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. I also attended and enjoyed a book event with the author at Moe's in Berkeley.

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 Donovan, 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 openly 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.