Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadheads: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure (1999)

Back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, the co-founder and resident guru of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack, Elvis Costello, one of the early progenitors of punk, made a curious comment. "I think it's harder for people who don't subscribe to the cultural phenomenon of the Dead to appreciate some of the quality of the songs," Costello told Rolling Stone. "If somebody else were to take 'Stella Blue,' say, and record it like Mel Torme would record it, you would hear what a beautiful song it was." To some, Costello should be someone who represents a full rejection of the hippie ethos that the Dead were part of, but his remark has an interesting way of cutting through the patina of our musical prejudices. Stripped of their cultural and mythical baggage, the Grateful Dead's songs might actually stand up as some beautifully composed pieces.

I never bought into the phenomenon of the Dead, or the trappings of the Dead worshipers (known affectionately, or derisively, as 'Deadheads') who followed the band from town to town. But I certainly loved some of their music, many of those songs (like "Ripple" or "Ship of Fools") asked us to share their quest for community, which they sought with a true sense of commitment while adding a healthy respect for tradition. I also sometimes heard risk in their music, a dare to go further than their fans might allow. (That risk though had its pitfalls. Performing live the band could either take you soaring into endless waves of cascading melodies or simply bore you blind.) Few have ever made clear why the Grateful Dead had (and, I suppose, continues to have) a lasting appeal, but Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, written in 1999, does. Her book provides a fascinating examination of the times of the Grateful Dead, and answers pertinent questions as to how and why the Dead outlived the doomed counter-culture of the Sixties.

Brightman, the author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World and Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, is a former Sixties activist who provides not only a detailed history of the band, but also of the period that spawned them. And she fills the book with little ironies. The first being that the Dead, along with the counterculture itself, grew out of the LSD experiments of Ken Kesey in the Bay area during the early Sixties  despite, as Brightman notes, the fact that LSD was initially a product of CIA experiments used to determine the drug's effectiveness in mind-controlling experiments. According to Brightman, the CIA was also involved in drug distribution to rock shows which they hoped would render the youth revolution docile.

If the counterculture was riddled with contradictions such as this, incongruities that would later destroy it, she suggests the Dead's "introversion in matters both musical and political contributed in no small way to their holding power." It was even LSD that made possible the Grateful Dead's early sound, an odd mix of blues, jug band and psychedelia. In short time, as Brightman suggests, the band drew a collection of stoned cadres under their spell. Yet the group's idealistic spirit differed somewhat from what The Beatles had represented to youth culture. If The Beatles sang that any time at all, I'll be there, the Dead declared that when life looked like easy street, there was danger at your door. So Brightman sums up their appeal to the counterculture in Sweet Chaos as clearly being about a band that "tapped a free-floating yearning  in its vast audiences to shake off their anonymity." She goes on to say that their audience wanted "to be loved for themselves alone, for their differences, the differentness each one felt all the more keenly for being surrounded by people who looked just like them."

The Grateful Dead
Because the group chose chaos as a form to embrace, the tumult of the Vietnam years, the civil rights struggles, and the repressive burdens of the Nixon Seventies didn't silence them or their fans. Part of what makes Sweet Chaos so delicately affecting is how Brightman seeks meaning in the Dead's community as a way to make sense of the dissolution of her generation's own political passions. What she gets from the Dead's chief lyricist Robert Hunter is that the Dead survived its long years because they honoured "American culture, and what we find good in it." The radicals, Hunter told her, were basically Marxists who "had a script, and anything that furthered that script was allowable, including unethical and immoral actions."

author Carol Brightman
Of course, the Dead would itself fall victim to drug abuse at the moment of their greatest commercial success in the Eighties with the hit song "Touch of Grey." Death would also stalk the group as if it were laying claim to their name. Besides Garcia, co-founder Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died early on of cirrhosis of the liver in 1973, while every keyboard player save Bruce Horsnby, their last one, went to spirit. Despite this, the Grateful Dead had a longer shelf life than many might have thought possible, or even hoped for. And if, as Carol Brightman points out, the Sixties radicals retreated into private life, the Deadheads and their heroes continued to dream of a new cosmic order.

Sweet Chaos is perfumed in both affection and regret as it examines the unfulfilled dreams of a generation, the regret coming from confronting the price you pay for trying to keep those hopes alive.While the book may be examining the past, it also keeps faith with the present. Considering the quixotic quest of those people who recently occupied parks and streets to bring attention to a world where expedience ruled over being an accountable citizen, Sweet Chaos still reaches out into an uncertain future.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier begins a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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