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C H A P T E R S I X THE GRATEFUL DEAD Alchemy, or Rock & Roll Utopia When we get on stage, what we really want to happen is, we want to be transformed from ordinary players into extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. And the audience wants to be transformed from whatever ordinary reality they may be in to something that enlarges them. So maybe it’s that notion of transformation, a seat-of-the-pants shamanism, that has something to do with why the Grateful Dead keep pulling them in. Jerry Garcia Almost everyone recognizes the Grateful Dead as a cultural icon of the 1960s.1 What they and the sixties mean, however, is much in dispute. The decade has been cited by the Right ever since as the point where America went wrong, and sixties music is often blamed, or at least made to represent the decade’s bad influence. In the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995, conservative columnist George Will, writing in Newsweek, used a Reaganesque anecdote about a couple who abandoned their child to indict the Dead and the 1960s. No real connection is asserted between the couple and the band or the decade, but somehow they are responsible. Will claims, “The band has been a touring time capsule, keeping alive the myth that there is something inherently noble about adopting an adversary stance toward ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle class’ values.”2 Will insists that “society’s success depends ” on these values—as if child-nurture were a value peculiar to the middle class. The idea that the Dead were in the 1990s a “touring time capsule” was not restricted to the far Right, and those on the Left don’t usually see the Dead standing for the sixties they would like to remember, the nonviolent protests and civil disobedience that ended segregation and, eventually, the Vietnam War. The Dead aren’t usually connected to either of these. Rather, they are mainly associated with drugs, out-of-date fashions, and a naïve belief that the world could be remade by living differently. In light of current attitudes, which assume almost any change is impossible, we need to reevaluate the San Francisco counterculture, a historically specific formation influenced by the Beats and instanced by, in addition to hippies and rock groups, 122 Rock Star the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Diggers, and Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, among others. If the Dead clearly qualify as icons, however, it is less obvious that they are rock stars. For some people, the Dead can’t be rock stars because they don’t play rock & roll music. This point has been made by numerous critics who hold that improvisation and other characteristics of their music put the Dead in a different genre. Members of the Dead family seem to agree that the band existed at some remove from rock & roll. Dennis McNally asserts, “The Grateful Dead isn’t really a rock band and is only tangentially part of the American music industry.”3 While rock & roll was historically identified with youth, according to Bob Weir, the Dead’s “music was not hormonal and immediate the way rock and roll was before the Beatles took the genre from teenage to adulthood. . . . The Dead started out with an appreciation of history, drawing from a century’s worth of popular music forms as well as older classical influences . . . . Grateful Dead music is for people who have lived some; it’s music that you live with.”4 In the end, however, the Dead are more like rock stars than they are like jazz musicians or bluegrass performers or any other familiar category that might be used instead. The argument that the Dead didn’t play rock depends upon an essentialist definition of the genre. If we understand that genres are based on family resemblances , rather than on essential traits, it is hard to argue that the Dead’s music doesn’t fit. Rock & roll has always been a hodgepodge of different styles, and the Dead may illustrate this quality better than any other act. In any event, the Dead’s music is more recognizable as rock & roll than jazz, country , R&B, or any other large generic category, even though it draws on all of these. Moreover, the band’s audience demographic and its behavior, the venues where the band performed—from the Avalon and Fillmore, to basketball arenas and football stadiums—and the instrumentation and ampli...


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