Harper's review of No Simple Highway
There were dozens of hippie acts in Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s, but most people have only heard of a few: Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead. At the time, Jefferson Airplane was the most commercially successful, and the Dead the least. The Dead never had a Billboard number-one single, though the Library of Congress eventually declared “Truckin’” a national treasure. Shakedown Street went gold, but nine years after its release. They toured for thirty years, but didn’t become the top-grossing band in North America until 1991, their twenty-sixth year together. Why?
That’s the question behind Peter Richardson’s new book, NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99). Jerry Garcia’s own explanation was cute—he said the band was like licorice: not everybody likes it, but people who like it really like it—but hardly enough to satisfy a historian. As you might expect from the author of books about the Bay Area radical magazine Ramparts and progressive intellectual Carey McWilliams, Richardson’s story of the Dead is a story of the Sixties and its aftermath. One strand of the Sixties, anyway, whose benchmarks include Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; Woodstock and the Summer of Love; the Whole Earth catalog and the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (WELL) bulletin board, which spawned digital communities of Dead Heads as well as Wired magazine. By the time of 1995’s Tour from Hell, this version of the Sixties was a marketable commodity, and Bloomingdale’s had sold hundreds of thousands of $28.50 neckties from the J. Garcia Art in Neckwear collection.
Richardson writes with the enthusiasm of a recent convert, which he is. (He’s also a card-carrying member of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus—they’re like tapers, only they trade conference papers.) He paints the Dead as a utopian experiment in a long American tradition; they were occasionally forced to compromise, but only when one of their ideals thwarted another one. They wanted to run their own record label, but operating a business took them away from making music. They wanted to partake of an ecstatic, intimate experience with their audience, but they also relied on a huge crew—a family, really—of seventy-five; if everyone was going to eat, they were going to play stadiums. Richardson celebrates the group’s “hedonistic poverty” but also quotes Dead historian Dennis McNally as to the band’s late-Seventies needs: “Phil [Lesh] had his Lotus sports car, [Bill] Kreutzmann had his ranch, Mickey [Hart] wanted equipment for the studio, Keith [Godchaux] and Jerry wanted drugs.” They weren’t just an obscenely gifted group of musicians: they were a social institution, an egalitarian commune, and a traveling circus—a modern-day Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. They operated on a massive scale, sometimes pouring 90 percent of their revenue into a seventy-five-ton sound system that filled four semitrailers. “We’re in the transportation business,” Mickey once said. “We move minds.”
Having your mind moved is not always a pleasant experience. (Ask Mickey’s horse, which he liked to dose before riding.) People who attended the earliest Dead shows describe them as scary, even terrifying. The band had a harder blues-rock sound then, and everyone was flying. The mix of ego-disappearing drugs and time-disintegrating jams was a heady one. In later years, when the melodies mellowed, the vibe was still heavy. Robert Hunter’s lyrics were usually about suffering and sorrow and death, while John Perry Barlow’s poems, which Bob Weir sang, were abstract—creepy in a different way. Jerry didn’t like love songs, at least not ones with happy endings. He also didn’t like politics. “For me, the lame part of the Sixties was the political part, the social part,” he explained in 1989. “The real part was the spiritual part.”
The Dead, like the Hells Angels who rolled with their crew, were fundamentally outlaws. They knew that getting high, or “getting conscious,” could get you into dark corners. “We’re kinda like a signpost,” Jerry said, “and we’re also pointing to danger, to difficulty. We’re pointing to bummers.” You can get a good sense of what a bummer is in a one-minute scene toward the end of the documentary Gimme Shelter. Jerry and Phil have just landed at the Altamont Raceway to learn that Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane has been punched out by one of the Angels, who were working security for the festival. “Oh, that’s what the story is here?” Jerry says from behind his yellow sunglasses. “Oh, bummer.” Hours later, an eighteen-year-old black man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by the Angels while the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.” Jerry never blamed the bikers for the melee. He attributed it to “spiritual panic,” as well as the “anonymous, borderline, violent street types” in the crowd—the kind who “may take dope, but that doesn’t mean they’re Heads”—and, perhaps most suspicious of all, “the top-forty world.”
Richardson idealizes the members of the band as exemplars of integrity who rarely feuded, but times were not always easy. Three keyboardists died along the way, including Ron “Pigpen” McKernan; Mickey took a three-year hiatus after his father embezzled thousands of dollars from the group; Jerry developed a frightening heroin problem and, after his 1986 coma, had to entirely relearn how to play guitar. By that time, being a Dead Head was less about the actual music performed by the Grateful Dead and more about college students chasing a shadow of the old, weird America, and boomers remembering their good days, forever gone. Reggae, disco, New Wave, glitter rock, and punk all came and went, and still the Dead were exploring their particular stew of white roots rock, bluegrass, blues, folk, and country. When I started high school, Bill Clinton had long made it a habit to give away J. Garcia ties, and being into the band—like being into Hendrix or the Beatles—had become ossified as a life stage. In youth culture, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and teenagers since the Sixties have passed through the Sixties; they just tend not to remain there. What made the Dead special was that they never left. Why would they? “We’re basically Americans, and we like America,” Jerry said. “We like the thing about being able to express outrageous amounts of freedom.”
To hear Richardson tell it, the Dead were tuned-in Kilroys, on hand to midwife the births of poster art, band merchandising, the free-form album-based radio format, the—might as well say it—Internet, and, best of all, what is now a key cultural formation: the rock-concert light show. He credits an art professor named Seymour Locks, who swirled and rotated hollow slides and plastic dishes of pigment in a projector during the Dead’s set at the 1966 Trips Festival. Something was in the air, though, because around the same time, artist Bill Ham was programming kinetic murals at the Red Dog Saloon in Nevada, and Mark Boyle and Joan Hills were projecting chemical reactions in London. (Their machine also turned colors into sounds.) …
Labels: Grateful Dead