ONE OF THE MOST TELLING ANECDOTES in Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey, an edited collection of recent writing about the band, comes from an interview with John Perry Barlow, who was guitarist Bob Weir’s primary songwriting partner long before his fame as an Internet pioneer. Barlow recounts getting very drunk with Robert Hunter, whose collaboration with Jerry Garcia parallelled Barlow and Weir’s, in the wake of the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at which Hells Angels working security did more to provoke violence than prevent it, resulting in four deaths. The episode shocked the counterculture, and led the two lyricists to examine their role in creating the myth surrounding one of its flagship bands. “So far it doesn’t have any dogma,” Barlow recalls saying to Hunter, “which makes it kind of OK as a religion, but it’s got ritual, it’s got iconography, it’s got all these characteristics of religion; it just doesn’t seem to have a belief system yet.” Hunter agreed, and the two made a pact not to write lyrics that in any way resembled dogma.
This story illustrates the band’s (and their collaborators’) self-awareness about what was going on around them in the late 1960s and early '70s. Barlow and Hunter kept their word, for the most part, penning a songbook that borrowed from dusty, rough and tumble American history and Eastern mythology to chart the long, winding path to self-discovery and individual empowerment, without stating exactly how it should be followed. The band’s fans have taken these songs and built their own totems to their meanings, interpreting every aspect of the band’s output, from lyrics, to the order of songs in concert, to on-stage gestures and utterances.
Few of the contributions to Reading the Grateful Dead are by insiders like Barlow; most of them were written by academics in various fields, and first appeared in scholarly publications and conference proceedings. But all wrestle with the collaborative relationship between the band and its fans and how that back-and-forth reflected broader ideas about community, ritual, religious experience, and personal identity. Some take shape through demographic data; others are close readings of the Dead’s work from literary and historical perspectives. The overall goal is to place the multidisciplinary notion of “Grateful Dead studies” within a range of academic contexts, from economics and linguistics to theology and anthropology, in the interest of establishing the band’s importance to 20th-century America. The result is surprising, both for the lengths to which it goes and the worlds it connects, and for how shortsighted it sometimes feels. Where some aspiring PhDs might devote a lifetime to debunking some theory or well-established opinion, there are no haters in Dead studies, as editor Nicholas G. Meriwether, the head archivist of Dead-related materials at UC Santa Cruz, explains:
The badge of personal involvement is rare in academe, where traditional, objective disinterest blends easily into postmodern cynical detachment and often ultimately devolves into pure, old-fashioned condescension. But in Dead studies, that personal connection is a part of the scholarship, and it enriches the work – the way that passion often makes for good teaching.
A bias toward the band and its fans, then, is not only expected, but welcomed. Befo...read more