Monday, July 27, 2015

No Simple Highway on "The Tony Basilio Show"

I had a substantial and relaxed chat about the Grateful Dead and No Simple Highway with radio host Tony Basilio a while back. That interview is now up at Tony's site. He posed some thoughtful, open-ended questions that allowed us to go a bit deeper than usual. Delighted with the way it turned out. Many thanks, Tony.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Making It Happen at the Bank

Forbes magazine has taken a keen interest in the Grateful Dead and their enterprise over the years, but Fare Thee Well takes the cake. Why? It probably has something to do with the $52 million in ticket sales, plus the largest pay-per-view audience (400,000 viewers) for a musical event ever. As the Forbes article notes, that turnout dwarfs the second biggest PPV musical event, a Backstreet Boys concert that drew 150,000 paying viewers.

That's serious coin, but consider this other fact: Last night, while attending a Willie Nelson & Alison Krauss concert at the Greek Theatre, I noticed Phil and Jill Lesh strolling to their seats in the section next to ours. No one made any sort of fuss, and they were buttonholed by friends only when they headed backstage during intermission. It's hard to imagine another musician who helps generate that much revenue moving as freely through a crowd as Phil.

Those two facts--record-breaking rock concerts and no fuss over the musicians--don't seem to go together, but I'm glad they do.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Fare Thee Well

Catching up: David Ulin turned his gaze to Fare Thee Well just before the Chicago shows. His LA Times piece ran in the Chicago Tribune as well. Lots to think about, but I'm especially glad he mentioned No Simple Highway--and quoted the blog! Interesting, too, that he mentioned the Dead in connection with what Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America. That was part of the argument in No Simple Highway.

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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, in fact, 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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