I can’t imagine that anyone will walk away from “Long Strange Trip,” Amir Bar-Lev’s remarkable four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead, without a newfound appreciation for the band’s music and its place in American popular culture.
The Dead hated the recording studio, but are the most recorded band in the world. (By fans, who obsessively circulated tapes.)
They had relatively few hits (“Touch of Grey,” “Truckin’”), but have sold 35 million albums and played more than 2,350 live shows.
They had a leader, Garcia, but he refused to lead. “I was aware of the power,” he says in the film. “If I thought about controlling it, it would be perilously close to fascism.”
The band, as lyricist John Perry Barlow put it, was “a religion without beliefs.”
“Every place we play is church,” says bassist Phil Lesh. “Every concert is a spiritual experience.”
Deadheads — whose legions never seemed to shrink — followed the band obsessively. Eventually, many were content just to soak up the vibes outside performance venues and not even go inside, ticking off local authorities who were overwhelmed by the crowds.
Band members such as Lesh wrote open letters begging people without tickets to stay away, but Garcia would have no part in telling people what to do.
“He was such an anti-authoritarian,” says roadie Steve Parish. “He wouldn’t do it.”
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes the Grateful Dead so special, and so uniquely Californian.
“What is the meta-myth of California? It is that you can bring all these influences together and launch yourself into a completely new space,” said Steve Silberman, 59, a Deadhead who is featured extensively in “Long Strange Trip.” “You can go out to California and nobody cares about you anymore and you can invent something new in your garage, whether it’s a MacIntosh, or ‘Howl’ or the Grateful Dead.”
Unbound by musical rules, and virtuosic in their talent, the Dead, who formed in Palo Alto before becoming synonymous with San Francisco, created a new genre out of bluegrass, folk, rock, jazz and blues.
They never played a song exactly the same way twice, and their free-form concerts — fueled first by pot, then LSD mixed by their innovative sound engineer, Owsley Stanley — became (and still are) the stuff of legends.
“The Dead not only invented the whole jam band trip, but did it better than anyone else and took more risks than anyone else,” said Silberman, who saw his first Dead show in 1973 in New York when he was 14.
“I got to the festival site a day early,” he told me, “and they came out and played the ‘Watkins Glen sound check,’ 20 minutes of the most beautiful, improvised set that they ever played in their career. They just made up a bunch of gorgeous melodic themes. People say ‘Well, they were influenced by Miles Davis,’ but they went places that Miles never went.”
Thirty-four years ago, to be close to the band, Silberman moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. He never left. In 1994, he co-wrote “Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads.” Five years later, he co-produced the box set, “So Many Roads” featuring mostly live recordings over the band’s 30-year career.
These days, Silberman is a science journalist and author of the bestselling book about autism, “Neurotribes,” whose concept was partly inspired by the tribal vibe he experienced at 300 or so Grateful Dead shows, many while tripping on acid. There’s a photo of him in the film, at a show, wearing a T-shirt that says, “Your hallucinations are my costume.”
“I think there are a lot of Deadheads who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome later,” Silberman said. “I am talking about Owsley himself — famously irascible, talented, precise, whether making LSD or the template for the modern sound amplification system. I think he was on the spectrum and I think some of the most obsessive Grateful Dead tape collectors were too.”
One of guitarist Bob Weir’s slogans for the band, he noted, was “Misfit Power.”
“Long Strange Trip” will have a theatrical release May 26, then will be available on Amazon Prime Video on June 2.
At one point in the film, a reporter asks, “Has success spoiled the Grateful Dead?”
“Yeah,” Garcia replies.
“The huge crowd of people following them around, that’s what destroyed them and made it impossible for Garcia to have a life,” said Silberman. “You know, he couldn’t go to the store. To me, that was a tragedy. It looked very lonely.”
“Jerry was a messiah figure,” says Weir, whose transformation from 16-year-old heartthrob to today’s hirsute, haunted-looking man is jarring.
“I’ll put up with it till they come for me with the cross and nails,” Garcia once joked.
He died of a heart attack a week after his 53rd birthday, while secretly undergoing rehab in Marin County.
In February 1966, Garcia has an epiphany at the Watts Towers after performing at one of Ken Kesey’s famous “Acid Test,” parties where LSD was served like liquor. He realizes he has no desire to build something permanent. Instead, he wants to create something “flowing and dynamic,” and “not so solid you can’t tear it down.”
It’s another paradox of the Grateful Dead, really, which has stamped the culture indelibly, if psychedelically.