Book Review: “All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows” — Grab a Bong

By Scott McLennan

All the Years Combine is best approached as yet another voice in the ever burgeoning conversation about the evolution of the Grateful Dead.

All The Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows by Ray Robertson. Biblioasis, 240 pages.

Somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area there’s an old guy who, for decades, has been complaining about Jerry Garcia’s decision to quit playing jug band music, swapping his banjo for an electric guitar in order to launch the Grateful Dead in 1965.

Probably not far down that very same road is a savvy someone who’ll tell you that everything the Grateful Dead did after the death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973 was just a cash grab.

And there are those who insist that the Grateful Dead’s decline started in 1978. Or maybe it was 1984. Then again … it might have been 1992.

Despite all these varying opinions and bugaboos about when the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead were at their absolute peak or when the band sounded more ol’ than good, they must square with the fact that the Grateful Dead enjoyed a great deal of commercial and critical success throughout the entirety of its original run from 1965 to 1995. Today the band has a devoted fan base that is as large as it has ever been.

The Grateful Dead absolutely and unequivocally had its ebbs and flows, both artistically and commercially. But the truth is that the band never combusted as completely as many of its peers did; neither did it ever sink so low as to merit a genuine “comeback story” narrative. All of that said, the Grateful Dead remains an unusually fertile entry in the “what does it all mean” category of rock lit.

Writer Ray Robertson has decided to feed what has become an insatiable appetite for all things Grateful Dead with his book All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows.

Robertson, who has written fiction and nonfiction, including books and articles about music, sets out to capture the essence of the Grateful Dead in a series of short essays about 50 concerts (well, we get a “bonus” 51st show too) laid out in chronological order. His goal is not so much to point out the band’s best work as to support the claim that Robertson makes in the first line of the book’s introduction: “I believe that a Grateful Dead concert is life.”

What does this mean? Robertson explains that everything woven into the history of the Grateful Dead — its periods of growth, its infuriating wipeouts and triumphant highs, its debilitating decay and tragic deaths — are symbolic, metaphorical, and authentic representations of life writ large. Trust me, any two Deadheads with a bong have had a similar conversation.

What makes Robertson’s project a bit different than your typical dorm-room philosophizing session is that the writer never actually saw the Grateful Dead live, he explains in an epilogue chapter. While Robertson was developing his musical tastes as a kid growing up in Canada the Dead bus drove by but he did not get on. He passed on the Dead he had sampled; instead, Robertson fell for Neil Young and various other singer-songwriters and roots/country acts.

It was decades later, when he was in his 40s, that Robertson fell in love with the sound of Jerry Garcia’s guitar after listening to the live albums made by the quartet Garcia formed with keyboard player Merl Saunders.

Thus, All the Years Combine is essentially one man’s journey through the past, relying on officially released live recordings of entire concerts (of which the Dead have churned out dozens) and well-regarded or popular bootleg recordings easily accessible on websites that archive live music.

Author Ray Robertson. Photo: Biblioasis

Robertson is open about the tastes that have shaped his opinions: not a fan of the drum jams that become concert staples; big fan of vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux’s work with the band during her tenure from 1972 to ’79; not a fan of the band’s heavy use of Chuck Berry covers or the cover of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” Most dogmatically, he asserts that the band pretty much sucked all through the ’80s, limping along until Jerry Garcia died in 1995.

In about five seconds I could assemble a team of passionate debaters to challenge any one of those points. But to be fair, Robertson never claimed to be writing an authoritative history or providing serious critique. So it is helpful to patiently listen to where the guy is coming from — even if in your heart you know how wrong he can be at times.

Robertson does get a lot right in the way he traces the changes in the music, especially through the band’s most formative years and subsequent periods of artistic growth and exploration throughout the ’70s.

Writing about McKernan, the band’s early focal point, Robertson astutely notes in his entry devoted to July 29, 1966, “it’s as if he were keeping the customers happy until the rest of the band could catch up.”

And Robertson aptly traces Garcia’s development as a singer when writing about the song “Morning Dew,” Bonnie Dobson’s existential lament that remained in the Dead’s concert repertoire throughout the band’s entire career. As he perceptively notes in his entry on the Dead’s May 2, 1970 concert at Harpur College: “ ‘Morning Dew’ has arrived (although I could do without the gong, as would the band eventually), has found the right forlorn cadence and been shorn of Garcia’s previously affected delivery (You can hear how he’s delighting in his newly found phrasing, luxuriating in hitting all the high notes.)”

Robertson frequently drops in parenthetical commentary in lieu of fleshed-out critique or detailed historical analysis.

The writer’s emphasis on opinion over informed reporting and research opens the door to some shaky claims. While drug use among the members of the Grateful Dead is not a secret, asserting without substantiation that particular performances were affected by drug consumption undermines Robertson’s authority. That said, he does cite sources elsewhere referring to this aspect of the band’s story, and when he does it adds credibility to his commentary.

The Grateful Dead in 1970, in a rural setting — Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh. Photo: Wiki

The other thing that takes getting used to is Robertson’s penchant for bizarre prose, particularly some very weird phrasing. Of a 1969 version of “Dark Star,” he writes: “This one is a mere twenty-one minutes long, but it packs everything that makes ‘Dark Star’ great during this period into a jamming junkie’s dime-bag wet dream.” He describes “Playing in the Band” as a “big sloppy bowl of hot sound soup.” Discussing the band’s transformative year of 1976, Robertson observes that “beer and creative growth are always best when they’re organic.”

Robertson contends that, when the band became overwhelmed by business concerns, it weakened the impact of the Dead’s music. It’s not an unusual critique, but it is suspect given that the band achieved its biggest commercial success in the mid-’80s with songs that sounded like Grateful Dead songs — it’s not like Garcia sat down with Diane Warren and asked for a hit single. And before playing football stadiums in the ’90s, the Dead had its relative share of mega-shows at stadiums and racetracks during the ’70s and ’80s.

Unsurprisingly, Robertson is limited by his tastes and preferences, so All the Years Combined is best approached as yet another voice in the ever burgeoning Grateful conversation, shedding new light on classic performances as well as providing an opportunity, here and there, to call out some Dead wrong bullshit.


Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

12 Comments

  1. Gerald Peary on November 25, 2023 at 11:58 am

    Hi Scott: I’m a great fan of your rock missives for The Arts Fuse. Please please keep them coming!

  2. Ray McShay on November 29, 2023 at 4:20 pm

    I’m reading this book right now. I’ve been thinking exactly what this author said in this article. Good book but Robertson is a bit pissy in parts

  3. August West on November 29, 2023 at 6:47 pm

    There’s (was) nothing like a Dead show…. Now how can you write a book about nothing you experienced… ? .. seems odd.

    • Ali Bell on November 30, 2023 at 5:12 am

      I concur. 100%. It’s a whole-body immersive experience once needs in order to have any valid sense of the band and people. You wouldn’t want a baker to represent you in court. You’d want someone who’s been to law school and passed the bar.

    • Scott McLennan on November 30, 2023 at 8:28 pm

      I minded less that he’s never seen the band live (though totally agree that the experience is central to understanding the Grateful Dead) but found it problematic that he never squares the reality that the band’s audience grew, the band continued to write and produce new music, and the band’s music is as big a cultural force now as it has ever been.

      I’ve never seen Jimi Hendrix, but I don’t think that disqualifies me from writing about Hendrix. But I would need to rely on a lot more reporting, research, and analysis. Robertson didn’t bother too much with that.

    • Ray McShay on November 30, 2023 at 8:29 pm

      Man, you hit the nail right on the head. But this book is having me revisit shows listed in the book.

      • Karen Kern on December 3, 2023 at 10:49 am

        That’s how I thought I would read it- pair listening to the show with each chapter. On the bus since ’80 through tapes, finally got to a show in Ventura ’82 and continue to this day enjoying all the iterations and variations, live, taped, streamed, etc. Agree with Ali about the immersive experience, but also know if you’ve researched something well you can get a good feel for it at least I’ve come to appreciate all the young people going to shows now who never saw Jerry play, but definitely seem to be moved to the soul by the music. Anyway, my interest is piqued.

  4. Shining Star on November 30, 2023 at 12:54 am

    He talks about a money grab, well what is he doing here…..

  5. Daniel Gewertz on December 11, 2023 at 7:36 pm

    Interesting piece, Scott. I was intrigued with your radical tactical choice… to avoid the main point until the middle of the review. Here is a man who writes a book about the Dead and its effect on multiple generations… who has never seen a single freaking show! It seems like burying the lead, and I wonder if you chose to do this because you didn’t want Deadhead readers to bail on the review after one paragraph. (Your first four paragraphs, by the way, were fantastic, and elicited a wide smile!) I would say Robertson is chock full of outrageous chutzpah. Did he explain why he was — years ago — so disinterested in the live Dead that he never bought a single ticket? Did he offer up a cogent explanation as to why the Dead-obsessed should listen to an outsider?

    • Scott McLennan on December 12, 2023 at 11:52 am

      Hey Daniel! Robertson does talk about not liking the Dead enough to go see the band with Jerry when he was alive. And I think writers can explore artists whom they haven’t seen, so I didn’t want that to necessarily be a litmus test. My beef with this guy is he writes as if he were there, and pretty much just tosses off a bunch of opinion without any context or analysis.

  6. Daniel Gewertz on December 21, 2023 at 3:35 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, Scott. I saw them twice in 1971, when my college suite-mate was a total fanatic. Then a couple of times in the mid-80s as a reviewer. Then, a Jerry show where he was so stoned he could barely most of the right notes. I reviewed that Orpheum show, and panned it… and the guy who ran the used record store near Boylston St., dug my pan so much he taped it to the Grateful Dead bin so that all his Deadhead customers could be insulted! I also remember that show because in 15 minutes at intermission I convinced the stranger next to me, a male college student, to vote for Walter Mondale instead of his former choice, Ronald Reagan, for president in the upcoming 1984 presidential election! (spoiler alert: Reagan won.)

  7. Scott McLennan on December 21, 2023 at 6:45 pm

    Haha, the Reagan voter at a Jerry show may have seemed an anomaly until we started seeing the likes of Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson coming out as Deadheads.

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