Show Me Something Built to Last

by David Gans

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, collective creation.

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 that now.

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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