Marc Weingarten offers a sour review of the new Dead bio, A Long Strange Trip, by the band’s publicist Dennis McNally in Slate. He decries the band’s musical decline through the ’80s and ’90s and blames the uncritical love of the Deadheads for this development:
- “The Grateful Dead certainly sought to entertain and move its audience,” McNally writes, “but the root basis of their relationship was that of a partnership of equals, of companions in an odyssey.”
From 1965 to roughly 1975, the Dead fed off of this symbiosis brilliantly, moving through Live/Dead’s lysergic-stoked free rock to the space-cowboy country of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty on to the baroque prog-jams of Wake of the Flood. Their venturesome efforts were rewarded with a fan base of Deadheads that had swelled to a mega-movement by the end of the ’70s. Intensely loyal to the band, Deadhead-dom became its own sideshow, a traveling community of freaks and later, frat-boy geeks.
The Deadheads gave the Grateful Dead a steady revenue stream and a safe harbor. At first, it felt like a rear guard action – fighting for community in a socially fragmented era. But it curdled into the last refuge for musical conservatism and complacency, and it seemed to destroy the band’s work ethic. McNally glancingly makes reference to this dark side of the Deadhead phenomenon: “Like all fans … they could become tediously obsessed with the object of their joy,” he writes.
I personally believe the band’s ability to almost infinitely expand its enveloping vibe to include such a huge number and variety of people will be its enduring legacy: how can Weingarten denigrate such a unique social phenomenon? And as far as work ethic goes, does he have any idea how much effort it took to stretch and maintain the vibe over the decades? “Lazy” is not a word that comes to mind.
This paragraph is inexplicable:
- Thematic content hardly mattered to the loyalists any more; the band’s canon instead became a series of dramatic gestures, well-timed downshifts, and dance cues. Safe within the fuzzy bubble of Deadhead-land, the band coasted for years on end, but no matter how negligent or desultory the performance, they always had the Deadheads to fall back on. Of course the Dead loved the support – they never had to work hard to earn it.
The Dead NEVER took their audience for granted – it’s their most endearing quality. It took effort and artistic daring to vary the show and the set list so greatly from night to night. The fact that each show was an adventure and NOT a guaranteed aesthetic success proves this point. You never knew what you were going to get: where is the complacency there?
Will Hermes, who reviewed the book for the NY Times last week, has a much better take:
- Yet as the band’s cosmic Americana came to represent the zenith of hippie idealism, and its fans the nadir of hippie cluelessness, the Dead had almost incidentally become, for a time, perhaps the greatest of American rock bands. It’s this sense of cul tural context and musical accomplishment that Dennis McNally brings to his exhaus tive and occasionally exhausting history, which enters the stacks of a thriving micro genre one might call ”Dead Lit.” It in cludes biographies (Carol Brightman’s am bitious ”Sweet Chaos”), fan catalogs (”The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium”), academic studies (”Deadhead Social Sci ence”), even psychic post-mortem dialogues (”In the Spirit”).
….Entering the Dionysian headspace of a Dead show experience is key to under standing the group’s mystical appeal, and McNally does a great job of articulating it. In a series of interstitial chapters strung like love beads along the book’s narrative line, McNally describes a typical arena con cert from the mid-80’s — when the band’s seasonal tours had become as much a part of American entertainment culture as the N.F.L. These riffs range from backstage preparations and fan babble (”The Grateful Dead represents the high-water mark of civilization”) to musical parsings that, even when they overreach, evoke the rap ture with insight. On an improvisational passage: ”Garcia’s guitar simply squeezes out the lead, the same sure descent but with overtones of pathos and majesty,” and then the band members ”send it up one more time and then speed it up and split it into a shimmering waterfall glissando of grace notes, tears from the goddess muse. And a little . . . feedback, too.” On the signature song ”Uncle John’s Band”: ”This is the American voice as Whitman and Kerouac and Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams dreamed it, but wrapped in dance trance.”
….The psychedelic idealism of rave culture, the online world of MP3 file-sharing, the annual American freak-fest known as Burning Man — all re flect the sense of radical community the Dead engendered. Those seeds of gentle anarcho-utopianism continue to sprout in unexpected places, promoting what one critic called ”the quaint notion that art can save your life.” If it can’t do so forever, there’s still reason to be grateful.
Allow me to interject my own general thoughts on the band, which appeared originally in somewhat different form here:
I find these lyrics by Don Henley from “Boys of Summer” striking:
- Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,
A little voice inside my head, said ‘don’t look back,
You can never look back.’
When Henley wrote “The Boys of Summer’ in 1984, he saw the sticker on the steel as a contradiction of values: a symbolic matter/antimatter collision that obliterated the meaning of both. Henley didn’t realize that his symbol of a dead past was in reality a very powerful symbol of the present and future.
Throughout history, war has been a rallying point for peoples. Leaders have allowed or even encouraged international conflict to escalate into armed confrontation in order to divert attention away from intractable domestic woes. The best way to draw people together is to unite them against a common enemy. The first president Bush’s “War on Drugs” was no accidental title.
The Vietnam War pitted two monumental forces against each other: the newly formed youth culture vs. a people’s ingrained habit of uniting against a common enemy. As I discussed here, youth culture was created by the relative affluence and leisure time of the ’50s and was galvanized by the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
By the early-60s, the rock and roll rebellion was running out of steam. When the adult world seized upon “The Twist” as a charming and wholesome pastime, the rebellious aspect of rock ‘n’ roll seemed a thing of he past. Even the Queen of England liked the Beatles. What next?
The Vietnam War appeared to restoke the boilers of rebellion. The war was a perfect polarizer: it had no clear objective, our help was not particularly appreciated by the Vietnamese, it was far away, it cost many lives, and it was involuntary (the military has since learned that voluntary warriors are happy warriors). The old made the decisions, the young died.
As obvious as all of this seemed to the young and their sympathizers, war still held its old meaning to their parents and grandparents. To the elders, war was still a rallying point, and support of it a civic duty. War still meant WWII, or WWI: wars that required national unity merely to be survived. War was us (good), vs. them (bad). Nothing else mattered. To question this particular war was to question all wars, and if war wasn’t a rallying point, then what good was it? And war had to be good for something, because it cost so much.
Vietnam divided the war dialectic of “us” vs. “them,” into a triad of “us” vs. “them” vs.”them.” The war created hopelessly confused loyalties and antagonisms between the three parties. After the war was finally mercy killed, people came to realize that they had hated the internal confusion more than they had hated the external enemy. Who really cared about what happened to a bunch of crazed Asians? The people of Vietnam were never the point anyway: principle was, and principle wasn’t worth this kind of internal conflict.
As a result, both sides of the internal conflict embraced the perceived highlights of the other’s culture with a ferocity that was dizzying. Blood is thicker than ideology. The adults lightened up: Johnny Carson grew his hair long and joked about smoking pot, the youth embraced the acquisitive materialism of their parents with the shamelessness of Midas.
The very concept of a “youth culture”: a mass counterculture organized along generational lines disappeared in the ’80s. The Reaganonic codification of social and economic Darwinism successfully removed the language of the counterculture from public discourse. The line between “us” and “them” became the line between an individual’s public and private personas. Everyone had to pay lip service to the “just say no” mentality. Everyone had to move his public persona four steps to the right just to continue to play the game:
- “Capitalism has won, man. There aren’t even any other significant options now. If you’re going to do something, do it right. I take pride in my work. What do you want me to be, a bad accountant? I’m not embarrassed about the money I make. I have responsibilities: a wife, kids, a house, a boat, a dog. I like my goodies. But I don’t buy into that Calvanist/Reagonian dogma about wealth being a deterministic signpost toward upward mobility in the afterlife either.
“More money means you can buy more cool stuff, that’s all. So I play the game at work. I even get a company car. I can pick any domestic car I want, and the Caddy gives me the most bang for my, I mean the company’s, buck.
“But I still party. I still rock ‘n’ roll. We ship the kids out, roll up the carpet in the living room and get down. I still go to shows. We see the Dead whenever we can. No one stares at you. I can be who I want to be. I always see people I know from work – we always smile and pretend that we don’t know each other. Sometimes I see my friend’s kids. They don’t hassle me either.”
People became compartmentalized. The unalloyed idealism of the ’60s has been discredited as impractical and divisive, the grasping materialism of the mid-’70s into the ’80s has been discredited as dispiriting. During the ’80s these opposites waged war within the national psyche, agreed to disagree, and emerged with a sort of Gorbachev/Yeltsin coalition government: different values for different circumstances.
The Dead became THE symbol of this kind of bifurcation until Jerry Garcia’s death in ’95: a well-oiled money making machine ($50 million a year in concert revenue) that sold peace, love and understanding to a legion of internally divided admirers. The Dead sold out every show because everyone needs a break and a Dead show was a socially acceptable place to try on the values of another time and place.
Drug use was pandemic at these shows because drugs act to trigger the transformation into the private self. People who didn’t do drugs any other time fired up a doob or sucked on a nitrous balloon – or even ate a tab of acid – and danced around like learning-impaired pixies to the Dead and their light, rhythmic, pleasant, and occasionally inspired musical noodling. They wanted it all, and they wanted it now. At a Dead show they didn’t have to give up anything permanent to get it. A deadhead sticker on a Cadillac isn’t an absurdity, Don Henley, it is emblematic of an age.
Jerry Garcia’s death shone a bright light on the bizarre duality of his social role. This lifelong drug addict and hippie icon was revered by presidents (Clinton) and senators:
- longtime fan Sen. Patrick Leahy said news of Garcia’s death left him feeling “like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.” “I just feel terrible about it,” said Leahy, D-Vt., a fan since the 1960s and personal friend of Garcia for about 10 years. “When they were here last just a few weeks ago, I was talking to Jerry,” Leahy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He was talking about how he was watching his diet and being careful. I took my oldest son with me. We were on stage for the whole show.”
Leahy’s friendship with the guitarist developed after someone representing the band called to find out if it was true that Leahy had attended a Dead concert. “I said ‘I go all the time,”‘ recalled Leahy, 55. Then came the first of many invitations to sit backstage. “I got a call one night from the White House operator while on stage. … The president and secretary of state are looking for me. I got on the phone with the secretary of state (Warren Christopher) and he asked me if I thought I had my radio on rather loud.”
Last year Leahy invited Garcia and other band members to lunch in the senators’ dining room. “The most remarkable thing about that was Senator Thurmond came up, introduced himself to Jerry Garcia and said, ‘Boy I understand you’re a rock star.”‘ Garcia acknowledged that he was. The then-91-year-old South Carolina Republican then responded: “Well I’m Strom Thurmond. I’m the oldest member of the U.S. Senate.”
During that lunch, Garcia asked Leahy which was his favorite song. At the concert this year at RFK Stadium, the band played that song, “Black Muddy River,” as its encore in honor of Leahy’s presence. “I thought he looked better than he had in years,” said Leahy of Garcia at that concert. Leahy said he had wanted to attend the band’s recent performance in Vermont, but couldn’t. It had been their second show there after being urged by Leahy to go to the state. He couldn’t count the number of concerts he’s attended. “I go every time I can,” said Leahy. “They have probably kept the most loyal cadre of fans you can image. They have always treated their fans and their own people right.”
Leahy said he keeps track of the band on the Internet. “I even have their Web page on my list of bookmarks,” he said. The senator said he felt different kinds of people could read their feelings and hopes into the Dead’s music and lyrics “even though they may be diametrically opposite.” “I’ve never left one of their concerts not feeling better than when I went in,” said Leahy.
- San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, who has taken his three sons to Grateful Dead concerts, ordered flags lowered to half-staff and a tie-dyed Dead flag hoisted up the City Hall flagpole.
Said another politician, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a 50-year-old Republican and an unabashed fan: Garcia’s death is “a loss to both my generation and my children’s.”
Many say either you are a Deadhead or you’re not – all or nothing. I say twaddle. I’m no Deadhead but I love American Beauty (1970) with “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple” and “Truckin’.” The Grateful Dead live 2-LP set (1971) rolls along with “Bertha,” “Mama Tried,” “Playing in the Band,” “”Johnny B. Goode,” “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
Skeletons In the Closet, The Best of Grateful Dead (1974) repeats “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Friend of the Devil” from American Beauty, but adds “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “One More Saturday Night,” and Pigpen’s moment of glory, “Turn On Your Love Light.”
Blues For Allah (1975) is cool with “Franklin’s Tower,” Shakedown Street (1978) has its moments with the title track, “Good Lovin’,” “Fire On the Mountain” and “I Need a Miracle.”
Grateful Dead Go to Heaven (1980) is nice with “Alabama Getaway,” “Althea” and the rousing “Don’t Ease Me In.” In addition, the Jerry Garcia solo album, Garcia (1972) features the languid hit “Sugaree” on the vinyl side one, but side two is a psychedelic masterpiece worthy of early Pink Floyd, culminating with “The Wheel,” a majestic song with beautiful, eerie pedal steel work.