Week of January 18, 1999
GD Hours 539 and 540 (to be posted next week) include an interview with Carol Brightman, author of Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure. Here is the blurb I wrote for the book:
I enjoyed this book immensely. Brightman's perspective is valid and necessary, coming as it does from outside the enchanted realm but with access to intimate details of life at the harrowing center. Speaking as a peer, an authoritative voice bent on illumination rather than scandal or hagiography--seeking, I think, to understand her own story in the light of the Dead's as well as vice versa--Brightman explores how and why "the fierce attachments of radicals seemed to have melted into air [while] this fringe group ... was turning into something like a national monument." Sweet Chaos places the Grateful Dead in the context of the political zeitgeist, which the band and their followers often seem bent on ignoring forever. Anybody who ever wondered about the Dead and the Deadheads should read Sweet Chaos to understand why the significance of this culture cannot--and should not--be underestimated.
Brightman was an anti-war activist in the '60s and later the biographer of the writer Mary McCarthy. She sometimes wondered why so many of the committed social-change movements of the '60s were crushed or co-opted, or just fizzled out, while the Grateful Dead's hedonistic, tribal road show grew and throve and wound up a cultural institution.
Brightman's perspective is not entirely that of an outsider: her sister, Candace, was the Dead's lighting designer for 25 years, and so Carol saw her share of shows and spent time with the band and other family and crew members.
You might also appreciate this online interview with Brightman that took place around this time. Here's an excerpt in which she explains how she came to write this book:
The catalyst was my agent, Lucy Kroll, who happened to be Jerry's agent for film projects (mainly "Sirens of Titan"), and John Kahn's godmother. She was close to the GD scene, all 80 years of her. AFter I finished the biography of Mary McCarthy I was hungry to do something about my own generation, and was thinking of writing about the Movement's relations with Vietnam and Cuba. But I was exhausted by the seven years work on WRITING DANGEROUSLY, or not ready to take it on. Lucy had proposed a biography of Jerry Garcia (something that had come to her in a dream, she said). I wasn't interested but it got me thinking about what I saw as the larger story, the so-called "phenom," and where it fit in American culture. This was early 1992. A few years before I had written a grant proposal for a book to be called "Period Pieces," about political events in the 60s and had added a chapter about the Grateful Dead, almost as an afterthought, dimly perceiving that there was this 'other sixties' that my sister had always represented, and wouldn't it be neat to put it all under the same tent. It was shortly after Touch of Grey, and the Dead's extraordinary longevity had finally struck me (this after seeing them on and off over the years). The proposal wasn't accepted and I went back to WD and editing BETWEEN FRIENDS (the McCarthy-Arendt correspondence).
Them's some facts. But the deeper question--WHY?--is harder to answer. After Potter accepted the GD proposal (the same publisher, btw, of two previous books of mine, including WD), and I started going to shows with notebook in hand, inteviewing band members and staff, reading up on GD literature, trying to see something significant in the giant stadium crowds, and the singalong music, I felt increasingly uncertain about what I had taken on. I would swing back and forth from feeling like a fraud to feeling intensely bored, and neither feeling was conducive to hot pursuit of a creative project.
I kept trotting out my reasons: I was challenged by the fact that nobody outside the GD world wanted to look at this amazing story. I was intrigued and challenged by the snootiness of highbrow critics. I really did want to know how the band, along with this yeasty community, which I was finding far more complex than it appeared at first, survived for three decades. I believed the Dead came from a somewhat rarefied corner of the 60s, hardly representative, it seemed to me, of the real fire in the streets which emanated from civil rights and antiwar struggles.
Then gradually, as I wrote and discarded one chapter after another, I began to hit something solid that was probably there all along but which I could only stumble on via the shit-detector test that is a certain kind of writing. I started to keep stuff. Ironically, or maybe not, the first pages that would appear in the final book was that recollection of being under the bombing in North Vietnam in 1967 that begins Chapter 11. That was my little war story and I had been haunted by it for thirty years. Putting it in a book about the GD was like hiding it. It seems a bit coy, but when I wrote it I knew I could write the rest of the book. I wouldn't have to fake anything. I could tap into the real questions I had about the Dead, and the questions I had about the ghosts in my past. At the same time, I began to let in a little bit more of Deaddom, via interviews with deadheads, and via the tapes they started sending me. I began to listen to the music, and enjoy the drug stories like poetry. I liked writing about the Acid Tests, both the CIA's original acid tests, one of which in Menlo Park first turned Kesey and Hunter on, and the SF parties that turned the Grateful Dead down their fateful path--as if this was some lost piece of planet 60s that I was recovering for myself and other politicos of the era.
And here's a review by Brightman of three '60s histories, posted in January 2008 on truthdig.com.
I emailed Brightman to ask her what she's up to today. She's about to publish another book:
SCOUTING THE PERIMETER is the story of how the US tried to transform sugar-rich Cuba into its first imperial possession, and failed. Then it tried to turn Alaska into a source of oil for the empire it had acquired... and failed again. My ancestors and their crones crowd the early years of these two tales, and their part is told as fiction. The final chapters cover my own experience in both Cuba and Alaska, and are written in first-person... prophesies included.
The music in this program includes the last part of set 1 of 10/15/94, heard in GDH 538, and a studio demo of "Victim or the Crime" by Bobby and the Midnites, recorded several years before the song became part of the Grateful Dead repertoire.
Bobby and the Midnites (unreleased demo)
VICTIM OR THE CRIME
EASY ANSWERS; DEAL
Your requests are requested! Browse and/or search the Grateful Dead Hour program logs on the GD Hour web site. Let me know if there's a particular program you'd like to hear, and feel free to post requests and comments here or by email to email@example.com
Thanks for listening!
- David Gans