by David Gans
Show Me Something Built to Last
Most of us Deadheads are Kennedy kids. Jerry Garcia is our big brother and
Jack Kerouac was our black-sheep uncle. We white, suburban, American, born-in-the-'50s
children of professionals were treated to a deliriously upbeat set of values
and opportunities; this was America at its most confident, generous and
tolerant. Free of misery and oppression, we came of age listening to the
rich and playful music of the Beatles and the others illuminated by their
genius. At the end of Yellow Submarine, as the smoke cleared following
the defeat of the Blue Meanies the horizon was filled with letters a mile
high spelling out YES. That was the Sixties.
It is a fascinating irony, now that we are expected to "just say no,"
that the punch was first spiked by Uncle Sam himself: LSD was introduced
into the community by government cold-warriors in mind-control experiments
at a local Veterans' Administration hospital. For novelist Ken Kesey, musician/poet
Robert Hunter and others who were paid to take the drug, LSD opened the
door to the immense vistas of truth and fun inside our skulls.
And they brought it home to share with their friends. The powerful psychedelic
was the social and creative lubricant in a series of multimedia parties
staged by Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters and attended by the Grateful
Dead, functioning not strictly as performers but rather as one of many unconstrained
participants in the intentional chaos. Long nights in neighborhood bars
had given them repertoire and endurance; the Acid Tests gave them license.
LSD was the crucible in which Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann
and (later) Mickey Hart (Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, their R&B-singing
frontman, never indulged in psychedelics) alloyed their talents and their
influences to frame the unique musical language they have continued to expand
and refine over the years.
The government set the stage for the counterculture when, by fiat, it made
criminals of the civilian scientists who continued the experiment outside
the VA hospital. Owsley Stanley, justly legendary for the quality of his
product and what would later come to be known as "market penetration,"
used the Dead as a proving ground for his labors in both chemistry and audio.
He built a sound system with some of the income from his mission, and he
supported and recorded the Grateful Dead while they developed their unique
and ambitious musical language.
Then the Dead moved into San Francisco, where the musicians took great sustenance
from the wildly eclectic scene that flowered in a neighborhood near San
Francisco State College. Photographer Herbie Greene, who hung out with Mike
Ferguson of the seminal Haight-Ashbury band The Charlatans, loved the music
and began to take pictures of the bands. "I was the long-haired guy
with the camera," Greene recalls. "All the guys with the guitars
became the bands, and I was serious about photography so I became the photographer."
As the scene developed, so did Greene's professional stature. He shot the
cover of Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and provided the
band shots used by Alton Kelley in his collage for the cover of the Grateful
Dead's first album. He earned a Grammy nomination in 1974 for his art direction
on the Pointer Sisters' second LP, That's a Plenty.
The music business harvested some of those acts and ate the rest alive.
The ballrooms nurtured native talent, and "dance hall keeper"
Bill Graham brought in a magnificent selection of musicians to entertain
and inspire the locals who shared those stages. But the ballroom scene became
a casualty of the music's popularity, and when the record business took
over - on its terms - many practitioners of the "San Francisco Sound"
had a hard time assimilating into the increasingly rigid stylistic strata
defined by radio.
The Grateful Dead, able to deliver a whole lot of stuff but rarely vanilla
on demand, fell out of favor with album-rock radio pretty early on; and
they couldn't even crash the parking lot of Top Forty. But they connected
with an audience that appreciated their earthy experimentalism and has continued
to support the band for twenty-five years of pluralistic, non-hierarchical,
The Grateful Dead are not the only Sixties survivor extant, but they are
an extraordinarily successful one in both economic and creative terms. They
were a band like many other bands until LSD came along and upped the creative
ante. Acid had a powerful direct and indirect influence on the arts and
letters of the mid-'60s; through LSD, consciousness became a playground
and a field of endeavor. And when the drug faded from the scene the Grateful
Dead continued to develop a musical framework impervious to shifting trends
and challenging enough to sustain the interest of the musicians and their
audience through the ensuing decades.
The Grateful Dead have always been able to concentrate on the spontaneous
creation of music rather than the rote performance of carefully-planned
sets. The rest of rock now concentrates on polished, precise presentations,
while the Dead remain free to follow their collective instinct out at the
edge of their continually-expanding musical landscape.
The Dead's commercial solipsism has infuriated some critics over the years.
It was their unruliness that rankled the industry at first, and then it
was their inconsistency. In the '80s, having settled in to life as a touring
ensemble (they continued to make records, with varying degrees of satisfaction
and no appreciable chart impact until 1987's In the Dark), they encountered
the nervous hostility of rock critics who went off half-cocked over the
Dead's blithe disregard for the dictates of the marketing establishment
- but no one cocks an eyebrow at a baseball fan who takes in an entire home
stand, so let's just say the Dead are more like the Chicago Cubs than a
rock band and leave it at that.
The continuity of our fandom more closely resembles that of baseball than
of rock. Bill Graham notes, for example, that while heavy metal fans move
on to other styles as the ravages of puberty ease off, Deadheads stay with
the band through college and on into adulthood. I know several families
with three generations of Deadheads who all attend concerts together - again,
more like baseball than rock'n'roll.
The lineup is more stable than that of a baseball team, though. The Grateful
Dead is an art commune that made it. They don't live together any more,
but they work together with the intimacy of the Wallendas and the polymorphous
synchrony of a baseball team. All they wanted in the first place was the
freedom to (excuse the expression) "do their own thing," and at
that they have succeeded enviably. A subculture has formed around the Grateful
Dead with sufficient weight to sustain the band's pursuit of its collective
instinct, and although the band has long since given up any attempt to swing
the world over to their way of thinking, they do offer an example of right
livelihood that has inspired many people to take career paths designed to
keep their lives interesting and meaningful. "We're just doing what
can be done," says Jerry Garcia.
The Dead as a social and economic entity represent a greater degree of individual
expression and responsibility than the typical American worker ever sees.
The anarchy of the band's musical interaction (and remember, "anarchy"
means an absence of rulers, not an absence of rules) is reflected in uncircumscribed
jobs that would be hard to describe on an organization chart. "We're
living our life through this medium, 'Grateful Deadness' - whatever that
is," says Garcia. "We definitely want it to have as much room
as it can possibly have, and that means it should be able to incorporate
all the shading and all the changes that you can possibly put yourself through.
It should have that much room - otherwise we would be making it too small."
The diffusion of authority is one of the most important aspects of the Grateful
Dead paradigm: although Jerry Garcia is the most incandescent character
in this corner of the galaxy, it is by no means a Hieronymocentric system.
Bob Weir characterizes the band as "a bunch of guys who would probably
amount to neighborhood heroes but for the fact that they've fallen in with
each other. Their innate understanding of each other and their concerted
sense of quest coaxes out of them what on a good night I would equate with
genius. I've seen what satisfies my criteria for genius displayed by the
various members of the group, almost always in response to a stimulus offered
by someone else in the group.
"The most I've ever amounted to is through concerted effort with other
people," Weir continues. "The better I can do for them, the better
they'll do for me." It is a musical marriage, historically noteworthy
for its longevity and the quantity and quality of its output.
What the Grateful Dead have achieved is simple and all-encompassing in its
importance: job security. Their failure to penetrate the record charts and
radio playlists has worked to their advantage by allowing them to escape
the creative tradeoffs that bedevil those whose careers depend on the shifting
winds of popular merchandising.
In a sense, the "American dream" - the promised reward for years
of backbreaking work and devotion to the Company - comes down to the freedom
to dress casually and sleep late on weekdays. And the Grateful Dead have
So when you look at these pictures, you are looking at some satisfied specimens.
"For me, the idea of being able to make a living at playing music is
so delightful," Garcia said in a 1981 interview. "Before the Grateful
Dead, I spent most of my time supporting my music habit. It's just amazingly
lucky to be able to do something in this life that makes people happy."
This essay appears in Book of the Dead, a photo book by Herbie
Greene (Delacorte, 1990)
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