Enough books have been written about the Grateful Dead over the years to fill a small library, but nearly all of them wrap up with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. Veteran San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin takes the novel approach of beginning his upcoming book Fare Thee Well (out June 19th) immediately after Garcia's death and wrapping up with the group's triumphant reunion shows two decades later. Along the way, surviving members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann form bitter alliances that shift dramatically as the years pass. "This book is a study in grief," says Selvin, who co-wrote the book with Pamela Turley. "These four men tumbled through life and tried to redefine themselves and their relationships to one another while coming to terms with having been part of the Grateful Dead."
Joel Selvin first saw the Grateful Dead in 1966 and he chronicled every step of their epic career during his long tenure at the San Francisco Chronicle, though he insists that he's not a Deadhead. "But I've always been fascinated by them and recognized the quality of the music along with the unique nature of their enterprise," he says. "Over time, I came to know all these people and their associates very well. These people have been associated with me for so long that I didn't actually meet anybody new while doing this book."
He first got the idea for a book about the Grateful Dead's turbulent post-Jerry life in 2006, but couldn't generate much excitement for it. The surviving members of the group toured as the Dead in the early 2000s, but split into feuding camps after a difficult 2004 summer run. Band relations were at an all-time low and any sort of Dead revival seemed far-fetched. "The book proposal that I put together was just this grim, unrelenting downward spiral," he says. "It had no redemption in it whatsoever. This is where I learned a real life-lesson about the book business: You need a happy ending."
He finally got that in 2015 when Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann put aside their differences to celebrate the group's 50th anniversary with a series of Fare Thee Well stadium concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara, California, with Phish's Trey Anastasio on lead guitar and vocals. The frenzy around the shows was beyond anything the band had experienced since Garcia died. Just months later, the group (minus Lesh) recruited John Mayer and began gigging as Dead & Company to enormous crowds.
It was more than enough to get Selvin an eager publisher for his book. The difficult task at that point was getting the band and their associates to speak with him about this painful period of their lives. Mickey Hart and Bob Weir ultimately agreed to a long series of interviews, both in-person and on the phone, but the others were a different story. "Bill Kreutzmann debated it, agreed, didn't agree, debated it and decided not to," says Selvin. "He said he wanted to 'take the high road.' I never got a response from Phil and [his wife] Jill Lesh."
He understands their reluctance. The guys have always been eager to talk about the intense musical odyssey they went on during the Garcia years, but delving into nasty, private disputes that largely dealt with money and control after his death is a very different matter. "It was touchy territory for everybody," Selvin says. "And that isn't just for the guys in the band. There's this whole ethos around the band of not airing dirty laundry. It's very strongly observed. Collecting this information was very uncomfortable. [Former Grateful Dead manager] Cameron Sears got sick to his stomach after every interview, and we did three or four of them."
In Selvin's estimation, the group made a crucial error in the immediate aftermath of Garcia's death when they retired the name "The Grateful Dead." They compounded it by not actually touring together for three years, a crucial period where Phish was able take much of their audience and become the new kings of the jam-band scene. The 1998 tour (where they were billed as the Other Ones) was done without Kreutzmann, the first of many times one member was on the outs. "There have been six different versions of the group since Jerry died," says Selvin. "They were always shifting. You could never tell who was gonna turn up the next time they played and you could never tell who was gonna choose sides in the middle of an argument."
A key moment came at the end of a 2009 Dead tour when Phil Lesh and his wife Jill decided they wanted to carry on without the drummers. They recruited Weir into a new project they dubbed Furthur, which featured John Kadlecik – the leader of the premiere Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star Orchestra – as the frontman. "Given his oft-expressed displeasure with tribute bands, Lesh's pick of Kadlecik to join his new band served two purposes," Selvin writes in Fare Thee Well. "It effectively crippled the top tribute band by taking out their guitarist and it signaled Lesh's intent to tool his new band into the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band."
The machiavellian masterstroke split the band in two. Selvin's account of these events doesn't depict Phil and Jill Lesh in the best light, but the author is under no delusions that they'll be happy with his book. "I'm sure they'll be outraged by it," he says. "There's a society called the Society for the Victims of Phil and Jill Lesh. I'm on that list." Selvin believes they turned on him many years ago when he wrote a review of a Phil Lesh Christmas show that poked fun at the event. "Everyone told me my death sentence came when I said that Phil looked like Ichabod Crane [from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow]," he says. "But look, I bent over backwards to try and explain and understand their deeds. I wanted this book to be a balanced account, but their deeds speak for themselves."
Selvin understands that some of the tales in his book may disillusion Grateful Dead fans, but he wanted them to know the unvarnished truth. "Look, there's a thing in the the book about how all the fans think that there's a golden circle of love binding the members of the band," says Selvin. "Then there's this whole weird perception of what the Dead thinks about the fans, because it's not exactly the same kind of respect and admiration that they mouth. But this is who these guys were. This is who these guys are. And I think they're really interesting."