Book Review: The Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History by Tony Sclafani

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The FAQ series from Backbeat Books is just about the best thing going these days for serious fans. The FAQ catalog includes books about Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and other musicians, and even features titles about films and Star Trek. The long strange trip of  The Grateful Dead is the subject of the new The Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History by Tony Sclafani. When I heard about this book, the only question I had was "What took 'em so long?"

What makes these FAQ books so good is the "All That's Left to Know" subtitle. Rather than trying to find a new way of telling a pretty well-worn story, Sclafani delves deeper. This results in such intriguing chapters as "Sing Me Back Home: Ten Artists Who Influenced The Dead," "Ship of Fools: The Dead's Ten Worst Decisions," and "Ripple in Still Water: What Happened When Deadheads Invaded a Town?" Those are just three examples of the types of subjects Sclafani tackles.

The basic Grateful Dead story is told in this 358-page book, but as those chapter titles indicate, there is much more here than just "Psychedelic San Francisco band stays true to their ideals for 30 years." Listing Merle Haggard as an influence is one that I had never considered before, even though it is actually as plain as day when you think about it. They did cover some of his songs, but what Sclafani really contends is that the Hag was a huge inspiration for their classic American Beauty and Workingman's Dead albums.

John Coltrane is also listed, and he is another one that I agree with, but would not have named before reading this book. Especially in the final few years of his life, Coltrane was playing songs that lasted up to an hour, full of solos and flights that usually worked, and sometimes did not. He even had two drummers at the end. These are the types of connections that a curious fan loves to read about, and one of the things that makes this book so enjoyable.

"The Dead's Ten Worst Decisions" is definitely subjective, but it is hard to argue with what Sclafani writes. His final "Going Out on the 1994 and 1995 Tours" is possibly the most significant. He kind of dances around the central issue though, by saying only that Jerry  Garcia was not really playing well. Blair Jackson is quoted as saying that Garcia was "in no condition to be onstage," which in retrospect is pretty obvious. It has been 18 years since Garcia passed, and nobody can say that things would have been any different if the group  had not toured, but you still have to wonder.

"What Happened When Deadheads Invaded a Town" is a nine-page account of the band's experiences in Columbia, Maryland in the 80's. They played two-night stands at the outdoor Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1983, '84, and '85, and the "Deadhead Invasion" freaked the town out so much that they were (supposedly) banned from playing there after '85. As Sclafani makes clear, the situation with the Deadhead traveling road-show was getting worse and worse, and Columbia is really a stand-in for "Anytown, USA."

Those are just three of the book's 39 chapters, but I think they provide a fair idea of the direction the author takes. While there are some excellent straight-forward books about the band, The Grateful Dead FAQ takes things much further. There are chapters detailing all  of their studio albums, about "why there are two Aoxomoxoas," the roles Tom Constanten, Pigpen, and Donna Godchaux played in the band, and a whole lot more.

The Grateful Dead FAQ really does deliver all that's left to know about the group, as far as I can tell. Tony Sclafani has come up with so many fascinating insights about this cultural institution that I found the book to be a joy to read. The Grateful Dead FAQ takes the  good old Grateful Dead story to a whole other level, and is recommended.