I love rock & roll books, no matter the subject. I don’t need to like the band’s music: I enjoy the genre, like others enjoy westerns or romance novels; obsessive readers will know what I’m talking about. There are two tracks of books going through my life: the good stuff (well, things I think are good,) and books about rock bands and rock people. I have read books by the road managers of several bands. I have read more than one 500-page oral history of a music scene I knew NO BANDS FROM. If Izzy Stradlin ever gets over his weirdo loner routine and lets a broke blogger write his autobiography (ahem), then I will have read a tome about each original member of Guns n Roses–plus two separate histories of the band as a whole.
Rock & roll books generally all have the same structure. We flash open at the lowest point in our hero’s life: running through a plate-glass window at an upscale resort to escape the drug hallucinations chasing him; his pancreas exploding, covering the inside of his torso with third degree burns; or falling asleep on his arm at his 14th-goddam-rehab and waking up with nerve damage in his hand. (I am not making any of these up. Match the idiot with the horror in the comments and win nothing.)
After that, there’s the childhood stuff (skipped it) and the band’s rise to fame begins. About 2/3 of the way through the books, however, hubris takes over. The band has conquered America and been permanently barred from one hotel chain or the other by behaving in ways that, in our post 9/11 world, would get them tased to death within literally seconds.
We have travelled to Tokyo with them to watch them behave shabbily towards Japanese people on the bullet train. (Not in an overtly racist way at all: they would be acting precisely as badly in any train in the world, but they’re just in Japan, y’know?) We are also informed that Japanese audiences are polite, but when you really got ’em rockin’ man? When you’re just fuckin’ ROCKIN’ out? Then they’re still really quiet. It is a baffling, baffling culture.” There is also a man named Mr. Udo. Everyone thinks Mr. Udo is the Japanese Bill Graham, but I suspect none of these ill-bred maniacs understood one single iota of any of their conversations with Mr. Udo.
Europe? Go read some rock books: Motley Crue, Guns, whatever. When these bands went to Europe, they rocked it so hard that entirely innocent teenagers randomly died. The power of their Rock irrevocably altered the course of several families’ lives.
No band went to Africa.
And then, hubris takes over, and the bands meet their Waterloo, their Little Big Horn, their Boreal Ridge: South America. To be a true rock & roll supergroup requires South America, but the continent was like an intimidatingly beautiful woman in a bar: most men are too scared to even try to approach her, but the biggest, baddest, and best keep striding boldly up to her. At which point, she leaps on their heads and eats their eyeballs.
South America never ended well, for anyone. The money gets stolen. The equipment gets stolen. The keyboard player gets kidnapped. And it’s not as if no one warned them: almost every book mentions that every single sane person in the band’s organization said this was a horrible idea. But the band knew that THEY were going to be the ones to finally rock El America del Sur. It called to them like Afghanistan calls to dying empires.
Not our Dead, though. Never went to South America. Nor Japan. In fact, the Dead played outside the country fairly rarely. It has been said that they did not like crossing borders. Once, someone motioned at a meeting that, perhaps, they could get just get drugs where ever they were going, but then someone brought up the salient point that this plan would entail at least four to six hours without having any drugs on them at all and the idea was quickly forgotten.
So, our heroes went to Egypt. The capital of fun. The story is that Phil told the Egyptian cultural minister that they like to play in different places and spirituality and ley lines and Mahler’s 3rd symphony and–at this point Phil goes to the bathroom for five minutes and returns without having flushed the toilet–and the Valley of the Kings and the Temples of the Syrinx and…
And I believe Phil; I believe that all of them consciously wanted to expand their music through the location and whatnot and somesuch. But, secretly, they were doing it for the primary reason the Dead did everything: because it was the single most expensive thing they could dream up at the time. Now, they could have recouped at least a tiny fraction of the cost by, you know, playing well, and releasing a live album. They derided that suggestion as bush league.
(And here’s the thing: even if they had played AWESOMELY, and made a great live record, it’s still only an audio recording. The whole point of the thing was that the GRATEFUL FUCKING DEAD WAS JAMMING IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING PYRAMIDS DURING A TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE FUCKING MOON. How do you not film that? How is it possible the only visual recording of those shows was from Bill Walton’s paniflex?
Everything went wrong: upon arriving Billy broke his arm tackling a camel he accused of “sassing him.” Billy had, just prior to this incident, announced loudly that he “wouldn’t be taking any guff from no camel bastard.” These are actual quotes, taken from something Dennis McNally once wrote down in his dream journal after a night of drinking and Chinese food.
Other band members had their own reasons for going. Mickey planned to line up 800 guys in turbans and then pull the turbans from their heads in a ryhthmic fashion, spinning the men at different pitches. He was then going to edit the notes into an all-drum Noh theater version of the Life of Teddy Roosevelt. The album was never released.
When Bobby was told about the ongoing strife between Israel and the Palestinians, he recommended that the Palestinians move to Marin Country because it’s so mellow, y’know, and ya just don’t have all the haaaassles of the city. Even Keith was a little embarrassed by this, albeit not until he was revived and told of the incident.
This wasn’t the last of the trouble Bobby would cause in the Levant. The latter part of 1978 was, you’ll recall, smack-dab in the middle of Bobby’s slide guitar phase. Some (okay, I) have interpreted the Garcia/Weir as older brother/younger confused brother, but this isn’t quite it: they were deeply different people. Garcia, every book and article tells us, was practicin’ fool. He would rarely go a day without playing his guitar, spending most days working through chord books for hours while watching cartoons. You can picture the ashtray swiftly filling with forgotten Camels, can’t you?
Bobby, on the other hand, chose to practice only when a paying crowd had gathered.
For the sin of indulging these nitwits on the Egypt trip, their fans were burdened by the curse of Bill-ho Graham-tep. That curse, of course, was Althea.