An Interview with Dennis McNally regarding Jerry Day 2018

With the 16th annual Jerry Day right around the corner, we had the chance to speak with Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead's noted publicist and biographer about all-things Dead and the lasting impact of Jerry Garcia himself. Check out the full interview below and learn more about Jerry Day here.

Kate Haley: Dennis, I can’t thank you enough for talking with me at SF bay Area Concerts as we are running pre and post coverage of the 2018 Jerry Day event. I have to admit that when Tom Murphy at Jerry Day asked if I wanted to talk with THE Dennis McNally, it was an immediate “Yes!” on my part, followed by a total freak out. In my defense it’s not every day that one can talk to the fellow who worked with the Grateful Dead for 15 years before Jerry died in 1995, serving as their publicist and biographer. Your Jerry on Jerry interviews, A Long Strange Trip and Desolate Angel, a book I picked up from the mere beauty of the title, all had great impact for me.

Dennis McNally: Enjoy your freak out, because I'm not terribly impressed with me for what it's worth, and I'm very happy to talk to you. And I'm very happy to do anything I can to support Jerry Day. I love Jerry Day.

Kate Haley: For those who don’t know, Tom Murphy, the founder of Jerry Day, celebrates Jerry Garcia’s legacy through the renamed Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, where both he and Jerry grew up. When I caught up to Tom, he said “As we are going on our 16th year, the value of Jerry Day and Jerry Garcia's legacy continues to grow. This event is increasingly being recognized as an asset for the City and County of San Francisco. We look forward to seeing Jerry Day evolve further as we continue vitalizing the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater and offering additional events of similar production value." 

This will be my first time up. I think I somewhat fell in with a lot of the former Deadheads that were just too sad after the Jerry loss to get out much. It's taken a little while to see people coming back into the fold, and nobody is going to have better perspective on that than you are. What is your impression of how the community has shaped up? I mean Jerry, way back when, possibly was a guy who had a master plan or some construct for continuation.

Dennis McNally: Oh no, Jerry never had a plan in his life. That was the whole plan of the Grateful Dead. They never planned, they just basically did what they felt like, and it all magically worked, because of Jerry. He was not the leader, but he was the center of the Grateful Dead, because each band member related to him the most, more than any one of them to any one of the others. He was the sun, and they were the moons circling around him, or the planets circling around him. Even when he was not in good shape, he led by example by refusing to lead. I mean, he refused to make decisions.

One time I called him boss, and somebody says, "No, you can't call him boss," and Jerry kind of went, "Oh, he can call me boss, but don't expect me to make any decisions". Once in a blue moon he would emphatically come down on some plan or something, but in general, his idea was that everybody go to do whatever they wanted. He was a fulcrum, and it worked. It worked on the stage where everybody played what they wanted, but they also had to listen to each other to make it sane. And he applied the same principles to the business.

I got my job because there was a rule, a fixed rule, that everybody got to speak their piece. They'd have a company meeting, once a month or so, and everybody at the end of the meeting could say anything. The receptionist raised her hand and said, "What are we going to do about the media" because there wasn't anybody to deal with it at the time. Jerry's response was, "Eh, get McNally to do it. He knows that shit." And that was it.

What’s happened in the last four years is really quite remarkable, beyond anything I would have imagined. I never saw it coming, so I claim no foresight. I expected Deadhead-ism to dwindle away, like almost all things do. What happened was that Fare Thee Well reignited Deadhead-ism because it happened because of Deadheads.

The Deadheads just demanded, without saying as much, that there be an exclamation point on the whole thing, so thus Fare Thee Well. Well, it reignited the whole phenomenon. Basically the Deadheads claimed the music away from the band. It's like, "It's our music. You guys can stop if you want, but it's our music," which is why there are sixteen Dead cover bands in every city in America, because it's a genre of its own. It's like blues or jazz. It's Dead music, and people can play it all over the country, and you can fall in with the band, and as soon as you figure out what tempo they're playing the song in, you can play it.

That enduring nature of all that is absolutely fascinating. I finally went and saw Dead and Company, and they are brilliant, mostly because they've evolved.

Kate Haley: Exactly my thoughts. I am so over hearing grumbling about Mayer not being Jerry. I love the current incarnation.

Dennis McNally: They're not playing exactly the same way that they did as the Dead. That's obviously thanks to John Mayer and Oteil (Burbridge) in particular. They bring a lot, and it works out nicely, but it doesn't have to be them. There's a million bands that are playing Dead music, and I love a lot of them as a matter of fact.

I worked with a band called Cubensis, which is this LA-based band that's done like 4,000 shows. They did more shows than the Grateful Dead, and they've literally been going on for 30 years, and they're quite good. The lead guitarist, Craig Marshall, once ran into Jerry at the airport and introduced himself and told him what they were doing. I can't remember Jerry’s exact quote, but it was to the effect of "Well, as long as you play it as best you can, it's good with me." I’ve always felt that that was enough justification to take it from there.

This transition over the last few years has been that it's not the band, it's the music. The music has sort of gone beyond the band, and that's why I am completely happy listening to Stu Allen and the Mars Hotel. I mean, Melvin (Seals) obviously did play with Jerry in the Jerry Garcia Band. Today’s music holds up. It's still valid, it's just fine.

Dennis McNally: The thing about Jerry Day is that it’s simple, low-key, intimate, and about the music. Tom Murphy has done this beautiful job of making it happen. I don't know how much of a Deadhead he even is. Tom got involved with all this because he lives in that (Excelsior) neighborhood, and saw it as an honor of the neighborhood. When Jerry died, there were a number of ideas that came across my desk of suggestions of ways to remember Jerry. Somebody wanted to build this little tiny, I think it was supposed to be small, statue of him in Golden Gate Park. It was like, I sort of went no, no, no; I think that's a very poor idea.

Jerry tells the story that after the Watts Acid Test they went to Watts Tower, which was this unusual primitive art project sculpted together by a guy. The city at one point tried to tear it down and they couldn't, it was so well put together. Jerry was looking at it and thinking, "I don't want to leave behind stuff. I want it to be something that it lives in real time and goes away." Now ironically, of course, he then became the most recorded man in history, but that wasn't his fault. It just happened. What he did was work in real time with music that was heard and melted away.

Jerry always wanted to do something collaborative. The idea of a memorial was the last thing on his mind. When they put together this star with his name on it in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, it was hilarious because they had the ceremony. His widow said, "Oh, Jerry would've loved this." Bob Weir got up and said, "Jerry would've hated this."

Kate Haley: That’s pretty much perfect.

Dennis McNally: Frankly, I think that's right. That's just like Bob, and Bob was right in this case. He did not want a memorial. The only project that I completely said, "Great idea, I'm down with it," and I've been a supporter ever since, was the amphitheater. For two reasons. One is, it was already there and they just pasted up a new name honoring him. And B, it's like half a mile from where he grew up. It's a music thing a half a mile from where he grew up. That makes sense. It's never gotten out of hand and that's just the way Jerry would want it. It's the ideal way to celebrate Jerry and his life. So I go. I go, and that entire year, it's almost the only day of the year I get high just because ...

Kate Haley: It's a thing.

Dennis McNally: … it's kind of appropriate. It's a wonderful ritual, as it were.

Kate Haley: You know, it’s actually really funny that I had mentioned to a friend that I was nervous for an interview that was coming up. Without even knowing who I was talking to, he suggested that I just ask the person—nicely of course-- to interview them self. I was like, "Wow, that's pretty spot on here”. After your brilliant interviews on Jerry on Jerry, you've pretty much just wrapped up a Dennis on Dennis with Jerry, and it's perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Dennis McNally: I fell into the goo and I've been swimming around in it for ... well, since my buddy started playing Grateful Dead music for me, and that was in the fall Of '71, so that covers some ground.

Kate Haley: What do you think the future will hold? I grew up on tour, and it was a huge thing when Jerry died. I actually found out because two people randomly broke up a class I was teaching to bring me red roses, speechless. So now we are seeing that revitalization. I went to Fare Thee Well on their 50th. There was a grandmother dancing with her granddaughter, and it felt like it’s game on again. If you were going to look into a crystal ball or otherwise consult the cosmic Jerry energy, where would you see this going? Would it just be more chaos into the ether?

Dennis McNally: Yeah. That's a good answer. More chaos into the ether. It's going to keep going. People are going to be listening to the Grateful Dead music as long as they listen to music. I would say that 100 years from now, there will be people still listening at least to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.

The best quote on that is what Bruce Hornsby said, which was that the songs have become hymns, and they have. There's Ripple. That is a hymn. But all of them are an essential part of the American experience now. So people are going to cherish them, and it's remarkable stuff.

Kate Haley: That's beautiful. Definitely agree. For me, I'm predominantly a family photographer by a broad definition, so I’m highly interested in celebrating and documenting what I see as this family continues to grow and evolve. Even as the iterations roll it’s just fascinating and so hopeful.

Dennis McNally: Yeah. Well, to quote Ramrod, "The good shit lasts."

Join us at 2018’s 16th annual Jerry Day on Sunday August 5th at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at McLaren Park. The event runs from 11AM to 6PM and features acts including Melvin Seals & the JGB, Stu Allen & The Mars Hotel, and the Gary Gates band. Dennis McNally is slated to address the crowd in this can’t miss event celebrating San Francisco’s native son. Learn more at

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