The Grateful Dead: Impressions of Long Strange Trip, the Documentary
On May 31st, 2017 the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe showed the film Long Strange Trip, a new four-hour look at the seminal rock band, divided into five roughly chronological "acts." Including a number of true Deadheads, a predominantly older crowd turned out, although not everyone stayed past the fifteen-minute intermission.
Skipping right to the weaknesses, the ending of the four-hour film could use editing, cutting by 10-15 minutes. It wouldn't hurt to lose the d-r-a-a-w-n out closing montages, that attempt to review everything in the film, or some of the comments before and after Jerry's death that, of course, the viewer knows is coming. Other parts too, seem overlong. Musical highlights for me were hearing all the different types of music the band played throughout their history, starting with bluegrass, through the psychedelic instrument jams, Pigpen's blues songs, and then their later, more conventional, but catchy, vocally harmonized tunes such as "Casey Jones" and "Uncle John's Band." I particularly enjoyed the band's cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," with the Dead's huge standing audience alternately clapping in time to each syllable, and then singing the phrase in unison on the chorus: "A love that's love'll not fade away." While The Rolling Stones had recorded the tune early on, I had no idea that this was one of The Grateful Dead's most performed songs.
I was dimly acquainted with the communal spirit that Jerry Garcia fostered. The movie brought out the pure joy, the ecstasy of spirit in the air, the bonding, the acceptance of each human and encouragement of their full individual potential. For about twenty minutes I felt happiness at a high level, self-confidence, and hope in the future for myself and for all humankind. I was not aware of how wide and deep those connections went, and how they may have gone too far for Jerry, his fan-base growing ever larger, at one point, to become the biggest concert audiences of all time.
What I learned after having spent so much time watching and listening to The Rolling Stones and hearing the fans stories and writing about them is that The Grateful Dead are the quintessential American band, whereas the Stones are British. Not that I didn't know that, but until someone in the film, I think it was Sam Cutler who managed both bands described how youth in America set off to discover it, to "find America," whereas youth in England don't set out to discover England, I hadn't put together that crucial distinction. The USA is still relatively new, with the vast landscape that may have filled in, but it's still the frontier in many minds. I didn't know either about the Dead "family," where people would join the band, and then their relatives would either work for the band or just hang around to become part of the touring entourage.
I discovered too, as Keith Richards says, everyone adapts to fame in a different manner. Jerry Garcia didn't want to quite touring, even years after he was burnt out. One of his band mates maintains that if he would have taken another break, as they all did earlier, he might have saved himself. With bigger and bigger crowds, while he wanted to leave, Jerry just kept performing, even as the quality of the band and music deteriorated. He felt he owed that to his fans, the Deadheads, to keep going, not to let them down.
His longtime girlfriend expressed heartbreak before the rocker addict's demise, telling how he sent her home, after finding her decades after they first split up and asking her to get back together to live with him. She found out he had relapsed and asked him to promise to always tell the truth to her. At that point he dismissed her, saying she had to leave right then. The big H won out. This film is an important testament to the times and to the life of a cultural icon and his band.