Friends of the Devil

Having finished Netflix during lockdown, I moved over to Amazon Prime which quickly learned my affinity for rock ’n’ roll documentaries, running the gamut from films about Elliot Smith to Iggy Pop. Somehow I missed A Long Strange Trip, a six-part series about the Grateful Dead. Or maybe I had avoided it because that sounded like an awful lot of Dead.

The band had been part of my high school years, and when I saw them (1970-72) they were at an early peak, producing two of their best studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. I liked them, especially darker songs like “Dire Wolf” but didn’t love them the way some of my friends did. Such fans weren’t called Deadheads yet but they saw the band every chance they could, and seemed to think they were imbued with magical powers. LSD had something to do with it.

Long Strange Trip was produced by the surviving members of the band, and draws from all manner of film and tape from the Dead’s four-decade career. Knowing that, maybe I thought it would be kind of a whitewash—they made some crap music along the way, due in part to drugs and alcohol—but I was pleased to find it honest and probing when it matters.

Take Pigpen, the Dead’s keyboardist and sometimes frontman, aka Ron McKernan. Though he could clearly handle his acid, Pigpen preferred booze, which resulted in his death (at 27, of course) in 1973. Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow is seen visiting Pigpen’s grave in Palo Alto, where he opines that “acid was all about opening the doors of perception, but alcohol is about closing those doors.” He also says no one knew about how to handle an alcoholic in those days, or at least in those circles. Recovery came to the rock world too late for people like Pigpen.

I was living in San Francisco in the eighties when Katy Butler published a piece in Mother Jones (I think) about hard-partying rockers in Marin County getting straight and sober. The piece got my attention at the time, for reasons that would become obvious. One of her sources was Barlow, in fact, who seemed to have looked into the abyss and stepped back.

Fast forward about ten years. I was living in NY, a few years sober myself, and working at my first web job, editing a long-forgotten website called Total New York. One of my bosses was friends with Barlow, who’d been an early champion of internet freedom, which explained his presence at a reading of “web literature,” that I was part of. The piece I read, accompanied by illustrations from a web designer I worked with, recalled a trip I’d taken to Disneyland with my then five-year-old son on a day when I really needed a drink.

I remember Barlow’s knowing laugh when I quoted the cheerful young man who informed me that there was no alcohol in the Magical Kingdom (something I later learned wasn’t true). The songwriter was drinking again, and maybe he couldn’t imagine anything worse, either. (He died in 2018, at 70, a few years after suffering a major heart attack.) But by my story’s end, when I realized I was an alcoholic and determined to do something about it… soon, the story took a darker turn. i was running from the inevitable, I wrote, and he may not have appreciated the reminder. He didn’t speak to me after that.

Flashback: summer of ’71 was hitchhiking with one of my Deadhead friends when we got stuck in Gualala, a little town on the California coast, south of Mendocino. We were there all day long—I think my mom finally came, in the middle of the night, taking pity on our miserable attempt at being grown-up hippies. But before she did, we saw one last shot at redemption when two guys drove up and went into the liquor store next to the Gualala Hotel.

“That was Pigpen!” my Dead loving friend said. I was skeptical. The swarthy guy in the cowboy hat he was talking about was emaciated and sickly looking, and having seen the Dead onstage, I thought of Pigpen as a stout fellow. You know, from all that beer.

“He always wears that jacket!” my friend said. It was Levi jacket, as I recall, with a “1%” patch he’d received from the Hell’s Angels. I had a chance to study it and the wearer more closely when he and his friend came back out, hauling several bags full of booze.

“Hey, Pigpen!” my friend shouted. “Can you give us a ride?”

He flipped us off, got in his car, and drove away.