Listening to everything, so you don't have to

All the new stuff will be here: RatDog, Furthur, Phil & Friends... I listen to the rehearsal tapes that surface on etree, I watch the videos from Dime and Trader's Den. I also occasionally post little research projects on various periods and people that were pivotal in the life of the Grateful Dead.
Everything you never got around to checking out, I did.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

One for the history buffs

[I wrote most of this article some time ago; my brother runs a website called Cultural IV and asked me for some original content. For various reasons, it never went up, and and it's been sitting around for a while. A couple of weeks ago, with all the Chicago ticketing madness, I slapped a new introduction on it and pitched it to some online magazines. Nobody picked it up so here it is, in case any of you fine folk like it. Enjoy!]




          People on StubHub are asking upwards of 100,000 dollars for tickets to see the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago, 20 years after they played their last show there with Garcia. What is it with this band? Answers abound: it’s the music, it’s Jerry’s voice, it’s the improvisation, it’s the variety, it’s the mass availability of the band’s recordings, it’s the hybrid nature of the music, it’s the atmosphere. These all have a part to play, but one factor is hardly ever evoked: the band was a uniquely American institution not only as a musical phenomenon, but also a historical one.

 The existing literature on the Grateful Dead, (something on the order of fifty publications of varying quality, accuracy and focus) deals with them primarily as a rock and roll band, and secondarily as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Only one book to date places them in a historical context [Edit: Peter Richardson's recent "No Simple Highway" does so as well; as of this writing I had not read it]. Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos juxtaposes the countercultures she and her sister Candace were involved in (Carol was an activist and Candace was the Dead’s lighting designer on and off for 20 years). Brightman argues that the Grateful Dead represented a specific current in the youth society of the 1960s. This begs the question as to whether, after the psychedelia fad (Strawberry Alarm Clock, anyone?) and the Woodstock moment, the band remained a reflection of American culture. Ultimately, a significant factor in the the band’s cultural legitimacy is the fact that for 30 years, they reflected the experience of Baby Boomer America.

 Only one founding member of the band properly belongs to the Baby Boom (Weir, b. 1947). The rest of the band were born in the first half of the decade to a generation that had lived through the Great Depression and would constitute the maddeningly cautious and conservative authority figures of the 1950s and 60s. Just old enough to be looked up to by the Boomers, band members came of age in the era of Rock n’ Roll and Beat poetry, and graduated high school at the turn of the 1960s, determined to challenge everything that characterized the wartime generation.

 Perhaps the best-known experiment of that era began in a Victorian enclave of San Francisco that had fallen into disrepair during the planning phase of a highway that was never built. In the mid 60s, the now-cheap Haight-Ashbury neighborhood filled slowly with newly independent young people of few means and unusually varied backgrounds, a community of erstwhile beatniks and bohemians that included Weir, the adopted son of a wealthy Atherton couple who ran off to - in his words - join the circus, Pigpen, a grimy young drunk from East Palo Alto, and Jerry Garcia, an army reject immigrant's son who had grown up in San Francisco waterfront taverns.

 Outside the world of these proto-hippies, the US government was busy waging the Cold War, which notably involved a program called MK-Ultra that tested mind-altering substances for possible applications in espionage. A branch of the program operated across the bay in Berkeley; more than a few struggling young people signed up to earn a few bucks acting as guinea pigs. Some of them were given LSD, notably One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey, who founded the Merry Pranksters, and Robert Hunter, who would be the Grateful Dead's first and most prolific lyricist.

 American Rock n’ Roll had more or less died at the end of the 1950s. Elvis joined the army in 1958; a plane crash killed Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in 1959. Chuck Berry was in serious legal trouble, accused of kidnapping a 14-year-old girl; Jerry Lee Lewis was blacklisted after marrying his teenaged cousin; Little Richard quit music to become a minister. The void was filled in 1963 by the British invasion and a new, irreverent and exciting form of Rock n’ Roll far from the polished, reasonably family-friendly fare of the preceding decade. In the Haight-Ashbury, it would spark an explosion of music combining rock n' roll, folk, blues, pot and LSD.

 The Grateful Dead itself was properly born in June 1965 when Phil Lesh, an avant-garde music geek freshly fired from a job at the post office joined the Warlocks, a mediocre bar-band with a talented lead guitarist and a grungy frontman, who were playing a limited repertoire of old blues and rock and roll - with louder instruments - in singles bars and pizza parlors. Their influences had initially been bluegrass and jug band music, but the Rolling Stones’ American debut, combined with Pigpen’s Blues sensibilities, would give their sound a new direction. They had recently added a drummer named Bill Kreutzmann and gone electric. In December they changed their name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead, connected with their friends in the Ken Kesey scene and played some house parties for the Merry Pranksters' Acid Tests. Later immortalized by Tom Wolfe, this fateful union would lend them an indelible legitimacy that launched their career and followed them through the mid 1990s. For several early years, however, they waded on unremarkably in the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. In the summer of 1967, the media started to direct attention to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood: the San Francisco Chronicle coined the (derogatory) term "hippy," Harry Reasoner, Life Magazine, and 60 Minutes brought national attention, the Baby Boomer generation took notice, and the hippie identity was born.

 The two waves of hippies described by Brightman (largely conflated in the popular consciousness today) can be called escapists and activists. They existed at the same time and were comprised of the same generation, often in the same trappings, reacting to the same cultural rigidity, but on one side were those who set out to change the status quo by militating against it: the anti-war protesters, the sitters-in, the Weather Underground; and on the other, those who tried to create an alternate way of life by refusing to engage at all, represented by Easy Rider, communes, and the Grateful Dead. For several years, the band would rely only on themselves and their entourage. They played free concerts, recorded spacey, avant-garde, unconventional albums and played ambassadors of the “San Francisco Scene,” courtesy of legendary promoter Bill Graham, from Vancouver to Florida. Outside the youth scene, the same period had seen the emergence of a high-profile, organized and largely peaceful Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Jr., yielding several significant pieces of legislation. Hippie or not, there was a feeling of optimism among the rising generation: change was possible; change was happening.

 This prevailing optimism suffered some significant blows around the turn of the decade, however. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, his pacifism yielding to more aggressive activism marked by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. The euphoria following Woodstock was rudely shut down three and a half months later when a shoddily arranged concert at Altamont Speedway saw the stabbing death of a gun-wielding fan by Hell's Angels. Six months after that, four student protesters at Kent State university were shot by the National Guard. The activists turned serious, the escapists withdrew. These sharp doses of realism began to turn the tide for the country and the band. 
 In a deeply personal betrayal, the Grateful Dead's manager (second drummer Mickey Hart's father) absconded to Mexico in early 1970 with his mistress and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the band's money. This dose of reality yielded the decision to have the Stones' former manager Sam Cutler, who had washed up at Hart’s ranch after Altamont, lend some professional managerial experience to the band's affairs. The laissez-faire, come-what-may, non-stop party that was the Grateful Dead touring machine reluctantly gathered some semblance of order: organized tours, per diems, albums considerably more conservative (and successful) than the first few.

 Beyond the band's world, the financial and moral cost of Vietnam were exerting a sobering influence on America's sense of rectitude and exeptionalism. News of the My Lai Massacre had broken in 1968, the New York Times started publishing the Pentagon papers in 1971; the dirty world of politics was laid bare by Woodward and Bernstein starting in 1972; strategic imperatives prompted involvement in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. The American military was reviled, the President of the United States resigned in disgrace; the Arab oil-producers embargoed the country, engendering a devastating energy crisis.

 The Grateful Dead plugged on, playing college gigs and developing an audience in the middle of the country (the coasts had already been more or less in the bag, thanks in large part to Bill Graham). One of their most celebrated successes was their 1972 tour of Europe. The trip would yield no less than seven releases (40 years after the fact, a $450, 73-disc set of the entire tour sold out in four days). The band also pioneered a gargantuan and still-unique PA system know as the Wall Of Sound that rose some 30 feet into the air behind the band, eliminating the need for individual amps or monitors. But the band was clinging to an outdated optimism. The road crew, consisting of anyone who wanted to join regardless of qualifications, was inefficient and costly. Setting up the massive Wall Of Sound required two sets of scaffolding that would leapfrog from show to show, adding considerably to expenses. Cocaine replaced marijuana and LSD as the drug of choice: productivity went up but so did emotional volatility.  Finally, placing community over business despite rising costs, the band resisted raising ticket prices. As gas prices tripled in the wake of the OPEC embargo, the band finally saw the writing on the wall and went on indefinite hiatus in October 1974.

 The Ford years were something of a black hole for the United States, marred by a crippling economic downturn, a Presidency forever tainted by the Watergate scandal, and a humiliating Communist victory in Vietnam. American music had also stagnated… the best-selling hit of 1975 was The Captain and Tenille's Love Will Keep Us Together. Band members tried their luck individually with a handful of solo projects, none of which rivaled the Grateful Dead. The band took back to the road gingerly in the summer of 1976, at about the time the American public decided to give the Democrats another chance and disco took center stage as the American musical genre of the moment.

 There was a brief uptick in the American psyche in those final years of the 1970s, but it proved illusory. Carter, the genteel American everyman whose presidency is the only one so far not to see any wars, fostered the Camp David  accords, easing the Cold War proxy-conflict in the Middle East, and the economy revived. The Grateful Dead saw a period of relative success: the spring tour of 1977 is considered one of their best (notwithstanding the flirtation with disco!), to date yielding official releases representing almost half the tour.

 The optimism was short-lived. Hard drugs took root in the Grateful Dead entourage, a more aggressive form of escapism that was reflected elsewhere in American culture, where sci-fi fantasy ruled the box office with films like Alien, Star Wars and Star Trek. Disco faded, replaced by New Wave, in turn given a serious run for its money by the garish hair-and-makeup bands of the early eighties. The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought both another reminder of American vulnerability and Carter's famed "crisis of confidence," a crisis that nevertheless had serious economic repercussions. Carter also made the decision to involve the United States in Russia's Afghan venture. John Lennon was unceremoniously murdered on his own front step; former Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux died in a car accident. By the early eighties, the party was over. Carter had perhaps seen it coming: "if we succumb to a dream world," he had warned, "then we will wake up to a nightmare."

 The Grateful Dead would spend the first half of the 1980s fighting irrelevance. They wrote very little music; their improvisational and experimental style faded somewhat in favor of more rudimentary rock and roll fare. Aside from Rock Scully’s morbid discussion of Garcia's drug problem, the literature on the Grateful Dead is virtually silent on the first half of the decade. By and large, the entire band was struggling with substance issues - as was the United States as a whole, with the hugely popular Miami Vice reflecting the staggering trade in cocaine sweeping the country. Ronald Reagan's reforms had yet to produce results: the economy was stagnant, unemployment was high, morale was low, AIDS was rampant. There was little notable cultural innovation.

 1984 saw the modest beginnings of economic recovery and Reagan successfully campaigned for reelection on the slogan “Morning in America,” tapping into a cautious optimism among a chastened boomer generation now in their thirties. The feeling in the band was analogous. There was a change of management in 1984, following allegations of enablement and embezzlement. Sometime around 1985 tour bonuses were instituted as part of an overhaul of the organization’s finances; several band-members stopped using hard drugs (at least temporarily) in 1985 and ’86. 1985 saw the band gross an unprecedented $11.5 million. By the end of1987, as Wall Street hit theaters, the Grateful Dead was on the rise again: the album In The Dark had gone platinum, mostly on the strength of the band’s first and only top 10 hit, Touch of Grey. They negotiated a multi-album deal with the highest royalty rate in history thus far. Everyone in the band bought a new car.

 The United States meanwhile, freed from financial uncertainty, seemed to grow something of an ecological conscience during the 1980s. The “Save the Whales” movement finally bore fruit, with a moratorium on commercial whaling (the fixation yielded the plot of 1986’s Star Trek IV, wherein the mammals are found to be the key to earth’s salvation). The concept of “sustainable development” was first defined in 1987 and deforestation became an issue, particularly in the Amazon Rainforest. By the late Eighties, the band began to reflect a sense of wider social responsibility. The band’s original fan base were entering middle age and were a notable factor in political discourse; Garcia would describe the band as “citizens who have a constituency.”  In 1988, They began to militate for conservation, appearing before the UN, playing a major benefit concert and doing a spate of interviews. The following year, Garcia, Hart and Weir appeared before the Congressional Human Rights caucus.

 The band’s (and the country’s) fortunes improved steadily into the early nineties - unemployment dropped through the end of the decade, per capita GDP rose, and the Grateful Dead became the world’s highest-grossing touring act in 1991, the same year the United States won the Cold War. Their average venue size had increased by about 40% and their income had tripled since the middle of the 1980s. Garcia once memorably quipped that the Grateful Dead were "like bad architecture or an old whore: if you stick around long enough, eventually you get respectable.” For good or ill, the Grateful Dead became quite fashionable in their final years, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Phil Lesh was invited to conduct the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of their boomer fan-base had done quite well for themselves: Al and Tipper Gore gave them a tour the White House; Senators Barbara Boxer and Patrick Leahy invited them to lunch at the Senate. Since then, Weir and Hart have both been invited to the exclusive and secretive annual retreat at Bohemian Grove, with the crème de la crème of American government, industry and culture.

 Most fans will tell you that the final years of the Grateful Dead were not all roses and recognition, that Jerry Garcia’s health and chops faded palpably in the last years, that shows were marred by gatecrashing, drugs and police presence. Smashing success had not brought lasting stability, rather an unsustainable hubris among fans and a crushing pressure for the band to continue indefinitely. George HW Bush’s “New World Order” led by the United States, seemed poised for indefinite triumph in the wake of the Soviet collapse, but the by the middle of the decade, a new terrorist threat fueled by decades of American interventionism in the Middle East began to jell. It would definitively shatter the illusion, whole since the war, that the US was, if not invincible, at least immune to catastrophe. Garcia’s ignominious death of heart failure in a rehabilitation clinic drove that point home for Deadheads; the US embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and the destruction of the Twin Towers would do the same for the America in the years to come.



 For some of those currently cashing in their 401Ks to see (most of) the Grateful Dead one last time, this is about more than good vibes or hearing a final Dark Star; there is no other band whose trajectory so closely reflects the life experiences of the Baby Boomer generation. Ever modest, Garcia’s “old whore” analogy sells the band short. Longevity alone is not enough to earn a place as a cultural fixture; one has to represent that culture in a tangible way. If demand for tickets to Chicago this summer (estimated to be in the millions) is any indication, there are a great many people in the United States who feel that this band, of all bands, is their band.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent post!

    I would add Peter Richardson's recent No Simple Highway as a book that historicizes the Dead, albeit more in cultural terms than in the political terms you mostly emphasize.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the tip on Richardson!

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  2. Politics plays a role in his account, of course. Richardson, being so strong on San Francisco and California angles, gives a great treatment of Reagan, for example, and riffs on various political crossings artfully and intelligently.

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  3. Fine post. Nice to see you writing again. As a relatively old deadie (first saw then in '69), my enjoyment of what they do has not waned... new old recordings keep me enjoying them, and finding new reasons to. I've kept your page bookmarked as I enjoyed your past Dead ramblings... please continue.

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  4. Just a note: from my limited readings - McNally Lesh parish and the garcia stuff, I understand the crew to have been quite willfull and pugnacious but also closed and tight-knit.
    When J Mcintire died, I read a story about a young guy he befriended who after some time in acquaintance, asked Jon for a job. Jon turned the kid down, and said he did that a lot.
    I'm probably wrong on this reading of the crew but my comment is self-serving: it punctured my fantasy that if it were the early '70's I'd sell everything to go work for The Dead! So much for fantasy...it softens and bears the passages of time, as does your blog. Fun to read! Thx. Whit Smith Santa Fe NM.

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