Dennis McNally: Cultural Catalyst
AAJ: What a great feeling that must have been.
DM: Really! They have such wonderful stuff. So I worked with them for a couple months and they couldn't afford to pay me direct, so they got a new record company and the record company said, "Yeah, we'll do some tour publicity in the fall leading into this CD next spring." So I'm working with them again.
Donna Jean, I actually technically co-manage, which is a jokemy partner does all the numbers and handles the headache stuff and I do publicity like always. Same with BorisI theoretically co-manage him with Jack, but realistically... And Michael's an old friend. I love Hot Tuna. I met him, then we got Boris or Donna Jean involved with a New Riders [of the Purple Sage, originally a Grateful Dead offshoot] gig and all the musicians really hit it off and then there was a Rex Foundation [charitable organization founded by the Grateful Dead and friends o give grants to worthwhile causes, in memory of the band's soundman/tour manager Rex Jackson, who died in 1976] event in Washington. They became interrelated and Michael saw what Jack and I were doing and eventually, he came to Jack and said, "I'm putting out this solo album which is called We Are All One (Woodstock Records, 2008). Would you guys like to consult and work on it?" And we said, "Sure! We love you!" which we doMichael is one of the really, really nice, even-keeled musicians on the planet.
AAJ: You participated in a Jack Kerouac tribute by Bob Weir's band, RatDog, in Lowell, Massachusetts last August. How did your participation in that show come about? Was that your idea, Bob's, or someone else's altogether?
DM: Actually it was the idea of a guy named John Marciano who is a state park ranger. Downtown Lowell is a national historical site. The industrial revolution began in America in Lowell. It was originally a utopian townutopian in the sense that it was planned, created from scratch in effect, and it really was built to accommodate the industrial revolution. There was a waterfall there, so they had power to drive the mills.
What happened was Marciano books concerts. They have a small park that's in between this row of preserved mills, and next to it is this building that is part of the park, which was the dormitory for the workers who worked in the mills. It's called Boardinghouse Park. It's a very nice little sceneit's got a very nice built up stage that's got a trolley behind it that was our backdrop. Marciano contacted us about two years before, because Bob's written songs about Neal Cassady. He has a fundamental connection to that whole world and because I'm a Kerouac biographer, there's this double connection.
2007 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road (Viking, 1957). The original manuscriptthe scroll of the bookwas purchased some years ago by Jim Irsay, who owns one of Jerry's guitars, who also owns the Indianapolis Colts (pro football team). I must say I applaud his stewardship, because for a year-and-a-half to two years, the scroll was on a nationwide tour, as it were, on display. Coincidentally, I was in Florida and it opened in Orlando, where Kerouac had been living at one time, and it spent the summer and fall of '07 in Lowell and December in the New York Public Library. On the Road was published in mid-September of 1957.
So Marciano said, "The scroll's coming; can we book a special show with Bob Weir and RatDog?" And so I went to Bob and said, "Does that appeal to youdoing something that's really oriented towards Kerouac?" and he said, "Yeah, I like that idea." So then I went to the management who works with the bookers, and eventually they come to an agreement on a date that works logistically in the summer of '07 and we could do the gig. And everybody's happy.
Marciano says one of the things he wanted was to play Dead tapes, and I vetoed that because this was not the Dead, this is RatDoghow do you think they'd feel about that? No musician plays himself before he goes on! I said, "What you want to do is play Kerouac. He was a wonderful reader; play tapes of Kerouac." They wound up doing that at intermission. And Marciano wanted to interview Bob on stage before the show, talking about Neal. I said, "Talking about Neal he probably wouldn't mind." And Marciano asked about me participating and I said, "Well, I don't know. I'm willing." So I went to Bob, and he said, "I'm willing to do something different than the average show." I went over this with Bob any number of times and he went, "Absolutely. No problem." [Laughs.]
So we're traveling into New England on day one, the show in Lowell was on day three and day two we're at Gathering of the Vibes [annual music festival begun in 1996 to celebrate the music and audience of the Dead]. So on day one, we land in Newark and we're on a bus on the way up to stay in Connecticut preparatory to the next day. I say to Bobfor perhaps the fifth time"Now remember, when you write your set list for Lowell, you can't play "The Other One" or "Cassady" at Gathering of the Vibes. And, if you're willing to work it up, it would be cute to throw in "On the Road Again," and he went, "Yeah, we could do that."
The thing about Bob is, it's a matter of focus; you can tell him something five times and if it's not important at that moment, he'll nod, but it's not as if you're getting his full attention. So this Friday night on the bus, he says, "Oh yeah, you're going to read. That's cool, but let's hear what you're reading." So I read and he critiqued it a little bit. I had an idea of doing it at intermission and he went, "If we do it that way, we'll kill the acoustic part [of RatDog's second set]." So he said, "Can you break it up? And I said, "Fine, we read at intermission, just backed by piano."
I had it organized a different way where, one by one, each of the band members would joinwhich was a little fancy and would've required rehearsal, and there was no time for that. Besides, once he paid attention to it, in typical Bob fashion, he set it up perfectly. You think he's not paying attention, but he really is that good. He said, "You read the first half with Jeff [Chimenti, Ratdog keyboardist] backing, which is great, and then the band comes on and does a couple songs, and then goes into 'The Other One,' and in the middle of 'The Other One,' I'll bring it down." Which left me with, "Oh god, I hope he doesn't forget me." So I read a good part and they go into "The Other One" (and it was great versionthey stretched it like crazy) and he drops down quiet so I can read over them, and I read the last three pages of On the Road.
And, if I do say so, I hate listening to my own voice, so it was three months before I listened to the recording from that night. I thought I caught the rhythm pretty well. So On the Road ends: "As I sit on the docks of New York and I look at the sun doing down over New Jersey I think of Neal Cassady, I think of the father that we never found, I think of Neal Cassady."
Everybody's happy and I got a very nice round of applause and I'm walking off the stage and they go back into the second verse, which is "Cowboy Neal at the wheel/On the bus to never-never land." So it was wonderful! It was great being part of the show and, as I said, I got what I angled for, which was not me participatingthough that was great funI got a RatDog show that was not like any other RatDog show, and it connected with legitimate roots that are very much part of the history of the Grateful Dead.