The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Long Strange Talk

Dennis McNally at UMass

Here's more from the Geocities archives.

It was an enlightening evening (in January 2005) in Memorial Hall at UMass when noted historian, author and publicist Dennis McNally gave a speech about making history more accessible to the general public. McNally is best known as the long time publicist for the Grateful Dead, and while there was no shortage of Dead t-shirts in the audience, those who came primarily to hear anecdotes about Jerry Garcia may have been disappointed. But they shouldn't have been too disappointed, because the talk McNally gave was excellent even without much in the way of rock star gossip.

McNalley has close ties to UMass, having completed his doctorate in history there in the early 1970's. In fact his doctoral dissertation on Jack Kerouac was accepted as a book by a major publishing house before he even graduated. At the time Kerouac was not considered a suitable subject for scholarly research, having just recently died. Generally the academic history establishment dislikes accepting writers for serious study until they have been dead for over a decade and have shown signs of "passing the test of time" such as numerous articles on the author in scholarly journals. Only at that point would the professional historian consider the author as the possible subject for a book.

McNally pointed out that any such delay would have been impractical, in part because Kerouac was part of a very alcoholic, self-destructive scene where as McNally put it, "all my sources were dying of cirrhosis of the liver." Still McNally was given a hard time by some in the UMass history department who felt that a beatnik author was simply not a proper topic for a serious scholar, despite the fact that in getting his doctorate dissertation published as a major commercial release McNally had already surpassed the achievements of many of the professors who were judging him. Ofcourse the passage of time has proven McNally's critics to have been utterly wrong.

The Kerouac book caught the attention of the Grateful Dead, the experimental and improvisational rock band which grew out of the beatnik scene and who were looking for a historian to hire in order to handle their enormous archives of music and pop culture history. That evolved into a job for McNally as the band's fulltime press publicist, during which he made limited use of his historian training, except for keeping extensive notes on what he experienced with the band. Those notes and his historical research in the Dead's archives eventually became McNally's second best-selling book, A Long Strange Trip , which is a history of the Grateful Dead from its origins in the Beat Generation to the band's essential ending with the death of its chief songwriter and musician Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Can a book about a rock band be considered an important historical document, even by academics? This was just one of many aspects of McNally's career that was the subject of discussion at the lecture. Yet whatever scholarly controversy McNally may have stirred up at UMass in his youth, he was returning to his old school with no hard feelings, as he was praised like a hometown boy done good by the Dean and many faculty members present.

McNally's lecture was quite complicated, too complex at times to be effectively delivered orally, and one hopes it will one day be available in printed form somewhere, perhaps online. He basically said that historians should not write as academics writing for the sake of each other, but direct their writing more to the general public. While that may mean writing in a more novelistic style, McNally said that helping the public to understand and relate to their own history is part of what a historian is supposed to do. Therefore he felt historians should make accessible writing their top priority after accuracy. Whether the academics in the audience were buying that I don't know, but I did see a few of them sitting out McNally's standing ovation at the end.

There was a short question and answer session, where one graduate student asked McNally whether he believed it was possible to be purely objective when writing history. McNally replied that he didn't believe in objectivity, but said one should strive instead for "fairness" in presenting all known sides of an issue. He pointed out that many Grateful Dead fans, the natural core audience for his book, were displeased that McNally had portrayed Jerry Garcia's private life as "a mess" due to his heavy drug use and that Garcia had been "a neglectful parent" to the several children he had with his wives and others. Deadheads didn't want to hear that their hero had such human foibles, but McNally said that the honest historian must include all aspects of their subjects in their work, including those that might be unflattering.

Another person asked whether McNally felt that something similar culturally to Kerouac and the Dead would be possible today. He said that he was sure that "there's stuff going on somewhere" but said it was difficult for authentic cultural movements to arise today because of the way anything remotely novel gets immediately exploited as a fad. "There is no gestation time anymore," he said, "as soon as something appears with the slightest cultural significance it is co-opted, marketed and sold, only to be instantly replaced by the next cultural product. The Beats and the Dead operated for a long time beneath the commercial radar before they became famous. I'm not sure you can do that anymore."

In all it was a very interesting lecture, well worth attending and providing considerable food for thought.

McNally Back at UMass February 23, 2006

The last time best-selling author Dennis McNally spoke at UMass it was a rather formal affair at Memorial Hall featuring a fairly esoteric discussion of historical scholarship. Yesterday he returned to campus and spoke to a much smaller and informal group at Butterfield Dormitory (above) and the topic was what it was like to spend over a decade working for the Grateful Dead.

That was not the original intent. McNally was invited as part of a program to help liberal arts college students get tips from professionals on how to break into the writing racket. It started out that way, with McNally telling the students the encouraging (?) news that the society has become so dumbed down that even someone with only modest writing skills should be able to get a job.

However the talk soon drifted to the far more interesting topic of what it was like to be a publicist for one of the world's most popular bands. In two words: Big Fun! The Grateful Dead were about as loose and free flowing an organization as could exist and still make money, while their employees were always encouraged to be as creative as possible in a completely supportive environment.

However, it was not a stress-free job. McNally recounted the time that the band, which could be whimsical in its decision making, suddenly decided to cancel the invitations given to the press to one of their New York concerts. McNally had the very challenging task of trying to explain to the Dead why you simply cannot disinvite someone like the top music critic for the New York Times without there being serious journalistic repercussions. The band's attitude was, "We've never cared about what the New York Times thought of us in the past, why should we start now?" Finally McNally succeeded in changing their minds, but only after convincing them that it would be professional suicide for himself as a publicist if they did not. In other words they did it as a favor for him, not because he could convince them to give a damn about the New York Times.

Again and again McNally returned to the theme of taking risks and making unorthodox choices in life, offering the Grateful Dead as an example of succeeding without ever selling-out or compromising your core beliefs. McNally warned the students against being trapped by "other people's expectations of what your life should be." He said many people spend their lives doing nothing but "chasing money and acquiring things." Instead he said they should seek a life of "adventure and spirituality" even if that meant struggling financially or living on the margins of society.

Dennis McNally is a graduate of UMass and spent some of his time talking about the years he spent here in our Valley, including the time he took LSD at the Springfield Civic Center. I captured that on video, as well as McNally's account of the first time he met Jerry Garcia.

Leaving the Geocities archives and returning to the present, at UMass this week is the last week of classes and everyone is studying like mad.

At the Amherst Survival Center today everyone was surprised when a whole lot of pizza supplies came in. We were even more surprised when we found out where it all came from and why. The River Shark Pizza joint is going out of business!

Too bad, I liked that place.

Narrow Escape

I don't know who was the more fortunate here - Kate Moss for turning away before a paparazzi could catch her topless, or her nude friend whose leg happened to be very strategically located.

Today's Video

Two Massachusetts residents named Yo Yo Ma and James Taylor on a front porch in Western Mass.

1 comment:

Arlo said...

I love that video!