Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Dennis McNally is a veteran of the rock scene, having served as trusted publicist for the Grateful Dead for decades. As such, he was in the middle of the storm of music that swept up the culture and changed the way the world would see itself. Most journalists who cover rock and roll are well-aware that McNally is not your typical publicist looking at the stage through the side-window. Instead, he has always been a part of the music – someone with a keen ear and broad awareness. In turn, McNally was able to work intimately with Garcia and Weir because he instinctively understood what drove them, understanding just why the music was important – to its creators and to the throngs that flocked to the shows and danced their hearts away. Ultimately, On Highway 61 is a book about the journey of our music and the way it helped to expand the eye of the culture, honing its collective clarity, giving it a heartfelt purpose. Highway 61 is truly unique in the way that McNally’s “Desolate Angel” (chronicling Jack Kerouac and The Beat Generation movement) was unique – examining the meaning of art in relation to its affect on the many hidden layers of the world. In Highway 61, McNally juxtaposes the progression of art with the peoples’ quest for freedom. In the first part of the book, he looks at the America of Huck Finn and Thoreau as it naturally rolled into the warm jump of Ragtime. From here, McNally offers a compelling review of the brilliant African American contributions to the history of song, writing authoritatively on the blues and jazz movements (the Robert Johnson chapter is one of the crown jewels of the book) and the subsequent white response to the coarse tribal passions of these wholly American idioms. The final segment of Highway 61 looks at the genesis of Bob Dylan’s work: McNally’s obvious connection to Dylan’s poetics and his ability to offer an insider’s glimpse into Dylan’s influences allows for a multiplicity of fresh insights into a body of work that is analyzed the way that theologians dissect the bible. During its best moments, On Highway 61 flows like a living room conversation with somebody who helped to change the course of pop music and lived to tell about it. Every serious fan of rock and roll, jazz or blues should read this book: It has much to say, and it says it with depth and grace.