• September 18, 2015
    http://www.dead.net/features/50th-anniversary/shadow-boxing-apocalypse
    Shadow Boxing The Apocalypse

    Chasing Epiphany, Improvising Revelation:
    An Alternate History of the Grateful Dead

    Nicholas G. Meriwether

    “Why can the dead do such great things?”
    -St. Augustine, The City Of God, 426 AD

    Introduction: Epiphanies and the Fragments of the Dead

    “Mammoth epiphanies”: that was how one early critic described the impact of a Grateful Dead concert. It stuck, just like Willy Legate's Dead Head catchphrase, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” Both phrases go to the heart of the achievement of the Grateful Dead, from the remarkable breadth of work they created and inspired to the many fascinating characters—artists, thinkers, bohemians—who clustered around the band from their earliest days. That community remained a quiet wellspring that fueled and informed the life and times of the most significant rock band in American history; it is part of the broader, amorphous bohemia that is an indelible part of the shadowy milieu that makes the larger story of the Grateful Dead such a near-mythic journey through the byways of American culture and into history. Legate is only one of many of those who were there at the outset, whose lives only occasionally broke the surface of the cultural waters, leaving fragments scattered through the thousands of pages about the Dead that tantalize and beckon; all telling fragments, like these two epigrams, without which the entire Grateful Dead phenomenon would be somehow less.

    We cling to fragments. They bring us closer to the past; they make us believe that with them, somehow what has vanished can live again, at least in our minds. Add a dash of imagination and bones suggest bodies; launch a flight of fancy and a ticket stub evokes a concert. Fragments can be evocative objects, as scholar Sherry Turkle has explained, but the mystique and majesty of those artifacts—that is their real power. That's where the magic lies: in the way that some mystical part of the past remains in the relics we covet. It is magic made real, for those fragments do convey insights, sometimes so powerfully we call them epiphanies. And no more palpable proof of that is music. No wonder the Dead earned the phrase “mammoth epiphanies.”

    Which is why fragments also challenge. From our own past, they challenge us to remember; from other pasts, they challenge us to learn. The promise of those fragments is connection: mystical, mysterious, alchemical. When that connection happens, it leaves us changed—and grateful. And one of the oldest ways of expressing that is in the folk motif called the grateful dead. Within that ancient story of obligation, redemption, gratitude, and reward lies insight, epiphany, and revelation; all of those, too, define the history of the band who found discovered that phrase in a dictionary one fall afternoon in 1965. Finding it was one of the first epiphanies that would define the band's history.

    Epiphany is both individual and universal, an insight in which we intuit answers to the mysteries of consciousness and existence and glimpse the profound connections between the self and the world. Heady ideas to ascribe to a rock band, perhaps, but not to the music the Dead set out to create in 1965-and the way they sought to create it, with an audience as devoted to the quest as the band was. Music has always been a portal. Why should that be limited by genre?

    Or medium. One of the band's earliest literary influences, James Joyce, expanded the idea of epiphany from its strictly religious context to the secular; no wonder that concept would strike a critic as a fitting way to describe the power and impact of a Dead concert, of its consummate cocreation of a music-in-the-moment that dissolved the boundary around the stage in what Garcia memorably called “seat of-the-pants shamanism.” As early as 1966, however, both the Dead and their fans had their own description for that vision quest, one that connected to that older spiritual definition: “Every place we play is church.”

    Part of the magic of epiphanies is that they can't be summoned. That is why we court them, and why we treasure them when they grace us. At heart, epiphanies change how we see the world-and they give us a glimpse of what lies beyond the trap of our own perspective, the limits of our own perceptions. Reading the phrase “mammoth epiphanies” must have been enormously satisfying to a young band whose blood oath to the muse had been psychedelically sealed only a few years before.

    Years ago I wrote that despite all of the words devoted to the band, we lacked a unified theory of the Dead. So it is today. Fans and scholars and writers have deployed dozens of thinkers and paradigms to elucidate the band's project and explain the phenomenon, but the music and experience remain protean, as individual as they are collective, a joyous and joyful riot of voices and visions that invokes comparison but somehow eludes our best efforts at conclusive definition. Phil Lesh called the Dead phenomenon “slippery” in a discussion with one writer. “There's nothing you can get a handle on . . . it's like looking at a mirrored ball: There's nothing to grasp, because all you're seeing is what's reflected. All you're seeing is yourself.” Barlow put it more poetically in his lyrics to “Let It Grow”: “What shall we say, shall we call it by a name / As well to count the angels dancing on a pin.” In an interview with Garcia, Lesh commented, “If we could explain it to ourselves, we would. But then, we'd probably lose it.” Garcia agreed: “Yeah, right! It's always skittering out of our grasp.” Yet they welcomed that elusiveness; that was what their music sought. “That's why we play,” Bob Weir explained to a reporter in 1980. “If there's anything about us, if there's any point we'd like to make, it's so ethereal, so abstract, that we have to turn to music to articulate it.” It was a tantalizing statement of what the band's project really was: to reveal what was hidden, to do what Aldous Huxley had suggested of psychedelics when he quoted William Blake's line from The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” For the Dead and their listeners, that went to the heart of what the shared ritual of music-making could be: nothing less than a tool for expanding consciousness, for emotional catharsis and psychological gestalt, and most of all, renewal-to touch the infinite. And it expressed a fundamentally artistic imperative, a restatement of the ancient aesthetic charge that all artists embrace, to “make it new.”

    Together, all of these insights add up to indeed form mammoth epiphanies. Yet at their core, what made up those epiphanies were moments, scattered and fragmentary and precious. When we look at the history of the Dead, that's what we see: dozens—hundreds-—housands of those moments, all strung together to form one of the most remarkable and enduring careers in popular music. This boxed set looks back on the Dead's three-decade odyssey, presenting 30 recordings that document the range of those luminous moments that defined the Grateful Dead experience: mammoth epiphanies, individual and collective, that combined to make the Dead's music a revelation, waiting to happen, for all who wanted to experience it.

    Any history of the band confronts several challenges. Not only do the Dead present one of the more complicated group biographies, their history spans and reflects the tumult of the country's difficult path through the last 40 years of the 20th century, and they embodied that complexity in their music. That is the greatest challenge they pose, for the very fact of their approach to music-from influences to performance to audience—invokes so much of America's densely interwoven cultural polyphony. They keep good company, for in that they echo a number of American artists, perhaps most notably William Faulkner, who found that his stories could contain the full range of human experience and existence, all rooted in the soil of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County. So, too, could the Dead invest that range in their art, even including Faulkner himself, as Hunter's lyrics to “It Must Have Been The Roses” paid tribute to the famous short story “A Rose For Emily.”

    And just as Faulkner continues to challenge critics and biographers, condensing the Dead's history and achievement into prose has taxed every writer who has assayed the band. When the first multivolume history appears, I'm sure its author will be pained over what had to be left out. This boxed set and its accompanying essay sketches the band's history by tracing its broad contours, illuminating the shows selected for this collection with an eye toward the shadows that escape into the margins of most accounts. I have tried to strike a balance between details and broad themes, familiar stories and obscure facts, many found deep in the band's archive at UC Santa Cruz. One early historian of the 1960s wrote that “no decade has produced such rich and varied reporting,” and that is especially true of the band whose history is so deeply intertwined with those times. But the library of the Dead extends far beyond a single era. As more than one scholar has discovered, “the Dead have been the subject of more insightful analysis and just plain good writing than any other rock group or performer.” Band members and associates have produced valuable accounts, from Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh to Bill Kreutzmann, whose cowriter Benjy Eisen drew on the Archive for his recent memoir. It adds another vital contribution to our increasingly deep understanding of the perspectives and personalities that made the Dead such a rich, dense collective, as evidenced by books from associates such as Rock Scully, Steve Parish, Rosie McGee, and Rhoney Stanley.

    They are among many participants who have helped to trace the dimensions and extent of that sprawling network of people, ideas, and issues. Veteran journalist and accomplished Dead critic Blair Jackson used a monographic biography to weave a much broader tapestry of voices in his Garcia, An American Life. Dennis McNally, a trained historian who became the band's publicist, spent more than 20 years researching-and more than a decade experiencing-the band's history, which informed his magisterial A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead. To McNally, the Dead's journey represents the archetypal path of the bohemian, a point he has made explicitly in interviews and essays, allowing his book to establish a reliable foundation that other interpreters can trust. Both his and Jackson's books make the point that the Dead were a collective, and the band members predicated their lives and art on cultivating that collective; telling their story fully entails a group biography involving several dozen figures. They are all inextricable parts of the story; their absence here should not be taken as anything other than the dictates of space.

    A host of other takes on the band's history extend and complicate any assessment, although Peter Richardson's recent study, No Simple Highway, provides a thoughtful model of what is possible. His argument places the band's accomplishment squarely in the sprawling, eccentric heart of American culture, where it belongs. No liner note essay can pretend to such comprehensiveness, but this essay rests on two arguments, both suggested by this brief sketch and basic outline of the band's long and storied history. One is that the Dead's success, both musically and sociologically (or perhaps phenomenologically), can be considered an organic and compelling extension of the great American tradition of bohemianism, one that owes its power to the Dead's unique ability to extend that tradition to their audience. In short, the Dead phenomenon represents the democratization of the idea of bohemianism.

    That idea is derived primarily from a longer view of American history; the second argument takes its vantage from the 20th century. From that perspective, the Grateful Dead's project is one of the minor utopias that held sway in America and Europe during that deeply destructive epoch, ones that loom large in retrospect precisely for the hope they represented against the much larger and deeply destructive utopian—or dystopian—movements that dominated that time. Phil Lesh used those terms when he reflected, “The onrushing sixties were to bring a completely different paradigm, when we would begin to involve ourselves in working toward the realization of what some would deride as a Utopian dream: a nation and a culture built on love, respect, and the quest for spiritual values.”

    And the core of that was expressed in their music. Arguments aside, this essay primarily takes its cue from the music it accompanies, providing a narrative that frames the recordings presented as a kind of skeleton key to the history of the band. The focus throughout is on the touring history of the band: their greatest achievement was an art of the moment, performed in concert, and the shows, tours, and performance repertoire provide the framework for this history. Illustrating that narrative are evocative items from the band's Archive, documents, and press accounts and images that trace the generally hidden side of the band's work, a visual accompaniment to the recordings that David Lemieux selected for the collection. Together, the recordings, sources, and illustrations make this box something of an alternate history of the Dead.

    The recordings here range from fan favorites, traded in bowdlerized and diminished form for years, to hidden gems from deep in the band's legendary Vault-a span that is itself revealing. Together, these document the extraordinary range and achievement of the Dead, from broad themes to expressive details, and that describes the approach adopted in this essay as well. Sections divided by decade introduce themes, letting individual years set the stage for the music presented. As a liner note essay, it does presuppose a basic familiarity with the band, but the list of sources at the end may also serve as a guide for further reading. Like the illustrations featured in the booklet, those sources are drawn from the band's Archive at UC Santa Cruz, primarily contemporary accounts but with a nod to the voluminous secondary literature that makes the Dead's library part of a deep and complex literary history. The illustrations supplement the text by showcasing the rich documentary heritage the band left, which so many have helped to steward over the years.

    A Note on the Shows

    The shows in this set do more than just trace a chronology or chart a history; they also outline the cultural geography of the Grateful Dead. It is a unique map, not just for its extent and longevity, but for its representativeness: 13 states in every section of the country hosted these 30 performances, along with two foreign countries. As musicians, the members of the Dead presided over three decades that witnessed the advent of modern rock touring; as Americans, they participated in the radical reshaping of the nation, in large part by the tumultuous era that birthed the band. It was an era that would forever be conjoined with them, despite a career that took them far beyond their early days as a Rolling Stones-inflected blues band with a taste for exploration, musical and otherwise.

    The swath of geography that the Dead covered was a vital expression of that sense of exploration, an often overlooked element of their lifework. Indeed, the performances here are more than just a skeleton key to the life and times of a rock band-or even to the broader cultural transformations of the nation and the wars over their interpretation. These 30 performances chart the transformation wrought by the Dead as they deliberately sought to expand their sense of what America, and what music, was and could be. Their performance in front of the Great Pyramid in Egypt will always stand as a pinnacle of those interlocked quests, but the nights in San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles—in Napa and Waterbury and Passaic—are what defined that journey, and built the Dead's audience. That was the key to the map of the Dead: the places that marked the extraordinary interchange that was the Grateful Dead experience; places marked by pockets of fans left changed forever, and whose energy and venues in turn changed the music and the band.

    The notes on the performances here are chapters in that cultural geography. But the recordings demonstrate the most precious and powerful dimension of the Grateful Dead phenomenon: how the venues and their communities participated in those performances. Together, the words and the music explain how these places changed the band, and how the band changed those places.

    It all began in California . . .

    Note: The conclusion was originally written to be read in sequence, and will work best if read after the rest of the essay.

    Conclusion

    Ten years after the Haight imploded, famed San Francisco hippie station KSAN sponsored a remarkable project, an oral history broadcast that drew together interviews with dozens of musicians, artists, and community members, all in answer to the question posed by its title, “What Was That?” It was a title that captured the almost mystical sense of evanescence and velocity that had propelled that era, and that so many participants remembered. “Ever been in a riot?” one Haight-Ashbury denizen asked Rolling Stone staffer Charles Perry. “You could be standing there minding your own business, and all of a sudden this thing, this feeling or magnetic force from the crowd, just engulfs you and you actually start participating in the riot. There's an opposite end of the spectrum. If everybody goes around with the love and brotherhood thing that they had in the Haight, when you walk into it you can be engulfed by it.” That was how Dead Heads felt about shows, too, and as long as the Dead were playing, a spark from the original Haight still survived, flickering in the ashes of the '60s.

    The Dead were a central part of that scene and a major contributor to its velocity: as Kesey said, they were “the faster-than-light drive.” And when the Haight deteriorated, they realized that their trip had outgrown its chrysalis. With the comfort of hindsight, that realization looms as one of the hundreds of little epiphanies that define the Dead's history-and it was shared, as the band joined an exodus already underway and that would accelerate, even as newcomers continued to flock to see what remained of the fabled spirit of the Haight, what part of the experience they could claim and continue. Those insights remind us that history is itself a process, not a fixed entity, and how it unfolds is a part of what it means-what historian R.G. Collingwood called “the distinction between what may be called the outside and the inside of an event.” The inside is the real challenge for historians to ferret out-—he intentions and ideas animating actions, however removed from consequences they may prove to be. The hard facts of what happened inevitably color what it signifies to those who remember, and to those who want to understand.

    And that is proper. Kesey provided an eloquent statement of that in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, with its oft-quoted line “It's the truth even if it didn't happen.” We are still uncovering and discovering and recovering the facts of the history of the Dead—the outside of the events that paved their path through the world. That task may not be as simple or finite as we would like—history never is—but it carries that sensibility; or at least we like to think it does, perhaps because we know that no such certainty attaches to our interpretations of the past. Beat poet Michael McClure, who lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Dead's sojourn at 710, captured that noble futility in an essay written many years later, reflecting on those times: “Memory is a beautiful thing—as I get older I learn to cherish it. It seems so beautiful or ugly that it is often more than real. Sometimes the vision is lit up with imagination; sometimes the imaginings have the shape of real acts and gestures we call experience.” Yet despite its errors, its “strange shimmers of events,” memory remains, for McClure, “a miracle.” So it is for all who heard and who continue to hear the Dead. Ultimately, their music is what matters, in all of its gorgeous, amorphous, ineffable dimensions, forever a glorious and humbling rebuff to words.

    The band sensed that, long before their critics did. It was a lesson they learned at the Acid Tests, if not before, one brought home to them in the form of Neal Cassady. Garcia put it best when he said, “Neal represented a model to me of how far you could take it in the individual way, in the sense that you weren't going to have a work, you were going to be the work. Work in real time, which is a lot like musician's work.”

    The Dead understood; their harshest critics did not. A few years after that revelation, and after Cassady's death, Kesey was asked whether Cassady really was, as Kesey had said, “one of the hippest people” he had encountered. “Long before his death Cassady had passed that point where being hip or compulsive had any relative meaning to him,” Kesey replied. “His was the yoga of a man driven to the cliffedge by the grassfire of an entire nation's burning material madness. Rather than be consumed by this burn he jumped, choosing to sort things out in the fast-flying but smogfree moments of a life with no retreat. In this commitment he placed himself irrevocably beyond category.” His reply could just as well have been about the Dead—a resonance that shows that they did indeed take Cassady's lesson to heart.

    We devise categories for a reason, though: they help us to sort events by their exteriors, and to see connections between their interiors. That is the stuff of epiphany and revelation, too-and, more mundanely, simply education: the hard work of changing our consciousness, changing our perspective, changing ourselves. It is why work can be joyful, and joyous; and it is why the Dead celebrated and epitomized the idea of serious fun, which historians have begun to recognize-and praise. The band understood that it took work to court those epiphanies: “If I don't sit down and work at stuff, I don't get song ideas,” Garcia commented in 1985. “I have to work at them.” Nor could he predict when inspiration would strike: “Every once in a while a good idea comes through, but I never know when it's going to be.”

    That was true of shows as well, which is part of why the Dead will always challenge critics. When the band was at a peak of popularity in 1991, industry insiders noted that while the Dead might be box office stars, they were still “a slice of Americana, a cultural enigma and an industry,” as Pollstar put it, adding, tellingly: “Those distinctions invite misinterpretation, criticism and controversy . . .” And they make the job of explaining the Dead fraught. Yet, as rock historian Greil Marcus has written, “If one can stop looking at the past and start listening to it, one might hear echoes of a new conversation; then the task of the critic would be to lead speakers and listeners unaware of each other's existence to talk to one another. The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.” In that light, the task of explaining the Dead connects writers not just to the music, but to that litany of surprises, such as the fact that Marcus's brother Steve was a longtime band staffer, responsible for running Grateful Dead Ticket Sales. Epiphany abounds, if we choose to see it.

    That was the clarion call of the Haight, as it in turn hearkened to the old bohemian imperative and remade it anew. That was what so many critics missed, both then and after: one sympathetic anthologist in 1968 praised youthful rebellion, saying that young people had developed “a sense of their own identity and with it a radically critical attitude about the society that their elders had created. They dissented, they dropped out, they said 'No'—and the reverberations of that No are still being heard.” That was true enough, in a way, but it missed the larger truth, what Prankster Paul Foster expressed with the title of his memoir, The Answer Is Always Yes—for that was the far more profound impact of the 1960s, and of the artists and musicians and myriad voices who defined the era. It was affirmation, not negation. That was the real spirit that the Dead and the Dead Heads nourished and protected, for 30 years.

    In 2006 Hunter wrote in his journal, “A shelf of books could be written and still only lightly perturb the surface of who the Grateful Dead were, are, and why.” Since then, many more books have appeared, but their impact has only lent his prediction the air of prophecy. Paul Krassner, deep in the Great Pyramid before one of the Egypt shows, wanted badly to feel that sense of epiphany: “I had a strong feeling that I was involved in a lesson. It was as though the secret of the Dead would be revealed to me, if I only paid proper attention.” Part of that is the sheer weight of the art they created; part of that is the way their career weaves through so much of American history, defining its highlights or spelunking through the cavernous depths hidden beneath what passes for the visible; part of that is the power of their impact on American culture, exploring its limits, and how it extends even beyond the borders of the United States.

    Comprehending that immensity is daunting. But so was the band's project: to connect those bewildering swaths of music and genres and traditions into a coherent and thoroughly original whole, and do so in a way that had never been done before. Now, both process and result belong forever to the Grateful Dead. That whole included the audience, explicitly and deliberately, from the dancers enveloped in every nuance of a guitar solo to tapers straining to capture every brush of a cymbal to listeners far removed from the tenemos of the concert arena, some not even born when the first notes crackled through the PA one night so many years ago.

    They are the links that bind the story together, the unbroken chain that Bobby Petersen wrote about that moved Lesh to set those lyrics to song and create one of the great Dead Head anthems. On a good night, it seemed like the band was singing to each of us, songs and words and emotions making a set list that could describe, with uncanny precision, exactly what was happening in our lives and hearts right then, and suggest a way of seeing it all that made life sensible, possible, livable. Some fans called it Dead Head deconstruction, borrowing the academic term for seeing literary texts as combinations of sometimes contradictory ideas that let a critic find meaning in ways sometimes far removed from what the author had imagined or intended. The difference was that when Dead Heads did that with concerts, it was a kind of I Ching, revealing hidden meanings; a wisdom that had always been there, waiting for us to recognize it. “Maybe you'll find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you,” as Hunter wrote in “A Box Of Rain.”

    That is what the history of the Dead represents now: a story to be discovered and rediscovered, connected and reconnected in thousands of ways, with thousands of voices. Thousands of moments that make up a history whose contours and dimensions and implications will inveigle and entice, as long as there are listeners who can hear their music and what it enspirited, beckoning to us to connect with it, and connect it together. That is the lesson that Krassner sensed, deep in the Great Pyramid: the mystical nature of that connection, primal and primordial, that the Dead embodied and modeled. That connection endures, beckoning not only in the music and memories and stories that continue to resound today, but most of all in the music.

    Coda

    An enduring, hopeful mystery emerged in the wake of the band's retirement: new Dead Heads. Young fans born too late to experience the Grateful Dead firsthand managed to find the grail anyway, creating their own participation through recordings and shows by the surviving members, or even cover bands—other bands—who honored (and in many cases, continue to honor) the repertoire and the spirit of collective improvisation that brought that body of work to life. For those fans, it is clear that the Grateful Dead phenomenon-the Dead Head experience-lives on, in however different a guise. That continuity further complicates the job of understanding, removing a neat ending to the story. It's worth pointing out that Garcia would have wanted it that way: asked about the experience of the Grateful Dead, Garcia replied, “I don't want to assign any word to it. Why limit it? I want it to surprise me, to continue to surprise me.” But his context was his own music—the band's art—the joyous work of the human spirit, which is indeed open-ended, and never ending. Garcia's contribution to that great chain of being is complete; as Phil Lesh eloquently put it at his memorial in Golden Gate Park, “Now he is done with becoming; now he is being.” And so is the body of work that the Grateful Dead created, wrapped up by the last notes of “A Box Of Rain” that rang out at Soldier Field late in the evening of July 9, 1995.

    One day those younger fans will want to understand their own experience, just as their predecessors want to understand theirs today. That intergenerational curiosity is proof of Faulkner's oft-quoted maxim, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” But coming to grips with history is a daunting task: hundreds of articles, chapters, and books explore and dissect the Dead, using dozens of disciplines and a dazzling array of perspectives. More and more, the job of discussing the Dead involves increasingly complicated methods of navigating that ever-lengthening bookshelf.

    There is a strange comfort in that challenge. The Dead's corner of the 20th century is a microcosm that shares much of the turbulence, myopia, and amnesia surrounding that larger epoch. In 2008 historian Tony Judt observed, sadly, “The twentieth century is hardly behind us, but already its quarrels and its dogmas, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. Incessantly invoked as 'lessons,' they are in reality ignored and untaught.” That is especially true for the 1960s and the counterculture, an era and a phenomenon that will always define the Dead, and that the Dead helped to define. To historians like Judt, the problems of interpreting the recent past-always difficult-are not intrinsic; rather, they are a function of what he calls our times: “an age of forgetting.” To Judt, what is most striking is “this perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.”

    Part of that is the invisibility of truly hopeful moments and movements in a century characterized by war, genocide, and horror. To historian Jay Winter, the minor utopias of the century are the corrective to this tragic narrative, “moments in the twentieth century when a very disparate group of people tried in their separate ways to imagine a radically better world.” He opens a way for historians to acknowledge the power, vitality, and achievement of the Dead when he concludes, “minor utopians are with us still. The visions of men and women who dared to think differently, to break with convention, to speculate about the unlikely in the search for a better way, are intrinsically worth recalling.” Winter's context is Europe, so the American counterculture-or one of its bands-is not one of his minor utopias, but literary scholar Peter Richardson's recent cultural history of the Dead, No Simple Highway, partly frames the Dead's project in these terms, calling their utopian instinct one of their three defining qualities. His analysis is persuasive, and it not only fits with Winter's broader view of the century, it also dovetails with Dennis McNally's earlier, foundational assessment of the band, which framed the Dead's achievement as part of a history of postwar American bohemianism that first coalesced around Jack Kerouac.

    Yet neither of those views fully explains the alchemy of the Dead phenomenon: the quest for that elusive transformative power that informed and propelled the band and their fans for three decades. The democratic inclusiveness that the band took from the Acid Tests was more than just an abstract ideal; it was a template that allowed both band and fans to continue to “make it new” every night for 30 years. And it meant that the bohemian orientation that characterized the Dead extended to their fans as well, making them artists of their own experience. That inclusiveness made the Grateful Dead experience endlessly regenerative; endlessly instructive, with the chance for endless epiphanies. That's why the music can be participatory, in the way that British musicologist Christopher Small calls “musicking”: music as process, not product, and how that extends the role of participating into understanding. And that is the corrective against misunderstanding, mischaracterization, and amnesia.

    If the Grateful Dead are and will be inextricably intertwined with the '60s, then historians of that era offer a clue as to how the Dead's contribution may be judged. Historian Mark Hamilton Lyttle, following Ken Tucker, sees rock music itself as a primary inheritance; that assessment echoes novelist Robert Stone's poetic tribute to Garcia: “The art and the thought and the spirit of liberation of the Sixties flourished in their way. But of that holistic magic vision of the garden set free, the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is the purest single remnant. It was supposed to be an accompaniment to the New Beginning. In fact, it was the thing itself, all that remains with us.”

    His quiet, haunting summation need not be an epitaph. In his memoir, Lesh wrote of the Haight that “in that brief shining moment a spirit was alive in the land: a spirit that blazed like a flaming heart, that could have (and should have) lit up the world. Fear not-that light still lives, peeking out through the cracks in the wall of our materialistic civilization.” He is modest, for that is part of what the Dead did, for all of those years: their shows and songs helped to keep that flame alight. Stone's elegy goes deeper, though, connecting to another minor star in the Dead's cosmology, William Faulkner. Faulkner's 1950 Nobel prize speech captivated his audience, just as the award surprised his critics. What he said that day spoke of a duty and a conscience that would last long after death, that refused to even accept death: “I decline to accept the end of man.” Rather than accept the inevitability that the atomic bomb symbolized and portended, Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” And when Joseph Campbell saw the Dead perform in 1985, his epiphany spoke to him in Faulkner's terms: to him, the Grateful Dead was nothing less than “the answer to the atom bomb.” And so a minor utopia answered the cataclysmic doom of Armageddon.

    As we listen to the music here, and throughout the Dead's corpus, we can hear that legacy as it stretched from the '60s to the '90s, gathering influences and listeners until the music truly was an expression of American culture, in all of its glorious malleability and knotty extremes. In the end, the mystery of the Dead is woven into the fabric of their music, waiting to inveigle, entice, and transform another generation of listeners, holding forth the promise of still more epiphanies. What Hunter said of Bobby Petersen's poetry is true of the Dead's music, and his words hearken back to Faulkner's own prediction: It “will endure, for those with ears to hear, crackling through the static . . . like the sound of a far away radio.” That is what the Dead created, and what this collection of their music explains. Listening to these performances, we can hear an achievement that will not only endure; it will prevail.

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Chasing Epiphany, Improvising Revelation:
An Alternate History of the Grateful Dead

Nicholas G. Meriwether

“Why can the dead do such great things?”
-St. Augustine, The City Of God, 426 AD

Introduction: Epiphanies and the Fragments of the Dead

“Mammoth epiphanies”: that was how one early critic described the impact of a Grateful Dead concert. It stuck, just like Willy Legate's Dead Head catchphrase, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” Both phrases go to the heart of the achievement of the Grateful Dead, from the remarkable breadth of work they created and inspired to the many fascinating characters—artists, thinkers, bohemians—who clustered around the band from their earliest days. That community remained a quiet wellspring that fueled and informed the life and times of the most significant rock band in American history; it is part of the broader, amorphous bohemia that is an indelible part of the shadowy milieu that makes the larger story of the Grateful Dead such a near-mythic journey through the byways of American culture and into history. Legate is only one of many of those who were there at the outset, whose lives only occasionally broke the surface of the cultural waters, leaving fragments scattered through the thousands of pages about the Dead that tantalize and beckon; all telling fragments, like these two epigrams, without which the entire Grateful Dead phenomenon would be somehow less.

We cling to fragments. They bring us closer to the past; they make us believe that with them, somehow what has vanished can live again, at least in our minds. Add a dash of imagination and bones suggest bodies; launch a flight of fancy and a ticket stub evokes a concert. Fragments can be evocative objects, as scholar Sherry Turkle has explained, but the mystique and majesty of those artifacts—that is their real power. That's where the magic lies: in the way that some mystical part of the past remains in the relics we covet. It is magic made real, for those fragments do convey insights, sometimes so powerfully we call them epiphanies. And no more palpable proof of that is music. No wonder the Dead earned the phrase “mammoth epiphanies.”

Which is why fragments also challenge. From our own past, they challenge us to remember; from other pasts, they challenge us to learn. The promise of those fragments is connection: mystical, mysterious, alchemical. When that connection happens, it leaves us changed—and grateful. And one of the oldest ways of expressing that is in the folk motif called the grateful dead. Within that ancient story of obligation, redemption, gratitude, and reward lies insight, epiphany, and revelation; all of those, too, define the history of the band who found discovered that phrase in a dictionary one fall afternoon in 1965. Finding it was one of the first epiphanies that would define the band's history.

Epiphany is both individual and universal, an insight in which we intuit answers to the mysteries of consciousness and existence and glimpse the profound connections between the self and the world. Heady ideas to ascribe to a rock band, perhaps, but not to the music the Dead set out to create in 1965-and the way they sought to create it, with an audience as devoted to the quest as the band was. Music has always been a portal. Why should that be limited by genre?

Or medium. One of the band's earliest literary influences, James Joyce, expanded the idea of epiphany from its strictly religious context to the secular; no wonder that concept would strike a critic as a fitting way to describe the power and impact of a Dead concert, of its consummate cocreation of a music-in-the-moment that dissolved the boundary around the stage in what Garcia memorably called “seat of-the-pants shamanism.” As early as 1966, however, both the Dead and their fans had their own description for that vision quest, one that connected to that older spiritual definition: “Every place we play is church.”

Part of the magic of epiphanies is that they can't be summoned. That is why we court them, and why we treasure them when they grace us. At heart, epiphanies change how we see the world-and they give us a glimpse of what lies beyond the trap of our own perspective, the limits of our own perceptions. Reading the phrase “mammoth epiphanies” must have been enormously satisfying to a young band whose blood oath to the muse had been psychedelically sealed only a few years before.

Years ago I wrote that despite all of the words devoted to the band, we lacked a unified theory of the Dead. So it is today. Fans and scholars and writers have deployed dozens of thinkers and paradigms to elucidate the band's project and explain the phenomenon, but the music and experience remain protean, as individual as they are collective, a joyous and joyful riot of voices and visions that invokes comparison but somehow eludes our best efforts at conclusive definition. Phil Lesh called the Dead phenomenon “slippery” in a discussion with one writer. “There's nothing you can get a handle on . . . it's like looking at a mirrored ball: There's nothing to grasp, because all you're seeing is what's reflected. All you're seeing is yourself.” Barlow put it more poetically in his lyrics to “Let It Grow”: “What shall we say, shall we call it by a name / As well to count the angels dancing on a pin.” In an interview with Garcia, Lesh commented, “If we could explain it to ourselves, we would. But then, we'd probably lose it.” Garcia agreed: “Yeah, right! It's always skittering out of our grasp.” Yet they welcomed that elusiveness; that was what their music sought. “That's why we play,” Bob Weir explained to a reporter in 1980. “If there's anything about us, if there's any point we'd like to make, it's so ethereal, so abstract, that we have to turn to music to articulate it.” It was a tantalizing statement of what the band's project really was: to reveal what was hidden, to do what Aldous Huxley had suggested of psychedelics when he quoted William Blake's line from The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” For the Dead and their listeners, that went to the heart of what the shared ritual of music-making could be: nothing less than a tool for expanding consciousness, for emotional catharsis and psychological gestalt, and most of all, renewal-to touch the infinite. And it expressed a fundamentally artistic imperative, a restatement of the ancient aesthetic charge that all artists embrace, to “make it new.”

Together, all of these insights add up to indeed form mammoth epiphanies. Yet at their core, what made up those epiphanies were moments, scattered and fragmentary and precious. When we look at the history of the Dead, that's what we see: dozens—hundreds-—housands of those moments, all strung together to form one of the most remarkable and enduring careers in popular music. This boxed set looks back on the Dead's three-decade odyssey, presenting 30 recordings that document the range of those luminous moments that defined the Grateful Dead experience: mammoth epiphanies, individual and collective, that combined to make the Dead's music a revelation, waiting to happen, for all who wanted to experience it.

Any history of the band confronts several challenges. Not only do the Dead present one of the more complicated group biographies, their history spans and reflects the tumult of the country's difficult path through the last 40 years of the 20th century, and they embodied that complexity in their music. That is the greatest challenge they pose, for the very fact of their approach to music-from influences to performance to audience—invokes so much of America's densely interwoven cultural polyphony. They keep good company, for in that they echo a number of American artists, perhaps most notably William Faulkner, who found that his stories could contain the full range of human experience and existence, all rooted in the soil of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County. So, too, could the Dead invest that range in their art, even including Faulkner himself, as Hunter's lyrics to “It Must Have Been The Roses” paid tribute to the famous short story “A Rose For Emily.”

And just as Faulkner continues to challenge critics and biographers, condensing the Dead's history and achievement into prose has taxed every writer who has assayed the band. When the first multivolume history appears, I'm sure its author will be pained over what had to be left out. This boxed set and its accompanying essay sketches the band's history by tracing its broad contours, illuminating the shows selected for this collection with an eye toward the shadows that escape into the margins of most accounts. I have tried to strike a balance between details and broad themes, familiar stories and obscure facts, many found deep in the band's archive at UC Santa Cruz. One early historian of the 1960s wrote that “no decade has produced such rich and varied reporting,” and that is especially true of the band whose history is so deeply intertwined with those times. But the library of the Dead extends far beyond a single era. As more than one scholar has discovered, “the Dead have been the subject of more insightful analysis and just plain good writing than any other rock group or performer.” Band members and associates have produced valuable accounts, from Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh to Bill Kreutzmann, whose cowriter Benjy Eisen drew on the Archive for his recent memoir. It adds another vital contribution to our increasingly deep understanding of the perspectives and personalities that made the Dead such a rich, dense collective, as evidenced by books from associates such as Rock Scully, Steve Parish, Rosie McGee, and Rhoney Stanley.

They are among many participants who have helped to trace the dimensions and extent of that sprawling network of people, ideas, and issues. Veteran journalist and accomplished Dead critic Blair Jackson used a monographic biography to weave a much broader tapestry of voices in his Garcia, An American Life. Dennis McNally, a trained historian who became the band's publicist, spent more than 20 years researching-and more than a decade experiencing-the band's history, which informed his magisterial A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead. To McNally, the Dead's journey represents the archetypal path of the bohemian, a point he has made explicitly in interviews and essays, allowing his book to establish a reliable foundation that other interpreters can trust. Both his and Jackson's books make the point that the Dead were a collective, and the band members predicated their lives and art on cultivating that collective; telling their story fully entails a group biography involving several dozen figures. They are all inextricable parts of the story; their absence here should not be taken as anything other than the dictates of space.

A host of other takes on the band's history extend and complicate any assessment, although Peter Richardson's recent study, No Simple Highway, provides a thoughtful model of what is possible. His argument places the band's accomplishment squarely in the sprawling, eccentric heart of American culture, where it belongs. No liner note essay can pretend to such comprehensiveness, but this essay rests on two arguments, both suggested by this brief sketch and basic outline of the band's long and storied history. One is that the Dead's success, both musically and sociologically (or perhaps phenomenologically), can be considered an organic and compelling extension of the great American tradition of bohemianism, one that owes its power to the Dead's unique ability to extend that tradition to their audience. In short, the Dead phenomenon represents the democratization of the idea of bohemianism.

That idea is derived primarily from a longer view of American history; the second argument takes its vantage from the 20th century. From that perspective, the Grateful Dead's project is one of the minor utopias that held sway in America and Europe during that deeply destructive epoch, ones that loom large in retrospect precisely for the hope they represented against the much larger and deeply destructive utopian—or dystopian—movements that dominated that time. Phil Lesh used those terms when he reflected, “The onrushing sixties were to bring a completely different paradigm, when we would begin to involve ourselves in working toward the realization of what some would deride as a Utopian dream: a nation and a culture built on love, respect, and the quest for spiritual values.”

And the core of that was expressed in their music. Arguments aside, this essay primarily takes its cue from the music it accompanies, providing a narrative that frames the recordings presented as a kind of skeleton key to the history of the band. The focus throughout is on the touring history of the band: their greatest achievement was an art of the moment, performed in concert, and the shows, tours, and performance repertoire provide the framework for this history. Illustrating that narrative are evocative items from the band's Archive, documents, and press accounts and images that trace the generally hidden side of the band's work, a visual accompaniment to the recordings that David Lemieux selected for the collection. Together, the recordings, sources, and illustrations make this box something of an alternate history of the Dead.

The recordings here range from fan favorites, traded in bowdlerized and diminished form for years, to hidden gems from deep in the band's legendary Vault-a span that is itself revealing. Together, these document the extraordinary range and achievement of the Dead, from broad themes to expressive details, and that describes the approach adopted in this essay as well. Sections divided by decade introduce themes, letting individual years set the stage for the music presented. As a liner note essay, it does presuppose a basic familiarity with the band, but the list of sources at the end may also serve as a guide for further reading. Like the illustrations featured in the booklet, those sources are drawn from the band's Archive at UC Santa Cruz, primarily contemporary accounts but with a nod to the voluminous secondary literature that makes the Dead's library part of a deep and complex literary history. The illustrations supplement the text by showcasing the rich documentary heritage the band left, which so many have helped to steward over the years.

A Note on the Shows

The shows in this set do more than just trace a chronology or chart a history; they also outline the cultural geography of the Grateful Dead. It is a unique map, not just for its extent and longevity, but for its representativeness: 13 states in every section of the country hosted these 30 performances, along with two foreign countries. As musicians, the members of the Dead presided over three decades that witnessed the advent of modern rock touring; as Americans, they participated in the radical reshaping of the nation, in large part by the tumultuous era that birthed the band. It was an era that would forever be conjoined with them, despite a career that took them far beyond their early days as a Rolling Stones-inflected blues band with a taste for exploration, musical and otherwise.

The swath of geography that the Dead covered was a vital expression of that sense of exploration, an often overlooked element of their lifework. Indeed, the performances here are more than just a skeleton key to the life and times of a rock band-or even to the broader cultural transformations of the nation and the wars over their interpretation. These 30 performances chart the transformation wrought by the Dead as they deliberately sought to expand their sense of what America, and what music, was and could be. Their performance in front of the Great Pyramid in Egypt will always stand as a pinnacle of those interlocked quests, but the nights in San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles—in Napa and Waterbury and Passaic—are what defined that journey, and built the Dead's audience. That was the key to the map of the Dead: the places that marked the extraordinary interchange that was the Grateful Dead experience; places marked by pockets of fans left changed forever, and whose energy and venues in turn changed the music and the band.

The notes on the performances here are chapters in that cultural geography. But the recordings demonstrate the most precious and powerful dimension of the Grateful Dead phenomenon: how the venues and their communities participated in those performances. Together, the words and the music explain how these places changed the band, and how the band changed those places.

It all began in California . . .

Note: The conclusion was originally written to be read in sequence, and will work best if read after the rest of the essay.

Conclusion

Ten years after the Haight imploded, famed San Francisco hippie station KSAN sponsored a remarkable project, an oral history broadcast that drew together interviews with dozens of musicians, artists, and community members, all in answer to the question posed by its title, “What Was That?” It was a title that captured the almost mystical sense of evanescence and velocity that had propelled that era, and that so many participants remembered. “Ever been in a riot?” one Haight-Ashbury denizen asked Rolling Stone staffer Charles Perry. “You could be standing there minding your own business, and all of a sudden this thing, this feeling or magnetic force from the crowd, just engulfs you and you actually start participating in the riot. There's an opposite end of the spectrum. If everybody goes around with the love and brotherhood thing that they had in the Haight, when you walk into it you can be engulfed by it.” That was how Dead Heads felt about shows, too, and as long as the Dead were playing, a spark from the original Haight still survived, flickering in the ashes of the '60s.

The Dead were a central part of that scene and a major contributor to its velocity: as Kesey said, they were “the faster-than-light drive.” And when the Haight deteriorated, they realized that their trip had outgrown its chrysalis. With the comfort of hindsight, that realization looms as one of the hundreds of little epiphanies that define the Dead's history-and it was shared, as the band joined an exodus already underway and that would accelerate, even as newcomers continued to flock to see what remained of the fabled spirit of the Haight, what part of the experience they could claim and continue. Those insights remind us that history is itself a process, not a fixed entity, and how it unfolds is a part of what it means-what historian R.G. Collingwood called “the distinction between what may be called the outside and the inside of an event.” The inside is the real challenge for historians to ferret out-—he intentions and ideas animating actions, however removed from consequences they may prove to be. The hard facts of what happened inevitably color what it signifies to those who remember, and to those who want to understand.

And that is proper. Kesey provided an eloquent statement of that in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, with its oft-quoted line “It's the truth even if it didn't happen.” We are still uncovering and discovering and recovering the facts of the history of the Dead—the outside of the events that paved their path through the world. That task may not be as simple or finite as we would like—history never is—but it carries that sensibility; or at least we like to think it does, perhaps because we know that no such certainty attaches to our interpretations of the past. Beat poet Michael McClure, who lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Dead's sojourn at 710, captured that noble futility in an essay written many years later, reflecting on those times: “Memory is a beautiful thing—as I get older I learn to cherish it. It seems so beautiful or ugly that it is often more than real. Sometimes the vision is lit up with imagination; sometimes the imaginings have the shape of real acts and gestures we call experience.” Yet despite its errors, its “strange shimmers of events,” memory remains, for McClure, “a miracle.” So it is for all who heard and who continue to hear the Dead. Ultimately, their music is what matters, in all of its gorgeous, amorphous, ineffable dimensions, forever a glorious and humbling rebuff to words.

The band sensed that, long before their critics did. It was a lesson they learned at the Acid Tests, if not before, one brought home to them in the form of Neal Cassady. Garcia put it best when he said, “Neal represented a model to me of how far you could take it in the individual way, in the sense that you weren't going to have a work, you were going to be the work. Work in real time, which is a lot like musician's work.”

The Dead understood; their harshest critics did not. A few years after that revelation, and after Cassady's death, Kesey was asked whether Cassady really was, as Kesey had said, “one of the hippest people” he had encountered. “Long before his death Cassady had passed that point where being hip or compulsive had any relative meaning to him,” Kesey replied. “His was the yoga of a man driven to the cliffedge by the grassfire of an entire nation's burning material madness. Rather than be consumed by this burn he jumped, choosing to sort things out in the fast-flying but smogfree moments of a life with no retreat. In this commitment he placed himself irrevocably beyond category.” His reply could just as well have been about the Dead—a resonance that shows that they did indeed take Cassady's lesson to heart.

We devise categories for a reason, though: they help us to sort events by their exteriors, and to see connections between their interiors. That is the stuff of epiphany and revelation, too-and, more mundanely, simply education: the hard work of changing our consciousness, changing our perspective, changing ourselves. It is why work can be joyful, and joyous; and it is why the Dead celebrated and epitomized the idea of serious fun, which historians have begun to recognize-and praise. The band understood that it took work to court those epiphanies: “If I don't sit down and work at stuff, I don't get song ideas,” Garcia commented in 1985. “I have to work at them.” Nor could he predict when inspiration would strike: “Every once in a while a good idea comes through, but I never know when it's going to be.”

That was true of shows as well, which is part of why the Dead will always challenge critics. When the band was at a peak of popularity in 1991, industry insiders noted that while the Dead might be box office stars, they were still “a slice of Americana, a cultural enigma and an industry,” as Pollstar put it, adding, tellingly: “Those distinctions invite misinterpretation, criticism and controversy . . .” And they make the job of explaining the Dead fraught. Yet, as rock historian Greil Marcus has written, “If one can stop looking at the past and start listening to it, one might hear echoes of a new conversation; then the task of the critic would be to lead speakers and listeners unaware of each other's existence to talk to one another. The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not.” In that light, the task of explaining the Dead connects writers not just to the music, but to that litany of surprises, such as the fact that Marcus's brother Steve was a longtime band staffer, responsible for running Grateful Dead Ticket Sales. Epiphany abounds, if we choose to see it.

That was the clarion call of the Haight, as it in turn hearkened to the old bohemian imperative and remade it anew. That was what so many critics missed, both then and after: one sympathetic anthologist in 1968 praised youthful rebellion, saying that young people had developed “a sense of their own identity and with it a radically critical attitude about the society that their elders had created. They dissented, they dropped out, they said 'No'—and the reverberations of that No are still being heard.” That was true enough, in a way, but it missed the larger truth, what Prankster Paul Foster expressed with the title of his memoir, The Answer Is Always Yes—for that was the far more profound impact of the 1960s, and of the artists and musicians and myriad voices who defined the era. It was affirmation, not negation. That was the real spirit that the Dead and the Dead Heads nourished and protected, for 30 years.

In 2006 Hunter wrote in his journal, “A shelf of books could be written and still only lightly perturb the surface of who the Grateful Dead were, are, and why.” Since then, many more books have appeared, but their impact has only lent his prediction the air of prophecy. Paul Krassner, deep in the Great Pyramid before one of the Egypt shows, wanted badly to feel that sense of epiphany: “I had a strong feeling that I was involved in a lesson. It was as though the secret of the Dead would be revealed to me, if I only paid proper attention.” Part of that is the sheer weight of the art they created; part of that is the way their career weaves through so much of American history, defining its highlights or spelunking through the cavernous depths hidden beneath what passes for the visible; part of that is the power of their impact on American culture, exploring its limits, and how it extends even beyond the borders of the United States.

Comprehending that immensity is daunting. But so was the band's project: to connect those bewildering swaths of music and genres and traditions into a coherent and thoroughly original whole, and do so in a way that had never been done before. Now, both process and result belong forever to the Grateful Dead. That whole included the audience, explicitly and deliberately, from the dancers enveloped in every nuance of a guitar solo to tapers straining to capture every brush of a cymbal to listeners far removed from the tenemos of the concert arena, some not even born when the first notes crackled through the PA one night so many years ago.

They are the links that bind the story together, the unbroken chain that Bobby Petersen wrote about that moved Lesh to set those lyrics to song and create one of the great Dead Head anthems. On a good night, it seemed like the band was singing to each of us, songs and words and emotions making a set list that could describe, with uncanny precision, exactly what was happening in our lives and hearts right then, and suggest a way of seeing it all that made life sensible, possible, livable. Some fans called it Dead Head deconstruction, borrowing the academic term for seeing literary texts as combinations of sometimes contradictory ideas that let a critic find meaning in ways sometimes far removed from what the author had imagined or intended. The difference was that when Dead Heads did that with concerts, it was a kind of I Ching, revealing hidden meanings; a wisdom that had always been there, waiting for us to recognize it. “Maybe you'll find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you,” as Hunter wrote in “A Box Of Rain.”

That is what the history of the Dead represents now: a story to be discovered and rediscovered, connected and reconnected in thousands of ways, with thousands of voices. Thousands of moments that make up a history whose contours and dimensions and implications will inveigle and entice, as long as there are listeners who can hear their music and what it enspirited, beckoning to us to connect with it, and connect it together. That is the lesson that Krassner sensed, deep in the Great Pyramid: the mystical nature of that connection, primal and primordial, that the Dead embodied and modeled. That connection endures, beckoning not only in the music and memories and stories that continue to resound today, but most of all in the music.

Coda

An enduring, hopeful mystery emerged in the wake of the band's retirement: new Dead Heads. Young fans born too late to experience the Grateful Dead firsthand managed to find the grail anyway, creating their own participation through recordings and shows by the surviving members, or even cover bands—other bands—who honored (and in many cases, continue to honor) the repertoire and the spirit of collective improvisation that brought that body of work to life. For those fans, it is clear that the Grateful Dead phenomenon-the Dead Head experience-lives on, in however different a guise. That continuity further complicates the job of understanding, removing a neat ending to the story. It's worth pointing out that Garcia would have wanted it that way: asked about the experience of the Grateful Dead, Garcia replied, “I don't want to assign any word to it. Why limit it? I want it to surprise me, to continue to surprise me.” But his context was his own music—the band's art—the joyous work of the human spirit, which is indeed open-ended, and never ending. Garcia's contribution to that great chain of being is complete; as Phil Lesh eloquently put it at his memorial in Golden Gate Park, “Now he is done with becoming; now he is being.” And so is the body of work that the Grateful Dead created, wrapped up by the last notes of “A Box Of Rain” that rang out at Soldier Field late in the evening of July 9, 1995.

One day those younger fans will want to understand their own experience, just as their predecessors want to understand theirs today. That intergenerational curiosity is proof of Faulkner's oft-quoted maxim, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” But coming to grips with history is a daunting task: hundreds of articles, chapters, and books explore and dissect the Dead, using dozens of disciplines and a dazzling array of perspectives. More and more, the job of discussing the Dead involves increasingly complicated methods of navigating that ever-lengthening bookshelf.

There is a strange comfort in that challenge. The Dead's corner of the 20th century is a microcosm that shares much of the turbulence, myopia, and amnesia surrounding that larger epoch. In 2008 historian Tony Judt observed, sadly, “The twentieth century is hardly behind us, but already its quarrels and its dogmas, its ideals and its fears are slipping into the obscurity of mis-memory. Incessantly invoked as 'lessons,' they are in reality ignored and untaught.” That is especially true for the 1960s and the counterculture, an era and a phenomenon that will always define the Dead, and that the Dead helped to define. To historians like Judt, the problems of interpreting the recent past-always difficult-are not intrinsic; rather, they are a function of what he calls our times: “an age of forgetting.” To Judt, what is most striking is “this perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.”

Part of that is the invisibility of truly hopeful moments and movements in a century characterized by war, genocide, and horror. To historian Jay Winter, the minor utopias of the century are the corrective to this tragic narrative, “moments in the twentieth century when a very disparate group of people tried in their separate ways to imagine a radically better world.” He opens a way for historians to acknowledge the power, vitality, and achievement of the Dead when he concludes, “minor utopians are with us still. The visions of men and women who dared to think differently, to break with convention, to speculate about the unlikely in the search for a better way, are intrinsically worth recalling.” Winter's context is Europe, so the American counterculture-or one of its bands-is not one of his minor utopias, but literary scholar Peter Richardson's recent cultural history of the Dead, No Simple Highway, partly frames the Dead's project in these terms, calling their utopian instinct one of their three defining qualities. His analysis is persuasive, and it not only fits with Winter's broader view of the century, it also dovetails with Dennis McNally's earlier, foundational assessment of the band, which framed the Dead's achievement as part of a history of postwar American bohemianism that first coalesced around Jack Kerouac.

Yet neither of those views fully explains the alchemy of the Dead phenomenon: the quest for that elusive transformative power that informed and propelled the band and their fans for three decades. The democratic inclusiveness that the band took from the Acid Tests was more than just an abstract ideal; it was a template that allowed both band and fans to continue to “make it new” every night for 30 years. And it meant that the bohemian orientation that characterized the Dead extended to their fans as well, making them artists of their own experience. That inclusiveness made the Grateful Dead experience endlessly regenerative; endlessly instructive, with the chance for endless epiphanies. That's why the music can be participatory, in the way that British musicologist Christopher Small calls “musicking”: music as process, not product, and how that extends the role of participating into understanding. And that is the corrective against misunderstanding, mischaracterization, and amnesia.

If the Grateful Dead are and will be inextricably intertwined with the '60s, then historians of that era offer a clue as to how the Dead's contribution may be judged. Historian Mark Hamilton Lyttle, following Ken Tucker, sees rock music itself as a primary inheritance; that assessment echoes novelist Robert Stone's poetic tribute to Garcia: “The art and the thought and the spirit of liberation of the Sixties flourished in their way. But of that holistic magic vision of the garden set free, the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is the purest single remnant. It was supposed to be an accompaniment to the New Beginning. In fact, it was the thing itself, all that remains with us.”

His quiet, haunting summation need not be an epitaph. In his memoir, Lesh wrote of the Haight that “in that brief shining moment a spirit was alive in the land: a spirit that blazed like a flaming heart, that could have (and should have) lit up the world. Fear not-that light still lives, peeking out through the cracks in the wall of our materialistic civilization.” He is modest, for that is part of what the Dead did, for all of those years: their shows and songs helped to keep that flame alight. Stone's elegy goes deeper, though, connecting to another minor star in the Dead's cosmology, William Faulkner. Faulkner's 1950 Nobel prize speech captivated his audience, just as the award surprised his critics. What he said that day spoke of a duty and a conscience that would last long after death, that refused to even accept death: “I decline to accept the end of man.” Rather than accept the inevitability that the atomic bomb symbolized and portended, Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” And when Joseph Campbell saw the Dead perform in 1985, his epiphany spoke to him in Faulkner's terms: to him, the Grateful Dead was nothing less than “the answer to the atom bomb.” And so a minor utopia answered the cataclysmic doom of Armageddon.

As we listen to the music here, and throughout the Dead's corpus, we can hear that legacy as it stretched from the '60s to the '90s, gathering influences and listeners until the music truly was an expression of American culture, in all of its glorious malleability and knotty extremes. In the end, the mystery of the Dead is woven into the fabric of their music, waiting to inveigle, entice, and transform another generation of listeners, holding forth the promise of still more epiphanies. What Hunter said of Bobby Petersen's poetry is true of the Dead's music, and his words hearken back to Faulkner's own prediction: It “will endure, for those with ears to hear, crackling through the static . . . like the sound of a far away radio.” That is what the Dead created, and what this collection of their music explains. Listening to these performances, we can hear an achievement that will not only endure; it will prevail.

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Chasing Epiphany, Improvising Revelation: An Alternate History of the Grateful Dead
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