Even the most erudite Deadheads will be equally surprised and delighted with This Is All A Dream We Dreamed. Surprised by insight offered here, not quite so vividly reflected in other books on the iconic band, such as a portrait of scurrilous Lenny Hart as graphic in its own way as the depiction of Jerry Garcia’s mindset in the wake of keyboardist Brent Mydland’s death. Delighted because, from format to tone, An Oral History of the Grateful Dead proceeds at a brisk pace as authors David Gans and Blair Jackson integrate the voices of this unusual community in a way that enlightens as much as it entertains.
Band members, crew, management and staffers contribute their own unique perspectives, captured as they change over time, in combination with the intimate view of family members effectively drawing a detailed portrait not just of the Grateful Dead as a band of musicians, but as creators of a mini-culture that’s proved remarkably durable for over half a century. And joyous as the sequence of events in that evolution usually remains, the timeline isn’t without its poignant passages, such as the account of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s dissolution and death.
Titular leader Garcia’s own struggle with health and bad habits is a recurring theme throughout the book as well and the participants in this conversation—because that’s what this book amounts to—are as candid as they are remorseful )and loving) toward the figurehead. Tracing the course of the guitarist and composer’s wavering path through life is almost a subliminal story-line as Gans and Jackson draw implicit connections between the level of creativity within the Grateful Dead, and by extension, the liveliness of their followers, with the depth of Garcia’s engagement with the group (or lack of it).
Throughout This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, the speakers maintain a generally even-handed tone—Hugh Wavy “Gravy” Romney a notably effusive exception—and this is an especially noteworthy aspect of the book as it reaffirms a perception of the Grateful Dead (and to a greater or lesser degree, their immediate zeitgeist of roadies, soundmeisters and collaborators such as lyricist Robert Hunter) as artists whose intelligence matches their industrious nature. It’s a concept contrary to the simplistic notion of the group as drug-addled hippies with no purpose, but, importantly, it’s one that’s taking hold and superseding the negative mis-perceptions over the course of time as books like this and David Browne’s peel away preconceptions gone awry.
In fact, one of the greatest virtues of An Oral History of the Grateful Dead is the palpable way the discourse captures the good-natured whimsy and openness to serendipity at the heart of the band’s formation on through much of their career, including significant events in their history such as the first trip to Europe in 1972 and the visit to Egypt to play at the Great Pyramid in 1978. And, as Gans and Jackson offer observation and analysis of the changes wrought in the Dead’s concert-going audience with the 1987 success of “Touch of Grey,” particularly from the mirror image vantage points of then-manager Cameron Sears and publicist/ biographer Dennis McNally. It becomes more striking than ever how that mainstream acceptance soured the atmosphere surrounding the Grateful Dead and continued into that later phase of their career where, individually and collective, creatively and business-wise, they began to struggle so much (even as they engaged in rock star self-indulgence).
Yet the formatting and design of the book work to uphold the generally jolly air throughout with sidebar comments. Early on, those insertions bring focus and summary to the topics under discussion, such as the recurring themes in Hunter’s writing, while later in the four-hundred eighty-eight pages, pithy comments from Hunter, at his own unique remove, bring into sharp relief themes such as the exploration of logistics of the stadium shows the Dead were literally forced to play in their later years, as a means to meet increasingly greater audience demand.
The inclusion of eight codas following the eleven chapters , however, muffles the impact of the progressive momentum Gans and Jackson generate with this deft interpolation of voices and topics. Better these comparatively segments were included at various junctures during the course of the book, perhaps set off in different font or even on different paper, to distinguish them from the larger content. No question that insight into editing the Grateful Dead movie and the evolution of the taper community sheds light on the band, its work and their community, but the placement of these sections, seemingly as afterthoughts, lessens their value somewhat.
Minor as it is, that design flaw can’t significantly undermine what David Gans and Blair Jackson achieve with This Is All A Dream We Dreamed. Including extensive reference to many other entries of similar worth, it’s an essential entry into the ever-growing bibliography devoted to the Grateful Dead, all the more distinctive because it so vibrantly captures a sense of the continuing cultural resonance of this one-of-a-kind phenomenon.