Friday, January 22, 2016

Why the Grateful Dead Will Always Matter

Grateful Dead at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, Oct. 9, 1980. Photo by Chris Stone.

Last summer, after fifty years, the band with which the tie-dye shirt became synonymous, the group that helped to define an era (or certainly its vibe), the Grateful Dead performed a series of shows as a whole group (with Jerry smiling down in the form of a rainbow) for the last time. But like many of the concert-goers who couldn't bring themselves to leave after the final notes of the final "Fare Thee Well," the Dead won't soon fade from time or memory. In 2016, an offshoot of the band, called Dead & Company, is expected to tour, and a Dead tribute album seems to be in the works. And just released from ForeEdge, a lovesong to all things Dead, titled Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson, dives deep—as deep as any Dead guitar riff—into this timeless band's enduring legacy. Here’s a taste. 

by Michael Benson
author of Why the Grateful Dead Matter

Light the song, and pass it around. Don’t bogart. Let it shine, let it shine, stoke it on a Palo Alto stage, until that fire reaches the mountain in Concord, the magnolia fields down by the river, becomes a conflagration of the heart stretched from South Colorado to the West Texas town of El Paso, the twilight purple plain of Wichita, all the way to Europe and the Pyramids of Egypt under a lunar eclipse. Stoke it until it envelops the Earth with an accelerando of Peace.

And that’s the Grateful Dead, not just a band that played songs, sold records, and gave concerts, but a band of sorcerers, conjurers of a rare and different tune, music with a heartbeat and breath, with the perfect tension between dissonance and resonance, suspension and completion, a cynosure for the huddled masses, tie-dyed angel music for spinning the sacred dance of life as a falling leaf at the jubilee, a rolling away of the dew, a movement and groove that gets into the fiber of your skull, spreads like ripples on still water, grows roses along a trellis of bones, messes with the gears of your body clock until you’re on a long, strange pilgrimage jonesing to find the 45-minute Sugaree, waving that flag, driving that train, holding away the despair with a cloak of space and drums, lightening the load until you get up and fly away.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell (his book The Power of Myth is required reading in college sociology courses) went to a Dead show and said the music was the antidote to the Damoclean sword of nuclear war.

Jerry Garcia, performing with the Dead, May 10, 1980, in New Haven, CT.

Why does the Dead still matter? Why will they always matter? Sure, because of the genius music, years of trippy listening pleasure—Jerry Garcia’s beam-me-up-Scottie leads and achingly sad vocals, Phil Lesh’s intricate bass lines weaving in and out of everything including the sound system, Bobby Weir’s strong masculine vocals and truly weird and wonderful second-chair guitar, the growling blues of Pigpen, the musicality and lightness of Keith and Donna Godchaux, and the Apocalypse Now rhythm section, the devils, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, all of whom we’ll be on a first name basis with from now on—but there’s a rebel bad boy social component as well. Their first fans thought they were bikers. The band matters because through it the counterculture lived on—ironic because the musicians were more piratical than political. They never turned a show into an anti-war demonstration. Although they were against all violence, their vision of show biz didn’t involve causes. They just didn’t like to follow rules and were constantly trying to get away with shit. But it didn’t matter. The counterculture burbled urgently from deep fissures in the earth beneath the San Andreas Fault and the Dead were swept away in the movement despite their apathy. They were too close to the crack to avoid the deep rifts in society.

America came out of World War II a militaristic animal, intoxicated by its own might, its ability to push enemies around, to purge the world of evil. But the following generation, the kids coming of age in the 1960s, saw military solutions in a different light. The war in Vietnam had no real purpose; it had sprung up like a malignant weed through the cracks in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, a crossfire disguised as a magic bullet that burned Camelot to the ground. While America was spoon-fed Oswald pabulum, an undigested buzz of coup cabal grew into an electronic feedback wail—Dylan at Newport—and radicalized the American folkie-bohemian.

Bob Weir, performing with the Dead, Dec. 31, 1976.
Anti-Nam protests evolved smoothly from the pre-existing Cold War academic beatnik movement to “Ban the Bomb.” Like the war before it in Korea, Vietnam was a Civil War, a North fighting a South, and there seemed no cause for the U.S. to intervene. What was it all about, anyway? Profit? They said it was about the “Domino Theory”: if North Vietnam—and it’s Red Chinese backers—were allowed to conquer South Vietnam, the other small countries of southeastern Asia would fall as well. To many, the theory seemed weak—who cared who owned the jungle? Eisenhower had warned of the military-industrial complex, which would one day come slouching toward Bethlehem. War without reason was a symptom of the behemoth. The younger generation believed that war existed only to make a few men rich, while sacrificing the lives of American boys who didn’t have the connections to avoid the draft.

American involvement in Vietnam was light until the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, in which it was reported that a North Vietnamese ship fired across the bow of an American ship, an act of aggression used by LBJ, sworn in on Air Force One on a terrible day in Dallas, as an excuse to escalate hostilities to the jangly tune of billions of dollars and more than 50,000 American lives.

Finally, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” said on the six o’clock news that the war was unwinnable. In order to show their dissatisfaction with the world the adults were creating, the youth of America grew their hair long, a fashion that began as Beatles-esque but eventually became anti-military. Youths began to take mind-altering drugs, which they were told by Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey and so many others, would expand their consciousness. Like Jack Kerouac and the beatniks before them, they worshipped the road, all the roads that led to the next Dead show, psychic roads that led to enlightenment.

It was the birth of a movement, initially a fad of psychedelia, from which the Dead were the last survivors.

This has been excerpted from Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson.