What can be said about the Grateful Dead that has not been said before? They are on one hand somewhere below Coldplay and Nickelback on the list of hatred-objects for Leftists of who came of age between the late 80s and late 90s, signifying affluent frat kids tripping balls and hacky sacking, earnest liberals reading Sean Wilentz and taking bong hits, and so on and so forth.
On the other hand, they were an emblem of a very particular milieu at a certain period, the Bay Area counterculture of the mid-to-late sixties, perhaps the locale in which the relations between the far Left and the hippy subculture were closest in both a spiritual and practical sense, as Toby Manning recently pointed out in Red Wedge. On the one hand, they are seen as easy listening, non-threatening music for affable and affluent liberals (which admittedly constitutes a large degree of their latter day fan base). On the other hand, arguably no rock band made such a concerted attempt at attempting to push a popular avant-garde, to expand the horizons of the possible within the guitar-bass-keyboards-drums form. Take a listen to some versions of their epic “Dark Star,” in particular, oddly, the ones played in the tumultuous year of 1972. I defy you, dear reader, to find something half as dark in the annals of doom metal. It is no accident that from Ornette Coleman to Lee Ranaldo, from Tom Verlaine to Terry Riley, a wide swathe of people taken as true innovators count were and are admirers of the Dead.
This is to say that it’s easy to reduce them to “classic rock,” yet aesthetically dishonest. As the Marxist scholar and Deadhead Carol Brightman points out, the intelligentsia never understood the Grateful Dead; from the early seventies onwards, they were written about more as a sociological phenomenon than as influential musicians. Actually looking at their concrete musical achievements, they are in more ways a west coast counterpart to their contemporaries in the Velvet Underground, who had the luxury of a relative lack of success keeping their historical reputation unsullied. Like the Velvets entering the New York scene by way of Andy Warhol’s factory, the Dead, all of whom except rhythm guitarist Bob Weir came from working class backgrounds, and were established local musicians, ranging from experimental to bluegrass, honed their chops being the house band at Ken Kesey’s “Electric Kool Aid Acid Tests”.
In this alternate periodization of the lineages of modern guitar-bass-keyboards-drums or “rock” music, the Velvet Underground can be seen as progenitors of a specific type of minimalist, expressionistic post-punk, begetting Patti Smith, Suicide, R.E.M., the Pixies and so on. The Grateful Dead, given their influence on their own strain of more impressionistic, truly ‘alternative’ music, punk and post-punk. In this proper sense they are an alternate progenitor, begetting Television, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips – the latter of whom gave up the game when they called themselves “punk rockers who take acid”.
A recent 59-song volume, curated by the National, of largely modern bands as well as post-punk icons (like the Lips, parts of Talking Heads and Sonic Youth) covering 59 different Grateful Dead songs does a lot to emphasize this alternate periodization. “Easy Wind” has never sounded so real to its subject of the alienation of labour than when sung by former Smog leader Bill Callahan. Likewise, the country-mournful Black Peter is turned into an electronic piece of proto-gospel by the brilliant Ahnoni. But this is the Dead as museum piece, and while it’s nice to see Millenials having more of an open mind, there is an historical question as to how we conceive 20th century art that still is worth contending.
This alternate periodization, after all, needs to be filled in. It is not enough to correct the historical impression that the Dead were just another classic rock band with a knack for catch phrases and annoying fans. One has to situate the Dead, as noted, within the political context in which they produced their best work, the late sixties and early seventies. It is my contention that the rise and fall of the New Left and the rise and fall of the sixties music subculture can be seen contemporaneously and interrelated. No band exemplifies this process more than the Grateful Dead, and thus no American band is more worthy of inquiry into this period, given the connections in both sensibility and actuality, between the Bay Area Left and Bay Area hippie culture. Yet aesthetes who would never make grand pronouncements about any other form of art can be found dismissing the Dead with cracks about how they appealed toAnn Coulter, a sort of “I know who else was a vegetarian” sort of argument. It is important, for the sake of having an understanding of 20th century cultural production, to engage with art based on actual familiarity and a sensibility of openness, of nothing under the sun being alien, as opposed to through a lens of cliché and misunderstanding, something that should be foreign to historical materialists.
The jibe of the Dead appealing to Ann Coulter actually contains more meaning that it would seem as it in inadvertently connects the issue: on one hand, the Dead are an amazingly influential band; on the other, they have radical and anti-systemic politics. This is due to the fact that pointing out that the likes of Coulter are Deadheads implies that inscribed in the DNA of the Dead, their music and their culture is something inherently reactionary, one big fascist hacky sack.
So the point must be made that connects their musical innovation with the politics of this innovation. As Ornette Coleman has put it, improvisation is the most democratic of all aesthetic forms. The Dead at their best lived up to this ideal, and to that of the great Marxist rock critic Perry (Richard Merton) Anderson, who proclaimed, quite judiciously, in regards to small live rock concerts, “the first aesthetic form in modern history which has asymptotically started to close the gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art. It alone thereby prefigures, amidst its innumerable poverties and confusions, the structure of future art, in a liberated social formation: communism. It is in this deepest sense of all that it deserves to be called a people’s music.”
The Grateful Dead, even when they became essentially apolitical, played avant-garde music and sustained a still-existing subculture characterized by an unusual egalitarianism. On Dead tours, queer folks could be out of the closet well before the rest of “mainstream” society. The first time I saw gay men kissing was at a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead were playing “Blues for Allah” at the height of seventies oil crisis Islamophobia and notably, played Egypt before the “Sadat/Begin” deal. When one encounters fans of the Grateful Dead from Europe or the Middle East, they are usually fellow travellers with Left politics, as this is what the Dead signified.
Even their mythos is redolent with radical utopian themes. The Dead were so-named due to their original name, the Warlocks, being used by another garage-rock band. High on an DMT, guitarist Jerry Garcia intentionally ruffled through the pages of bass-player Phil Lesh’s copy of a dictionary of mythology. His finger landed on the entry for a genre of folk-tale known as “grateful dead.” With some variation, the story has a traveler finding the corpse of a man, often one unable to afford a proper burial. Paying for the dead man’s burial, the traveler finds himself joined by a companion, either in animal or human form, who acts as “the grateful dead”, by saving the traveler’s life.
Whether true or not, this folkloric wisdom, as much predicated upon (in an indirect but sumptuous sense) the new class-society that would inform such a story as it was by mystical Americana, is a dominant theme in the Grateful Dead, and in particular lyricist/poet Robert Hunter’s lyrics. Even more so, it stands as a metaphor for the Grateful Dead and their disciple’s purpose in American capitalist society and the culture industry, to embody and attempt to transcend the contradictions by overlapping and traversing the interstices. While an expressive totality, the Grateful Dead’s art and culture is redolent with mystery, almost as if it was a secret society.
When they first started out, the Dead called themselves anarchists, at the time – some still do, in a qualified sense (check out the Netflix documentary on Bob Weir) – and were particularly close to an anarchist collective known as the Diggers, named for Winstanley’s 16th century movement, perhaps the first anti-capitalists. They had cordial relations with the Black Panther Party, playing numerous benefits for them. While they claimed to not be political, this was and is besides the point, given that they were embedded within a subculture in which having radical politics was common sense.
As internet Grateful Dead archivist “Bobby342” puts it, the Panthers “were seen as trans-political: supporting the Panthers at the time was like opposing the Vietnam War or being pro-Ecology, a moral position that superseded any immediate political issues.” The same went for the antiwar movement. The Dead regularly played rallies and the drummers had the raised-fist insignia on the bass-drums of their drum kits. As the Vietnam War raged and the movements became angrier, the Dead wanted to evoke more and more chaos in their music, to reflect and refract the times. Phil Lesh attempted consciously to make his bass guitar sound like bombs. Their art from this period was antiwar not in the sense of Country Joe and the Fish chanting “whoopee, we’re all gonna die,” it was attempting to express the horror and the anger but also the possibility of the times. They were playing with what I have elsewhere called an “Ecstatic Configuration” working to create communal sensation.
The power of these sensations and instincts returns us to the realm of the political by way of the demonstration of potentiality for democratic collective ecstasy. However seemingly removed from a rigidly defined politics, “collective ecstasy entered the colonialist European mind... was stained with feelings of hostility, contempt and fear” Barbara Ehrenreich points out in reference to the discovery of ecstatic ritual of “savages or lower-class Europeans... the capacity for abandonment, for self loss in the rhythms and emotions of the group was a defining feature of ‘savagery’.”
In referring to what can be correlated to Gilles Deleuze’s sensational/experiential model and indeed connecting it to the “Dionysian” Grateful Dead culture as well as political spectacle, Ehrenreich provides us with clues to what can be conceived as the ecstatic configuration, and its inherent revolutionary potentiality. From this standpoint, one can look back at the accusations of communism against rock music well into the Sixties; the showing of Elvis Presley from waist up on the Ed Sullivan show ensuring that his gyrating crotch was invisible to the American den; the Stalinist banishment of Allan Ginsberg from the fermenting pre-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia; the banning of May Day rituals and creation of “Labour Day.” The notion of ecstatic need not be confused with fully thought-out “happiness” or “contentment.” Indeed, the ecstatic experience can be jarring, even painful and confusing.
The point was that this production of affect, of the psychedelic experience – whether assisted with libations or not – was something unique and a form, that for better or worse, was invented (or repopularized) by the Grateful Dead. It is as if they want to take the authenticity that has been lost with the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and replace it with an aesthetic that is always as unique as possible, yet – by way of encouraging taping of their concerts – always reproducible. Each show was and is different. To reduce this complex operation of mixing motifs from bluegrass to blues, from atonal to country and western, from hard bop to musique concrete, to merely hacky sacks, Ann Coulter, frat kids and bong hits is to do a disservice to the legacy of artists who have made an indelible musical and political mark. It is to ignore the constitution of subcultures. It is also writes off a still existing American subculture, leaving them to their hackey sacks and devil sticks.
It is not an Historical Materialist approach to art. It is the snobbery of the Left intelligentsia.
In lieu of further engagement with music, I have provided a sidebar playlist with YouTube links and descriptions.
The Dead as garage band, 1966/67, “Cream Puff War,” in which they state their critique of both the Vietnam War and the boredom they have with the existing Left
The Dead in 1970, playing “New Speedway Boogie,” which in a sense, says it all about the defeats of the Sixties.
“Dark Star,” (8/27/72). This is is perhaps the most challenging piece of improvised music of the Dead’s entire thirty year career. It bears active listening – it is not easy, relaxing music – but instead should be listened to in focus, preferably with headphones.
Fifty-five minutes of the Dead at their best in 1978, featuring “Estimated Prophet,” later covered by Terry Riley.
Eighties Dead: "Throwing Stones" – an actual protest song referencing CIA cocaine trafficking, authoritarian politics and what to do. Perhaps naïve, but better that than doctrinaire. And played into a Buddy Holly song.
Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.