Ralph J. Gleason and the Community of the Dead: The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound
Last month’s entry discussed a sympathetic insider’s account of the Haight-Ashbury and how it informed the Dead’s early work; this month’s entry discusses a book that represents largely the opposite. Like James N. Doukas’s Electric Tibet, Burton H. Wolfe’s The Hippies is a contemporary account, and it, too, is based on substantial first-person reporting, by a trained professional - - though Wolfe is strictly a journalist, whereas Doukas had training in sociology as well.
“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.
It all began with a dictionary. After a few months performing as the Warlocks, the band discovered a single by another band with the same name, and in November 1965, they met in Palo Alto to discuss options. Bob Weir recently reflected on that afternoon. It had been unseasonably rainy; Weir laughingly recalled it as “a dark and stormy night.” The band had been batting around several names for days, none of them particularly satisfactory.
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.”