The Literary Underground of the Grateful Dead: Electric Tibet
“You gotta experience the Grateful Dead. When they happen, they just happen. You can’t get it by reading about them. You have to freak with them” (7). So begins one of the more obscure books on the San Francisco music scene, Electric Tibet. Published in April 1969, the book was more than simply an early journalistic exploration of the city’s burgeoning music scene: it was also the first detailed monograph on the Haight-Ashbury written by a sympathetic insider, James N. Doukas. Although not exclusively focused on the Dead, they are a major presence throughout, and the author credits them as both musical heroes and community leaders. The Dead’s centrality in the narrative, along with the book’s obscurity, make Electric Tibet a fine example of what this blog explores.
The book’s status owes much to the circumstances of its publication. Issued by a pornographic book publisher, it had only one printing, and was quickly eclipsed by Ralph J. Gleason’s The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, which appeared later that year. That is a shame, for the book was a serious effort: Doukas spent the better part of a year interviewing and writing, and his approach drew on his skills as a journalist as well as his training in sociology at UC Santa Barbara. That training gives the book some of its appeal. Doukas studied with sociologist Howard Boughey, whom he credits for encouraging him to write the book. Boughey is known for his textbook, Insights in Sociology: An Introduction, but it is his theory that “social organization is voluntarily constructed by social participants” that made him an ideal mentor for Doukas. Boughey’s Ordinary Social Occasions, Sandcastles, and Structural Reproduction: A Sociology of Everybody’s Social Life presents that theory, and it clearly informs Doukas’s approach, though Boughey’s book would not appear until much later. Doukas’s emphasis on the musicians as a way of approaching the larger Haight-Ashbury community can be seen as an early application of Boughey’s theory, and it makes Electric Tibet a useful text for readers interested in the literature on the Haight-Ashbury and on the San Francisco music scene.
For Doukas, the interviews are the heart of the book; as he explains, “A lot of the big-name weekly magazines had attempted to interpret the history of the history of San Francisco rock music. But … no one had asked the musicians themselves to explain what they had been going through. What I wanted to do was to collect ideas from as many of them as I could and, in the course of the interviews, to gain an understanding of this unique American sub-culture” (9). Doukas also talked to a wide range of other narrators, from fellow rock fans and Haight-Ashbury hippies to even the housekeeper for Blue Cheer. His distillation of so many stories and perspectives is Electric Tibet’s greatest strength.
The book’s 191 pages are divided into 14 chapters, six of which outline his larger argument: the first three provide a history of the scene and the last three offer an assessment and thoughts on what the future may bring. Chapters on Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Airplane, Moby Grape, and Country Joe and the Fish provide platforms for Doukas to consider larger issues of success, the impact of media, and the influence of the recording industry; in part because he interviewed thoughtful musicians, his conclusions are balanced, and he avoids ideological polemics. One of the most interesting chapters is on Ron Polte, manager of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Ace of Cups, among others; Doukas also interviewed former Prankster Julius Karpen, who managed Big Brother, as well as ballroom impresarios Bill Graham and Chet Helms, giving the book a breadth of perspectives on the scene. That is one of Electric Tibet’s best features, for it captures a good swath of the burgeoning local industry that had already enveloped what had begun as a quiet artists’ bohemia.
Doukas’s central argument is that the Haight functioned as a real community, with the musicians providing both the primary artform as well as the main economic engine. Ralph J. Gleason makes the same point in his book, but Doukas sees more change and instability in the scene, and greater challenges ahead. Those elements would receive even more emphasis in later accounts, with recording contracts labeled as artistic compromise and loss of innocence; Doukas manages to document the pressures of success and visibility but presents them as inherent dangers, seeing them as organic byproducts of capitalism to be addressed and navigated, not condemned in the conspiracy-addled paranoia that also swirled through the scene.
Although Deadheads might wish for more of a focus on the Dead, the band has a strong presence throughout, and Doukas records a number of his interactions with them. He spent time with several band members and associates, chiefly Rock Scully, whom he singles out for his help, and he even sought out one of the Dead’s more unusual performances, at San Quentin on March 7, 1968. Doukas also makes plain his admiration and respect for their music, and thanks Phil Lesh for a number of key insights and useful observations. That may have been all of the access Doukas could get: by 1968 the Dead were working hard, and often out of town. But the book does give a good sense of the Dead shortly after their Haight-Ashbury heyday, and Doukas provides a good accounting of how the broader Haight-Ashbury community informed the Dead’s project, and identity.
Electric Tibet is a respectable first book, especially for a young writer, but it did not inaugurate its author’s career as a music journalist. Aside from a few articles in student newspapers, the book represents the only sustained music criticism that Doukas wrote. Nor did it leave much of a mark, whether due to the publisher’s notoriety or to the book’s limited distribution. There are flaws: although the copy-editing is surprisingly good, the book has its errors, some painful- -Mountain Girl is “Mountain Grow” (24), for example. But the book’s critical reception, or lack thereof, probably owes more to the shady distribution network that Dominion relied on, which was not aimed at rock fans. And by the time the book appeared, Doukas was already pursuing photography seriously: he met Ansel Adams in 1967, the first of several famous photographers he sought out, and he had his first gallery exhibition only two years later. He went on to have a distinguished career as a photographer, teaching and even hosting dinner lectures by Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, among others. In 1980 he was commissioned by the Saudi government to design the University of Riyadh photography complex. Today he divides his time between California and Spain, and he still maintains a studio in the Bay Area, continuing to teach and train young photographers.
Not surprisingly, Electric Tibet has never been widely cited, but it holds up remarkably well for such an early effort. Doukas’s distinction between the first and second phases of the San Francisco music scene was perceptive, and he did a fine job of capturing the argot of the time without condescending to his narrators. Some of his assessments have held up well: his appreciation of the Dead’s and the Airplane’s musical prowess, the intelligence of their lyrics and the ambition of their compositions, was prescient; his estimation of the enduring significance of Country Joe and the Fish and Moby Grape, less so. But Doukas’s careful delineation of the different currents in the scene, his descriptions of the contributions by native musicians and immigrant bands are sound, and the book’s status as a contemporary document means that it merits attention. Though not without its flaws and errors, Electric Tibet is a credible effort for a young writer who was anxious to provide a corrective to the incomprehending hype and dismissive condescension that characterized much of the mainstream media coverage of the Haight-Ashbury and the San Francisco music scene. As the shelf of books on the Dead grows ever longer, it is easy to lose sight of the larger artistic milieu that informed their genesis; Electric Tibet is an interesting, useful contemporary account, and a thought-provoking, unheralded entry in the library of the Dead.
Boughey, Howard N. Insights in Sociology: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1978.
Boughey, Howard N. Ordinary Social Occasions, Sandcastles, and Structural Reproduction: A Sociology of Everybody’s Social Life.Middletown, NJ: Caslon, 1995.
Doukas, James N. Electric Tibet: The Chronicles and Sociology of the San Francisco Rock Musicians. North Hollywood, CA: Dominion Publishing Company, 1969.
Gleason, Ralph J. The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound. New York: Ballantine, 1969.
an awesome guy. Probably the first to take all this seriously in journalistic form.
Rex Foundation gives an annual award in his honor to this day.
Ralph J. Gleason was a true heavy hitter in the Bay Area. I have an old copy of "The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound". As I remember most chapters are based on interviews with different members of the Airplane.It also has an interview with Jerry Garcia. I also have a copy of his book "Celebrating the Duke; and Louie, Bessie, Billie, Carmen, Miles, Dizzy and Other Heroes". Both books are far above the level of most music journalism. In my last post I referred to the book "the jack Kerouac Reader". The correct title is "The Portable Jack Kerouac", edited by Ann Charters and published as part of the Penguin Classics series. There is something about Kerouac's writing that evokes the mood of place. His descriptions of the west coast and San Francisco are so insightful and beautiful. I see "Electric Tibet" is listed as unavailable on amazon. Reprint time? WRITE ON !
Was reading excerpts from "Big Sur"(1962) by Jack Kerouac last night in the "Jack Kerouac Reader". He mentions the Mars Hotel. I have not read the complete "Big Sur" since backpacking in Big Sur in November 1991 a few days after seeing the Halloween GD shows (10/31/91, Dark Star, Ken Kesey)and the Bill Graham Memorial. The book Big Sur is one of the great treatises of alcohol psychosis or DTs (delirium tremons)perhaps since John Barleycorn by Jack London.
As for great West Coast writing I again highly recommend Lew Welch.Certainly his poem " The Song That Mount Tamalpais Sings'.
Does anyone know where I can get a decent copy of this book,they have a beat up used copy I saw on a big site for $70 really now there has to be a book seller out there with this book somewhere anywhere any suggestions!!! THank you
Ah! One of my favorite GD literary obscurities! Always liked this one. Have a couple copies in the ever-expanding Dead book collection. Doukas takes the title from a comment by Marty Balin; "It's like San Francisco is some sort of Electric Tibet".
The main thing I like about it is that it's written at that time, 1968, without the advantage of hindsight, by a writer who is certainly nonprofessional -- meaning there's no slant, no editor chopping content (I am guessing). Just his enthusiastic and youthful observations. Basically the way almost any of us would have observed the scene at that place, at that time.
Nice to read the background with the publisher as well as Doukas info. Really glad you're doing this series on books -- keep em coming!