Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, And Drugs With The Grateful Dead

Bill Kreutzmann's Memoir - Book Review

I first saw the Grateful Dead at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, September 1977. At that time in my life, as a junior in high school, my musical tastes were firmly entrenched in bands I had begun going to see at a little New York City club called CBGB. There were the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie and others that had taken up residence on the Lower East side of Manhattan and by then owned much of my musical mind and heart. Perhaps the last group I was interested in seeing live was the Grateful Dead. I didn’t get it. The music did not seem as sharp and defined as I needed it to be at that point in time. But I had plenty of Deadhead friends in high school who would've given their right arm to make the journey from our well-manicured Westchester suburbs out to that field in New Jersey.

But hey, I was dragged along by a girl I was interested in getting to know better and so what was there to lose? Well, things didn't work out with the girl. But my eyes were certainly opened to why some 200,000 people had converged into a vast muddy space on a warm and sticky Indian summer afternoon.

Our group had spread blankets far away from the stage, about three relay towers away. But soon after the Dead took the stage, after opening sets by the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Marshall Tucker Band, I worked my way up front just as I would do at a Ramones show at CBGB. Sure, it was a much longer wade through a dense, heaving throng of sweaty, tripping Dead fans, but I was curious. I mean, they had caught me off guard opening with “Promised Land,” one my favorite Chuck Berry songs, something that my favorite band in the world, the Rolling Stones might've done.

What I witnessed that day wasn't the cliché I'd been force fed by so many tie-dyed friends. This wasn't simply some spacey jam band with little regard for verse or melody. This was actually a very tight and entertaining rock n’ roll band. In particular, I loved the dual drumming between Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. It was unique, fun to watch and the combo gave the sound a beautifully dense and complicated rhythmic layer that seemed to make every song more interesting.

I saw the Dead maybe six or seven times after that and after my first experience in high school, I always paid extra close attention to the drummers. For me, that's where a lot of the magic and the Grateful Dead could be found. Which is why I was extra anxious to crack open the memoir by Kreutzmann, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, from St. Martin's Press (co-written with Benjy Eisen).

There have been a host of good Grateful Dead books over the years, including Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip and Home Before Daylight from Jerry Garcia guitar tech Steve Parrish. But hearing from an actual Dead member to me is always interesting because this was a band that, even after reaching platinum status in the 1980s, never quite lost their mystique. The Dead always kind of existed in their own candy-colored haze, accessible on one level but also kept at arms length.

Kreutzmann wastes no time in setting the tone and feel for his book. Like some beautiful and wandering interstellar version of their classic opus “Dark Star,” he has no problem improvising on the spot. Kreutzmann is casual, matter-of-fact, unaffected and down to earth in a way that makes you feel you've known him for a long time. He can be blunt and brutal at times, but he always feels honest, which for me is the key to a memoir like this. He doesn’t sugarcoat and doesn’t make excuses. Being in the Dead meant lots of drugs, sex and mayhem, and the pages are laced with all of it.

And he’s a loose, fun tour guide. If he forgets the way something went down, he tells you. If he gets bored with the topic and wants to jettison off to another place, he will do it, just as the band might have done when they felt a jam running out of steam. In that respect, it almost mirrors a Dead live set. They never had firm setlists for shows, they would improvise and piece things together, feeling the mood of the moment and sensing the pulse of the audience. Kreutzmann takes a similar approach as a writer. He's not locked in to a strict format or box. He just lets if flow.

Starting off the book with an anecdote about scuba diving with Jerry Garcia later in life, you get a sense right away that the relationship with the band's bearded iconic leader was truly special. These men didn't just share a love of music, acid and the road. They were also in tune on many personal and professional levels. The relationship is a lovely subtext throughout the book and when Garcia dies, the gravity gets that much heavier as a result of their special bond.

For anybody doubting the drug taking prowess of this band starting off in the mid-1960s when their soundman Owsley Stanley began creating his own famous strains of LSD, all you have to do is read and learn. The excess documented by Kreutzmann is so insanely off the charts that at certain points, you wonder not just how they were able to get on stage the next day, but how they not all were delivered home in boxes. That's the interesting thing. For all the free-spirited hippie sensibilities surrounding this band, they actually were (and always remained) a highly resilient and hard-working band that was also quite focused on making great records and delivering memorable shows. They were not flakes.

Whether he's taking readers inside the recording studio for landmark albums like American Beauty, Workingman's Dead or Blues For Allah, or recounting his many difficult personal relationships that produced a number of children, Kreutzmann spares few details and writes in vivid and revealing terms. His relationship with co-drummer Mickey Hart is another rich and intense mini opera that spans several decades and produced countless nights of brilliantly syncopated showmanship.

Even if you are not a fan of the Grateful Dead, it doesn't really matter. This book allows the reader to become immersed in San Francisco’s counterculture when free love and free LSD were currency in the flower power movement. You go backstage, onstage and everyplace in between. Then there's also the fascinating study of a group of musical misfits that somehow fell together and over time built an unconventional and almost unparalleled organization that, even when generating tens of millions of dollars per year, still managed to remain grassroots.

Deal is a trip in more ways than one but most importantly it helps document yet another colorful perspective of one of the world's most unique and compelling musical groups. Spiked with stories, anecdotes and remarkably clear observations detailing one of rock n’ roll's most excessive band of gypsies, it's a historic, kaleidoscopic, yet highly personal journey that reminds us once more why this band matters so much.

On a side note, as soon as I finished it, I called up a bootleg recording of that long ago show from Englishtown, to relive once more my first live taste of this American phenomenon called the Grateful Dead.

~ Chris Epting

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