Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Big Show

I'm preparing for the Santa Clara show tonight with the so-called "core four" of the Grateful Dead. Should be a blast. I've been following the run-up, of course, including a New Yorker podcast that made many good points, but it also reminded me that many smart people don't really understand the Dead or their achievement. Like many rock critics of yore, some of these commentators can't see what's in plain sight, in part because of what my dissertation director used to call "a hardening of the categories." Let me explain.

Most critics listen to the Dead's albums or live tapes, pass judgment on what they hear, and think their work is done. That's fine, especially if they're aware that the Dead improvised fearlessly for decades, and that the live performances (which were their calling card) could be uneven. But that approach also misses something important, for the Dead also had a larger project that distinguished them from their peers and helps account for their durable success.

How to describe that project? It's a long story, but the headline version is that their concerts expanded the social space for the experience of total rapture; their tours furnished fans with the opportunity for adventure; and those fans could experience that ecstasy and adventure in a large, vibrant, and cohesive community. As I've been trying to say since No Simple Highway came out, many people want some ecstasy, adventure, and community in their lives.

Yes, the Dead have a great songbook, but so do many other musicians. The question is, did the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or any other contemporary artist you can think of foster so much community for so long? Now, two decades after the band dissolved, that community will have a few more chances to commune. And that experience is really what this excitement is all about.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Dead in the Age of Reagan

When I pitched the proposal for No Simple Highway, it didn't include anything about what historian Sean Wilentz has called the Age of Reagan. I was well along with the manuscript before I realized Ronald Reagan was the perfect foil for the Dead's project.

When discussing the Dead and American politics, it's easy to screw up, but a few facts are very clear. In California, Ronald Reagan ran against hippies, and as president, he intensified the War on Drugs. Neither move was meant to please the Dead Head community. The Dead rarely made political statements, but Jerry Garcia made an exception for Reagan. He didn't like Reagan's movies, he didn't like his politics, and he didn't like his vision of America. Some readers (and reviewers) obviously don't like those facts, which they attribute to my view of Reagan. But that doesn't alter the historical record, which I double-checked with other experts, including Dennis McNally.

Were Reagan and the Dead embroiled in a vicious and protracted blood-feud? No, of course not. But when trying to understand the band's only top-ten single and transition to the mega-Dead period, you have to consider the context. Consider, too, the personal attacks from George Will, William F. Buckley, and Mike Barnicle when Jerry Garcia died. I challenge anyone to read those attacks and argue that they weren't political. Whether or not the Dead (and their fans) were overtly political, you can't tell their story coherently without considering the social and political energies that were swirling around them.

Anyway, much more of that in the book as well as a related article I wrote.

Today, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article on just this topic. It quotes Dennis and me along with others to understand the Dead's late-career success in the Age of Reagan. It's difficult to capture nuances in this kind of short article, but it might lead out to a fruitful discussion.

Note: I think the photograph above misquotes Reagan. The correct quote, I believe, is as follows: "For those of you who don't know what a hippie is, he's a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah."

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Monday, June 01, 2015

Three Chords and the (Painful) Truth

I just finished reading Michael Stewart Foley's Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Beth and I attended a book event with the author at Moe's in Berkeley, and I enjoyed it very much.

This short book (about 40,000 words) situates Dead Kennedy's outrageous debut album in an exceedingly troubled time in San Francisco's history--a period that David Talbot, drawing on the Donovan song title, calls "the season of the witch." Released in 1980, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables coincided with a sharp cutback in social services, a steep rise in homelessness, and what one contemporary punk called "the golden age of serial killers."

An accomplished historian with an appreciation for the punk ethic, Foley sketches the social and political conditions of the late 1970s and the band's take-no-prisoners response to them. He's also alert to San Francisco's distinctive punk scene and its unapologetically political stance.

His essay is a welcome complement to the extensive literature on the city's utopian mood and music of the 1960s. In fact, he argues that Dead Kennedy's project was also utopian insofar as it prefigured the searingly truthful society it hoped to create.

I plan to base at least one lecture on this work when I teach a course on San Francisco this fall. Very worthwhile.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review of H.W. Brands's New Reagan Bio

I reviewed H.W. Brands's new biography of Ronald Reagan for Truthdig this weekend. There's a lot to like in this bio, especially in the presentation. But as someone who teaches and writes about California topics, I was struck by some important omissions. To be fair, Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge, which I reviewed for The National Memo, also passed over some of this material.

Brands's portrait of Reagan resembles the one offered by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan in both Sacramento and the White House. I interviewed Lou for my biography of Carey McWilliams and came away with huge respect--not only for the Reagan bios, but also for his work on the LAPD before, during, and after the Rodney King riots. Although Lou and I almost certainly differ in our assessment of Reagan and his legacy, much of what I know about Reagan I learned from Lou.

Lou also told me a story about his first book, which looked at Reagan and Jesse (Big Daddy) Unruh, the key Democrat in the state legislature and Reagan's opponent in the 1970 gubernatorial race. If memory serves, Lou wrote to several dozen public figures asking for interviews and general guidance. He heard back from precisely two: William F. Buckley and Carey McWilliams. Those two had a lot in common despite their different political orientations, and Lou felt, as I do, that it's important not to let ideological differences blot out such similarities.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dead Heads in the Ritz-Carlton?

A New York Times article headline says it all: "Grateful Dead Fans Replace VW Vans With Jets and the Ritz-Carlton." The big idea is that once-broke Dead Heads are now doing quite well, thank you.

I don't have a problem with the story as written, but the only thing that makes it news is a hoary media stereotype: namely, that all Dead Heads were vagabond hippies indulging in their peculiar form of hedonistic poverty.

Yes, many Dead Heads fit this description, but as sociologist Rebecca Adams has shown, the Dead Head community was always more diverse than this stereotype suggested. Very early on, the Dead's record label found that about 70 percent of their audience went to college, and the band received rave reviews in elite campus newspapers. Is it any surprise that many Dead Heads had successful careers? Or that a fraction of them are willing to spring for the VIP treatment when the core four play together for the last time this summer?

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Jerry Garcia's Middle Finger

Just discovered this blog today, courtesy of David Browne and Tales of the Golden Road on Facebook. Was DELIGHTED to read the following review of No Simple Highway.

Richardson, Peter. 2015. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. New York: St. Martin's Press.
--Essential, canonical source. Loved this book, a great, rich read, a beautiful set of three long narratives through the themes of ecstasy, mobility and community--exceptionally well conceived and executed. I learned a lot about the San Francisco avant-garde scene, and Wally Hedrick in particular, that I did not know--this is bedrock cultural material for Garcia. I learned a few new things about the Dead, in part via Richardson's work at the amazing GD Archives at UC Santa Cruz, but also just by novelly composing materials that I thought I already should have known ... It struck me in Richardson's hands as a fresh angle that cast some very interesting light, beautifully rendered, well-written stories. I hope this book gets read by more than Deadheads, but by anyone who is interested in digging a little more deeply into postwar American culture.

Man, I hope that "canonical" thing catches on.

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Friday, May 08, 2015

The Dead and the Aesthetics of Effortlessness

David Browne has a nice piece on the Dead in The Daily Beast. David is certainly right that much of the Dead's coolness had to do with their authenticity and integrity. As I say in No Simple Highway, they gave mainstream culture a wide berth and showed that hippies could flourish on their own preferred terms.

In many ways, the Dead defined or embodied cool here in the Bay Area when I was growing up, especially until 1975 or so. Another source of their cool, I would say, was their studied nonchalance--or sprezzatura, as the Renaissance Italians called it. Then and now, Californians like to make difficult things look effortless. (If you need to put another face on that, try Joe DiMaggio.)

When I moved to NYC in my twenties, I learned that studied nonchalance didn't have the same cachet there. Quite the opposite: The whole point was to be serious, dramatize your effort, and win the Most Industrious award. Those who didn't were considered lightweight, flakey, etc.

If you're not attuned to the aesthetic of effortlessness, or if you aren't familiar with how hard it is to perform a difficult task at a certain level, you might be tempted to take things at face value and diminish the achievement. I think that's still happening with the Dead, in part because they consistently downplayed their effort. But you don't last three decades in the music business unless you're committed to your project. In short, my advice is to enjoy the sprezzatura, but don't let it fool you.

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Dylan-Garcia Redux Again

Well, I suppose it had to be said ... repeatedly. Having read my objections here to Dan Chiasson's cavalier dismissal of Jerry Garcia in The New York Review of Books, an editor at Guernica asked me to write up a short article, which ran today. We'll see what, if anything comes of it. Yes, it's a trifle, but as I point out in the article, it's part of a longstanding pattern when it comes to Garcia and the Dead. The fact that Garcia and Hunter were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year, two decades after the Dead dissolved, is another part of that pattern.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Dead-MMJ connection

I've been a My Morning Jacket fan for a while. Beth and I saw them at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and at the Shoreline with Wilco, Ryan Bingham, and Bob Dylan. The latter show, the last stop on the Americanarama tour, also featured Bob Weir, who played with MMJ and Wilco. Then Bingham came out to join all of them.

If memory serves, they played five Dead songs, a couple of Dylan numbers, and one Springsteen tune. That was the highlight of the show, in my view, though Dylan was the headliner. He didn't invite anyone to play with him, though Jeff Tweedy, Jim James, and Bingham had collaborated with him on "The Weight" a few times on that tour.

Turns out Weir's presence was the highlight for Jim James, too. "He was so open to talking, the kind of things we were hoping Dylan would be," he told Rolling Stone. "Having him there was like this great gift."

Now I learn that MMJ recorded their seventh album, The Waterfall, at Sans Souci, the home Jerry Garcia shared with Mountain Girl in Stinson Beach. Fanatical readers of this blog may recall that Charles Reich and Jann Wenner interviewed Jerry there for Rolling Stone and what later became Garcia: A Signpost to New Space. The photographer for that occasion? Annie Leibowitz.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dylan-Garcia Redux

Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I wrote a short letter to The New York Review of Books a few months ago. It challenged Dan Chiasson's claim that Bob Dylan's foundering career in the 1980s was related to his decision to work with Jerry Garcia, one of several "minor talents" whom Dylan characteristically overestimated. I concluded that while there's no disputing taste, the Dylan-Garcia combination wasn't a case of a major talent mistakenly working with a minor one.

Before making a mountain out of a molehill, let's admire the genius of Chiasson's dismissal. It not only allows him to attribute Dylan's shortcomings to others, but it also makes Dylan's mistake resemble a virtue: namely, excessive generosity. If only Dylan had correctly assessed Garcia's talent deficit, the 1980s would have been another monument to Dylan's greatness.

Anyone paying attention, of course, will recall that Garcia and the Dead were thriving at this time, that Dylan needed them and not vice versa, and that Dylan praised Garcia's talent accurately and beautifully in his 1995 eulogy. But Chiasson would probably maintain that this assessment was just Dylan being Dylan again. Thoughtful critics would avoid his excessive generosity and consign Garcia to the minor leagues.

After sending off my email and posting it here, I turned my gaze to other matters. But while reading the current issue of NYROB yesterday, I saw an exchange in the Letters department that I have to mention.

"I find it ridiculous that [Chiasson] stigmatizes Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty as 'minor talents,'" writes Rick Holmes. "Dylan also collaborated with Roy Orbison and George Harrison in the 1980s. Perhaps Chiasson also considers them insignificant." And so on.

Here's Chiasson's reply.

I'm glad that Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty have such passionate and knowledgeable defenders, and there's no disputing taste. I think they are minor in relation to Dylan, though compared with other radio acts of that era--ZZ Top and Wang Chung, for example--they do seem like great geniuses.

OK, let's pause for a moment here. Jerry Garcia was a radio act of this era? Also, ZZ Top and Wang Chung? Is Chiasson completely ignorant of Garcia's work, or does he only assume that we are? Notice, too, the sarcasm in the crack about "great geniuses," a phrase that isn't synonymous with "major talents." The slippage reinforces the original insult, but I also sense some anxiety here, a kind of critical "tell," even if the reference is primarily or exclusively to Petty and not to Garcia.

Back to Chiasson's reply.

"Roy Orbison and George Harrison are indisputably major, but when was the last time you cranked a Traveling Wilburys tune? That was a lifeless, sleepwalking ensemble, and you know who I blame? Tom Petty."

Too bad Holmes gave Chiasson so much room to maneuver. First, he let the Garcia part slide and worked the Tom Petty angle. That made it easier for Chiasson to dismiss his objection, I think. Second, Holmes introduced Orbison and Harrison for no apparent reason. That permitted Chiasson to concede a symbolic point while sticking to his original judgment.

I lost a bit more respect for Chiasson, in part because I detect an attempt to disguise what my dissertation director called "contempt prior to investigation," which he regarded as an intellectual sin. Nothing Chiasson wrote in the article or reply suggests he knows anything about Garcia. And the diction in this reply seems designed to
compensate for this weakness. Indeed, it's very much of a piece with the original dismissal--clever but not wise.

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