By Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen
St. Martin’s Press
400 pages, $27.99.
By Jeff Miers
In the end, it’s the sadness that is most tangible. Not the tales of wild self-indulgence, the hotel room bacchanals, the headlong flights into lysergic excess, or the decades-long dedication to a Dionysian muse. It’s the sadness.
As a founding member of the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann watched the world change from behind his drum kit, shoveling coal in the wildly tribal rhythm section as the Dead went from San Francisco underground curio to ground-breaking indie outfit, then progenitor of the improvisation-based rock movement, and finally, pied piper for several generations of music-lovers enthralled by the musical freedom and spiritual wanderlust associated with the late 1960s.
His “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead” fearlessly dishes the dirt on the detritus cast to the side of this long, strange human highway as it rolled from the distant and naïve excesses of the initial Acid Tests toward a mainstream that would never quite embrace (or be embraced by) the band.
If you aren’t really a fan, you can read “Deal” and simply chuckle at the juicy bits. But if you are a true fan – if you felt the loss of guitarist, unwilling band-leader, and spiritual muse Jerry Garcia in a way that felt personal – then you’ll read “Deal” as a love story with a tragic ending.
Kreutzmann never fully recovered from Garcia’s death in 1995, while the guitarist was in an addiction treatment and recovery center following decades battling drug dependency. Neither did his bandmates. So profound was Garcia’s influence on his friends and fellow-travelers that his absence left a void that would never be filled.
As routinely as the band is associated with vague and intellectually lazy notions of flower-power flakiness and drug-addled bonhomie, the Grateful Dead Kreutzmann reveals to us in “Deal” is comprised of men who were largely incapable of expressing their love and respect for each other in healthy ways. There was a twisted gentleman’s code at work here, one that suggested interfering in someone else’s trip – or in many cases, even expressing concern or offering advice – was deemed the ultimate “harshing” of another man’s buzz, the most uncool of the many uncool things these guys could do to each other.
So, Kreutzmann suggests, Garcia’s issues were largely deemed matters best dealt with by Garcia himself. One senses the regret between the lines, as Kreutzmann recalls standing at Garcia’s coffin, mumbling “I love you, Jerry,” and then retreating to his home, there to all but disappear into a cloud of depression and drug abuse that it would take him more than a decade to emerge from. No one in the Dead camp has ever fully come forward to proclaim “I should have done something, there must’ve been something I could’ve done,” but Kreutzmann comes the closest. His regret is palpable.
Kreutzmann is occasionally hard on his bandmates Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, but for Garcia, he reserves little other than praise, of the sort a son might have for a particularly kindly and influential father figure. A barely teenaged Kreutzmann met Garcia when the latter showed up on Kreutzmann’s doorstep with the aim of purchasing a banjo from his father. A few years later, the still teenaged Kreutzmann saw Garcia play that same banjo at a Palo Alto, Calif., nightspot, and vowed, “I’m gonna follow this guy forever.” And he did, as it turns out.
It’s interesting that, amid all the tales of wild partying, torrid coupling, and partying with John Belushi that fill the pages of “Deal,” Kreutzmann’s most poignant recollections involve scuba diving excursions in Hawaii with Garcia during the later period of the Dead’s existence. These were designed as an opportunity for the two lifelong friends to reconnect away from their responsibilities to a nation of Deadheads, responsibilities that had begun to weigh the men down. Garcia in particular felt the burden of that responsibility, as the Dead morphed from band of acid-taking Merry Pranksters into a rolling carnival and finally, against its wishes, a full-fledged business with a staff of employees depending on the band for its lifeblood. Submerged in the ocean, weightless and free, the two men found the only place in the world where they could truly be alone. It’s clear that these are memories treasured by the author.
“Deal’s” tone is loose, conversational and delivered with a nod and a wink by Kreutzmann and Eisen, who seem to have employed the construction of the book as a valid excuse to get together and party around Eisen’s laptop. This serves the story very well, and lends to Kreutzmann’s long-established “Gentleman Rogue” persona.
And yet, it does little to soften the sadness that lingers between the lines.
Kreutzmann will, of course, be manning his drum kit as the Dead present “Fare Thee Well,” a series of five 50th anniversary shows that will also act as tributes to Garcia during the last week of June and the first of July, with the help of Phish guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio and longtime Dead compadre Bruce Hornsby.
These will be celebratory shows attended by hundreds of thousands, and viewed via pay-per-view by millions more. But make no mistake - that lingering sadness will also be in attendance.
Jeff Miers is The News’ Pop Music Critic.