Friday, December 12, 2014

Harper's review of No Simple Highway

Here's Christine Smallwood's review of No Simple Highway, from the January issue of Harper's magazine. It tails off at the end as she segues to the next book of interest.

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.) …

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kirkus Review of No Simple Highway

The good people at St. Martin's Press forwarded this review of No Simple Highway from Kirkus, the book review magazine and website. It will post online December 15 and appear in the January 1 issue of the magazine.

Far-ranging look at the ultimate jam band in the acid-drenched context of their formative years. Richardson (Humanities/San Francisco State Univ.) opens his account, fittingly, with a look deep within the pages of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, a book that "recounted a single day in the life of an English intellectual tripping on mescaline in and around his Hollywood home." Intellectual, hallucinogen, California: Voilà, the ingredients of the Grateful Dead, a band born in the heady Bay Area coffeehouse, bookstore and Beat poetry heyday. Richardson wisely locates the band within that tradition, allowing for lashings of British Invasion pop and old blues and for the particular eccentricities the region has always permitted. The author ascribes much of the culture change of the 1960s to the Dead's discovery that, if they were the weirdest of all the guys in Frisco, there were plenty of like-minded weirdos around the country. In the days before the Internet, connecting with those people and building communities required constant touring, and so the band also became as known for its dedicated work-shopping and endless roadwork as for its devotion to the lysergic arts. It's now more than half a century since the band began to form, so one supposes that it's necessary, as Richardson does, to explain who Ed Sullivan was and why Harry Smith's folk anthology was so important to the nascent counterculture. Along the way, the author raises such important matters as the ascent of Ronald Reagan, Jerry Garcia's opposite in nearly every respect, and the role of the Dead as both cultural interpreters and cultural pioneers, a role that is very real, no matter what one might think of hourlong jams on variations of "Johnny B. Goode." Not quite as smartly conceived and written as Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic (1997), but a kindred book that helps locate an influential musical group in time and place.

I admire and drew from Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic (aka The Old, Weird America), and though I think the two books' aspirations are different, I wouldn't dream of denying the kinship.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Booklist Digs No Simple Highway

I found out yesterday that Booklist will run a review of No Simple Highway in its December issue. Here's a sneak peek.

Although the Grateful Dead disbanded in 1995, after 30 colorful years of touring and recording stylistically eclectic albums, their fan base remains a thriving one, with the group’s current Facebook page attracting almost two million followers. Those who have never understood the Dead’s inimitable mystique often caricature band members as aging hippies idolized by pot-ingesting dropouts. However, for San Francisco State humanities professor Richardson as well as legions of Dead enthusiasts (aka “Dead Heads”), the stereotype easily dissolves within a broader picture of the band’s enormous cultural impact, which the author presents here in a fascinating historical overview dating back to founding member Jerry Garcia’s early adolescence. Richardson argues that the Dead’s wide appeal was due to their embrace and support of three fundamental human urges for transcendence, mobility, and community, and he provides abundant examples from the band’s days of drug experimentation, artistic exploration, and road tripping. While Dead devotees will revel in the wealth of biographical details here, every reader interested in music and its social repercussions will find Richardson’s work both captivating and instructive.

Very gratifying.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Grateful Dead Is Not Suitable Scholarship"

There's nothing new about what my dissertation director used to call "contempt prior to investigation," which he considered an intellectual sin. But I'm always a little surprised when I see it. Check out the letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury News after the Grateful Dead conference at San Jose State University:

Grateful Dead is not suitable scholarship.

I wonder if anyone saw that the natural progression from the virtual legalization of marijuana led to the "study" of the Grateful Dead at a publicly funded state university. I grew up with the Grateful Dead in the '70s, love their music, and saw many of their shows. But can we please keep things in proper perspective? I can't help thinking that the scholars in countries poised to overtake this country on so many levels are laughing hysterically.

Michael Brown
Monte Sereno

My question to Mr. Brown would be, "How can we keep things in proper perspective if we don't study them?" Ironically, one of the main threats to scholarship in this country isn't the foreign threat he fears, much less the derisive laughter of other scholars. Rather, it's the anti-intellectualism he advocates.

If he had studied the matter a bit more before firing off his letter, he would have learned that the conference investigated the Dead's relationship to the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance, the history of the American and British countercultures, the most creative poster art of the 1960s, the Dead's innovative business model (now the industry norm), and many other worthy topics.

But I guess Mr. Brown was already in possession of the truth about what makes for "suitable scholarship." And who could deny the "natural progression" between the virtual legalization of cannabis and unsuitable scholarship?

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Friday, November 07, 2014

What I Love About the Grateful Dead Community

I attended the Grateful Dead conference ("So Many Roads: The World in the Grateful Dead") yesterday at San Jose State University and will return for more today and tomorrow. There was a lot of star power there, including Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, whose memoir will appear next year. Lyricist John Perry Barlow gave a presentation, and I met Carolyn (Mountain Girl) Garcia, who's working on her memoir for St. Martin's Press. Lots of great authors and journalists, too many to itemize here, and any number of inner-circle folks from the Dead's label, publishing operation, archive, etc.

I loved every minute of it. But what I really love about the Dead community has (almost) nothing to do with star power.

When I arrived, a professorial gentleman was unloading boxes and sorting out lanyards behind the registration desk. I glanced at his name tag but couldn't quite place him. I later realized I had interviewed him over the telephone for my book. His name is Allen Baum, and he was instrumental in starting a little company called Apple Computer. Specifically, Allen brought Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to his first meeting of the Homebrew Computing Club, which Time magazine later called "the crucible for an entire industry." That's where Woz met Steve Jobs. Allen also advised Woz to start Apple rather than work for others.

THIS is the guy handing out the name tags at the Dead conference? Yep.

BTW, the photo shows Woz, Allen, and others reflecting on the Homebrew Computing Club. Allen is in the middle.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

So Many Roads

"So Many Roads: The World in the Grateful Dead" starts tomorrow night at San Jose State University. I'll miss the opening because I'm teaching the OLLI course, but I'm scheduled to present a paper at 9 am (!) Thursday morning. Very much looking forward to the conference, where I'll see many familiar faces but also lots of new ones: Carolyn Adams Garcia, Trixie Garcia, David Lemieux, Ed Perlstein, and countless others. Bill Kreutzmann will talk about his new book with Benjy Eisen; turns out we share the same editor (Marc Resnick) at St. Martin's Press. Here's the conference info if you're curious. Should be a blast.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Back On the Home Front

I live in Richmond, just a few miles north of Berkeley. Its progressive City Council has received a fair amount of national coverage recently, including this piece in The Nation.

Chevron's large refinery here was the site of an explosion and fire two years ago that sent 15,000 residents to the hospital with respiratory problems. That was pretty bad, but now Chevron has set aside $3 million to tilt the local election toward Chevron-friendly candidates. The energy giant has targeted candidates in the Richmond Progressive Alliance and showered my neighbors and me with television ads, flyers, billboards, even its own news site, the Richmond Standard. That's a lot of not-so-free corporate speech, but the weird thing is the assortment of candidates that Chevron supports. It's not an impressive bunch, which makes Chevron's very expensive gambit look even worse than it otherwise would.

None of this has been lost on local and national outlets, including Rachel Maddow, the Los Angeles Times, AlterNet, Salon, and the East Bay Express. But much of the initial reporting was done by Richmond Confidential, which is run by students at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

We'll see whether Chevron's gamble will pay off soon enough. But I'm struck by the way the media coverage has worked out here. It's a good example of two points I've made here and there. One is that small outlets often break big stories. The other is that these small outlets need bigger ones to pick up those stories so that a much larger audience can see them. Both kinds of news outlets are required for a healthy media ecology.

Update: It now appears that Radio Free Richmond ("Independent Richmond News Without Fear or Favor") is part of the campaign. Its creator is BMWL, a San Francisco PR firm that has worked with Chevron. This from the East Bay Express, January 2013: "Along with running the anti-soda-tax campaign on behalf of the beverage industry, BMWL & Partners worked with Chevron in 2012 as part of the oil giant's $1 million effort to elect Chevron-friendly candidates running for the city council, including [Nat] Bates." Bates is Chevron's candidate for mayor in this election cycle.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

David Gans Unloads at the Freight & Salvage

David Gans came by the Freight & Salvage yesterday and dropped some serious Grateful Dead knowledge on us. Between the books, articles, photographs, and radio programs, David has produced an enormous body of high-quality work about the Dead, and he ladled out a necessarily small but tasty fraction of that. He also treated us to a guided listening of two live tracks from 1976. Nobody does it better.

One student buttonholed me and raved about the quality of our guests, and I've heard others voice similar sentiments. So I know I'm not the only one feeling especially Grateful.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blair Jackson Visits "No Simple Highway"

Blair Jackson visited our Grateful Dead course yesterday and shared his vast knowledge of the band and its history. Aficionados will recall that he and wife Regan McMahon published The Golden Road from 1983 to 1994. The band members enjoyed the magazine and gave him extraordinary access; as a result, The Golden Road was widely regarded as the best fanzine of its era. Blair also wrote the first serious history of the band in 1983, and his Garcia biography was an enormous contribution to our understanding of a fascinating artist and figure.

As I told the students before we launched this class: if this isn't fun, we're not doing it right. And yesterday was really fun.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rosie McGee at Freight & Salvage

Rosie McGee shared her photographs and memories at the Freight & Salvage this week. Truly illuminating, and a great counterpoint to Nick Meriwether's historical overview last week. The sheer amount of visual information in Rosie's photographs, and the way her stories complement and contextualize that information, made her visit especially rewarding for us. A lot of that information can be found in her memoir, Dancing with the Dead, but it's always a pleasure to hear it conversationally as well.

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