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The Unexpected (and Maybe Punk?) Documentary on The Grateful Dead

'Long Strange Trip' director Amir Bar-Lev explains his love for the Dead and how he wanted to make a definitive documentary from a punk vantage point.

by Justin Joffe
May 25 2017, 2:02pm

Dead no Egito em 1978. Foto por Adrian Boot

Cast aside everything you think you know about the Grateful Dead—the sunshine daydreams, the dancing bears and the smiling, terrapin turtles—ahead of taking Amir Bar-Lev's Long Strange Trip.

When the new six-part, four hour documentary hits Amazon on June 2 (following theatrical showings in New York and LA on Friday, May 26), a new narrative on the band will be told. Long Strange Trip is a story of paradox—the paradox of a band that never wanted to be studied being anthologized, analyzed, and archived to death; the paradox of a band typecast as the prototypical emissaries of Peace and Love hanging out with Hell's Angels and failing to intervene when the crowd outside their shows would swelled to violent, unsustainable size; the paradox of writing profound, moral treatises into the canon of American music that were treated as scripture by the wayward, rambling youth.

Read More: The Story of the Best Grateful Dead Show Ever

It's a testament to Bar-Lev's journalistic discretion that not one minute of the film's running time feels unnecessary, plodding, or boring. Critics who never cared for the Dead one bit are fawning over Long Strange Trip's ability to sit with these paradoxes and weave a contrarian, insightful tale about them. Avoiding the celebrity talking head interviews that typically relegate music documentaries to Behind The Music levels of cliché, Bar-Levi instead talks to those who can add the most to his unique revelations, from fans to roadies to exes.

Noisey: You've said that you wanted to tell the punk Dead story, not the hippie story.
Amir: I mean, I am a hippie, but I'm lucky enough to have married a punk. When was a teenager listening to The Grateful Dead, she was a teenager listening to punk rock, but we were both getting an escape route from mainstream, conformist culture.

What I meant by that distinction was just that it should feel like it has a sense of danger to it. When I got into The Grateful Dead, you felt like you were accessing something that was truly countercultural. It was an escape from the mainstream and it was subversive. But, as Sam Cutler says in the film, The Grateful Dead have been loved to death. This hasn't happened to punks as much as it's happened to "classic rock," which has been absorbed into safe society, and neutered, so that everybody thinks Jerry Garcia's just this happy, cartoon Santa Claus.

That's something your film does very well—it looks the darkness in the eyes. And I think to anyone who's been to a Dead or Dead-related show, there's that moment when you realize not everybody there has a trust fund and is wearing Birkenstocks. There are old bikers and meth head dudes who still go to these shows, which sometimes feels like a sadness underneath all the smiling, dancing bears. But you're right to observe most jam bands don't have the same level of danger following them around.
Well the thing was, you went to Dead shows and often were in an attenuated state.

You've worked that line out before? [Laughs]
I stole it from Nick Paumgarten. But if the lyrics were all about sunshine and carefree living, if they all had the feel that the Grateful Dead myth has taken on in the last 20 years, if they all were that light, you'd get what I used to call "the Burning Man blues." I used to go to Burning Man in the '90s, and you'd always have one bad day. Why? Because you were expected to be having a great time, and no human being can do that, chemicals or no chemicals. You can't keep that up for more than a few days.

It's a math problem.
It's a math problem, exactly! But The Grateful Dead understood that, and The Grateful Dead would sometimes sing songs that were about sunshine and happiness, and other times they were about forlorn, lost, bad people. They would meet you where you were at, where all of us are at, because we all have a shadow. When those songs were played, you felt like you were wrestling with your angels and devils, and would be reminded that one always has a choice about which of those groups to listen to.

Photo by Peter Simon

I found the bit in your documentary about Garcia consciously trying to replicate the musical conversation in bluegrass with electric instruments to be super fascinating. Those are the bits of the film's story that work almost like a good piece of long journalism, a baked-in why that makes this so enjoyable to a general audience, whether they're Deadheads or not.
That's because the Dead's story is pertinent today—it just so happens the things The Grateful Dead had a pretty good handle on the things that aren't working today. They saw it coming. The fact is, Trump is a symptom. He's a symptom of our narcissistic culture. And the Grateful Dead represent a time, a mode of being, before selfies, before that narcissistic culture took hold. We had a charismatic leader who really mistrusted charisma, and didn't like the idea of leading! That's extremely refreshing in the age of Trump.

You're clearly a fan, which makes it all the more remarkable to me that you could skip talking about American Beauty. Of course in retrospect their albums weren't at the soul of the band, and I get that it was a conscious process of what served the narrative. You talked about Owsley during the "Wall of Sound" section in the film as opposed to at the beginning, when they were making all that LSD money. You talked about Pigpen when he passed as opposed to at the beginning, and those were all deliberate choices. But how do you separate yourself from the fan pressure to do things differently?
The Grateful Dead was an experiential thing. If I was making a film about a comedian, I couldn't just keep saying, "Trust me, folks, this guy was really funny." People wouldn't understand how funny he was. The film itself has to be funny. I have to enact The Grateful Dead, you know? I can't just talk about psychedelia, I have to make my film itself somewhat narratively challenging, or formally inventive, in order to enact it.

What's new about the band that's had countless books written about them, that's been anthologized so many times? I reckon it's the point where all the collective truths about them intersect to reveal something new.
Yeah. I don't like most music docs. I really hate when they use contemporary artists to defend their influence. Was I going to have Adele saying, "I remember the first time I heard 'Morning Dew!?"

Photo by Roberto Rabanne

You get that by talking to everyone based on what they have to say, not who they are. You talk to their old roadie Sam Cutler while he's driving around Brooklyn in traffic because he's the one with the perspective that fits your narrative.
Right, if you were doing the slavish march through the career, you wouldn't focus on Sam Cutler. Nor would you focus on Brigid Meier, who was Jerry's girlfriend only for a short amount of time. Proportionally, these people aren't important to the Wikipedia entry. But as a storyteller, they're extremely important. There's a moment where Sam Cutler's driving around saying he doesn't worry about cops because he doesn't travel with drugs— he knows where to get drugs anywhere. And he says, 'I'm not gonna ask that guy, am I?' then points out his windshield to a Hasidic man.

If you want to understand The Grateful Dead, a former road manager explaining who to try and score from in a town not your own is crucial. How the band existed in different social dynamics seems like another important thing that gets left out of their story.

You also talk about expectation in the film, how when they were playing at The Acid Tests there was none because people weren't there for them, versus all the expectations dogging them toward the end. For all the people who treated Jerry like a messiah, it really seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because he did become a martyr to the universe that he helped create in the end.
This is the human condition, right? You want who you love to stick around forever. You want them to be who they are to you, more often than not, in a static way rather than letting them change and evolve, and possibly move away from you. [Laughs] We rock fans are very guilty of that. We want to hear the hits, and we want our rock stars to be the embodiment of hard living, but we don't want them to die on us. We're asking a lot of the people we love.

No one can embody those contradictory functions for everyone at the same time.
Yeah. The thing that was remarkable about Jerry Garcia—he was really committed to the present moment in a way that most of us have a hard time doing. The present moment continues on until it's gone, right? [Laughs]

And doesn't lend itself to anthologizing too much. Aside from the fact that their shows and merchandise were so often bootlegged, time presents a lot of challenges to making a good Grateful Dead documentary. If the camera crews are getting dosed, how can they possibly get any stable footage?
Right. As you mention, there's an amazing scene in the film where a documentary crew that came before us is unable to complete their film because they got dosed. It's fun and it's hilarious when you see it, but there's a deeper meaning at work. The band didn't want to be studied that way, they didn't want to be dispassionately analyzed. They wanted us all to participate in what they were doing, whether we were fans or writers or a documentary crew.

Critics of The Dead don't recognize, or don't give the band credit for their dedication to keeping that edge.
The way they've been mythologized has really done them a disservice, and I'm trying to kind of burnish them a little bit. But it's our own fault, you know what I mean? As Deadheads, there's kind of a tribal aspect that I think is a big mistake.

Photo by Peter Simon

Ascribing an eternity to something that was always designed to be temporary?
The fact that Deadhead-ism has become this sort-of tribal identity for people is understandable, but at the same time, it's unfortunate in a way. Really what we were doing was bigger than tribalism. That's why "Ripple" is such a brilliant song. The whole notion that the band wasn't gonna show you the way home.

You also imply that "Ripple" had this deeper meaning when analyzed next to Jerry's father's death when he was young. You can later compare his father's drowning to that song and to his snorkeling.
Jerry says, 'If I succeed as an artist, I'll build something that can't be torn down. I don't want that. I'd rather have fun.' That's a revelation to hear about an artist whose legacy will be with us for a long time, but I think it has a lot to do with his dad's death. I think he understood what it takes most people a lifetime to try and understand—that we're all basically dead already, if you look at things geologically. Jerry was in preparation for being a dead person all along.

Some people take the nature of mortality and it inspires them to build monuments or try to create a personal legacy that will give them some kind of immortality. Other people take the opposite approach, decide to just live in the moment, love strongly and be present with people.

This prescient theme of mortality runs through so much of their work, to where you could apply that meaning even in a song as seemingly ubiquitous as "Touch of Grey." How conscious do you think they were of this consistency of themes, and of the narratives they formed?
Not conscious.

So it's all fan projection?
I think the lyrics were so well written and ambiguous that they can mean different things to different people. But they're not about nothing. They're not nonsensical. They're pulling from a deep well of human experience. People forget that Hunter came from an intellectual place with his psychedelic thinking.

Photo by Ed Perlstein

He was at Harvard for the acid tests with Timothy Leary.
Yeah, but the main difference between Hunter and Leary is that Leary seemed to have not succeeded in letting LSD destroy his ego, whereas Hunter may have. Hunter's lyrics have a genuine sense of selflessness and empathy for people who are different than you.

Maybe that's why he was so shy. He didn't want profane or limit them with meaning.
I think you're right. In my mind at the end of "Jack Straw," for instance, he kills the guy to stop the killing. Well that's an interesting paradox, and it makes you wonder what you would do in a situation like that.

And in "Wharf Rat" at the very end the narrator seems to say something that you, the listener, may doubt. He says, "I got a girl named Bonnie Lee, I know that girl's been true to me," and suddenly a distance is put between you and the narrator. We realize that he's got a more similar life to the Wharf Rat than he understands. So there's these lacunae of empathy that Hunter's lyrics create. [Laughs]

A lot of these lessons would have been lost to the type of fans who were into them in any other medium.
I know what you're saying, and there was always a need for things to get a little bit grounded. That's why Grateful Dead shows were so well-structured. You would go into these interstellar spaces, then come back down to the fact that you need to eat! You need to work, you have a family.

Justin Joffe is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.