Come Hear Uncle Sam's Band

The hippie capitalism of the Grateful Dead.


A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, by Dennis McNally, New York: Broadway Books, 684 pages, $30

Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, was interviewed in the 1990s by someone who wanted to know where that quintessential '60s countercultural band had stood on the key issue of those times-that-were-a-changin'. What was the Dead's relationship, the interviewer wondered, to the activist political movement that had been dedicated to bringing down a fascist warmongering Amerika?

Hunter replied that he found distasteful the fealty to Moscow and Peking (as it was called back then) widespread among prominent '60s revolutionaries. That fealty, he thought, was why that aspect of the '60s faded away while the Dead kept on truckin'. "We honor American culture, and what we find good in it," Hunter said of the Dead. And he knew American culture from many perspectives. As a member of the National Guard, Hunter had been called up to keep order during the 1965 Watts riots.

Never ones to sell a ton of records, the Grateful Dead were a phenomenally popular touring act in a career that started in 1965 and continued until the 1995 death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Yet they were also subject to powerful enmity and mockery, often written off as standard bearers for an ignorant, torpid, left-wing hippie cult and an awful band of shapeless, self-indulgent musicians besides.

Yet as much as their detractors might prefer to keep them buried, the Dead again choogle among us. The remaining members of the band reunited last fall to tour as The Other Ones. And now here's A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, a huge, new, officially authorized history by Dennis McNally.

McNally is the author of 1979's well-regarded Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. While researching that book, he decided that he "wanted to write a two-volume history of post-World War II American bohemia, volume one via the life of Kerouac and volume two through the lives of the Grateful Dead." In 1984, while researching this Dead bio, he was hired by the Dead to be their publicist. Garcia loved McNally's Kerouac bio and embraced him warmly.

This professional intimacy provides the book with insider insight and cooperation even as it stifles any brutal outsider objectivity. Still, McNally has written the most thorough, if not necessarily the most insightful, exploration of what he aptly calls "a spiritual experience, a musical phenomenon, and a business." The Grateful Dead's story is a vivid example of how and why the free pursuit of art and community can transform almost magically into a huge culture business. Neither the band's hacky-sacking devotees nor its conservative button-down critics may want to admit it, but the Dead is best understood as an amazing, traveling capitalist commune.

More than any other band, the Grateful Dead was always more than just a band. To tens of thousands of camp followers—the notorious Deadheads—they were a way of life, an ongoing odyssey, a modern American vision quest that stretched the length and breadth of the land. But when it came to leading the multitudes, Garcia was unambiguous:

"Our trip was never to go out and change the world. I mean, what would we change it to? Whatever we did would probably be worse than the way it is now." Although they used to do benefits for friends and even started their own charitable foundation, the Rex Foundation (which has given away over $6 million to a wide variety of social, artistic, and environmental causes that strike the fancies of Dead members and employees), they didn't take public stands on the hot issues of the '60s: Vietnam, civil rights, women's lib, socialist revolution.

Instead, the Dead just did their own thing—pursuing their improvisational take on traditional American song forms in an innovative way. They were insular, largely segregated from the standard practices of the pop music industry. They practiced communal art and pleasure as a conduit to a different level of consciousness. In that, they are firmly embedded in a classic American grain dating back to Emerson—modern transcendentalists, using the contemporary tools of electronically amplified music and, of course, huge amounts of psychedelic drugs.

The Dead were a throwback to the '50s Beat cool that reigned when Garcia and Hunter, born in 1942 and 1941 respectively, were kids. Its disengaged cynicism about the square masses and its pursuit of personal, experiential edges appealed to them in a way the radical '60s never did. "As far as we were concerned," said Dead guitarist Bob Weir, "the war was their business—the people who were fighting it. We wanted nothing to do with it, and that was that. We weren't into protesting it." The Dead palled around with the Merry Pranksters and the Hell's Angels, not Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. "All that campus confusion seemed laughable," Garcia said. "Why enter this closed society and make an effort to liberalize it when that's never been its function? Why not leave and go somewhere else?"

That's what the Grateful Dead did. They started as a barroom rock and blues act in and around Palo Alto. As bohemians in that place and time tended to do, they gravitated toward the drug and experimental art scenes happening around the redoubt of renegade novelist Ken Kesey and his cronies, the Merry Pranksters. The Pranksters had settled in the nearby woods of La Honda and became famous for their "Acid Tests"—wild, psychedelic-fueled art parties. The Dead became the house band for the tests, and it was in that atmosphere that the Dead became the Dead—an LSD-fueled improvisational groove machine without peer or even comparison.

One of the ironies of that scene was the U.S. government's key role in creating it. Robert Hunter suggested that in a way the U.S. government "created me…and Kesey and the Acid Tests," and thus the Grateful Dead. Both Hunter and Kesey were first exposed to powerful psychedelics such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin as volunteers in government military research in the early '60s. (That research didn't just create hippies. Military strategist Herman Kahn of the RAND Corporation was also a heavy Army acidhead. He insisted that during one particularly heavy trip when he seemed to be just lolling about on the floor muttering "wow," he was really quietly reviewing potential bombing strategies against Red China.)

What eventually became a gigantic business—by 1993 the Dead had become the most popular live act in American history, grossing $47 million a year and selling 1.8 million tickets—first found its identity as an unpaid party band. The Dead further cemented their reputation in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood as frequent free entertainers in street and park concerts. The notion of free was the prime juju of the Haight-Ashbury scene circa 1965-'67, best exemplified by the secretive, legendary street gang the Diggers, who took their name from a band of 17th-century English proto-communists.

The Diggers were led by Emmett Grogan. A street thief since his early teens, Grogan gave away (mostly stolen) food and goods to the people of the Haight, a radical praxis to escape what he considered the constrictions of bourgeois capitalism. According to Grogan in his highly entertaining 1972 autohagiography, Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps, some East Coast hipsters were bummed out with the Dead when they first started playing there because they sold tickets. The Dead had to explain that while they reserved the right to play for fun and for free in their community and among their friends, they were in fact trying to earn a living through music.

And so they did—and a rich living it was. Over the years, the Deadhead scene grew slowly and steadily, with the band moving from clubs and theaters to arenas, never losing momentum even as they were written off by the press as irrelevant relics. The crowds kept getting bigger and more dedicated through the Reagan '80s, when the legendary parking lot and camping scenes that characterized their fanatical devotion really came into their own.

Of course, as the scene got bigger, the sellout talk got louder, especially when, in 1987, the Dead scored their first and only Top 10 hit, "A Touch of Grey." Cognoscenti particularly blamed MTV for exposing the bored kids of the late Reagan years to the groovy party scene of a Dead show. Still, no one could accuse the Dead of crassly chasing a mass audience. Even for the most commerce-hating critic, it would be hard to make the case that the Dead's riches came from anything other than wanting to play music in front of an appreciative audience and trying to accommodate the growing numbers who wanted in on the fun. They even let their fans tape their shows openly, while encouraging them to merely trade, not sell, the bootlegged results.

Of course, over the years things changed (change being something all psychedelic veterans can readily understand). In the old days, the Dead insisted that the audience was as important a part of the experience as the band itself in creating a group-consciousness "bleshing" (the gestalt concept derived from Theodore Sturgeon's 1953 beloved-by-hippies novel More Than Human). Later, one Dead critic charged, the band members found themselves viewing enormous audiences of strangers all over the world with "abstract feelings of affection, pity, or contempt" rather than the intensely personal connection they once felt for Haight-Ashbury crowds. But ultimately the Dead's only sin lay in being loved too well by too many people.

Even in the '90s, when Jerry Garcia's health and musical abilities were clearly on the wane and a long vacation might have been called for, the music never stopped. To be sure, that was partly because the band felt they couldn't afford to stop—they now had a huge business machine relying on the income touring provided. The Dead never sold that many records for a band of their prominence, and the road and support crews didn't make money from them anyway.

From the beginning, the Dead was less like a corporation and more like a communal family that kept growing. They tended to have great loyalty to old friends, no matter how difficult they became, and were more terrorized by their rough-and-tumble crew than bosses to them. Indeed, the band once allowed the janitor at their office to shoot down a suggestion from rock superpromoter Bill Graham as "too commercial." The Dead took a yearlong hiatus in 1975 to quietly encourage some of their road crew to find other work—they had neither the heart nor the will to outright fire them.

They tried an early, brief experiment running their own record label in 1973, the first major rock band to make a full end run around the big labels. The scoundrel who ran their label ripped them off for over $100,000. But before he took the money and ran, he dreamed of circumventing normal distribution channels by selling Dead albums from ice cream trucks. He contemplated getting a minority business loan from the government on the grounds that freaks like the Dead were certainly a minority.

For all their open-hearted and loving celebration of America, the Dead and their old pal Kesey were still, as their San Francisco compadres the Jefferson Airplane musically put it, "outlaws in the eyes of America." Although their acid sacrament was perfectly legal during the actual Acid Tests (which ran from 1964 until LSD was outlawed in 1966), milder marijuana was not. The original Prankster scene withered when Kesey fled to Mexico, running from a pot rap. The Dead's first communal home on Ashbury Street suffered a pot raid and arrest. Later, as they famously chronicled in song, they were "busted down on Bourbon Street/set up like a bowling pin."

In later years, federal and local drug cops were among the band's most loyal ticket buyers, treating Dead audiences as a rich source of drug arrests. The famously apolitical Dead were getting flack to weigh in as a business and cultural influence against mandatory minimum sentences and the injustice of drug law enforcement. Yet they never did. As Garcia once said, "We don't have anything to tell anybody. We don't want to change anybody."

The Dead occupy a unique niche in American musical history. A rock 'n' roll band playing folky songs with a jazzman's dedication to improvisation, they perplexed both themselves and critics by being the only group of any prominence to occupy the space they claimed through all the '60s, '70s, and '80s. But as they drew sustenance from the mighty river of American folk styles, so they became a source for American music further downstream. In the '90s, the Dead's spirit gave birth to a new wave of "jam bands"—whose fans emulate the Deadheads in their obsessive dedication and camp following—best exemplified by Phish.

The Dead left behind a legacy of extraordinary songs and performances—a legacy best explored through hundreds of hours of recordings of live shows rather than through the band's usually failed studio efforts. As A Long Strange Trip shows, the Dead also left behind a legacy that challenges the idea, often voiced by the left and the right, that markets demean and disable culture. The Dead were a living example of how a communal enterprise can pursue a largely self-created way of art and life and bring real joy to millions.

Yet at the same time and with the purest motives, the band could also be a gigantic moneymaking machine that supported people, art, and a lifestyle. Art and commerce become the same thing when people are willing—or insanely eager—to pay for the privilege of being exposed to the art.

In achieving this, the Dead were true American capitalist visionaries, rich in dollars but also striving to remain rich in spirit. Doing their own thing, they became multimillionaires by accident, damn the complainers and damn the torpedoes. Like the character in one of their finest songs, "Uncle John's Band," they lived in a silver mine but called it Beggar's Tomb.

Former Dead manager Richard Loren told Carol Brightman, author of the 1998 book Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, that the Dead were "anarchists" but also that "they were Americans. When I think of the Grateful Dead, I think of a flag and I think of a rose and I think of a steak and I think of a gun. And I think of the West, and I think of consciousness expansion. I think of irreverence and anarchy and I think of something pure."

The Dead insisted they had no message. But Garcia once summed up a most admirable anti-message about what the Dead experience meant: "A combination of music and the psychedelic experience taught me to fear power. I mean fear it and hate it." As the Dead once sang, perhaps Uncle Sam really was hiding out in a rock 'n' roll band.