Dennis McNally: The Coda Collection Interview, Part One

Dennis McNally: The Coda Collection Interview, Part One

An encounter in graduate school leads Dennis McNally to write a biography on Jack Kerouac and, soon after, the start of a career with the Grateful Dead.

We Will Get By, We Will Survive

Bob Gendron

6 Min Read

The reality of the Grateful Dead’s world two years removed from its smash “In the Dark” LP came to a head in early summer 1989. Citing the allegedly deviant behavior of Deadheads, Washington, D.C. councilmember Nadine Winter called for the group’s scheduled two-night stand in her hometown to be scrapped.

Winter ultimately walked back her request and later, in a model example of political hypocrisy, acknowledged how wonderful the Deadheads were when she mingled with them (and bought some of their goods). Yet the damage was done. Stigmas surrounding parking lots and campsites associated with Grateful Dead concerts followed the band for the remainder of its career.  Suddenly, a group whose only real rule was no rules, and which trusted its fans to maintain order, was faced with functioning as authority figures. In advance of its annual seasonal trek, the Grateful Dead sent a letter to its extensive mailing list reminding its veteran fans to act responsibly so that the band could continue to tour.

Such chaotic circumstances, coupled with the usual D.C. humidity and downpours, greeted the Grateful Dead on July 12, 1989 at RFK Stadium. The venue also served as the site in July 1986 of the band’s last show before singer-vocalist Jerry Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma, the result of a poor diet and dehydration triggered by taxing heat in the nation’s capital. The group hadn’t staged an outdoor show in the area since. It’s telling, then, for its return to RFK three years later, that the Grateful Dead chooses to open with “Touch of Grey.” 

One of the very few Grateful Dead songs that casual listeners recognize, and one permanently linked with MTV and an inspired video, it became “the hit” that attracted masses of newbies to the group’s shows — and a tune that many newcomers expected the group to play on a nightly basis. After all, going back to the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, artists who charted hits used them as a centerpiece of their concerts. The tradition remains one of music’s unwritten rules. 

Ah, that word again — rules — an alien concept to the Grateful Dead, which refused to bow to expectations and, from the mid-’70s on, seldom performed the same song at consecutive shows. Of the 74 dates the band logged in ‘89, “Touch of Grey” surfaced at 17 concerts, barely a fifth of the total. The practice was entirely in character; the Grateful Dead never prioritized its singles or radio-friendliest fare onstage. Indeed, to the dismay of listeners who came to see the band on the basis of “Skeletons in the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead,” a haphazard albeit commercially popular compilation that sold 4 million copies, the group stopped playing “Casey Jones” live in 1984. 

Like the tracks on “Skeletons in the Closet” and other Grateful Dead anthologies assembled for mainstream appeal, “Touch of Grey” demands context. Transcending its identity as a Top 10 hit, the song’s lineage stretches back to September ‘82, when the group debuted it onstage as an encore. “Touch of Grey” continued to appear in the live rotation in the era leading up to its formal release on “In the Dark.” Deadheads picked up on the tune’s dark humor, rhymed couplets, snappy hooks, survivalist themes and triumphant coda that shifts from an individual to a collective perspective.

The words echoed as a promise made and promise kept, and seemed to declare that the teddy-bear-shaped vocalist-guitarist would endure no matter what.

Once Garcia recovered from his coma in fall ‘86, the lyrical tenor deepened. “Touch of Grey” began to function as an in-the-know anthem, a communal celebration of spirit, endurance and hope. Sung by a graying Garcia, who escaped the grim reaper, rebounded and looked happier than he’d been in years, the refrain — “I will get by, I will survive” — resonated with biographical gusto. The words echoed as a promise made and promise kept, and seemed to declare that the teddy-bear-shaped vocalist-guitarist would endure no matter what.

And so, on July 12, 1989, when the Grateful Dead leads with “Touch of Grey,” the song comes on as a defiant rejoinder to the health scare that followed the prior RFK show and an exultant way of bringing the narrative into the present. Not just heard but seen in pro-shot footage featuring a contingent of grinning musicians, the soaring rendition acknowledges a shared understanding with the crowd and marks the concert as another of many outstanding Grateful Dead performances steeped in storytelling. 

The show’s arc extends far and wide, and offers an embarrassment of immediate riches: a lusty “New Minglewood Blues” complete with trademark boasts from cutoff-shorts-wearing vocalist-guitarist Bob Weir; a winding cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” featuring a rare lead vocal by bassist Phil Lesh and that doubtlessly appeased the faithful who pasted “Let Phil Sing!” stickers on the back of their VW buses; “Far From Me,” which channels the sound of an Old West saloon and witnesses keyboardist-vocalist Brent Mydland getting downright nasty. 

Emotionally, Garcia and company glow throughout the 160-minute performance. Their jubilant mood and upbeat energy not only inform the soulful chemistry and jazz-based interplay, but turn an obvious mistake into one more reason for jubilation. During “Friend of the Devil,” Weir erroneously begins to sing the refrain as Garcia starts another verse. Watching the delightful outcome is priceless: Weir points at himself as the culprit; Garcia chuckles and Weir laughs; each looks at the other with admiration; the band and the audience, as one, embrace the moment. 

The communal bond stretches to the epic second set, punctuated by a guest appearance by Bruce Hornsby, who squeezes an accordion on “Sugaree” and the calypso standard “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).” On the latter, Hornsby also joins Mydland for a variation on dueling pianos; the Grateful Dead member knocks out feverish lines on a Hammond organ as Hornsby attacks the keyboards. The spontaneous collaboration further sparks the band; what transpires resembles a loft session dropped into a stadium setting.

The interlaced continuity and inspired woodshedding resume shortly after Hornsby departs. Following “Ship of Fools,” the Grateful Dead doesn’t pause for seven songs, or more than an hour, knitting music together into a patchwork quilt bordered by a cover of Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Notably, that romp sits between “Black Peter” — a haunting rumination on death — and the encore, “Black Muddy River,” which addresses the subject from a different perspective.

If “Touch of Grey” brims with assured confidence and collective ethos, “Black Muddy River” acts as the converse. A personal state of the union, its calm belies the weighty circumstances surrounding the protagonist. The hymn counterbalances darkness, sadness and decay with solace that can stem from solitude.

Occupying a sacred space, Garcia’s voice takes on a pronounced gospel tone that aligns with the band’s hushed poignancy. At peace, the Grateful Dead brings full circle a narrative that begins with one kind of spiritual and closes with another of a very different sort.

First Set

Touch of Grey

New Minglewood Blues

Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

Far From Me

Cassidy

Friend of the Devil

Promised Land

Second Set

Sugaree—>

Man Smart, Woman Smarter

Ship of Fools

Estimated Prophet—>

Eyes of the World—>

Drums/Space—>

I Need a Miracle—>

Dear Mr. Fantasy—>

Black Peter—>

Turn on Your Lovelight

Encore

Black Muddy River

Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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