Now, this is some heady stuff, man.
There’s no dearth of literature when it comes to the Grateful Dead. Be it scholarly studies of the band’s music and lyrics, biographies of its members (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, etc.), or fan-centric chronologies of Dead albums, tours, and field recordings.
But while many books have explored the who-what-where minutiae of Dead history, few have gotten to the whys and the hows surrounding the San Francisco band and its lasting impact on American culture.
Peter Richardson digs deep in No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (St. Martin’s Press), a 350-plus page study of the circumstances that led to the formation of the preeminent jam-rock band and shaped its evolution throughout the 1970s amid major social, political, and ideological changes. Moreover, Richardson studies how the Dead reacted—as individuals, band, and business entity—to these cultural shifts, and to their own burgeoning stardom.
The author—who holds a PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley and works in the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University—couches his discussion by probing the band and its still-considerable influence in the context of what are perhaps the three greatest “utopian ideals” forward by the band: Ecstasy, Mobility, and Community.
While the group’s “long, strange trip” of musical mischief was indeed marked by its drug-fueled concerts (and similarly freaked-out peripheral activities), Richardson argues that Garcia and company were anything but the longhaired hippie troubadours the press made them out to be. He also makes the case that the Dead’s following wasn’t strictly comprised of unemployed, unambitious, hedonistic stoners. The “Deadheads” of the ‘60s and ‘70s were quite often visionaries who became the movers and shakers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Addressing the “ecstasy” aspect of Dead folklore first, Richardson provides a brief biography of Jerry Garcia, whose musician parents ran a Rincon Hill bar where jazz and R&B acts performed nightly, exposing the banjo-tickling teen to a bigger world. We learn how Garcia accidentally lost a finger to his brother’s hatchet, but overcame his handicap by teaching himself the music he heard on the radio. The author emphasizes that San Francisco was a liberal town comprised of minorities, ex-sailors, and artists—a literal harbor in which an aspiring musician might make a name for himself. It was here that Garcia honed his chops in bluegrass bands like The Warlocks and Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions whilst living in squalid apartments and boardinghouses, throwing in his lot with like-minded wife / Sarah Ruppenthal after his ignominious discharge from the army.
Inspired by beat poet Allen Ginsberg, On the Road author Ken Kesey (and his Merry Pranksters), and by LSD King Owsley Stanley, Garcia and Ruppenthal smoked marijuana and experimented with a pharmacy of mind-expanding psychedelics as the Haight-Ashbury scene blossomed around them. Joining forces with fellow guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, singer / keyboardist Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, drummer Bill Kruetzmann, and lyricist Robert Hunter, Garcia plucked the Grateful Dead moniker from a book and threw in with the other Bay area bands of the era: Quicksilver Messenger Services, Santana, Janis Joplin (with Big Brother & The Holding Company), Blue Cheer, and Jefferson Airplane. We get the inside scoop on their early shows, alliance with clipboard-toting promoter Bill Graham, and communal lifestyle in the shared house at 710 Ashbury.
The “ecstasy” in question has less to do with the massive quantities of drugs offered at the “Acid Tests” of the ‘60s and subsequent freak-outs than with the spiritual / intellectual state of equilibrium Garcia aspired to with his music. Richardson underscores the Dionysian concepts underlying the Summer of Love and motivating the Flower Power generation as the Dead recorded its first studio albums and built a core audience, but he takes care to present the dark flipside of the movement: The peace, love and music promised at Woodstock was undone by the violence at Altamont, the charade of Vietnam, and betrayal of Nixon’s Watergate.
Or was it?
Middle chapters focused on “Mobility” outlay the Dead’s preference for live performance over studio recording for Warner Bros., and how the band cultivated their global audiences with its marathon concerts—first at venues like The Fillmore, then at festivals around the country (including the train-bound Canadian soiree Festival Express with Joplin) and in Europe. With Hunter’s poetic verses, Garcia and Weir’s country and blues-rock guitars, and the dynamic rhythm combo of Lesh / Kreutzmann / Mickey Hart, the Dead created a new kind of rock that honored the American tradition—but thwarted easy categorization.
The Dead logged its “mobility” not only as miles traveled, but also as decibels produced: Unsatisfied with P.A. systems of the day, the band hired Alembic to develop a state-of-the-art sound system for its road shows and enlisted the trucks and personnel to transport them. Richardson notes that the “mobility” also extended to the growing conclave of Dead tapers—enthusiasts who followed and recorded the band’s concerts and began trading and archiving them. Before long, Garcia would not only give the tapers his blessing, but would recruit the best of them to curate the Dead’s huge “vault” and help run the band’s own short-lived record label.
We’re walked through the makings of seminal albums like Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Live / Dead, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty, escorted through lineup changes that saw the departure (and death) of McKernan and the addition of Hart, Brent Mydland, Keith and Donna Godchaux, Tom Constanen, and more…right up to Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby in the ‘90s. We get the low-down on the band’s iconic skull / lightning bolt logo and skeleton ‘n’ roses / dancing bears artwork; the band’s shuffling between folk, country, and blues rock; Garcia’s laissez-faire attitude with respect to business operations; and the inside-and-outs of touring “in the red” with the tired (but spiritually inexhaustible) troupe—who always put music and people before dollars and cents (sense).
The “Community” third of the book speaks to the Dead’s spouses, family members, friends, technicians, crew, drivers, suppliers, and office workers—many of whom still collected paychecks for their loyalty even after their tenure with the band, or when the musicians themselves were on hiatus. Richardson outlines the differences between the outspoken activist / protestors (who sometimes became aggressive in venting their frustrations) with the more subdued hippies who gravitated toward the Dead. We discover how the band attracted disciples from such seemingly disparate backgrounds, from the Hells Angels motorcyclists (who provided security in the early days) and Black Panthers to California mayors and U.S. senators to tech-savvy listeners like Apple’s Steve Wozniak. The author is sensitive when discussing the backlash of alcohol and drugs within the group, and how Garcia, Weir and the gang slowly shied away from their endorsement of such substances as their comrades succumbed to addiction.
Bringing readers up to date, Richardson traces the Dead’s trajectory through the energy crisis, recession, and hostage fiascos from the late ‘70s into Reagan’s ‘80s, where the former actor’s Wild West approach (“Just say no”) puts an end to the freewheeling spirit of yore—and new health perils (AIDS) came back to haunt those who’d lived too fast too long. Improbably, Garcia and the boys score a hit single with “Touch of Grey” (from their 1987 Arista album Eyes That See in the Dark), which introduces them to a whole new generation of listeners. Jann Wenner (whose Rolling Stone magazine was once the voice of the movement (and was headquartered on the West Coast) becomes a corporate elbow-rubber in New York. Conversely, but Dead Heads stayed the course with fanzine Relix, holding true to the band’s original ideals even as musical tastes and societal beliefs shifted.
“By treating their core fans as stakeholders, the Dead put that relationship on a uniquely egalitarian footing, “writes Richardson. “
“The gatefold message [on the eponymous Grateful Dead: ‘Who are you? Where are you? Dead Heads, PO Box 1065, San Rafael, California 94901’] also gave fans a same and collective identity. Dead Head was a catchy rhyme as well as a play on head, the street term for a drug user. Inspired by the band’s ethos and music, many Dead Heads were already following the band on the road…“.
Final chapters cover the decline of Garcia’s health, his rehab, and eventual death (not from drugs, but from blocked arteries). Though his passing effectively brought about the end of the Grateful Dead as a unit, Weir, Lesh and other surviving members pressed on with similar side projects and offshoot bands (Rat Dog, The Dead, The Other Ones, etc.)—all of which furthered the musical legacy.
It’s a fascinating read, if a bit deep for those who’d prefer rehashing key albums and concerts. But bohemian bookworms hoping for a little more enlightenment about the myriad social backdrops against which the Dead did its thing will find No Simple Highway a captivating compulsory textbook.
No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of The Grateful Dead at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/na4qcr8