Dennis McNally is an author, publicist, lecturer, and music business multitasker. He began as the Grateful Dead’s publicist in 1984, and has since worked with many different musicians, bands, record companies and promoters, including Zakir Hussain, Steve Kimock, Little Feat and Bob Weir & RatDog. His Grateful Dead book, A Long Strange Trip, came out in 2002, and a study of African-American music and its relationship with white bohemia, On Highway 61, in 2014.
How did you meet Jerry Garcia and how did you get involved with the Grateful Dead?
In graduate school at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), I wrote a dissertation about Jack Kerouac, ‘Desolate Angel,’ that was published by Random House. Around that time, I became a fan of the Grateful Dead and soon decided I wanted to write a complete history of post-WWII bohemia, with volume one being about Kerouac and volume two the Dead.
After attending the 12/31/79 Dead show, I interviewed Bill Graham. A few months later, the Chronicle’s pink section ran a listing of 13-15 shows, and during that time, I met Jerry Garcia and mentioned that I’d written a book about Kerouac and had he gotten it? Kerouac had been his mentor and role model since he’d read ‘On the Road’ as a 16-year-old proto-painter at the SF Art Institute in 1958 and he had indeed read ‘Desolate Angel’ and liked it a lot. I needed a job, and it turned out the Dead needed a publicist. After the receptionist complained that no one was returning media calls, Garcia said, “Ah, get McNally to do it. He knows that shit.”
Why did you choose to enter PR?
Although I didn’t precisely choose to be a publicist, I’d become one—and a publicist with truly unique job parameters. My entire formal job training for my job as publicist for the Grateful Dead consisted of a one-sentence admonition from Jerry Garcia (“We don’t suck up to the press”) followed by a pleasant conversation over a well-smoked joint. Generating publicity was never the challenge; managing the Niagara Falls of requests, rumors, and all-around craziness that led to over 100 phone calls a day and 60+ hour weeks. That was the job. It really was demanding. To appropriate a phrase, it wasn’t a job, it was an adventure. I have what might gently be described as an unusual “career” arc.
What is your most memorable “PR moment” with Jerry and the band?
Running a press conference at the United Nations when the Dead devoted a concert to fundraising to save the rainforest was a high point; so was introducing Vice President Al Gore to the band on a visit to the White House.
What story or stories are you most proud of?
A story I was particularly proud of came in 1987, when the Dead released the Top Ten song “Touch of Grey.” The remarkable media coverage was sparked in part because I’d managed to a) locate a Dead Head at the very straight-laced Forbes Magazine, and b) got them to put the band on the cover.
Tell us about your dream client.
That’s easy: Zakir Hussain, an Indian tabla virtuoso, composer, percussionist, music producer, truly one of the world’s truly great musicians. He has played with every great Indian musician, from Ravi Shankar to Ali Akbar Khan to you-name-it, but his taste for collaboration has also included George Harrison and Yo-Yo Ma. He’s cooperative, does great interviews, and is an all-around pleasure to be around.
What clients do you work with now?
Truthfully, my priorities these days are less about PR and more about working on my next book which will study American bohemia (mostly but not exclusively in San Francisco) from the late 1940s to 1967, which is to say the deepest roots of the Haight Ashbury scene in the sixties.
What’s your “must visit” spot in San Francisco?
If I were telling a visitor the one place above all they had to visit in San Francisco, it would be City Lights Bookstore. Really a miraculous story — much as I remain in love with San Francisco, the incredible growth in density and current glossy economic success makes me all the more grateful for something so literate, unique, and enduring.
What career advice you offer young people getting into PR?
Outside of honing your writing chops, bear in mind that PR is about building relationships on behalf of your client, whether you’re talking face to face or using the fanciest social media: find what connects you and your client with your audience…and make sure everyone understands that it’s real.
Finish this sentence: If I am not working I am…
Between PR and researching the new book, there’s not a lot of time left, and I spend much of that, aside from enjoying the lives of two grandsons, involved with my work supporting the ACLU and even more time at the San Francisco Zen Center. I volunteer at various jobs there, but the most satisfying is working in the kitchen on Saturday mornings.
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