Feb 12, 2019

1971: The Cultural Meaning of the Dead


The Grateful Dead transcend categories. They are a spirit. Medieval Saints and abstract electronic music, raunchy blues rock and complex philosophical considerations live happily side by side in The Dead. Carefully and consciously they have avoided all elements of the commercial rock star trip. And this insistent, at times heroic, genuineness has brought them to the top in terms of public acclaim, critical judgment, and sheer staying power. For in the stormy times following the end of rock's Golden Era about a year ago, The Dead, with their irrepressible album "Workingman's Dead," were a breath of new life.
The Grateful Dead have been with us since the beginning. They were one of the founding spirits of the great San Francisco rock renaissance seven years ago, and have remained an abiding repository of its true spirit, even in the recent hard times for the love culture. Their strange name, or so the legend goes, sprang in its full glory from the pages of a dictionary. To perceive universal truth in unlikely places, however, requires a special state of mind. The nature of the state of mind is evident from the nickname, "Captain Trips," given to their musical and spiritual leader, Jerry Garcia, on the cover of their first album, "The Grateful Dead."
The musical leaders of the acid culture were The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, and Country Joe and the Fish. In 1965/66 their music sped throughout the rock world of America and England and, predictably, was labeled "acid rock" or, less provocatively, "the San Francisco sound." As exotic as these names sounded, "acid rock" has its roots in exactly the same music which inspired The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan, and all new forms of rock in the '60s: the blues of the '20s, rhythm and blues, and '50s rock 'n' roll. What distinguished acid rock from its musical antecedents and cousins was a wonderful looseness of categories, a complete open-endedness with regard to rhythmic, sonic, and melodic composition. "Viola Lee Blues," the final 10-minute track on "The Grateful Dead," is analogous to jazz in the intensity and extent of the development that the basic melody undergoes.
This musical and spiritual relaxation requires a coherent inner strength, a trait which characterizes Jerry Garcia. Garcia is part Mexican, part Metaphysician, and entirely musical. He was also a high school student in the affluent San Francisco suburb Menlo Park (which more recently has given us The Whole Earth Catalogue) when Ken Kesey was teaching there. The friendship between them, which has continued to flourish over the years, drew Garcia into the creative vortex of the emerging acid culture. In those original Haight-Ashbury times, this culture was an intense social, philosophical, and even religious experience. The combination of chemicals and metaphysics flooded the minds of the young adventurers with incredible new visions of life's possibilities. Metaphorically speaking, they "died," passing beyond what was then considered "life" in the day-to-day sense in America. And as in the spirituals of old, this death was the doorway to a new ecstasy and a new joy.
A reflection of this joy, and a feeling that distinguished acid rock from other rock cultures, was an intense new sense of community. Money, fame, and success were simply not the motives. They played for each other and for as many people as they could reach, often for free and out of doors, as in the case of the famous 1966 Be-In in Golden Gate Park. They played to communicate their new visions and happiness in the hope of freeing the spirit of America from the chains of a moribund technological and political structure.
One of the first looks that New York had at The Grateful Dead was at a free concert in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in 1967 (a vintage year for the East Village). Public response was not overwhelming, but it was clear that The Dead were something special, as might be imagined from another blues rock song from their first album heard that afternoon in Tompkins Square, entitled "The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)."

Well, everybody's dancing
In a ring around the sun.
Nobody's finished
We ain't even begun.
So, take off your shoes child
And take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find a habitat.

Those in attendance not too stoned to make the observation particularly noted, along with Garcia, a short, fat person whom they called (for good reason) Pigpen. He (Ron McKernan) played good blues harmonica and sang, but a lot of the time he just wandered around. As New York and the rest of the country were to learn, Pigpen was the West Coast answer to The Beatles' Ringo. In The Dead's wildest metaphysical and extra-sensory musical flights, dirty old bluesy Pigpen has provided an essential ballast of reality.
A five-man group at the beginning, by the time they made their second album, "Anthem of the Sun," in 1967, The Dead were a well-integrated seven-man musical family (plus their perennial poet-lyricist, Robert Hunter). To original members Garcia, Pigpen, guitarist Bob Weir, bass guitar Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, they had added another drummer, Mickey Hart, and pianist/electronic composer Tom Constanten. A second drum would seem to be a noisy insanity, but drummers Kreutzmann and Hart are an essential part of The Dead's musical magic. Playing with masterful sensitivity, they refine rather than amplify the rhythm, creating an almost tangible resonant axis as well as supplying an inexhaustible rhythmic energy. The Dead can literally play all night.
With the new classical and electronic gifts of Constanten, "Anthem of the Sun" was conceptually complex, artful, and far-out. The music was also heavily drug-y, and for those not oriented toward musical tripping in which "rainbows explode" and your mind becomes a "smoking crater," it is repetitious unless you are dancing (or tripping), in spite of the beautiful, lyrical themes.
The third album, "Aoxomoxoa" (which backwards is "Aoxomoxoa"), was simpler and extremely lyrical, particularly the songs "St. Stephen" and "Dupree's Diamond Blues" that jump in theme from medieval mysticism to a man who kills a jeweler to get a diamond ring for his "baby." Neither album was a great success. Their concerts except in home-town San Francisco drew a not too large following of mainly deeply committed "heads." But with stubborn authority The Dead persisted, and their gritty honesty to the music and the causes in which they believed (How many "revolutionary" rock groups have held benefits for the Black Panthers? Few.) gave them an ever greater stature, especially as the rock giants one by one sold out to fame, fortune, and exploitation of rock fads.
By 1969, when rock culture was staggering in the political and commercial crossfire, audiences had reached sufficient musical sophistication to respond to The Dead, and were finally aware that here were qualities of strength and continuance. This was the time of their fourth album, "Live Dead," recorded at the Fillmores West and East. It begins with a 23-minute metaphysical suite entitled "Dark Star"...

Dark star crashes
Pouring its light into ashes.
Reasons tatters.
The forces tear loose from the axis...
Shall we go you and I while we can
Through the transitive nightfall
Of diamonds?

...and ends with a 36-second version of the spiritual "And we bid you good night" four sides later. In between there is a totally abstract electronic suite, a 15-minute-straight blues rock track, and the magnificent concert version of "St. Stephen" with its philosophical wisdoms as well as the following charming vision of California flora:

Underfoot the ground is patched
With climbing arms of ivy wrapped
Around the manzanita stark
And shiny in the breeze.

In retrospect, the most important event in their career in the period was the organization of a free concert to cap off The Rolling Stones' American tour. Garcia and some of the best people in San Francisco hoped to recreate the spirit of the 1966 Be-In, and give The Stones a chance to participate in a non-commercial, people-oriented, olde-fashioned San Francisco phenomenon. The staggeringly infamous result, the Altamont Free Concert, was described by Garcia as "the biggest voluntary mass bummer of all time," and revealed the pathetic state of the "revolution" as well as the devastating effects of the pressures under which rock culture had been struggling.
Profoundly shaken, The Dead parted ways with Constanten, turned their energies toward simple, ecological activities, and with the guidance of Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) as a six-man group brought forth their most coherent and moving album, "Workingman's Dead." In the troubled summer of 1970, everyone - from West Coast freaks to East Coast poets - was dancing to "Workingman's Dead." It was the Yellow Submarine of the year and helped to get the culture through the worst of bad times. Pure rock and roll, the songs are all thoughtful and clear, talking about people who are dealing with crises, and in the case of "Uncle John's Band" inviting everyone to help out:

God damn! Well, I declare,
Have you seen the light?...
Got some things to talk about
Here beside the rising tide.

The magical catharsis of the album, however, resides in the rock and roll masterpiece, "Casey Jones." In this re-telling of the railroad classic, the tragic engineer is representative of The Dead, and really the entire culture who were all...

Drivin' that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
Watch your speed.
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion
Just crossed my mind.

The self-delusion of the "revolution" is clearly understood, and the tragedy is Altamont:

Trouble with you is the trouble with me
We've got two good eyes
But we still don't see.
Come round the bend
You know it's the end
The fireman screams
And the engine just gleams.

The Dead's most recent album, "American Beauty," while along the same lines as "Workingman's Dead," doesn't begin to approach its fineness or physical weight. And their current activity of trying to bring back the spirit of the classical rock emporiums, "The Grateful Dead's First Annual Dance Marathon," suffered in New York a catastrophic "overselling." In an irony new for The Dead, the ballroom was too packed for dancing, and throngs of fans on the sidewalk never got near the door.
But this is part of The Dead's cultural meaning. With perennial honesty and hopefulness they have given their energies to the spiritual rejuvenation of America. With equal intensity and good faith they tripped with the love culture and were among the inadvertent authors of its spectacular crash at Altamont. Most impressive, they have had the courage and the art to take responsibility, pick up the pieces, and inspire a new, clear-eyed confidence. The ecstasy and the bummers, however, are only a part of the story because in drummer Kreutzmann's words: "Everything is relative to the center of it all, which is music in motion through time and space."
Like The Beatles' John Lennon, they took off with rock early in the '60s, followed it through all its psychedelic wildness, and have emerged coherently on the far side, with their feet firmly on the ground of a new reality. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine the evolution and survival of the new culture without the powerful, unselfish contribution of the good ol' Grateful Dead.

(by James Lichtenberg, from Cue, 8 May 1971)


  1. 1971 saw a number of articles summing up the history of the Dead, now that they had reached mass popularity. This is one interesting example which doesn't go much into the specifics of the Dead's music or history, but looks at their place in American culture. It's almost like a Meaning-of-the-Dead summary for young people.
    It's littered with mistakes, not really worth listing, but a couple of my favorite examples include Ken Kesey as Garcia's high school teacher, and Steppenwolf as one of the leaders of San Francisco acid rock! (Mickey Hart's also still considered "an essential part" of the Dead, and his recent absence isn't mentioned.)

    Lichtenberg had been a writer for the East Village Other in New York (a couple of his 1969 EVO articles have been posted here, in fact Garcia's quote about Altamont is from one of those articles). Here he takes a broadly national perspective rather than writing specifically about the Dead's New York reception, other than a few details - for instance the emphasis on the Dead's first show in NYC, at Tompkins Square Park. "Public response was not overwhelming" back in 1967, and even in subsequent years, concerts "drew a not too large following of mainly deeply committed 'heads.'" But by now, when the Dead try to put on dance concerts in New York, "the ballroom was too packed for dancing, and throngs of fans on the sidewalk never got near the door."

    For this writer, the revolution is over, rock's golden era ended "about a year ago," and the '60s ended in "stormy times." Altamont symbolizes the apocalypse, in which the love culture crashed, and people are now left to pick up the pieces and find a new culture.
    He sees Altamont as "the most important event in their career," which is absurd in a sense (the Dead were only peripherally involved), but makes sense in terms of public perception: to him it marks a turning-point as the Dead turned away from "psychedelic wildness" and started making more simple, "coherent and moving" music, songs with messages. (Never mind that Workingman's Dead has only one post-Altamont song; the whole album was seen as a response.)
    I suspect that he overstates how important Workingman's Dead was to the underground culture in "the troubled summer of 1970," but other reviews also suggest that it "helped to get the culture through the worst of bad times," offering clear and soothing thoughts wrapped up in rock & roll dance music to "people who are dealing with crises." (It's curious that he considers American Beauty as being not nearly as good.)
    For this writer, the Dead are an essential part of American culture, not just musical leaders but also standard-bearers for "the spiritual rejuvenation of America" and the "true spirit" of the new culture.

    Favorite lines:
    "Pigpen was the West Coast answer to Ringo."
    "How many 'revolutionary' rock groups have held benefits for the Black Panthers? Few."

  2. I wonder about the lyrics he quoted. Some of them quite difficult to understand on the record or in concert but he gave it a good shot. It wouldn't be so easy pre-internet

  3. I see the newb mistake of 'have you seen the light?' instead of 'like'

    1. Hunter's Live/Dead lyrics were printed in the original album, so they would have been no trouble. Workingman's Dead is mostly easy to understand too. The reviewer could only use his ears for 'Golden Road' though, and somehow he heard "find a habitat" when Garcia sings "find out where it's at!"