Friday, February 27, 2015

Largehearted Boy Playlist for NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY

Largehearted Boy asked me to assemble a playlist to accompany No Simple Highway. Turns out that wasn't so easy, but here's what I came up with.

How to assemble a soundtrack for a cultural history of the Grateful Dead? Fill it with my favorite Dead songs, collect their most revered jams, or try to represent the various music streams that fed their huge repertoire? I could even feature the music that Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh spun at KMPX while that San Francisco radio station was pioneering free-format rock programming in the mid-1960s.

I finally decided to produce a soundtrack that highlights the Dead's origins. Well before the band existed, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were listening avidly to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which Folkways Records released in 1952. That idiosyncratic collection was a portal to what Greil Marcus called the Old, Weird America—a shadow world of obscure heroes, rogues, doomed love affairs, suicides, murderous exploits, and half-forgotten legends.

In that spirit, then, I begin with Noah Lewis's "New Minglewood Blues," which Smith included in his anthology, and which the Dead recorded and performed many times in concert. Lewis's song was only twelve years older than Garcia, but by the time he heard it, it already sounded ancient, not to mention very weird and very American.

As a youth, Garcia heard fiddler Scotty Stoneman stretch out a bluegrass number for twenty minutes during a live performance. That was the first time Garcia recalled getting high from music; he later said his hands hurt from applauding so much. I've included Stoneman's "Talkin' Fiddlin' Blues" to mark that turning point in Garcia's musical journey. From then on, the experience of total rapture he sought would require improvisation rather than recital.

Meanwhile, Garcia's fellow folkie, Robert Hunter, was reading James Joyce and trying to write fiction. That is, until he heard Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (1966) and realized rock music could be a fit vehicle for his literary aspirations. Thus, I include "Visions of Johanna." Dylan was another Harry Smith fan; later, he and Hunter would collaborate on Together Through Life (2009).

By the mid-1960s, the Dead were part of a vibrant San Francisco scene that included Jefferson Airplane. When they recruited Grace Slick from The Great Society, she brought along two songs, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," a touchstone for the San Francisco counterculture. Like the older San Francisco artists who introduced the teenaged Garcia to bohemianism, the local bands were highly collaborative. Garcia contributed to the Airplane's debut album, Surrealistic Pillow, and coined the title. The Dead also benefited indirectly from their commercial success. Aided by San Francisco music impresario Tom Donahue, Warner Bros. signed the Dead to their first record deal.

One of Hunter's early lyrics was "Dark Star," which became the Dead's most famous (and protean) jam. Many bands, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were going psychedelic; with this song, the Dead went galactic. And where Jefferson Airplane alluded to Lewis Carroll, Hunter raised the literary stakes by echoing T.S. Eliot. Hunter would soon cast himself as a western writer, but there was nothing especially western about this lyric, except that it featured a frontier—the final one, space.

The Dead's early, more experimental music didn't sell many albums. But they also had other challenges. In October 1967, most of them were arrested for drug possession in their home at 710 Ashbury. The following year, they moved to bucolic Marin County, where they hung out with David Crosby and his folkie friends. Meanwhile, Garcia taught himself to play pedal steel and provided the opening riff for "Teach Your Children." That song appeared on Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), a huge critical and commercial success. Both bands appeared at Woodstock that summer. Insofar as the event drew on the contemporary urge to "get back to the garden," Woodstock was a powerful expression of the back-to-the-land movement at its peak.

The Dead's next album, Workingman's Dead, tapped that same back-to-the-land urge. It was packed with soulful acoustic music and vocal harmonies, and when the executives at Warner Bros. heard "Uncle John's Band," they also heard the cash registers ringing. The Dead toured Canada that summer on the so-called Festival Express and returned to the Bay Area to record American Beauty. Those two albums gave the Dead their first taste of commercial success and something to tour behind.

American Beauty included "Truckin'," another popular single. This one tapped the American fascination with the open road, which the band inherited from Jack Kerouac and On the Road. As their touring machine grew in the 1970s, more and more fans began to follow their annual migrations. Those tours modeled a new form of American wanderlust and expanded the social space for the expression and transmission of countercultural values.

On one of their live albums in the 1970s, the Dead included "Brown-Eyed Women." Set somewhere in Appalachia, the song details the challenges of moonshiners during the Great Depression. Hunter's lyric would have been right at home in Smith's anthology. Garcia once said that he related more to Dylan's lyrics, but that Hunter had the ability to evoke a whole world in a song. This one is a good example.

The Dead's touring machine rumbled through the 1970s, when critics wrote them off as a nostalgic act. After a creatively slack period in the early 1980s, the most serious challenge to their enterprise was Garcia's diabetic coma in 1986. When he pulled through and resumed touring, the Dead scored their first top-ten single with "Touch of Grey," which was accompanied by a creative music video. Hunter's lyric can be read as a complex response to the Age of Reagan, but mostly the song is an anthem to survival—Garcia's, the Dead's, and the Dead Head community's. When the band changed the chorus from "I will survive" to "We will survive," they gave their fans something to celebrate. They would survive Reagan, scourge of the hippies, as well as his militarized war on drugs.

The Dead disbanded when Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. But the music lives on, largely through the continuous reinterpretation of the Dead songbook. Countless bands have covered the Dead, but I chose Los Lobos' version of "Bertha" as a token of that type. (I especially like the unlikely combination of an East Los Angeles bar band and San Francisco hippies.) The Dead's legacy will continue as long as new artists are drawn to their music. And as the overwhelming response to the Soldier Field shows in July demonstrates, the community is still going strong.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Nick Meriwether, Blogger

So glad to see this: Nicholas Meriwether is now blogging on the Dead's critical reception over at Very grateful for the shout-out in the first installment. Can't wait to see where he goes with this story, which tells us a lot about a distinctive strain of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

For the uninitiated, Nick is the founding director of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz, not to mention a walking encyclopedia of the Dead, their music, and postwar American bohemianism in general.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Ask the Agent" Interview

My agent, Andy Ross, quizzed me for his blog recently. You can find the interview here. Andy is also well known for owning and operating Cody's Books, a Berkeley landmark, for many years. In my view, that was one of three or four key Bay Area bookstores in the second half of the twentieth century.


Hunter & Garcia Inducted Into Songwriters Hall of Fame

Great news that Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia have been recognized by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But it feels a little weird that they will be inducted along with Toby Keith, who gets top billing in the New York Times headline. "Beer for My Horses" and "Should've Been a Cowboy"? Or to put it another way, why weren't Hunter and Garcia inducted two decades ago?

This news, especially when combined with the NYRB snub mentioned in the previous post, suggests that the Dead and their achievement are still grossly underestimated.

And finally, I can't help but recall what Kris Kristofferson, borrowing a line from Waylon Jennings, said about Toby Keith and his ilk: "They're doin' to country music what panty hose did to finger f***in'."


NYRB Letter

It seems unlikely that the New York Review of Books will run my recent letter to them, but here's the complete text:

To the Editors:

I'm probably not the only reader struck by Dan Chiasson's dismissal of Jerry Garcia as one of "the minor talents" Bob Dylan collaborated with and characteristically overestimated during the 1980s ("Prodigal Bob Dylan," NYR, Feb. 19, 2015). It's true that Dylan thought very highly of Garcia; this much is clear from his 1995 eulogy. It's also true that when they toured together, the Grateful Dead were thriving and Dylan was foundering. Although the resulting album was largely a Dylan production, he later admitted that the Dead understood his songs better than he did at the time. There's no disputing taste, but most critics see the Dylan-Garcia relationship as a case of mutual respect between major talents.

Peter Richardson
Department of Humanities
San Francisco State University


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Consequence of Sound

Just found this exchange, a smart discussion of No Simple Highway, on Consequence of Sound. The criticisms are earned and therefore well taken. Unlike some reviewers--okay, one in particular--they read the book carefully. Also, they're younger readers, the kind I had in mind while writing the book. Thus the brief background on The Ed Sullivan Show, etc.

Great to see this exchange, but I'm happy to make this website's acquaintance in any case.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Houston, We Have No Problems Whatsover

This sweet review from Bob Ruggiero's Houston Press Get Lit blog. You also receive the embedded "Touch of Grey" video at no extra charge. The upshot: "No Simple Highway more than serves its goal at looking at the Grateful Dead as not just a rock and roll, but a cultural institution with some insight. And while the band's story has indeed been a long, strange trip, it wasn't one taken in isolation."


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Yapping It Up With Arroe Collins

Just found this online. It's one of the longer chats (19 minutes) I had in my most recent radio blitz, and I really like the way it turned out. So grateful to Arroe Collins of WRFX 99.7 in Charlotte! I dug his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the Grateful Dead and their history.

In related news, No Simple Highway logged its second week on the Northern California bestseller list. Somewhere (and I think we all know where), book industry executives are consulting an enormous map of North America with dozens of pushpins stuck in it. Two of the executives have cigarette holders tilted rakishly from their clenched smiles. Satisfied with their achievement, they will soon repair to Four Seasons for a long, martini-soaked lunch. Because that's how modern book publishing works, right?


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY Tops List of Bay Area Books This Month

Got a little love from Georgia Rowe at the San Jose Mercury-News, who selected No Simple Highway as the top book of the month by a Bay Area author. How far we've come since the paper covered the San Jose Acid Test, the first one the Dead (then the Warlocks) attended. No simple highway, indeed.