By Lee Zimmerman
Dawn of the Dead: The Grateful Dead and the Rise of the San Francisco Underground
After 45 years, the story is well known. It resides in a tale that finds focus during the so-called Summer of Love, a multi-hued look at San Francisco as the Mecca for all those who believed in the ’60s dream.
The musical undertow is vital to the narrative; how, in the midst of this renaissance, the Grateful Dead morphed from their early incarnation as a jug band into a cover outfit called the Warlocks and ultimately embraced off-kilter avant-garde experimentation while gaining prominence alongside the Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service as the musical minstrels for a new generation of those willing to turn on and tune in.
Happily then, “Dawn of the Dead” offers intriguing new insights into this dramatic trajectory, thanks in large part to incredible archival footage, rare interviews, live performance video and commentary by those who were there.
The rise of San Francisco as the destination of hippies and harbingers of America’s counterculture still holds fascination even now, several decades on. Not that it was ever an unlikely contender as a catalyst for change. As the documentary points out, the city helped to nourish the beat poets and their beatnik followers in the ’50s, and those hipsters and non-conformists easily set the stage for the rebels and outcasts to come. With its idyllic environs and freewheeling attitude, San Francisco and its surrounding locales were the ideal setting for the acid tests, the human be-ins, the free concerts in Golden Gate Park, venues like the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom and eventually, Monterey Pop, where L.A. and San Francisco’s major talent converged and found their way to the world at large. It was a place where unusual characters like Bill Graham, Ken Kesey, Stanley Oswald, Chet Helms and, of course, the members of The Grateful Dead could find a voice and make their own indelible impact.
“Dawn of the Dead” explores each of these fascinating individuals — these self-described Merry Pranksters — mostly revealing them in their own words. Many appear posthumously. Here, Jerry Garcia reflects on the Dead phenomenon and how the band provided a soundtrack for an audience that became the true stars of the show. Bill Graham affirms his tough-as-nails image and no-nonsense personality. Janis Joplin dances backstage with carefree abandon. And, in one particularly revealing piece of footage, Dead manager Rock Scully trades barbs and profanity with an irate Graham as the two nearly come to blows.
Apparently, peace and love wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
There are also plenty of subplots, each of which prove vital to the story. There’s Garcia’s penchant for bluegrass and bassist Phil Lesh’s involvement with experimental music converging to fuse the Dead’s early direction. There are revelations on how certain bands refused to be filmed at Monterey, and how a single song, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some in Your Hair)” helped inspire an influx of starry-eyed young migrants to the corner of Haight and Ashbury — which eventually helped to put an end to the utopian dream. In the span of two hours and 18 minutes, “Dawn of the Dead” manages to encapsulate this period in modern American culture that still resonates a lifetime later. Well researched, well documented and well narrated — with such notable commentators as Dead publicist Dennis McNally, journalists Anthony DeCurtis and Richie Unterberger, Scully himself and various veterans of San Francisco’s musical community offering their recollections — it’s also a tale well told, as rich as it is revelatory.