Erudite, self-effacing and good-humored, Dennis McNally occupies an unusual and deceptively significant place in contemporary culture. Modest to a fault, he would no doubt deny the description of his role as a catalyst in contexts including The Grateful Dead's business partnership with Rhino Records or the remaining band members' support for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
McNally made a proud name for himself by turning his doctoral dissertation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst into a published biography of Jack Kerouac. The subject and the style of Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America (Random House, 1979) ultimately connected McNally with Jerry Garcia, founding member and titular head of the Dead, who suggested that he write a similar history of that unusual band. McNally accurately captured the life and times of the Grateful Dead in all their kaleidoscopic glory. There is arguably no story of a rock band more full of twists, turns and colorful characters than A Long Strange Trip: An Inside History of The Grateful Dead (Broadway, 2002).
In an irony fitting the idiosyncratic tales of the band, McNally had to place his work on the book on hold when he was tappedagain by Garcia in an offhanded suggestion during a band meetingto function as the Grateful Dead's publicist. From 1984 through 1995, when Garcia passed away, Dennis McNally was an integral part of a business that refused to act like a business except when it had to.
Nevertheless, the demands of commerce often caught up with the Grateful Dead. They tried to run their own record label in the '70s, then partnered with Rhino Records for a series of archival projects, in the wake of the group's disbandment. During this time, McNally continued to fulfill a vital role, but after the Dead/Rhino collaboration became official in 2006, McNally became truly independent, and claims to have never been busier.
All About Jazz: The Grateful Dead's recordings from Egypt in 1978 are interesting, to say the least...
Dennis McNally: I would've liked to have been there. Unfortunately, I was not an insider at the time. I found out about the whole Egypt trip by reading about it in the paper in San Francisco.
AAJ: Did you ever get a chance to talk to any of the band members about the experience? It seemed like the band was in the midst of culture shock from the stimulation of the trip, setting up for the shows and playing them.
DM: They were in the midst of a lot of things. Keep in mind, Donna Jean [Godchaux, Grateful Dead vocalist] and Keith [Godchaux, Grateful Dead keyboardist and husband of Donna Jean] were going to leave the band in four months, so they weren't in the best shape. Billy [Kreutzmann, Grateful Dead drummer] had broken his hand, so he was playing one-handed. The keyboard wasn't tuned. The original plan had been to finance the thing by putting out an album, but that's why they bagged that as a result. That's why Jerry [Garcia, Grateful Dead guitarist/songwriter/vocalist] said, "We can't put that out."
And in general, I think, they only played so-so. Over and above all that, it was almost like being back at the Acid Tests [late 1960s events organized by Ken Kesey's Pranksters, at which the Grateful Dead often played, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)]. The setting was vastly more important than doing a show. It was a show, but they were a little distracted.
AAJ: Playing there and the music itself was part of a vast experience.
DM: Right! They'd never been to the ancient world. Not one of them. They'd been to Europe a little, but Europe's Europe. For starters, when you travel to Europe as part of a rock and roll tour, you're inside a bubble and that intrinsically limits it. Besides, although it's wonderful to go to Europe, it's our heritageit's only one step removed from being in America.
I had the great privilege of going to Indiawhich was my first chance to go outside of the United States/Europe last yearand was able to be in places, standing there looking at things two thousand years old. We don't get that here, much less the five thousand years that the pyramids are.
AAJ: That being said, the music did have that sense of them channeling the whole experience of being in the shadow of the pyramid.
DM: It was an amazing experience, but if you ask Bob Weir [Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist/vocalist/songwriter] about it, the main thing he remembers is the mosquitoes and the bats. The band was getting chewed to pieces by mosquitoes because the Pyramids are down by the Nile River...
AAJ: The only oasis around.
DM: Right, so just when he was about to freak, it got dark enough so that the batswhich come out of caves in the areacame out and started eating all the bugs, and saved them. Egypt was a distinct slice, so the band remembers that.