An original Grateful Dead tour bus — “Sugar Magnolia,” a customized 1965 red Gillig that the band used to tour the purple mountains and fruited plains from sea to shining sea from 1967-1985 — is for sale via the Volo Auto Museum for a cool $200,000. Assuming the purchaser would not be using the bus to actually, you know, tour, that’s a lot of scratch even though it’s a serious slice of rock history with all of the original furnishings and décor preserved: the ceiling remains lined with hundreds of vintage rock posters featuring the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin and others who visited the bus.
In fact, the kind of person who could both afford and be predisposed to obtain this rather unwieldy heirloom, makes for a fascinating sociological study. 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.
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 — you’re wrong 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 (Leahy of Vermont), governors (Weld of Massachusettes) and mayors (Jordan of San Francisco).
Come to think of it, “Sugar Magnolia” might find quite a few suitors.