Long Strange Trip

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I’m not a stranger to biographies of musicians and bands.  The backstories are often interesting, and they offer glimpses of what the celebrity experience is like in the quiet moments when the lights are off and the audience adulation is absent.  Long-Strange-Trip

I’m not a Grateful Dead fan, and I won’t become one, but it’s not for a lack of respect of their accomplishments.  So, Amazon’s Long Strange Trip was not an imperative, but of interest and certainly easier than reading a book.  And the band remains relevant, whether in the form of the musical offspring of its remaining band members, various cover bands, jam bands like Widespread Panic or the stickers on cars or T-shirts worn by “Deadheads.”  (My last remembered observation was form NBA player Bill Walton at the Atlanta airport, sporting Dead gear…)

In any case, the following holds true for many:

Q: What did the Deadhead say when he ran out of drugs?
A: Man, this music sucks.

I haven’t tried drugs and thus lacked their influence when I sampled the band’s music.  In the early ‘80’s, I had already investigated the music of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Even at that age, I saw it as my sister’s generation, who was 11 years older.  It didn’t reflect the “now,” about which Garcia commented: “It’s tough to come to an adventure in this new lame America.”  I had friends at the time, and would see others over the next decade, who become latter-era Deadheads.  I get that many seek to latch onto something greater than themselves and be a part of it – we all do in our way – but… why the Dead? 

One interviewed megafan grants absolution for these latter day adjuncts:  

“I’ve seen kids now who are too young to ever have seen Jerry Garcia and yet they’re just as much a Deadhead as people my age ever were in the 70’s.  I don’t feel like anything has been diluted or lost, and the one sad thing that I would relieve them of is their feeling that they missed it because the thing that the Dead and the Deadheads created together will keep working its magic in whatever form its transmitted into the future.”

Sorry!  It’s just a bunch of people who missed out on the hippie era and will continually ask, “Wow, I wonder what this used to really be like!”  And then throw in the perspective of the speaker, proud to be a legitimate deadhead but perhaps desperate that his experience, to mean something significant, must necessarily endure.  The music will, in any case.      

The Grateful Dead’s music, as any other, is a personal thing.  There’s not enough about it for me to really like – no melody or key refrain - but there’s enough to the musicianship and the spirit for which it was intended for me to understand why other people might.  Long jams don’t appeal to me, at least without a scorching guitar, and while the band certainly has suitable vocalists, none of them appeal to me.  That’s okay – the world of Rock and Roll is full of vocalists who can’t “sing” but are perfect for what they do.  Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen… Don’t get offended anyone.

The above hopefully serves as a suitable disclaimer as I review the movie, essentially admitting that I’m as objective as the next biased person.

Long Strange Trip includes six episodes that trace the band chronologically, totaling about a four hour investment of time if skipping the credits.  It does a very nice job of interviewing surviving band members and others who were close to the band.   The details of the times, the places, the personalities, the development of the band’s style (bluegrass, anyone?) and the trials overcome on the way to their ultimate success are exactly what the viewer hopes to see. 

Visually, there is much to like.  The imagery, archival footage of places and concerts, snippets of video of band members behind the scenes, etc. add great visuals to keep pace with a crisp narrative.  The movie holds to its themes and does not linger or extrapolate too long on any particular subject or period of time.  And, of course, it’s mostly about Jerry Garcia.

The movie features the band’s music as their styles and skills evolved, this in uncritical terms, unless praise counts.  It’s often heard in the background during general narratives and is addressed more directly when speaking to the contributions of specific band members.  It’s presumed that the viewer is a fan, though more probably a fan of their concerts rather than (studio) recordings.  

The early years of the San Francisco hippie culture were of the most interest, and Garcia’s overarching commitment to “fun” is introduced early – succinctly put by bandmate Bob Weir: 

“In eternity nothing will be remembered of you.  So why not just have fun?”

Nihilists rejoice!  Fun.  Free from authority and rules.  Working for the enjoyment of something without a particular purpose.  Sounds nice.  In other words, that’s autonomy – self law.  The remainder of the movie details a career of excesses in and around the band.  Fun, it is seen, is very much a thing of the moment, but the indulgences permitted in a one word litmus test for practical living reach their logical conclusions…  Rampant drug use, living/touring with an unwieldy entourage, the continual partying during lengthy tours, the problems encountered when no one wants to take authority and make decisions and a general neglect of personal health risks.  These built the band’s culture as much as they decreed its eventual end. 

Curiously lacking is any criticism between the surviving band members themselves.  It suggests that a deeper story is still out there waiting to be told as the only faults revealed are about those band members who have passed away, including Garcia.  The pride they take in their career is evident, but as evident is their regret regarding Garcia’s death, but not to the point where anyone admits they should have helped their friend and de facto leader who visibly needed an intervention. 

Perhaps to justify this, they speak of Garcia’s “toughness,” his energy, his push to tour constantly, his recurring drug relapses.  And none of them seemed to register shock when he died of a heart attack.   With friends like these…  Had Garcia died earlier along with Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison, they would have merited only a footnote in music history.  Part of their legacy is that they survived as long as they did.

But they’re not the Grateful Survivors.  I particularly liked the opening of the movie which begins with a thematically suited stanza of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

  • Because I could not stop for Death -
  • He kindly stopped for me -
  • The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
  • And Immortality.

The movie takes that focus on death and relates it to the passing of Garcia’s father in his youth and links it to the suitability of the band’s name.   Death is a more frequent subject to their songs than I realized, but it’s easily missed due to the the optimism in the tunes themselves, general inattention to the lyrics or the celebratory reaction of their audiences regardless of the subject.  Renewal, freedom, escapism – the band’s avowed fun celebrates life while both mocking and conceding its eventual end.

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The day Garcia died, a music buddy asked me, “Is Jerry Garcia grateful?”  By the film’s recounting of Garcia’s latter years, the answer seems to be “yes.”  His lack of anonymity to enjoy going out in public (thereby trapped in hotels), a relapse into his drug addiction, and the responsibilities of shouldering a band which supported the livelihoods of so many more than suggest that the fun was over. 

Bob Weir’s reflections at the end of the movie fairly well sum the outworking of the band’s philosophy:

  • “Jerry wasn’t interested in building something that would stand the test of time, but I don’t think that what we see as time can put an end to what we had…  Those moments are more alive than anything a heart pumps out.  That’s what we were living for and that was what we were trying to coax through on any given night onstage. That was the fun.  That was the fun that he was talking about.  That’s eternity.”  

Assigning metaphysical value to music is a dicey proposition, but we each justify our time on earth in different ways.  Perhaps their accomplishments and the accolades of millions provide some solace to the costs of the “fun.”

Long Strange Trip succeeds as both a documentary of music history and human nature.

5 of 5 STARS_thumb

(Go Austin, Go!)

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