Since publishing his first novel, Home Movies, in 1997, Ray Robertson has grown into one of Canada’s most prolific writers. Born in Chatham, ON, but based in Toronto for most of his life, one thing that’s always made Ray’s work stand out is how he seamlessly blends his favourite music into his prose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
Early on, he displayed a love for country and folk music, which especially came out in his 2002 novel Moody Food, featuring a main character loosely based on Gram Parsons. More recently, in 2016, Ray published Lives Of The Poets (With Guitars), 13 essays on some of the musicians he most admires, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard, to Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt. His most recent novel, Estates Large And Small, tells the bittersweet story of a Toronto used bookstore owner, who finds solace in his life through listening to the Grateful Dead.
It led Ray to connect with Dead archivist David Lemieux, who commissioned him to write liner notes for two recent reissues, the box set Here Comes Sunshine 1973 and Dave’s Picks Vol. 45, which presents two 1977 concerts from Portland, OR. Ray’s new life as a Dead Head has now fully bloomed in his latest book, All The Years Combine: The Grateful Dead In Fifty Shows, his personal journey into the dense world of Dead concert recordings and how they illustrate the band’s evolution and impact on our culture.
From even a casual sampling of the text, it’s clear that Ray’s passion for the subject matter is genuine, although it’s surprising that he never actually attended a Dead show in person. However, that only seems to underscore the power of both Ray’s writing, and the effect the Dead can still have on anyone if they encounter the band at the right moment in their lives.
Ray graciously shared more of his thoughts about the Dead and the book with us, ahead of his official launch party in Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 3030 Dundas. All The Years Combine is published by Biblioasis.
Where did your interest in the Grateful Dead begin?
Although All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows is an attempt to understand and better appreciate the Grateful Dead’s music through a tour of 50 of their shows, there’s an essay at the end of the book called “Pick a Prize: How I Became a Dead Head.” I needed a 3,000-word essay to help me understand how I got there, but the short answer is, first I knew their alt-country stuff on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and eventually—slowly, incrementally, organically—I grew the ears to appreciate the genius of Garcia’s guitar. Once I did, it wasn’t long before I felt compelled to hear every note of music he played.
How did the idea for the book come together?
Every book, to me, starts as an itch that needs to be scratched, and for a writer, that means figuring out what I think about a subject by writing a book about it. In this case, subject is the Grateful Dead’s music and the book is All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows.
How did you end up writing liner notes for two Dead archive releases?
Dave Lemieux, the Grateful Dead’s legacy manager, read my previous novel, Estates Large And Small, which features a major Dead Head as the main character. He sent me an email saying he liked it, and we hit it off. A few months later, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing the liner notes to Dave’s Picks #45, two complete shows from the fall of 1977, which, of course, I was thrilled and honoured to do; I’ve been a Dave’s Picks subscriber since 2016. A few months after that, he asked me if I was up for writing 10,000 words to go with the Here Comes Sunshine box set, a 17 CD collection of five outstanding shows from the early summer of 1973.
What makes you a fan of specific eras of the Dead’s career?
That’s the thing about the breadth and the catholicity of the Dead’s music: first, for me, it was the shorter, more song-orientated material that drew me in; then the spacier, second-set stuff; then, where I seem to be now, it’s the jazzier direction the group took after pianist Keith Godchaux joined the band in the fall of 1971 that is my go-to Dead. No matter your predilection for a certain kind of music or a certain way of playing music, chances are you’ll find it in the Grateful Dead’s live catalogue.
Do you have any regrets over not seeing them live with Jerry Garcia?
Sure—but I was too young to see them at their peak, so c’est la vie. In 30 or so years, no one will be alive who saw the Grateful Dead in concert, all we’ll have—just as we do with Bach or Billie Holiday or Jimmie Rodgers—is the music, the real litmus test for lasting relevance. And because of the vault, and people like Dave Lemieux, we’ve got all those great shows to listen to any time we want, which is why being a Dead Head is such a unique form of fandom. There’s nothing quite like being a Dead Head.