Dennis McNally: Cultural Catalyst
AAJ: What have you been doing since Grateful Dead business began being operated through Rhino? When that agreement came into play, were there effectively no more Grateful Dead operations?
DM: That's quite correct. They represent Grateful Dead interests and, although there are some really good people there who I like a lot and work well with, they are certainly not interested in keeping me in the loop. I still haven't gotten an Egypt package.
AAJ: Do you have regular interactions with the some of the people at Rhino?
DM: People still relate to me in the role I had for so long, so I refer people to them. And I still work with a lot of Grateful Dead radio shows and, fortunately, the radio guy at Rhino is a big fan and will certainly listen if I make a request. He does his best to accommodate. So I deal with them from time to time but they've got their people that they work with directlyBlair [Jackson] and Gary [Lambert] at the websitebut I'm not one of them.
AAJ: When the Rhino agreement was in process, how involved were you?
DM: Not at all. [Laughs.] I never did business negotiations for the Dead; I did other stuff.
AAJ: The band's mindset was, if it's not too simplistic a phrase, "Let somebody else take care of it," but did they have an overriding principle or mission statement that they delivered to Rhino?
DM: Well, they always retain quality control. And Rhino does not do projects without consulting with the band through their business guy Tim Jorstadt. They did want somebody else to do it. They felt it wasn't making any economic sense to keep the merchandising wing going and the production company [Grateful Dead Productions]. So, yes, they wanted somebody else to do it. But they certainly didn't want to just dump it. Clearly, they have retained an authority.
AAJ: Rhino projects always seem to be put together like the ultimate fan would put them together, if given access to memorabilia and this and that.
DM: Oh, yeah! In fact, ironically, I startedhaving no clue, of coursethe relationship with Rhino in the early '90s. James Austin, who was one of the real early movers at Rhino, came to me because he was doing a box set on The Beat Generation (Rhino, 1992). I wrote a book about Kerouac and he wanted Jerry to write an introduction to the booklet. And the reason Jerry invited me to be the Dead's biographer was because he liked my Kerouac biographyKerouac was his childhood hero. So I said, "That makes sense," and I went to Jerry and he says, "Sure, man!" So he did that and it established the relationship. In the early 2000s we did the huge Golden Road (1965-1973) (Rhino, 2001) and various big box sets with Rhino, all of which were quite successful. That led to Rhino, being part of Warner Brothers...
AAJ: Ironically enough!
DM: Ironically enoughWarners is always part of their historyto becoming the licensing acting agent for the Grateful Dead.
AAJ: Was there hot competition for that?
DM: I gather. I would go to the office and people would say, "We got this...we got that..." I wasn't involved, but I would say hot competition.
AAJ: Did you take any time off once the Dead operation ceased to be?
DM: I did not. I'm an independent music publicisttoo darn busy to work on the book I want to work on. Right now I have seven clients, which frankly is too many. I'm going bananas [Laughs] but that's the way it goes. I've never been busier than I am this fall. I'm working with Bobby, I'm working with Donna Jean, I'm working with Little Feat, I'm working with Michael Falzarano, who used to be in Hot Tuna, I work with Boris [Garcia], I work with The Subdudes. And I'm working on a very special, very interesting project. It's Dead-related in that it's a computer company who bought a software program that was designed by a guy named Tom Paddock, who worked with Jerry as a sound guy. Paddock has created a software program that dramatically improves digitally compressed sound. We all love our iPodsthe convenience the portability, et ceterabut no one, or few, would say, "Oh this is as good as CDs," much less as good as analog. And he's done something very special that you'll hear more of in the coming times.
AAJ: Did these clients that you mentioned come to you? Did you solicit themlet's say Little Feat?
DM: Bob Weir's then-management team was Cameron Sears, who was the last manager of The Grateful Dead, and John Scher, who was the tour coordinator for the Grateful Dead on the East Coast from the early '70s on. After Jerry died, John and Bobby talked about and created the first "Further Festival" . Phil [Lesh, Grateful Dead bassist] said, "Eh, I'm retiring," at that time. (He later changed his mind, obviously. He is free to do that.) Bobby wasn't ready to retire, so he and Mickey [Hart, Grateful Dead percussionist] and John started talking about "What do you want to do?" and they wanted to do a summer tour and that was the Further Festival. John and Cameron managed Bobby for a long time and eventually got involved in Little Feat and I came along as a part of the package.
The Subdudes? I got with them because two years ago they had a CD out called Behind the Levee (Back Porch-EMI, 2006) which got a lot of radio play and was getting a lot of buzz. The promo person at the record company was going, "You know, this absolutely is cost-justified. We need to get some more tour publicity and I don't have time. Who do I get?" And he mentioned this to a friend [Jack Barton], who is now my business partnera guy at Friday Morning Quarterback, which is a trade paper for radio people, and he said, "Well, it's a comfortable fityou should get Dennis McNally because he's been doing tour and road publicity for 20 years."
That's actually a funny story because I had never seen The Subdudes and never heard them. And although I knew the name, somehow in my addled brain, it sounded like a punk band to me. So they called me up and said, "Would you consider doing this thing? We'll send you the music." I always want to hear the music, so they sent it. It's hilariousit takes me three listenings before I am sure about a recording, even with Grateful Dead songs. There have been a couple of notable exceptionsthe first time I heard "Scarlet Begonias," (which was live in the spring of 1974 before the album came out) by about the second chorus, I'm going, "This is a masterpiece." But by and large, I'm slow. I put on the Subdudes CD and listened, and literally halfway through the third bar, I'm thinking, "I can work with these guys! Great!"