A Touch of Grey Matter: On “Reading the Grateful Dead”

By Buzz PooleMarch 15, 2013

Reading the Grateful Dead by Nicholas G. Meriwether

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. Before going further, I might as well admit that it’s a bias I share. By the time I first saw the band, I was already intimately familiar with their most iconic live recordings — Barton Hall, 5/8/77; Veneta County Fairgrounds, 8/27/72; Hampton Coliseum, 10/9/89 — and knew I would never see a show that matched their joyous intensity. But I’ll never forget that first show: Giants Stadium, 6/5/93. Only one of us had a license, and there was no way his parents were going to let him drive to Jersey. Luckily, another friend’s mother drove us up that afternoon. After being stuck in traffic around the stadium for some time, we watched an army of Deadheads commandeer a parking lot that previously had been closed; no one in authority seemed to mind. As we tumbled out of the car, doubtless ignoring the instructions about where to meet after the show, it became clear to all of us that this was something very different from our everyday experience, a living, breathing example of the credo I live by to this day: rules are meant to be broken. I’m not talking about ratified laws, though we definitely broke some that day, but the unwritten ones about how and why certain things have “always been” done. The Dead and their audience were more willing than most to go about things differently, if for no other reason than because it felt right. In the wake of cultural shifts that challenged longstanding American social norms, from the civil rights movement to the sexual revolution, the Grateful Dead and their fans carved out a space for themselves and over the decades expanded their presence. The hecklers and critics were always on the outside looking in, but if you were on the inside there was plenty of room to roam.

Reading the Grateful Dead is not a history of the band; it is a study of the landscape they and their fans created, as surveyed from a caravan that crisscrossed the country, Europe, and even Egypt for roughly 2,300 shows over 30 years. All the contributions to the anthology aim at understanding this legacy; more importantly, they contextualize it within the grander experiment of America. “For Dead scholars,” writes Meriwether, “that destination is clear: it is a unified theory of the Grateful Dead phenomenon, a skeleton key that can bring together the analyses of song and lyric, performance and recording, production and consumption, from historical origins to final dissolution, placing the band and their fans, with all of the cultural and historical and artistic issues they entail, into a holistic, integrated framework.” 

Few of these essays dwell on technical aspects of the band’s music. There is no mention of mixing engeineers Owsley “Bear” Stanley or Betty Cantor, important architects of the band’s revolutionary approach to live concert sound. Instead, most of the pieces explore how the music, especially as performed live, inspired people to behave, from following the band around the country to obsessively collecting concert recordings. If you don’t like the music, that is fair enough. If you dislike the band and its fans because you think of them as a punch line to jokes about the shortcomings of baby boomers, or else as drug-addled losers and wannabe rebels, this book goes a long way toward dispelling those unfair accusations. 

Jacob A. Cohen’s fascinating “Nomadic Musical Audiences,” for example, reads Dead culture through a humanist geography that emphasizes the idea of “place as something that is experienced, a spatial organization that communicates with a subjectivity rather than an objectivity,” invoking geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of “topophilia,” defined in terms of an “affective bond between people and place.” Cohen suggests that the Dead’s concerts furthered the tradition of 19th-century religious camp meetings. At both kinds of happenings, nomadic audiences imbued the gatherings with a sense of importance by assigning spiritual qualities to otherwise ordinary physical locations. An 1801 camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, is the most famous such gathering, and it happened at this location only once. For attendees of similar revivals elsewhere, the mere utterance of “Cane Ridge” signified, in Cohen’s words, “a regular New Zion,” in the same way the venues and dates of historic Dead shows have become shrines to the power of the band’s music to create transformative experiences. “Deadheads are simply reenvisioning and reconstructing an experience of place that has existed in this country for two hundred years,” writes Cohen. “Thus, the Grateful Dead can be understood not as the originators, but rather the inheritors, of a rich American tradition.”

Not that I knew all this on that rainy afternoon in June in the industrial wastelands of New Jersey. In the years since, I’ve been lucky enough to experience music’s power to possess both performers and audiences in other traditions and locations, whether in the streets of Salvador, Brazil, during Carnaval, or in Tours, France, for the annual summer solstice tribute Fête de la Musique. But at 16, growing up outside of Philadelphia, my horizons didn’t stretch much beyond family trips to California and Georgia, so wandering around this circus for adults defied my previous understanding of “how the world works.” My friends and I were beyond words — and no, we hadn’t taken any psychedelics. But we did taste the exuberant freedom of surrendering to rhythms and harmonies, a profound experience that reaches back to the origins of theater and art, connecting the temporal realm with the mystic.

This association of spiritual and transcendental qualities with the band and their music is another key theme of Reading the Grateful Dead. David Bryan’s “The Grateful Dead Religious Experience,” which relies heavily on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, comes at the Dead through language commonly used to describe more traditional religious and spiritual activities. Bryan contends that using such language to “describe the Dead phenomenon as a communal experience contributes a new dimension to our understanding of James’s notions of religious experience.” Bryan cites a passage from Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life to show how the music would take over the musicians: “The Dead used to say at those times, the music played the band, meaning that as a group they were operating beyond cognition and intention — beyond the mechanics of simply playing well — to a nearly effortless state of grace, where the music was speaking through them rather than from them.” As Bryan sees it, this perspective “can help explain how Deadheads had an understanding of the divine.”

In 1936, Walter Benjamin predicted that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.” Thirty years later, the Grateful Dead acknowledged the effects of this shift, and encouraged it by permitting their fans to record shows and trade them freely. This defied all industry logic, but what the Dead proved early on is that logic can be overrated. In “What Are Deadheads?” Alex Kolker writes:

Obviously, American culture, with capitalism as its weapon, has the ability to absorb and neutralize powerful countercultural symbols. One might argue that what ultimately killed the sixties was the commercialization of its cultural symbols, making them into the kitsch seventies.

This is a fair point to make about many of the baby boomers’ cultural touchstones, but the Dead, arguably, avoided being co-opted in this way. Although Cherry Garcia became a Ben and Jerry’s flavor, and the band’s MTV-era hit single “Touch of Grey” became an anthem of summer fun and excess, it’s also worth remembering, and admiring, that even these spikes in the band’s media profile and commercial fortunes took place on the band’s own terms, with all decisions carried out within the Grateful Dead “family.” In 1973, the band created Grateful Dead Records, a four-year experiment that yielded several albums before the business of running a label became too much. In 1977, the Dead signed with Arista Records, but since the concerts were where the money was made, the band was never beholden to executives’ ideas about the bottom line. And in 1983, the “family” established Grateful Dead Ticket Sales, marking the first time a rock band sold concert tickets directly to its fans on a large scale, without the middleman of an established promotional company. Like bands associated with the 1970s and '80s punk scenes in Lansing, Michigan, and Los Angeles, the Dead embraced, and thrived off of, the DIY attitudes they imparted to, and shared with, their fans. Though the music they celebrated may not have sounded the same, there is no other difference between Deadhead-published projects like DeadBase, a running log of concert statistics and reviews, and such seminal punk zines as Touch and Go or Search and Destroy. All of these publications celebrated subcultures that were all about defining their own terms with little regard for the establishment’s procedures and protocol.

Like the instrumental voices in a performance of “Dark Star,” one of the Dead’s most cherished vehicles for collective improvisation, the anthology’s core themes weave through one another, as call-and-response echoes tangle with dissonance and distortion, ultimately championing place and the individual — two of the most vital elements of American myth. While many of the claims laid out in Reading the Grateful Dead hold up, some are too narrowly academic, or simply miss the mark. James Revell Carr’s riff on Walter Benjamin’s “One Way Street” tries to establish an analogy between a stroll through the parking lot outside a Dead show, where an array of alternative economies always sprouted up, and Benjamin’s description of a “bohemian flâneur” wandering around 1890s Paris; the result is forced. Rebecca G. Adams’s examination of demographics and Mark E. Mattson’s study of autobiographical memory in relation to Dead show attendance rely on carefully gathered empirical evidence; the result, in both cases, is more dryly informative than insightful. That may be the inevitable when trying to apply statistical precision to the activities of a rock band — especially this one — and its fans. 

The Grateful Dead was the same as the country that created it: vast, with too many interests and influences to be distilled into a simple formula. If we dare try to sum up Dead culture it is best to borrow the title of a late-era live recording, “Without a Net.” Certainty is the gold standard of life today, but it’s the opposite of what the Grateful Dead sought, and this is exactly why fans flocked to them. The Grateful Dead experience wasn’t about fulfilling preconceived expectations, but rather inviting and tempting the unexpected. The musical and social risks baked into every concert permitted openness; flubbed lyrics, ragged vocals, and bad trips be damned — you needed all of them in order to appreciate the spectacular. Surprise and genuine inspiration sprung from mistakes and unexpected moments. In the contemporary media culture of screen-based instantaneity, such sentiments are often scoffed at — speed seems to be our era’s most prominent and appreciated aesthetic — but there was a time when tricksters and jesters, the fools that everyone laughs at but who in the end possess the keenest perspectives, were valued. 

In his editorial introduction, Meriwether cites a comment about the band made in 1996 by bassist Phil Lesh: “There’s nothing you can get a handle on. It seems like it’s too tough a nut for them to crack, or it’s like looking at a mirrored ball: There’s nothing to grasp, because all you’re seeing is what’s reflected. All you’re seeing is yourself.” At that first Dead show I attended, the band opened the second set with “Scarlet Begonias,” the song that turned me into a Deadhead. Of the 15 shows I saw, this was the only time I heard it performed live. While it was an unexceptional rendition, I cherish that memory and will never forget the palpable collective joy, which was also so singularly individual, radiating through me as we rallied behind one of Robert Hunter’s choicest couplets: “Once in a while you get shown the light / in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Above all else, attending this concert made me acutely aware of growing up, and that a big part of the process was being able to make the decisions that I wanted to make.

Seventeen years have passed since the Dead’s final concert, and as much as I believe there always will be fans of the band’s music, and that the music will continue to surprise people with its spritely density and emotive prowess, for those who never had a chance to see the band perform live, the idea of the Grateful Dead experience will slowly lose its potency. Reading the Grateful Dead can’t conjure the alchemy forged by the band and its fans, but it does attempt to make sense of it by probing the paradox at the heart of the band’s appeal: the Grateful Dead was about much more than music, though it was really just about the music.


LARB Contributor

Buzz Poole is a freelance editor and the author of Workingman’s Dead, published as part of the 33 1/3 series. He has written about books, music, and culture for numerous outlets, including Lit HubPrint, and Playboy


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