs all over the place. I was born and raised in a conservative life in Boston so I never did the drugs. [The Grateful Dead members] claimed that I’d never understand their music until I dropped acid. Which I did not do. I wasn’t a druggie.”
Circling back I asked McNally, “Why do you think the Deadheads elevated Jerry Garcia to such god-like proportions?”
“He was the gravitational pull. I’m working on a vinyl box set of music for the Garcia Estate. It’s folk and bluegrass recorded before the Grateful Dead. It’ll come out around Jerry’s birthday, August 1st. Listen to him relate to the audience when he was only 19, you know? That’s why people just always want to listen to Jerry Garcia. He was charismatic.”
Long Strange Trip is now available for streaming on Amazon.
Main photo taken at the Grateful Dead performance in Egypt 1978. Donna Jean Godchaux, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann. Photographer: Adrian Boot.