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New film explores ‘phenomenon’ of Grateful Dead

SANTA FE, N.M. — “Long Strange Trip” is not a biopic about the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, the man who both cheerfully and reluctantly drove the train, so to speak, says his not once, but two-time ex-girlfriend, Brigid Meier.

“It’s an amazing transmission of the energy that was created,” she says of the documentary that stops at nearly every station along the way – from Haight-Ashbury, to the acid tests, to the magic of the music, to the connection with their fans, and the hysteria of it all. “This was a phenomenon.”

With a running time of four hours – fitting for a band known for its marathon jams – the Martin Scorsese-produced film covers a lot of ground, much of it familiar to indoctrinated Deadheads. Yet it serves to fill in the gaps for the interested but uninitiated, and to educate a generation born after Garcia’s death in 1995 about the phenomenal story of a band that helped shape American culture since the 1960s.

“It was an awakening to a reality above and beyond culture when there was all this energy, innovation and insight, and lots of things vectored to create that,” Meier said in a phone interview. “What Amir has done is he has brought it to life.”

Amir Bar-Lev directed the film, which was more than a decade in the making due to the remaining members of the band’s mistrust of “anything that would nail them down to one meaning,” he recently told The Wall Street Journal.

The film premieres tonight in New York and Los Angeles, but next week screens for single shows in 30 selected cities, including Santa Fe. As a benefit for the Center for Contemporary Arts, the film shows at 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Lensic Performing Arts Center.

It launches on Amazon on June 2.

The Santa Fe showing of the film is the perfect complement to the “Voices of the Counterculture in the Southwest” exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum and appropriately timed for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Meier says.

‘Suffering’

Meier, who now lives on an organic farm near Taos, bookends the film, appearing early on to give a glimpse inside the mind of a man she calls a genius and again near the end when Jerry’s addiction to heroin drove him off the tracks.

Her father made the first recording of Jerry’s music in March 1961 at a party celebrating her 16th birthday.

He played banjo then. She gave him his first acoustic guitar, and they were a couple before the end of the year.

Jerry says in a taped interview that Brigid was “the first person to have faith in me.”

They broke up, only to be reunited years later.

While Jerry’s songwriting partner, Robert Hunter, shunned interpretation of the lyrics that accompanied the Dead’s music, the heartfelt “Days Between” is said to be a song about the gap in Jerry and Brigid’s relationship.

“So I’m told,” Brigid says when asked if that were the case.

One of the most heart-rending moments in the film is when Meier relates the harsh end to what was otherwise a beautiful love story.

In a hotel room in Chicago in 1993, she told Jerry she knew he was using heroin again. That was his choice, she told him, but she didn’t want any secrets between them.

The room got cold, she says, and Jerry said, “I think it’s time for you to go now.”

He died two years later in a drug rehabilitation facility.

While Meier says Jerry had a “brilliant, voracious mind,” he was also self-destructive.

A contributing factor had to be the stress he felt being the band’s unwilling leader, responsible for the massive entourage that followed the Dead’s grueling touring schedule.

Guitarist Garcia had become an icon, considered a messiah by some of the Dead’s rabid followers, and looked to escape.

“He had been suffering a long time,” she says.

Bassist Phil Lesh says Jerry felt he owed it to his employees to keep on truckin’ and he now wishes they had all thought more about Jerry.

‘Let’s have fun’

Death, life and how to live it, and rebirth – that awakening – are themes of the film.

While there are those sad moments, “Long Strange Trip” produces plenty of smiles, and not just from the nitrous oxide and LSD-25 the band consumed and used as a catalyst for creating its music.

Meier says the use of the psychedelic “takes away your cultural conditioning and lets you see beyond that. It allows you to see ‘what is.’ ”

She says the effects suited Jerry because he was already unattached to conventional reality. Yet he seemed to understand it all.

“He got it. He got the whole download,” she says. “And because he was a musician, he created a group of people around him, and you see in the film where that goes.”

It was a long, strange trip, all right, starting as just a collection of friends from the San Francisco Bay Area and growing to become a global phenomenon that knew no boundaries.

At the beginning, Meier says in the film, it was all about having fun for Jerry. There was his epiphany at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles when he came to realize nothing is eternal, so why not just have fun?

“I was down with that,” band member Bob Weir says. “Let’s have some fun.”

Lesh says the people around Jerry knew he was going somewhere, and everyone jumped on board. And while for them it was about having fun, they worked hard just playing in the band.

“The best thing we ever did was to decide not to become recording artists,” Lesh says. They instead became a working band, touring and bringing their music to the people.

The film is filled with interviews with band members, publicists, tour managers, roadies and others who were along for the ride.

Over four hours, “Long Strange Trip” tells the story of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead without assigning one meaning.

“It’s a distillation of all of that original energy. When you see it,” Meier says of the film, “you get it.”

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