Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - We All Want to Change the World

By Blair Jackson

On the afternoon of April 26, 1988, in a nondescript room somewhere inside the Marin Veteran’s Auditorium building in San Rafael, Calif., Jerry Garcia and a couple of very articulate teenagers spoke at a press conference publicizing a Marin County-based social action group for high school students called Creating Our Future. The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band was headlining a benefit concert at the Marin Vets for the organization that night. Also on the bill performing short acoustic sets were Brent Mydland, Bob Weir and Hot Tuna. (The encore featured Jerry, Bob, Brent and John Kahn playing Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” and The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Very cool!)

A student leader said at the beginning of the press conference that one of Creating Our Future’s main goals was to register 18-year olds to vote in that fall’s election. Now, as happened a couple of times at other press conferences involving members of the Dead, the band’s publicist, Dennis McNally, prodded me in advance to ask the first question once the opening remarks were completed. Dennis, bless him, believed I might bring up something different than the conventional (straight) journalists who attended these sort of affairs usually did.

Seeing Jerry sitting alongside two or three fresh-faced students who had just extolled the virtues of voting and changing the world through political action, I couldn’t resist breaking the ice by asking something along the lines of: “Jerry, through the years you have said you never vote, you don’t trust leaders, and prefer to work outside the system for change. Yet, you’ve just heard these kids talk about the importance of voting and getting involved and how trying to work within the system does matter. Are you still planning to not vote this November, or have their arguments swayed you?”

There was a bit of laughter in the room and Jerry smiled nervously. His answer was a classic Garcia deflection. (I don’t have a tape, so I’m paraphrasing here): “Well, these are definitely the kinds of arguments that would make someone want to vote …” Then he talked about the virtues of the organization and such.

Jerry didn’t vote in that election (I asked him point blank two years later), nor in any other election, as far as I know. And as long as the Grateful Dead were around, they never endorsed a candidate as a group.

Twenty years later, however, with Jerry long out of the picture, The Dead (technically billed as “Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart”) played a successful fundraiser/get-out-the-vote concert (10/13/08) for the Obama campaign at Penn State. Most Dead Heads who vote are Democrats (by a huge margin, I suspect, though I have no supporting data), and Democratic and Republican fans alike were happy The Dead were back. It had been four years since the foursome had played together (though, sans Bill, the others had staged a “Deadheads for Obama” concert in spring 2008), and many Heads hoped that the Penn State gig (dubbed “Change Rocks”) and a performance by The Dead at one of the Obama inauguration balls in January 2009, signaled that the band might go out on tour again—which they did, in spring 2009.

Poster for The Dead’s “Change Rocks” concert for Obama in 2008.

I was not surprised, however, that there was considerable chatter from a vocal minority on the Internet decrying The Dead’s decision to get involved with presidential politics. There were a lot of comments about Jerry’s refusal to vote and about the Grateful Dead’s supposedly apolitical stance through the years. “Jerry would be turning over in his grave to see the Dead re-forming for political purposes” was a notion proffered by some naysayers.

Would the Grateful Dead have played Obama benefits? Probably not, but we’ll never know. But whatever the decision might have been, it wouldn’t have precluded individual members from getting involved—as they did that night and as they always have.

The truth is, the Grateful Dead and its members were always involved in grassroots activism, if only by the company they kept and the causes they supported with benefits. From their beginnings in ’65 all the way until the end in ’95, their philanthropic spirit was usually directed toward local/community organizations and causes. One of their first gigs as the Grateful Dead was a benefit for the SF Mime Troupe at the Fillmore, and in the ensuing couple of years they played benefits for the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization, the Straight Theater, the Spring Mobilization Against the [Vietnam] War, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, the East Bay Economic Opportunity Program, the Black Man’s Free Store, the Zen Mountain Center, the Both/And jazz club, and so on. They mostly stayed away from blatantly political events, however, and distanced themselves from the radical fringe and, especially, any group that advocated violence. Still, there was no question about their countercultural leanings.

Artist Randy Tuten’s Poster for 1982 Vietnam veterans benefit.

Later, in the ’80s, they formed the Rex Foundation—whose board was populated by band members, crew and various friends and “family”—so the group would have an ongoing outlet for their philanthropic urges. That organization, which is still going strong 30 years down the line, has dispensed close to $9 million, mostly in grants of $10,000 or less, to thousands of nonprofit groups of every stripe, from women’s shelters to school music programs to environmental groups to the Gyuto Monks. The Dead also played a few big high-profile benefits in the ’80s—one supporting Vietnam veteran groups, another for SEVA, a third to raise money to save the vanishing rainforests, and they headlined a stadium concert to combat AIDS. Additionally, the individual members played many smaller shows for different organizations—like the Creating Our Future gig. That sort of low-key giving was much more the Dead’s style than the Big Gesture.

I love this verse in “Built to Last,” which seems to address the do-gooder’s dilemma:
There are times that you get hit upon
Try hard but you cannot give
And other times you’d gladly part
With what you need to live
Don’t waste your breath to save your face
When you have done your best
And even more is asked of you
Let fate decide the rest.


Bill Graham said in the Fall ’85 issue of The Golden Road: “When you get down to basic humanistic tendencies, going way back—whether it was voter registration, or a nursery school, a recreation center in Mill Valley, or when kids were getting busted in the Haight in the late ’60s … nobody has done more than the Dead … It gets down to: What do you do with the power you have? What do you do that you don’t have to do? And that’s an area that few people outside the Dead network know about the Dead.”

Musically, the closest the Dead came to “protest music” was “Throwing Stones”—which Bob insisted was anti-political—and Brent and John Barlow’s pointed ecology anthem “We Can Run.” Both of those came under fire from a segment of Dead Heads who really did not want to hear even well-meaning songs about real world issues. I could never figure out what message Garcia was trying to put across when he sang The Beatles’ “Revolution” 11 times between 1983 and 1990 (or exactly what John Lennon intended when he wrote it). I suspect he liked the payoff—“You know it’s gonna be alright!”— more than the litany of cynical putdowns in the verses. Even so, he never looked that comfortable singing it.

In 2012, the former members of the Dead continue to give their time and energy to myriad good causes, including the Rex Foundation and Phil and Jill’s Unbroken Chain Foundation. Bob always seems to be playing a benefit for someone, and Mickey and Bill have both been righteous in that regard, too. It’s who they are. It’s who they’ve been from the beginning. That’s Grateful Dead politics.

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Joined: Sep 21 2011
Blair - How About Another Best of Furthur

Hi Blair - Off Topic but about a year ago you did a Best of Furthur from 2009 through the Summer 2011 tour. A lot of folks added their suggestions. I've been using the results as a "what to listen to guide" ever since and it has never let me down - it included a lot of shows that I already had identified as very worthy of listening and turned me on to many more that are FANTASTIC and which I might have otherwise missed. I'd like to suggest that doing annual updates to include the shows since the last list might be in order. This band is putting out so many shows worth hearing and there is ample availability through the Furthur Live Downloads and the LMA audience recordings in additions to the shows we've all attended. I'm certainly willing to share the load with some suggestions from shows I've attended or heard recordings of and I bet others are as well. How about it big guy - could we do a Fall 11 to present (roughly) Best of Furthur addendum some time in the near future and keep it going as long as they keep cranking it out?

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Joined: Nov 8 2007
APOLITICAL

As far as I am concerned, Grateful Dead (as opposed to "The Grateful Dead), transcends politics. Politics is of this world; Grateful Dead is of the Universe (which when translated means literally "one song" -- uni - verse). While much of the benefits and works of the GD and the individual memebers are indeed "good works" and are well intended, I cannot help feel something in my gut that going furthur (pun intended) into current politics and perhaps unintednedly sending out messages to 'Heads taints, cheapens, or undemines that which is "Grateful Dead."

As far as I know, there has been, is and will never be anything like Grateful Dead -- pure, present-moment oriented, transcendent vehicle for inner spiritual and mindful travel. Throwing politics into such a (dare I say) sacred phenomenon, utterly turns my stomach and is the antithesis to all that is Grateful Dead.

This is not to say, the charitble work they have done is wrong or bad -- on the contrary -- quite generous. I write this as a word of caution that Grateful Deadness not be lowered from the pinnacle of purity on which it sits and will sit for all of eternity. Our grandchildrens' greatchildren will be listening to this stuff . . . Grateful Daed is an important, extremely important phenomenon on the scale of human history. How fortunate are we who lived at the time in human history, in the country where it occurs and of the basic demographics and luck to have and to continue to experience Grateful Dead first hand!

Let it never spoil.

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
one of my favorite interviews of all time

had SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll talking to Jerry. Thanks to the miracle of the Interwebz, the fact that it was in a relatively obscure Playboy supplement has not kept it from being available: http://rkdn.org/dead/Conversation.asp

JC: So your main responsibility is to your audience.

JG: Sure. Of course, we want to give them their money's worth, but we also want to avoid putting them in positions of harm. There are some places in America where we can't play because of the friction between the local authorities and the audience. We've had the experience of, basically, acting as bait. The first couple of times we played Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, the police busted about 100 people. They took advantage of the situation. We have to try to make sure that doesn't happen.

JC: Have you ever worked for the authorities? Would you ever consider playing to support a political candidate?

JG: Never. We draw the line at that. Who's that cool, really? Who's so cool you would want them leading people? Nobody, certainly no politician. We've been hit on by all kinds of them, candidates, gurus, holy men. All kinds of power freaks have hit on us at one time or another to raise money for them or get on the bandwagon and sell their trip. It's our responsibility to keep ourselves free of those connotations. I want the Grateful Dead experience to be one of those things that doesn't have a hook. We're all very anti-authoritarian. There's nothing that we believe so uniformly and so totally that we could use the Grateful Dead to advertise it.
...
JG: Hopefully there aren't as many suckers for rhetoric now. It was so obvious what was happening back in those days. Like the Black Panthers. I mean, what happens when a bunch of black guys put on berets and start packing submachine guns? They're going to get killed, man, they're going to get fucking killed. You can't do that in America. You can't wave guns in the faces of the biggest guns in the world. It's suicide. That's obvious, but how could you say it? LIke, all that campus confusion seemed laughable too. Why enter this closed society and make an effort to liberalize it when that's never been its function? Why not just leave it and go somewhere else? Why not act out your fantasies, using the positive side of your nature rather than just struggling? Just turn your back on it and split - it's easy enough to find a place where people will leave you alone. You don't have to create confrontation. It's a game, and it's a no-win game. I remember once being at a be-in or one of those things, and the Berkeley contingent - Jerry Rubin and those guys - got up on stage and started haranguing the crowd. All of a sudden it was like everybody who had ever harangued a crowd. It was every asshole who told people what to do. The words didn't matter. It was that angry tone. It scared me; it made me sick to my stomach.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
why bother

Jerry vote, why, when the ptb can change the outcome of any election by distraction, manipulation and down right messing with the count, ie the 2000 GW win provided by his wimpy brother who just happened to be the gov of fla. Does anyone remember the hanging chad? You know, GW lost, but was elected due to electorial college, alll due to manipulation of voter ballots. Then, to get everyones mind off of the election results, let the wtc get attacked. Hell, who could be anti american or anti president after that? So go vote, then all can say "It wasn't me who elected them" I like the quote " I don't vote, it only encourages them".

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Joined: Feb 6 2008
a true alternative

As an old timer veteran of those times of political demonstration and strife i can well remember the implied stance of the Dead. They projected an attitude and demeanor of independence in the face of all the swirling confrontation going on. I beleive, whether they spent a lot of time thinking it about it or not, they led by example and pointed to a different way of approaching a problem-do it on your own and don't become dependent on the establishment-either positively or negatively. Do your own thing, create your own reality because you really can't change the government's way of doing/repressing/brutalizing and try to stay out of their radar if you can. If you can't then use tact and intelligence to proceed because in the end if you don't they will get you. Always try to support those things that will be positives for what people need to live with integrity and try hard to stay true to these basic principles. I never knew how intentional the Dead's turn to the mainly soothing vibes of American Beauty was at the time of its release but in the context of the political chaos of the time it sure was a balm for the soul and MUCH needed on campus and everywhere else. The Airplane was inflaming at a time when it felt everything was on the edge but the Dead never did that. When they were able they gave time and effort to what they viewed as worthy. They were the People's Band without being openly political. They were comforting and they pointed to a way of life after renunciation of the sick society that we saw at the time with its foreign wars and internal spying. Maybe a lot of that attitude came from Jerry himself and now that he is gone things have changed somewhat. Of course the fundamental issues are still out there.

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Joined: Sep 5 2012
Re "Vocal Minority:" Politics = Inevitable

Every good painter paints what he is.
Jackson Pollock

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Joined: Jun 7 2007
John Lennon and revolution

Lennon's song Revolution was aimed at precisely the political crowd who thought that they could hijack the Beatles for their own particular ends. You have to remember that in 67/8 Europe was a hotbed of radical activity and student activism and a host of very far left radical groups. Lennon in particular wore his heart on his sleeve and was severely critical of the British establishment along with any other country whose leaders were waging war on various fronts. It got to a point when Lennon and the Beatles were constantly being asked for favours, backing of political movements and the like. I don't know the exact ins and outs of the situation (I was quite young at the time and old age has dimmed my memory!), but it seems like some people accused the Beatles of promising time and money which weren't forthcoming. Hence the line in Revolution "If you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can say is brother you'll have to wait". Lennon caught an awful lot of flak for that and maybe he was a little naive for swimming with some sharks at times, but he spent a large part of his life fighting for peace, albeit in a much more politicised way than the Grateful Dead.

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Joined: Nov 2 2007
90s political comments

Can't remember the date but there was a show in the 90s where, right before the encore, Bobby (I think) said, "Did someone say fuck the religious right?"
Also, around 94 or 95 Phil changed the lyric in Tom Thumb's Blues to, "they blackmailed the speaker of the house into leaving his post." Newt Gingrich, of course, was the speaker at that time and, despite divorcing his wife while she was going through cancer treatment, was a big proponent of "famiily values" and the religious right.

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Joined: Apr 9 2011
At Nassau in 5/81

If I remember correctly , Weir began "He's Gone " by dedicating the song to Bobby Sands at Nassau 5/81 , the night he died from a hunger strike, while in prison. Bobby Sands was a member of the IRA. Though they never flaunted the idea of being a "political band" there were times it came out.....Counterculture , not really......out to make a buck and pay the bills , I ain't got no problem with that.....it's the American way. Good music and nobody shoving a "message " down my throat , all the better.

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Joined: Jun 17 2007
A Whole Bunch in Another Hall, Dancing Crazy

After the scholar Joseph Campbell attended a GD show in February, 1985, he had this to say about the experience:

"This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I' ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence. And when the great beam of light would go over the crowd you' d see these marvelous young faces in sheer rapture-for five hours ! Packed together like sardines! Eight thousand of them ! Then there was an opening in the back with a series of panel windows and you look out and there's a whole bunch in another hall, dancing crazy. This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about !" (from http://www.sirbacon.org/joseph_campbell.htm)

Politics, which is how a society manipulates its ethics, will always be a tough sell in a community where attaining "fervent loss of self" is the ideal, but the kind of values conveyed by the GD, both through their song lyrics and the actions and inactions of its members, seem to be more concerned with individual morality, rather than the social practice of politics. We're like a community of individual anarchists, and sure, some of us might want to change the world from time to time, but mostly, I think we just want to dance.

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