Carol Brightman was a political activist in the late 60s and early 70s. She edited the underground Viet-Report on the US’s involvement in Vietnam, and later won a National Book Critics Circle award for a book on author/activist Mary McCarthy. In the early nineties, her editor – and the fact that her sister had long worked for the Grateful Dead – convinced her to write a book about Deadheads. The end product came out differently: Sweet Chaos mainly chronicles the counter-culture years of the late 60s, using as lenses the Grateful Dead and her own experience.
Carol’s sister Candace had been working at the Capitol Theater in 1971 when Garcia came through with his band. He liked her work and asked her to join the GD crew (“A lot of people work for us for nothing,” he told her when she asked about pay). She started in New York at the Academy of Music in March 1972 and aside from a couple of years when she quit in a huff (‘74-’75 – Parish had refused to let Carol backstage), she was a full-fledged family member. Carol, on the other hand, was heavily involved in political activism, and had relatively little contact with her sister at the time. She makes no claims to be familiar with the inner workings of the band and admits that their a lot of their music sounds the same to her.
The book opens with the only really historical analysis of the burgeoning hippie culture of the mid-sixties. Rather than focusing on the Haight and the Summer of Love, she traces the Beat generation’s gradual demise, the emergence of a secondary coffee-shop scene and the fabrication of the “hippie” identity (noting that at the time of the S.F. Chronicle article coining the term, “hippie” referred to high-school-age Beatnik wannabes, an unflattering term hotly resisted by those involved).
The book’s centerpiece places the late-sixties activism in which Brightman was involved against the Grateful Dead’s origins and early identity. There are chapters devoted to the Weather Underground, her time at Viet-Report, and with the Brigadistas, those American youths who descended on Cuba to aid in the revolution by harvesting the sugarcane that would finance an independent government. While the connections with the GD’s world are not made explicit, she ties them together under the umbrella of the government’s efforts to curb the counterculture. The Dead were busted and hassled, of course, and Brightman discusses the extensive files on her own and others’ political activities, and chronicles the spate of clashes between National Guard and college students in 1970.
The author argues that in the early 70s, both political activism and the Dead’s early counter-cultural identity petered out. Though she is not particularly clear on the details, it is true that Lenny Hart’s exit was more or less the last straw in a series of failed in-house initiatives, and that thereafter there was a reorganization of the band’s financial and touring affairs that effectively brought them more in line with the mainstream music business. She is more eloquent on the demise of political activism: the sheer number of factions and angles made an actual solution difficult to articulate, and it became clear that the cost of further encouraging resistance (i.e. Weathermen attacks and campus clashes with the National Guard), was unacceptable.
In my opinion, the comparison is not altogether very convincing, even if the two phenomena were coeval. It seems to me that they were reactions to different mores of mainstream culture – loosely speaking, social vs. political – and that there was little direct connection between the two movements.
There is a break in the narrative around 1971-2 (like everyone else, she focuses disproportionately on the band’s first five years), but the initial intention to write a book on Deadheads provides her a wealth of interview material. A cross-section of fans, some there for the music, others for the drugs, provide a look at Deadhead culture upon which she bases some illuminating commentary: the escapism provided from mainstream culture and politics, the development of the Deadhead identity, the flowering of the secondary merchandise and parking lot scenes etc. She also gets a fair amount of information from Candace and Chris Brightman (their brother, a set carpenter for the GD in the nineties and later for the Furthur festival), providing a glimpse of the culture backstage and among the crew: jealousy and petty battles, Garcia’s unavoidable cult status, mistrust of anyone on the outside, etc. These are not great revelations, though nonetheless authoritative. The ensuing discussion is original and very useful in explaining the Grateful Dead phenomenon to the uninitiated, giving a broad overview and some insight into the “why-on-earth” questions elicited by the band’s admittedly obsessive fandom.
Sweet Chaos is, to my knowledge, the only historically contextualized book on the Grateful Dead’s early years, and it does more than most to address the varied elements of the band’s social appeal. That being said, it dwells on episodes of the author’s experience whose relevance is unclear and whose weight is unwarranted considering the book’s title The original angle about Deadheads comes through but meanders somewhat, as though the author could not pick out a unifying thread. The political counterculture parallel to the social upheaval surrounding the Dead in the late sixties is relevant to the band’s origins and this book juxtaposes them nicely, but it is only the beginning of the work to be done in that area.
Up Next: I know I’ve been promising a post on Furthur’s summer shows. I’ve had a rather fragmented schedule recently with very short commutes, so it has taken me much longer than usual to hear those shows. You should get something within a week.