Dennis McNally: Cultural Catalyst

Doug Collette By

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Erudite, self-effacing and good-humored, Dennis McNally occupies an unusual and deceptively significant place in contemporary culture.
Dennis McNally 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 tapped—again by Garcia in an offhanded suggestion during a band meeting—to 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.

Chapter Index
  1. Grateful Dead in Egypt 1978
  2. The Dead Live On
  3. McNally Solo
  4. Tribute to Jack Kerouac Live
  5. Deadheads for Obama

Grateful Dead in Egypt 1978

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.

Dennis McNally 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 heritage—it's only one step removed from being in America.

I had the great privilege of going to India—which was my first chance to go outside of the United States/Europe last year—and 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 bats—which come out of caves in the area—came out and started eating all the bugs, and saved them. Egypt was a distinct slice, so the band remembers that.

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The Dead Live On

AAJ: What have you been doing since Grateful Dead business began being operated through Rhino? When that agreement came into play, were there effectively no more Grateful Dead operations?

DM: That's quite correct. They represent Grateful Dead interests and, although there are some really good people there who I like a lot and work well with, they are certainly not interested in keeping me in the loop. I still haven't gotten an Egypt package.

AAJ: Do you have regular interactions with the some of the people at Rhino?

DM: People still relate to me in the role I had for so long, so I refer people to them. And I still work with a lot of Grateful Dead radio shows and, fortunately, the radio guy at Rhino is a big fan and will certainly listen if I make a request. He does his best to accommodate. So I deal with them from time to time but they've got their people that they work with directly—Blair [Jackson] and Gary [Lambert] at the website—but I'm not one of them.

AAJ: When the Rhino agreement was in process, how involved were you?

DM: Not at all. [Laughs.] I never did business negotiations for the Dead; I did other stuff.

AAJ: The band's mindset was, if it's not too simplistic a phrase, "Let somebody else take care of it," but did they have an overriding principle or mission statement that they delivered to Rhino?

Dennis McNallyDM: Well, they always retain quality control. And Rhino does not do projects without consulting with the band through their business guy Tim Jorstadt. They did want somebody else to do it. They felt it wasn't making any economic sense to keep the merchandising wing going and the production company [Grateful Dead Productions]. So, yes, they wanted somebody else to do it. But they certainly didn't want to just dump it. Clearly, they have retained an authority.

AAJ: Rhino projects always seem to be put together like the ultimate fan would put them together, if given access to memorabilia and this and that.

DM: Oh, yeah! In fact, ironically, I started—having no clue, of course—the relationship with Rhino in the early '90s. James Austin, who was one of the real early movers at Rhino, came to me because he was doing a box set on The Beat Generation (Rhino, 1992). I wrote a book about Kerouac and he wanted Jerry to write an introduction to the booklet. And the reason Jerry invited me to be the Dead's biographer was because he liked my Kerouac biography—Kerouac was his childhood hero. So I said, "That makes sense," and I went to Jerry and he says, "Sure, man!" So he did that and it established the relationship. In the early 2000s we did the huge Golden Road (1965-1973) (Rhino, 2001) and various big box sets with Rhino, all of which were quite successful. That led to Rhino, being part of Warner Brothers...

AAJ: Ironically enough!

DM: Ironically enough—Warners is always part of their history—to becoming the licensing acting agent for the Grateful Dead.

AAJ: Was there hot competition for that?

DM: I gather. I would go to the office and people would say, "We got this...we got that..." I wasn't involved, but I would say hot competition.

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McNally Solo

AAJ: Did you take any time off once the Dead operation ceased to be?

DM: I did not. I'm an independent music publicist—too darn busy to work on the book I want to work on. Right now I have seven clients, which frankly is too many. I'm going bananas [Laughs] but that's the way it goes. I've never been busier than I am this fall. I'm working with Bobby, I'm working with Donna Jean, I'm working with Little Feat, I'm working with Michael Falzarano, who used to be in Hot Tuna, I work with Boris [Garcia], I work with The Subdudes. And I'm working on a very special, very interesting project. It's Dead-related in that it's a computer company who bought a software program that was designed by a guy named Tom Paddock, who worked with Jerry as a sound guy. Paddock has created a software program that dramatically improves digitally compressed sound. We all love our iPods—the convenience the portability, et cetera—but no one, or few, would say, "Oh this is as good as CDs," much less as good as analog. And he's done something very special that you'll hear more of in the coming times.

AAJ: Did these clients that you mentioned come to you? Did you solicit them—let's say Little Feat?

DM: Bob Weir's then-management team was Cameron Sears, who was the last manager of The Grateful Dead, and John Scher, who was the tour coordinator for the Grateful Dead on the East Coast from the early '70s on. After Jerry died, John and Bobby talked about and created the first "Further Festival" [1996]. Phil [Lesh, Grateful Dead bassist] said, "Eh, I'm retiring," at that time. (He later changed his mind, obviously. He is free to do that.) Bobby wasn't ready to retire, so he and Mickey [Hart, Grateful Dead percussionist] and John started talking about "What do you want to do?" and they wanted to do a summer tour and that was the Further Festival. John and Cameron managed Bobby for a long time and eventually got involved in Little Feat and I came along as a part of the package.

The Subdudes? I got with them because two years ago they had a CD out called Behind the Levee (Back Porch-EMI, 2006) which got a lot of radio play and was getting a lot of buzz. The promo person at the record company was going, "You know, this absolutely is cost-justified. We need to get some more tour publicity and I don't have time. Who do I get?" And he mentioned this to a friend [Jack Barton], who is now my business partner—a guy at Friday Morning Quarterback, which is a trade paper for radio people, and he said, "Well, it's a comfortable fit—you should get Dennis McNally because he's been doing tour and road publicity for 20 years."

Dennis McNally

That's actually a funny story because I had never seen The Subdudes and never heard them. And although I knew the name, somehow in my addled brain, it sounded like a punk band to me. So they called me up and said, "Would you consider doing this thing? We'll send you the music." I always want to hear the music, so they sent it. It's hilarious—it takes me three listenings before I am sure about a recording, even with Grateful Dead songs. There have been a couple of notable exceptions—the first time I heard "Scarlet Begonias," (which was live in the spring of 1974 before the album came out) by about the second chorus, I'm going, "This is a masterpiece." But by and large, I'm slow. I put on the Subdudes CD and listened, and literally halfway through the third bar, I'm thinking, "I can work with these guys! Great!"


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