Review: ‘Deal’ by Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen

Categories: Chicago Tribune

By Mark Guarino

Like any formidable memoir from a counterculture veteran, “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead” is heavy on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. You know the kind I’m talking about: hotel after-parties that snap into orgies, acid trips that trail across decades and more than 2,000 concerts that begin in small clubs and lead to gigs alongside the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

But Bill Kreutzmann, founding drummer of the Grateful Dead, has produced more than just a tourist’s guide. What emanates, maybe more than he intended, is a testimony to friendship and profound sadness when it abruptly ends. This is a simple theme for a band so ruled by excess — not just through the legendary improvisational jamming onstage but by the fan culture that Kreutzmann admits grew bigger than the music and eventually killed it altogether.

“Deal” opens without sex, drugs or music. Instead, there’s water, a scuba diving trip he took with Jerry Garcia, the band’s reclusive leader. The image of both men stepping away from the heady success of the late 1980s (when “Touch of Grey” was in heavy rotation on MTV) and needing to fall deep below the ocean for privacy, a way to revive the core values that connected them as teenagers, is a powerful one. More than 300 pages later, in 1995, Kreutzmann is standing before Garcia’s open coffin. “I love you, Jerry,” he says. He later retreats to his home and becomes a recluse, refusing to see people or venture outside, and getting himself to sleep with red wine and Vicodin. “I became very, very depressed,” he writes. The last 20 years were spent finding a path back.

More than any other character in this book — and there are dozens, particularly a rotation of wives, girlfriends and keyboard players — Garcia is the most consistent. He is neither Captain Trips, his nickname during the psychedelic era, nor is he the twinkled-eyed Santa Claus smiling from T-shirts and posters. Instead, he is the confident young man who shows up at the Kreutzmann home in Palo Alto to purchase a banjo from his father. Several years later Kreutzmann saw Garcia transfix an audience by playing a banjo, maybe that one, with a local jug band. “I’m going to follow this guy forever,” he told himself.

The book is dense with acid trips and capers on both coasts and overseas. Dead fans, like the ones paying thousands of dollars on the secondary market to see the surviving members — including Kreutzmann — reunite at Soldier Field in July, will enjoy juicy stories: Kreutzmann getting kicked out of an underground club in Paris with no idea of where he is, so he chucks a moped into a storefront window to get the police to show up to escort him home. Or the author destroying a hotel’s phone system because hotel management couldn’t get construction noise outside his window to cease or find him a quieter room. His appetite for drugs, first acid and then cocaine, is unwavering. At one point Kreutzmann is so dependent that he instructs his drum tech to bring him a soda rimmed with cocaine between songs.

Written with journalist Benjy Eisen, the book’s tone is conversational; it reads like Kreutzmann is on the next barstool slapping your back between laughs. He tells you to double-check his story with YouTube evidence, assures you he won’t forget certain key elements and doesn’t hesitate to tell you which band-member is the weakest songwriter (Phil Lesh), which keyboardist was most replaceable (Vince Welnick), or which studio album he rates among the best (“Terrapin Station”) and worst (“From the Mars Hotel”).

The charm works, but there are times you feel that as easy as it is for him to spin another tale of setting off fireworks or getting pulled over by police, it is more difficult to get into the personalities of those closest to him. Unlike recent memoirs by Pete Townshend or Neil Young, Kreutzmann holds little back. But like those disappointing reads, the secondary characters — namely, his Dead brethren — are shadows.

The exception is Garcia. As years tick by, both men remain close, but mostly on the stage. Here is the classic story of most bands with longevity: Success breeds deep disappointments, turning the music from a lifelong passion into a dreaded obligation. Kreutzmann explains the band invariably created the biggest touring party on the planet for many years, but it was one from which they felt most alienated. Kreutzmann expresses affection for the Deadheads, but describes a subgroup from the 1990s they called railers (front-row regulars who looked “as dazed and confused as Jerry. They didn’t look high. They didn’t look stoned. They looked … strung out.”)

This took the toughest toll on Garcia, the truest believer of the group. Not only did he fail to show up at their 1994 induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he also descended deeper into a heroin addiction that eventually stole his talent. He writes:

Years earlier, Jerry told me that music was such a joy to play, and that it meant so much to people to hear it, that it should be given away for free. ‘Let them have music!’ He really meant that and I think that it became a bigger and bigger conflict for him the bigger and bigger we got …. (H)e was confused by the fame and felt that the money came attached to an ever-growing list of obligations that formed some kind of algorithm which transformed music into business.

Despite having the best record sales and biggest audiences of their 30-year career, the Dead’s final moments before Garcia’s 1995 death were dim: “We didn’t want to see each other, much less have to interact on any real level. It was a separation without divorce.”

In the end, it wasn’t sex or drugs that did the Dead in. It was rock ‘n’ roll success.


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