The Literary Underground of the Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter once wrote, “A shelf of books could be written and still only lightly perturb the surface of who the Grateful Dead were, are, and why.” Now, fifty years after the band formed, there are many shelves of books on the Dead, with more volumes appearing every year. This is why, more than most bands, the Grateful Dead can be approached through their literature, not just their music. As longtime office staffer Eileen Law explained, “It was always all about the music - - but it was also so much more, and books were a big part of it.”
The Dead were shaped by and participated in the literary currents of their times, from the Beat legacies of the Bay Area arts scenes that enveloped them to the San Francisco Renaissance that linked poets such as Michael McClure and Richard Brautigan to the Haight-Ashbury and the Dead’s milieu. The extraordinary cultural ferment that informed the life and times of the Grateful Dead helps to explain why no other band has a more dynamic, complex, and intertwined literary history. Few bands or musicians have generated more books; none have attracted the analyses of so great a range of writers, approaches, and perspectives. This blog will explore one of the traces of that literary history, focusing on a few key texts to illuminate some of the rich contexts that frame the broader intellectual geography of the Grateful Dead phenomenon.
Those contexts span high culture to popular, from academe to esoterica, connecting the Dead to the deepest roots of American bohemianism - - roots that continued to cast long shadows in the postwar culture that shaped the band. New incarnations of that inheritance also played out in the books of the Dead, from science fiction to cutting-edge comedy, from folk music to the avant garde, all genres and topics that were part of the band’s countercultural milieu. Yet many of those sources have remained largely in the shadows, a kind of literary underground waiting for readers to discover and explore. Historian Robert Darnton used the phrase in his seminal book, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime; his focus was on the colorful world of pamphleteers and black market publishers in Enlightenment France, but this blog owes something to his broader tactic of treating unusual or marginal texts seriously.
Books are containers for ideas, and the books of the Dead show how a set of ideas transformed the young bohemians who forged the Grateful Dead and how they in turn reshaped and shared those ideas with others. Some of those others went on to write their own books, many on the Dead but even more about them, often oblique though nonetheless very real expressions of the ideas the music or the broader phenomenon suggested. As Deadhead writer Steve Silberman noted, “There was something about the Grateful Dead that made writers want to reach beyond the syntax of their times, to weave of language a ghost trap for something ineffable, for something that seemed to be important.” That appeal, that challenge, continues - - as do the responses, charting a literary legacy and a cultural impact that continues to evolve.
Along with the music they created and the art they inspired, the books of the Dead provide a lens for understanding the band’s significance. And while no blog can hope to fully outline the literary history and heritage of the Grateful Dead, it should provide a few representative glimpses into some of the more interesting corners of that vast library. Sharp-eyed fans who visited the Grateful Dead Archive exhibition “All the Pages Are Our Days: The Books of the Grateful Dead” will recognize several of the works discussed here, but this forum offers a chance to explore a few key texts and themes in much greater detail than an exhibit can allow. If this blog serves its purpose, then it should demonstrate how the books of the Dead provide a skeleton key to the achievement of the band, and the place of the Grateful Dead phenomenon in American culture.
I still remember reading that on the AC Transit bus and being pretty much stunned. Seriously, a must-read.
I was at an event once where Kesey did a reading of excerpts from it. Might have been a NYE show, actually.
As an editor who loves geeking out on these things, I always find it intriguing that Kesey rendered the last line as "up yonder called" and Rolling Stone seemingly edited it to "called up yonder." Scholars have probably long since resolved this.
Books can have a way to calm the soul while the winds of war rage into the night. As in the current times or the dark ages of the 21st century.
Read Ken Kesey's " Now I know how many holes it takes to fill Albert Hall". The man had a soul bigger than a redwood or Paul Bunyon combined.
I WANT to read more of this column, but I can't figure out how to find more than this first post. Is there a link to later entries on the home page or the features page that I'm missing?
Very very nice, I look forward to this
Very excited to read what's next.
"After Me The Deluge" by Jack Kerouac was his last written piece. Published a few days before his death. Read it. Also read "October in the Railroad Earth".
Looking forward to your insights, Nick. Just read Richardson's No Simple Highway and loved the pace of the presentation.