Following my initial review of the sneak peek I attended of The Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev invited me to a press screening of the film in its entirety last Tuesday. Thanks bro! I appreciate it! After the loss of my friend, Dave Hunter and Col. Bruce’s passing, the invite could not have come at a better time. I showed up at The Grant Park Hotel’s screening room with a heavy heart but in joyful anticipation of seeing the complete film for the first time.
The reason I’m writing about the movie again is not just because I saw the entire movie, it’s also because what I saw the first time was completely different the second time around. I began to question whether or not the things I wrote about the first time were even accurate. The experience reminded me of the times you would hear something like a Birdsong and couldn’t wait to listen to the recording again to see if the sound of birds you heard during the live show made it onto the tape. More often than not, they avoided being recorded somehow but were replaced by a multitude of other elements you completely missed hearing that night. Decades later we still spend time critically listening to musical pieces and finding new gold in the old recordings with regularity. Cornell comes to mind since it’s the latest official release. A show we’ve all listened to hundreds of times will once again be consumed by our brains through our ears and digested and filtered through the current condition of our souls to find the meaning that’s most appropriate for our present internal environment.
THAT is the unique brilliance of The Grateful Dead experience. THAT is the unique brilliance of the storytellers that were assembled by some organizing intelligence and predestined to arrive at the time and place they did. THAT is also what makes this film a brilliant work of art. Amir and his crew have assembled a work of art that will speak differently to you every time you see it. Things that I completely missed the first time through seemed so evident the second time around that I wondered for a moment how I missed them before. Certain things I was sure of the first time around no longer seemed to be present, while I’m sure they must have been.
In the old days, in an attempt to confirm I wasn’t going crazy, I’d lean over and ask some cat next to me if they could hear those birds too. Inevitably, that brother or sister would smile and agree that they could definitely hear them as well. In order to make sure I wasn’t dealing with the early stages of dementia, I sent my thoughts to Steve Silberman for analysis. Steve confirmed that he’s seen a completely different movie 7 times now. Like Cornell, we’ll consume this piece of art for decades to come, constantly discovering things we somehow spaced the times before.
The film is broken up into 6 Acts, 4 of which were completely new to me. The contribution of Sam Cutler really stood out. I was fortunate enough to spend Dead & Company’s Halloween Show at MSG with Sam and his wife. My pal Anthony contacted me early in the day and asked if there was any chance I could score 2 tickets for the show that night for Sam Cutler. You could imagine how surreal that moment was… ME score tickets for HIM? The hand of fate opened a few doors and pulled a few strings and somehow I was able to help. We met up beforehand and while we were all walking into The Garden, Sam said that this was the first show he ever went to that he actually had a ticket for. Every other show to that point in his life he was either putting on himself or a guest. I played a role in getting Sam Fuckin Cutler his FIRST concert ticket! The weight of that is so heavy it makes me laugh hysterically. I asked Sam why he didn’t just make a call and get hooked up and he simply told me he didn’t have a number. The conversations that night held information that I always chose to keep to myself rather than publish. “If I told ya all that went down it would burn off both your ears. ”
Sam is as animated a human being as you can find. The accounts of his experiences, as told by him, are delivered in a way that only Sam could deliver. I’m not sure if it’s the accent, the look of the consummate rocker or the stories being told while he sits out of the side door of a van that made the segment so perfect. It’s probably all of those things. Regardless, for someone that spent a relatively short period of time with the band, his role in the film is much more significant than his time served. It seemed like Sam got more screen time than any member of the band, not named Garcia. Based on how the film changed completely since my first viewing, that statement could be completely false but I don’t think so…
Sam came in at a time where he was obviously needed, as determined by the great orchestrator in the sky, to steer this ship for a short season. The stories from Europe 72 are captivating as told by Sam and the rest of the crew. There’s probably plenty of areas of the film where folks may disagree on things as they happened but one that everybody could clearly agree on was the unmanageability that was faced while trying to manage The Grateful Dead. If there was an area or character that I feel wasn’t properly covered, it’s Bill Graham. If anyone was able to manage the unmanageable, it seemed to be Bill. For the most part, he is absent from the story.
I’d like to congratulate Amir for taking a long, hard look at the darker side of all things Dead. In our community, we tend to want to look at the roses instead of the skulls. We prefer to remember ourselves as a never ending circus of love where only kindness existed. Where we roamed through fields filled with unicorns whose colorful droppings smelled like essential oils and tasted like nutrient dense M&Ms. While that may have been part of the deal, there was no shortage of elements that were everything but. From Garcia’s fascination with the Hell’s Angels to roadies living on reds, vitamin C and cocaine, there was plenty of darkness to go around. The film is fearless showing US the flipside of the journey. Steve Parish was a full-fledged asshole to most DeadHeads that weren’t hot, young females by the time I came into the fold. I understand now, that he really had to be. While all of US would have killed to have a position like his, a position like his was probably more weight than most could bear. It came with an absurd amount of responsibility and hours and duties that never ended. Steve’s commentary was among my favorites in the movie. His views of all things dark as well as his take on the experience from the inside are some that I could listen to for hours on end. He speaks in a way that connects to an east coaster like myself. He’s gruff and straightforward without trying to sweeten the content or make it any more palatable than it needs to be. I always appreciate great insights that are delivered in a way that doesn’t come with a pseudo-spiritual delivery, cloaked in a new age posture, colored with the vocal tone of a false prophet’s absence of authenticity. From the stories about finding many of their most meaningful contributors and employees among their fan base to the Wall Of Sound to the rigors of life on the road, Steve is a perfect mouthpiece to present many of the tales that accompanied the ride.
Like Phil’s bass line during Scarlet from Barton Hall, there are some segments that nobody seems to miss. Moments much less subtle than many of the rest. Moments that stand out to everybody equally. During this screening, Robert Hunter’s brief appearance in the film was that moment once again. In both screenings, it was the moment that came with the exact same response from the viewers and one that will live in our thoughts of the film forever. I can’t wait for you all to see it! It was my favorite 10 seconds of the movie. Mr. Hunter, I Love you and I’m certain you don’t give a fuck! I’ll never ask you a single question about what anything you wrote means because I’m well aware that it means whatever the fuck I need it to mean whenever the fuck I need it to mean something. I also realize that is subject to change often and without notice and requires no permission from anybody else, including you, in order to do so. To be able to write material that reaches into the future circumstances and conditions of people that haven’t been born yet is probably one of the coolest things I can comprehend. Robert Hunter has done that.
John Barlow has done that as well and plays a significant and at times humorous role in the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed his contributions and the way he gets his thoughts across. He maintains this vibe of doing something in the film that he’s been asked to do while at the same time, wondering if he should have done it at all. It seemed like he was much less enamored by being part of the film than someone like myself may have been. His views aren’t conveyed nearly as romantically as many of ours, as is the case with many of those in the inner circle. While his voice tells the story, his face seems to wanna say, “Fuck you for even asking!” I appreciate that, thanks Mr. Barlow!
We all know how the movie ends so that wasn’t going to be much of a surprise. I can say with certainty that the last half hour of the film will produce more tears than our community has produced since the day it happened. Garcia’s final years weren’t filled with good cheer and random acts of kindness. The film rips you wide open and draws out the sorrow that’s still within many of US. Like Morning Dews and Stella Blues, the magnifying lens of Dead Life scours our internal status and discovers every wounded piece that requires attention. Once found, it takes those pieces and forces them to come to the surface to be examined along with the emotions associated with them. The profoundly painful last breaths of the movie will do just that. It takes the vast body of work that we’ve all lived through in various ways and puts it right before your eyes to be viewed whether you like it or not.
While the movie claims to be the “Untold Story of The Grateful Dead” it could very well be called, “The Untold Biography of Jerry Garcia “. Garcia is the Star of the film and his bandmates seemingly have supporting roles. Like it or not, that’s really the way it was to me and many others. Garcia didn’t want it that way but he really didn’t have a choice. When you come into life, it seems as if the bucket that carries your blessings is usually the same size as the bucket that carries your curses. Garcia had some enormous fuckin buckets! It seems like we indulged in his bucket of blessings while he too often was seduced by the other.
The power and potential the Dead discovered through the vehicle of musical performance is unmatched. They held the key that unlocked treasures of information that when utilized properly gave the individuals involved the ability to travel through time. There’s a great quote by Mickey in the film when asked what business he was in, he would answer, “The Transportation business!” We all dream of Time Machines that might bring US back to days gone by. What’s interesting to me is that The Grateful Dead made that possible for so many years. Through their shows, we were able to travel back in time within ourselves uncovering and healing past wounds and assorted traumas. In the middle of a Playin jam, China Doll or Space, we could venture deep into our past and experience moments that altered our minds for the worst and relive them, this time changing our perceptions or offering forgiveness when needed. We could revisit childhood and make corrections where detrimental thought patterns were installed and we discovered within the experience that we had the ability to install new programs that would enable US to thrive and break free from detrimental and self-limiting behaviors of the past. We had a somewhat safe environment to examine our darkest days and bring them to the light of a new reality where we could choose for ourselves how to develop as opposed to having our views assigned to US by the people we were told had authority. We began to understand through the musical transformation society of which we were a part, that those who claimed to have authority in our lives, in all reality had no authority at all. We were completely free to take all the secrets we found deep within those moments and shape our minds and our lives exactly as we wished. In times of confusion or trouble, the music was a place we always found the real story behind the illusions that tried like hell to prevent US from seeing the truth. It all happened within the confines of our musical journey.
The Long Strange Trip does all of those things. It’s a movie that mirrors the experience and at no time spares US from taking a hard look at things as they were. We often cater to the more romantic ideas we associate with life on the road and choose to forget the trail of turmoil that was all too often left behind. Redeemingly, it does a fantastic job of displaying why we were willing to risk it all to be a part of the scene regardless. The path may have been easier on some than it was others. Those that made it out alive wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. It made US who we were. I’d love to say it made US who we are, but for some, it seems like they missed the eternal portion of the program. As life has continued, some have forgotten those pieces of the past that were intended to permanently change the future. I think this film has the power to restore some of what was lost in an unfiltered and honest assessment of the world’s greatest traveling musical tabernacle. I’m forever Grateful to have taken the journey and forever Grateful I’m alive to continue to celebrate and grow from it.
In closing, an older guy that was sitting next to me stopped me as I was leaving the screening room. It was as if he needed to share his experience with someone and it didn’t necessarily matter who that person was. Wearing the remains of a business suit after a long day, he put himself in my way and said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen The Grateful Dead!” He was as excited as I was when I left Brendon Byrne Arena on 11/11/85. I simply looked at him and said, “So what do ya think?” He said, “AMAZING! I’m a Dead Head now!” I probably should have taken more time to help him with his new discovery but I just smiled and said, “Welcome Aboard!” It made me think about how people will be getting turned on to our scene long after we’re all resembling the band’s album covers. When there’s nothing left of US but bones in a box, people will still be discovering something we were lucky enough to live through. At over 4 hours long, TLST really could’ve used another 4 hours. There are a lot of things that were still left out. It’s as complete as an incomplete documentary could possibly be. It has taken damn near 4 hours to review it at this point…
If you’re in the NYC area, I highly recommend going to see the movie at The Cap. Not only is it a building that houses the ghosts of times gone by, but you can be sure that the sound and the visuals there will be second to none. It will be shown on May 25th and you can purchase tickets at http://www.thecapitoltheatre.com/event/1480693-long-strange-trip-port-chester/. I imagine I’ll go there and take it in again myself. Hope to see ya there! If you’ve made it through this entire review, congratulations! I would’ve left a long time ago… Like the movie, there’s still a bunch of stuff that got left out. If you read the whole thing, you owe me $10. I accept PayPal. Love You Long Time! See ya soon!