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Dennis McNally Reflects on His Life as A Deadhead

March 21, 2018

Dennis with RatDog--photo via Dennismcnally.com.

Dennis McNally was the Grateful Dead’s publicist from 1984 to 1995, and later with Grateful Dead Productions and Bob Weir’s RatDog, and the Dead’s biographer (A Long Strange Trip). Last month he shared accounts from Jeff Chimenti, John Molo and Roosevelt Collier on their connections to the Grateful Dead. This month we've asked him write about his on journey.

Dennis has been thinking about all of this in conjunction with the Skull and Roses Festival, April 6-7-8 at Ventura Fairgrounds, where bands like Golden Gate Wingmen, Stu Allen & Mars Hotel, JGB, Circle Around the Sun, Shred is Dead, Punk is Dead, David Gans, Roosevelt Collier, Cubensis, and lots more will present Dead music in all flavors.

***

My very fine editors suggested that since I was telling these musician’s stories of their conversion to Deadhead-edness to you, I should share my own. We’ll skip over the musical instrument part, since you’re not interested in very bad junior high school violin playing, and get to me and the Dead.

In the spring of 1967 I was a high school senior in a small town in Maine. I didn’t fit in—on reflection, not many people really do—and my refuge was the public library, where I did a lot of reading. I still remember the pictures from the Be-In (January 14, 1967) of Jerry wearing his Uncle Sam top hat. It sure looked interesting, but I didn’t have a clue what it would mean to my future.

That fall I was a dj at my college radio station, and came across the Dead’s first album, and “Morning Dew” entered my life with a vengeance. Along with Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, it was a regular in my rotation. For some odd reason, though, I lost touch with the band for a while, and it wasn’t until the fall of 1971, in graduate school, that I met the guy who walked me across the threshold of Dead-dom.

Chris was a really, really brilliant mathematician, and also the only guy I knew of where I lived who smoked dope. I was truly impoverished, and when I apologized for not having any weed to share, Chris would reply, “Hey man, dope is like manure. It only does some good if it’s spread around.” In addition to being kind, Chris was a true Deadhead: we listened to them and only them, Hot Tuna being the only permitted exception. I might add that this was before tapes were common, and I’m talking about records here.

On October 2, 1972, along with a bunch of friends up from the Bronx, Chris took me to my first concert, at Springfield Civic Center, and when we got there, told me to open my mouth. I owe Chris (rest in peace) a very great deal.

He’d also given me a good shove in the direction of working on a book about Jack Kerouac, and by 1973 I had conceived a grand plan to write the history of underground culture in America after World War II in two books: Volume one would be Jack Kerouac and cover the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Volume two would be the Grateful Dead. It took some doing and a lot more time than I counted on, but eventually, that’s what I did.

Of course, I didn’t have clue number one about how I was going to get the members of the G.D. to go along with this idea—for starters, their telephone number was unlisted. I published the Kerouac book ( _Desolate Angel_ ) in 1979 and sent copies to Garcia and Hunter, and then more or less waited. That fall I sold the idea of writing a piece on Deadheads and New Year’s Eve to the _San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine—I figured I could introduce myself to the band that way—and in January of 1980 I went to interview Bill Graham, since his number was in the book.

And that’s where Deadhead synchronicity started to kick in. Bill’s secretary was a member of the tribe named Jan Simmons, and after a great interview with Bill, who loved talking about the Dead and Deadheads, she said, “You know, you ought to talk with Eileen Law at the Dead office. Here’s her number.” Eileen, being the complete sweetheart that she was and is, came to work on a Sunday (I was working a regular job), and we talked for a couple of hours.

Long story short, the Dead announced their 15 night run at the Warfield Theatre, the Chronicle ran my story, Eileen included me in a group of Deadheads who met Jerry, Tom Davis and Al Franken as part of what would be the video of the Halloween at Radio City show, Dead Ahead, and when I met him, I asked Jerry if he’d seen the Kerouac book I’d sent him. You have to understand that Kerouac was a life-long hero and role model for Jerry, and yes, he’d read it, and was, ahem, enthusiastic about it.

So enthusiastic, as a matter of fact, that a couple of months later he sent Rock Scully (publicity) and Alan Trist (music publishing) to meet with me. They said, “Jerry says why don’t you do us?” (Do a biography of the Dead.)

Which seemed like a good idea to me, having been dreaming of it for seven years.

I spent the next three years (1981-1984) very happily digging away. I found Phil’s music teacher at College of San Mateo (who had a tape of Mr. Lesh in the CSM jazz band, both playing and the composer of pieces). I dug up lots of Jerry folk and bluegrass music, getting to know Rodney Albin, one of the great people in Jerry’s early life (and I was lucky – we lost Rodney in 1985). I found Gert Chiarito, who ran the “Midnight Special” show on KPFA that Phil engineered and Jerry played on.

And I went to lots of Dead shows, both in the Bay Area and further away. Eventually, the crew decided I could be tolerated and I spent more time on stage (seriously, a tough transition – it sounds better out front). I spent lots of time at the office, talking with people and seeing how it all worked in business terms. And overall, I managed not to piss off anybody too terribly much, which was important, because in the world of the G.D., just because Jerry had an idea didn’t mean everybody was going to jump up and salute.

One day in June, 1984, Mary Jo Meinholf of the office staff sat up at a company meeting and said, “What are we going to do about the media? They call and nobody returns their calls (Rock had gone away to get healthy), and they annoy me.” And Jerry said, “Get McNally to do it. He knows that shit. Send him up to my house and I’ll tell him what to do.” So I did go up to his place for my job training. He said, “OK, first thing is, we don’t suck up to the press.” I think I even wrote it down. And then he said, “Ah, that’s enough. Here, toke on this.” Nice training.

I tried to keep working on the book while being a publicist, but it was impossible. It was the greatest job I’ll ever have, but I’m not joking when I say that it was 60 hours a week when we were off the road, and more when we were on. I put the book on hold, but kept a notebook in my pocket to write down the interesting or funny stuff I saw, and there was plenty of that: Jerry and Vice President Al Gore discussing John F. Kennedy’s desk (Bill Clinton had gotten it from the Smithsonian), Jerry talking with Tony Bennett before a San Francisco Giants baseball game, Phil encouraging Brent when B. brought up the idea of playing “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Branford Marsalis playing like a god, and on and on.

All of which was summed up one disgusting day in Washington D.C., at RFK Stadium. Disgusting because of course if we were playing at RFK it was summer time, and summer in DC invariably meant 100 degrees and close to a 100 percent humidity and we—staff and crew—were out there for 10 or 12 hours. We were leaving the stage and heading for the vans back to the hotel, and Ram Rod, the crew chief and one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, said, “At least it’s not a real job.” And it wasn’t. It was at times more stressful and gritty and challenging than a “real job,” but it wasn’t one. Instead, it was an amazing adventure, an incredible opportunity to serve a higher purpose, a chance to help save the world. (Well, we tried, honest).

We couldn’t save Jerry – or he couldn’t save himself – and that sucked, but along with all Deadheads we honored the music, and I’m really proud of that. See you down the road, maybe even at Ventura.