McNally, Dennis 1949-
McNALLY, Dennis 1949-
PERSONAL: Born December 1, 1949, in Fort Meade, MD; son of John F. J. Jr. and Adeline (a legal secretary; maiden name, Jacobson) McNally; married Susan Millman (a photographer and graphic designer), c. 1987; children: Season Ray (daughter). Education: St. Lawrence University, B.A., 1971; University of Massachusetts, M.A., 1972, Ph.D., 1977. Politics: "Philosophical Anarchist." Religion: "Pagan."
CAREER: Writer. Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, fund raiser and administrative assistant in San Francisco, CA, 1977-79; Grateful Dead publicist, 1984—. Worked as film grip and copy editor, and in public relations. Board member, the Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and Music in Schools Today.
A Long, Strange Trip: The Inside Story of the GratefulDead, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to magazines, including Western American Literature, Newsday, and California Living.
SIDELIGHTS: Dennis McNally wrote that he considers it vital to resist censorship of any sort. This statement was made by the man who wrote for his Ph.D. dissertation a biography of Jack Kerouac, one of the great writers of the "Beat" generation, who was most famous for his book On the Road. McNally's dissertation was published under the title Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. In an article written for Music Box, John Metzger quoted McNally as saying: "The actual choice of Kerouac came about for a couple of reasons: one intellectual and two practical. He was chronologically my immediate forbearer—in the '50s I read On The Road—and I was consciously resisting the flattening effects of the academic world by looking for something that was outside the conventional culture to study. Kerouac seemed appropriate." This planned biography would cover the '40s and '50s from a Kerouac perspective.
Then, as G. Brown explained in an online Denver Post review of McNally's second book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside Story of the Grateful Dead, "McNally was working on his dissertation when an acquaintance dragged him to his first Dead show and turned him on to the psychedelic experience. He foresaw his life's work, a two-volume history of bohemia in post-World War II America—the first would be told through the life of Jack Kerouac, the second [covering the '60s and '70s] through the Grateful Dead." Of the second, a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews commented that McNally "does a yeoman's job of tracking both their footsteps and their mindsets, setting them within (or outside) the context of the country's evolving politics and culture."
The Grateful Dead—the band that burst into the music business in the 1960s with their psychedelic style and gained a huge following of fans ("Deadheads") dressed in tie-dye, dropping LSD, and dancing in parking lots before, during, and after all Dead concerts—became arguably the most popular and influential band of the San Francisco psychedelic era. The band's unofficial leader, Jerry Garcia, was greatly influenced by Kerouac's book and greatly admired McNally's biography of his hero. When McNally told Garcia he wanted to become the group's biographer and historian, Garcia hired him as their personal publicist, a position he holds to this day. Due to time constraints in the job, the biography went on hold for fifteen years—until Garcia's death in 1995.
Brown commented that what separates McNally's biography from the several other "inclusive tomes about the Dead" is the fact that "it's the first band-sanctioned biography, created from [McNally's] academic study, his experience as a typical Dead Head and his 'inside' relationship with the Dead organization as an employee." Brown explained that McNally "divided the involved portrait into three expressive configurations." The first layer of the book is the overall narrative, written chronologically, tracing the band's musical evolution as well as that of the band members' lives. Metzger quoted McNally as commenting: "The ends are found in the beginning, always, in everyone's life. And if you can't see the patterns emerging in childhood, then you don't have enough information about the childhood. That's just the way it works in people's lives. Basic personalities are clear very early on and everything else becomes obvious after awhile."
The biography's second layer depicts a hypothetical year on the road in the late '80s, woven together from facts and actual experiences; the third layer takes the reader into the atmosphere and action through intricate depictions and descriptions of staging, lighting, equipment, promoters, crew, crowd, and—of course—the band members themselves. Phil Gallo commented on the three-layer technique when reviewing the book for Variety: "McNally makes a gamble—and it pays off nicely—breaking up the historical track by placing the reader in the here and now with McNally as our eyes and ears backstage, in a hotel, on a flight. His deep research is the real jewel here, particularly as it relates to Owsley Stanley, the man nicknamed Bear who first manufactured and supplied the group's LSD and then became their concert sound engineer."
When Douglas Cruickshank prefaced hisSalon.cominterview with McNally, he commented that, while the book "suffers from McNally's proximity ... a gloves-off critique of the Dead's vast, and vastly uneven, creative output will have to wait for another day." He also wrote that McNally is "not timid about exposing the Dead's excesses and calling them on their shortcomings." McNally's "history of the quintessential psychedelic band," he concluded, "and the strangely intoxicating waves it made, is an entertaining, picaresque, and exhaustive contribution to pop culture anthropology."
McNally told Cruickshank, "I think there's a consensus that this is not a hagiography, that it's an honest report. And the people involved are human beings, not saints. The only way to honor what the Grateful Dead is, is to tell the truth. I have yet to get a single critical remark about being too honest from anyone. That's a little unbelievable, but it's true."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 2002, Mike Tribby, review of A LongStrange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, p. 1908.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of A LongStrange Trip, p. 1013.
Music Box, October, 2002, John Metzger, review of ALong Strange Trip, p. 1013.
Publishers Weekly, July 22, 2002, review of A LongStrange Trip, p. 168.
Time, September 2, 2002, Benjamin Nugent, review of A Long Strange Trip, p. 76.
Denver Post,http://www.denverpost.com/ (October 7, 2002), G. Brown, book review, "30 Years in Life of a Cultural Phenomenon: Historian Traces the Story, Influence of Grateful Dead."
Music Box,http://www.musicbox-online.com (October 7, 2002), John Metzger, review of A Long Strange Trip.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (October 7, 2002), Douglas Cruickshank, "The Life of the Dead: Band Insider Dennis McNally Talks about His New 600-page Biography of the Grateful Dead, and Answers Questions about Their Long, Strange Trip."
Wolfman Productions,http://www.wolfmanproductions.com/ (October 7, 2002).*