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Published: 2001/07/17
by Adam Perry

Bound to Cover Just A Little More Ground: A Grateful Dead Academic Symposium

The cover of the Grateful Dead’s 1977 album Terrapin Station is a fairly accurate image of what those who loathe their music think when they hear or read the term “Deadhead.” Two human-like turtles are playing a banjo and a tambourine, respectively, and one is dancing exuberantly, head in the air, and looking as if the rest of the world and all its problems (outside of the tiny cabin with “Terrapin Station” written above the front door) are either useless or a fantasy. But, like many Deadheads, when you look inside Terrapin Station, and many other Dead records, the contents within are much more interesting and important than the representation. This type of Deadhead includes intelligent, vital human beings who (unlike devoted fans of most other music, including Phish) have found in the Grateful Dead not only a way to retreat from “normal” life by appreciating music that fails to adhere to labels, structure, or limits, but also escape doors into literature (Cassady, Kesey, Burroughs, etc.), music (David Grisman, Branford Marsalis, Bob Dylan, etc.), and causes (anything from the environment to the preservation of classical music) that the members and their songs continually made references to. Still, there were and are a great number of Deadheads who are simply lost, searching for an identity and/or a life-purpose in an art that someone else created and which, if taken too seriously or the wrong way, can change their lives and outlook on their lives for the worse. I met these types of Grateful Dead fans, both groups including college professors, high school teachers, radio DJs, prestigious journalists, and businessmen, at an academic conference sponsored by the Popular Culture and American Culture Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico from March 7-10 of 2001.

First of all, I’d like to say that I do not consider myself a journalist, in that I don’t like the idea of writing about what other people are doing (although getting paid for it is OK). But both the things I learned and the circumstances that got me to New Mexico this winter are so mind-boggling and got my pen moving at such a fast rate (both in notes about the conference and in my own work) that if slipping into the journalistic role for a while (strictly in the Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson sense) is what it takes to spark some creativity, then so be it. While talking to these people and hearing their amazing (and sometimes hilarious) stories about following a rock 'n roll band over three decades, I told myself that listening and observing and then commenting (being a journalist) can be extremely pleasing and rewarding.

The first vivid memory of the conference is a reoccurring image of my gracious host for the trip, Steve Silberman, cracking open the balcony door in our hotel room between puffs on a cigarette to simply admit, in very Deadhead-like words, “Man, my life is weird. But you know what? I love it.” And you know what? Just about anyone would love to have this guy’s life. Silberman is a contributing editor of Wired Magazine, former teaching-assistant of Allen Ginsberg, and Grateful Dead-aficionado (he co-wrote Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads in 1994 and helped produce the group’s first boxset, 1999’s So Many Roads, for Arista). He’s having a lot of fun, especially since getting his first article in the New Yorker last month, which is actually why he was so excited at this moment.

“A few months ago,” he said to me from the balcony overlooking the breathtaking south-western skyline, “I was getting paid to hang out in Sweden. This is just crazy.”

“And Alaska before that,” I said to a response of shrugs, as if taking an Alaskan cruise to write about computer geeks for Wired was a rough deal. We should all be so lucky.

Whatever, Steve and I were holed up in an Albuquerque Sheraton and the first few sessions of the four-day conference, where such alternative-legends (and subjects of Wolfe’s “Kool-Aid Acid Test”) as Stanley Owsley, one-time millionaire LSD salesman and Grateful Dead manager, and Mountain Girl, a former Merry Prankster and former wife of Jerry Garcia, have shown up in the past, were about to begin. Needless to say, this sort of person did not show up at the 2001 conference, though the fact that Steve got high with William Burroughs in the 70’s impresses me far more than anything those two have done. So, we’re in this hotel room, armed with only a fancy laptop, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and a bag of designer weed; and after (and during) the first two presentations in one of the banquet facilities of the Sheraton, we looked at each other as if to express a longing for the simple room.

The first paper presented, a reflective jaunt into two decades of touring by a local college English teacher, was well-presented and caught all the emotions of a young adult being introduced to the Dead and rock concerts in general. But the content was really too broad to hit on any of the key subjects of the conference, which was supposed to hit only the “sociological” aspects of the Dead and Deadhead culture. Stephen Allen, a middle-aged man with a long (graying) brown beard, opened the conference with his paper titled “I’m On My Way,” a recap of Allen’s most notable experiences at Dead shows which happened to start with a recap of his first experiment with mescaline. To the dismay of anyone trying to gain a new perspective on the Grateful Dead and their fans, at least every other sentence of the paper included a reference to the group’s lyrics (which were penned mostly by both John Barlow and the main Dead wordsmith, the ever-iconoclastic hermit Robert Hunter).

I admit it was entertaining to hear the professor’s tale of witnessing one of former Dead vocalist and organist Ron “Pigpen” Mckernan’s best and longest versions of “Lovelight” in 1971. Or the tale of a 1983 show where guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir put a whistle around his neck during “Help on the Way” at the moments Allen’s shrooms kicked in. Or bassist Phil Lesh closing his eyes to hold back tears while thanking the crowd for “creating the energy” to make the group (known by their fans as “the Boys”) play “Stella Blue” so well one night. Sure, these were amusing stories, but I certainly didn’t gain any knowledge of what actually “created the energy” to make Allen travel all over the U.S. to these concerts (other than to listen to great music while sewing his wild oats) or what made him insist that these experiences could only happen with this one band. He is too serious about this for someone with so little explanation, I thought. To put it another way, here is a man captivated enough to remember the day he put on his Dead baseball cap and went to leave for work, only to, before being pushed to tears, decide never to wear a Grateful Dead-related piece of clothing again, in memory of lead guitarist/vocalist Garcia’s 1995 death. This is a beautiful thing but to those not yet “getting it,” it’s incomprehensible.

One of the most disappointing presentations, though maybe the most moving and thought-provoking, was the second of the conference, written by a California English professor named Jon Ney and titled “Terrapin Station: A Postmodern Journey Into the Infinite.” I could feel my stomach turn after hearing that title, realizing I had to witness the next half-hour of someone “searching” (as Silberman says) for meaning in an extremely powerful, passionate (and very long) rock song that was also one of the 1970s’ best pieces of Avant-garde poetry and a pleasant enigma. “Terrapin,” the title track to the 1977 album of the same name, is a 16-minute opus that included a string section, chanting, an amazing drummer’s duel, and obviously the Robert Hunter lyrics that have been praised by scholars and rock fans alike for almost a quarter-century.

Ney, donning flannel and looking like either a construction worker or a high school math teacher, spoke softly and told the audience that his first Dead show was also the first performance of “Terrapin Station,” the song he calls “an enigma of man’s beingprobing mysteries within a magical suite.” He spoke of fellow Deadheads as his “sisters and brothers” (like in the song “Promised Land”) and explained how he’d planned to “deduce” the riddles of “Terrapin.” Sitting there listening to this middle-aged man stammer through explanations like “without the nothingness, there’s nothing there” and half-baked Buddhist references such as “the unbegotten beginning,” I felt like I was at a Star Trek convention for the first time during the conference.

As Barry Smolin, a Los Angeles radio host and high school English teacher, stated on the Well (a popular California-based web conference who’s Grateful Dead section was started by Deadhead Mary Eisenhart) a few days after we’d all reached home safely from New Mexico: “I've often thought about the Trekkie/Deadhead overlap, the dorkier side of our subculture. Sitting on the floor of [the hotel room where we all partied at night during the conference], in an [altered] state of mind identical to everyone else in the room, I wondered aloud if we as Deadheads are the coolest people in the world or the biggest dorks in the world. [Silberman] said, We're the coolest dorks in the world,’ which I thought was a great designation.”

Is bringing a copy of former Dead vocalist Donna Godchaux’s (then Donna Jean Thatcher) Alabama high-school yearbook to the conference an example of the Trekkie side of being a Deadhead? Hell no. But more importantly, does being a dork make one more prone to becoming a Deadhead, or does being a Deadhead make one more prone to becoming a dork? Hard to tell. Hearing Ney describe “Terrapin” in his paper as a song that “transports the unknown into an unfathomable realm,” I realize he has tried very hard to fit into the Deadhead culture, which he ironically speaks of as “non-conformist.” Frank Zappa sang of “Pojama People” and dissed the Dead on 80’s albums like You Are What You Is because he knew that people are capable of adjusting themselves to both the corporate way of life and the bohemian way of life just to have somewhere to call home.

I accept that Ney and some Heads started out as loners, not fitting in anywhere, and in a way conformed to enter the Deadhead culture (just look at “the Spinners,” a group of late Dead faithful that resembled David Koresh’s followers and proceeded to further cloud the band’s image and influence many a confused, unwashed Phish fan). I empathized with him during his double-speak-tinged presentation, though his nervous tone and jumbled explanations reminded me of what most people, especially me, would look and sound like if they tried to de-code someone else’s poetry. Particularly Robert Hunter’s beautifully puzzling “Terrapin Station,” which Ney correctly describes as something created “out of Hunter’s subconsciousmoving in an endless ellipse.”

I believe that “Terrapin,” like many other rock songs, and poems, is something that is held sacred because of its status as an enigma, thus it may be better to enjoy it than to, perhaps in vain, attempt to fully understand it. Ney calls Hunter “a cosmic genius with no logic” and then tries hopelessly to make sense of a very mosaic-like song that, no matter what it’s true meaning, may never be completely understood by the listener or the composer, but is wonderful nonetheless. As Marge Piercy once wrote in an essay on complexity in poetry, “any piece of writing is a seduction. Once [it] is finishedpeople will experience it in marvelously inefficient and fabulous ways, making it mean to them what you never imagined.” Yes “Terrapin” “shimmers on the supernatural shores of our subconscious” like “Stairway to Heaven,” “A Day in the Life,” or “Desolation Row,” but would it intrigue us so much if we knew exactly what every word meant?

Regardless, Ney’s presentation ended with absolutely no concrete clarification of “Terrapin Station,” but did include the very telling statement “this song inspired my life,” prompting me to (very brutally, I admit) scribble in my notes “what did it inspire you to do listen to more Grateful Dead music?”

To my dismay, the next paper presented (by Lans Smith) was another “searching” synopsis of Robert Hunter’s lyrics: a comparison of a few Dead songs to ancient mythology (specifically the Nekyia, or “decent into the underworld”) that included the observation “Nietszche was ever-present at Dead shows.” Once again, while the presenter, an English professor at Midwestern University, was less “Trekkie” than Ney and even made a surprisingly honest joke that alluded to Dead song titles (“Eyes of the World,” “the Other One,” etc.) being written thousands of years ago on Egyptian hieroglyphs, he fell short if only because his paper attempted to look at the Grateful Dead from the inside although he was admittedly an outsider, as is anyone who basically didn’t write their songs. As I read now from my notebook: “Robert Hunter was a brilliant poet and [lyricist], easing bits of history, fact and fiction, into utterly perfect songs which, whether understood completely or not, open a magic door in the mind of the listener.” Scholars like Smith do Hunter justice by dipping into every facet of his writing, but the one thing they must realize is that we are not just listening but also living, and Hunter was writing as well as living. Therefore, both listener and composer are human and capable of equaling (and complementing) each other in some way.
I was intrigued by Smith’s entire presentation, especially his virtual breakthrough-observation that the powers of imagination are important in creation, but I had already learned to take each paper not grounded in intense research or practical experience with a grain of saltwhich makes a nice segue into Rebecca Adams’ investigative and surprisingly realistic presentation on Deadhead culture.

Adams, better known as the “Dead Professor,” is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina in her late forties, and a virtual encyclopedia of what the Skeleton Key called “useless Dead statistics.” Her presentation, which was basically a stellar excerpt from her new book Deadhead Social Science, was easily the most successful of the conference based on content alone – and her mind-numbing research humbled the audience by being both interesting and bewildering. “It will be a trip home, at least visually,” she said.

During the later years of the Grateful Dead, Adams taught a course at North Carolina in which students spent a portion of the semester “on tour” with the group. As a 20-year old Pitt student, this both catches my interest and sparks some jealousy, and after overhearing that Ms. Adams has 1500 slides for her presentation (of which she used probably 50), I was open-eyed and ready to learn from someone with immense knowledge, not only from her own experiences at Dead shows but also from countless hours of parking lot and in-show research. Adams began with the words “telling someone why you are a fan of the Grateful Dead is like explaining why you love someone,” a very telling restatement of a line from Jamie Jensen’s 1990 book Built to Last, and briefly attempted to explain why people all over the world left their everyday lives to follow a rock n’ roll band. The professor listed spontaneity, the Dead’s jazz-inspired transitions between songs, constantly playing songs differently, and the fact that the group played 459 different songs, as key reasons for people wanting to see them night after night while attending shows by other bands almost always was kept to once a year or so. For instance, in 1995 alone, the Grateful Dead performed 143 different songs at just 47 shows, while other rock bands may pick 30 or 40 songs, rotate the setlist occasionally, and stick to them for a tour, taking away virtually any reason to see them more than once. Even Bob Dylan, who has an immense catalog of original material, may play the same 20-30 songs two nights in a row (with a few different ones sprinkled in for good measure) while the Dead would frequently go two nights without playing the same song twice. But Adams’ explanations for the cultural phenomenon of the Dead had more to do with “unplanned repeated interactions” between new friends and even the fact that Republicans were in office during most of the Dead’s career, acting as “stigmas for shared experiences and creativity.” The only good thing about the election of George W. Bush, she said, is that he may have the same good effect, by clashing with young people and liberals alike, that his father and Ronald Reagan had on unorthodox (dare I say “hippie”) society during the Dead’s touring tenure. Adams’ research, coupled with Californian Mary Goodenough’s observations of Grateful Dead shows as “rites of passage” where a “sacred space” allowed people to take LSD (or not) and become familiar with a positive and wholly different outlook on the world, did a good job of revealing (or shedding light on) exactly why any of this ever happened. Goodenough, who saw over 200 Dead shows, gave her presentation while cradling her newborn baby and spoke of “initiation” in a way that proved to be both poetic and informative. The post-Grateful Dead, “modern, information age, has no myths (and) significant initiation is non-existent,” she said, “puberty rights have gone underground.” Very creatively and poignantly, Goodenough explained that, in order to fully leave childhood, a person must be born twice once at birth and once while feeling truly accepted and experiencing a re-birth; and she admitted (while literally bouncing with her baby) that, while something like a Dead show is a stunningly ideal example of this rebirth, it wasn’t and isn’t the only way to leave childhood. Goodenough was brilliant in being able to comment on Deadhead culture from the outside and in, admitting it’s faults and showing brutal honesty by affirming “the desire to experience and be part of something sacred joined Deadheads and drug users and sometimes caused an overlap.” This is an important fact (that some Deadheads become drug addicts and some drug addicts become Deadheads) and while it’s obviously something bad, it can also prove useful in making it clear to skeptics that not all fans of the Grateful Dead abuse drugs or even use them at all. On the other hand, I must make it clear, as Goodenough did in her presentation, that using drugs safely while listening to the Grateful Dead, especially during “Space” (the completely experimental instrumental portion of most Dead shows, which Goodenough called “something new waiting to be born”), can be a life-changing experience all it’s own, although not meant for some. “Those unafraid of experiencing the depths of the underworld in the tradition of the primitives,” she said, “did not go to the bathroom or go for beer during Space.’” As I saw her speaking, and holding her baby, I could imagine Goodenough dancing (“spinning”) at a Dead show, and I realized statements and opinions like hers would always scare away conservatives. But so what? From the beginning of the Dead’s career, almost everyone “getting it” realized, in Goodenough’s words, that “taking LSD (was) crucial in the initiation process.” Whatever, the “sacred space” was a place where music, and not drugs, always reigned in full, and Rebecca Adams did a wonderful job of focusing on the music of the Grateful Dead as opposed to either her own opinions of the culture or the lyrics, as some may have. It was “just the facts, ma’am,” and her presentation was very well-received, and very deserving because of the intense research that went along with the Deadhead (parking lot) quotes, “useless statistics,” and amazing photography that would be more than could fit in this entire essay. Nonetheless, it served as inspiration for a slew of remarks from those in attendance, even prompting Steve Silberman to ask everyone to tell what they believe should be remembered about Grateful Dead culture in 500 years. Many people spoke up, but perhaps the most simple, honest and endearing quotes came from two unabashed female Deadheads. “Life can be good and we did come together,” the first exclaimed. “We were kind,” a very very kind University of Kentucky systems programmer named Melinda Belleville made sure not to forget. But, even with the success of “the Dead Professor’s” painstakingly well-prepared presentation, none was more entertaining or eye-opening than that of Natalie Dollar, a fantastic young woman from Mississippi who now teaches speech and cultural communication at Oregon State. She spoke of Deadheads as a “speech community rather than a subculturesharing a coded dialect and a culture that plays a background to informing the speech community.” She said that Silberman’s book (the Skeleton Key AKA Dead Dictionary) did a wonderful job of helping access this code (or “cultural code of communication”) and revealed that she has cassette tapes of people talking in parking lots before, during, and after Grateful Dead concerts and finds them so interesting that she frequently listens to them on her way to work. Dollar, now in her thirties, didn’t see her first show until 1981 in Texas (but isn’t afraid to admit that Brent Mydland was the keyboard player when she got “on the bus”) and didn’t see the group again until 1986 in California, when she decided to write her college thesis, which she now calls “a piece of crap,” on Deadhead culture. The professor spoke of her recordings of Deadhead conversations as “naturally occurring data” and says “the shows (were) where the members of the speech community affirmed and reaffirmed their identities.” However, she was careful to note what everyone in attendance already knew: that speech has absolutely nothing to do with the actual show; and she joked about newbies, not yet understanding what exactly happens at a Grateful Dead show, who would start talking during a concert because they were uncomfortable with the level of emotional, unspoken expression that is all-but absent in mainstream society. But you can’t exactly blame them for feeling confused, and Dollar entertained those in attendance with hilarious examples. Obviously the initiated can surely imagine a non-Deadhead being awe-struck after hearing someone utter a phrase similar to “man, RFK was sweet with the Attics’ breakout and the killer Scarlet/Fire,” but Shakedown at the Garden was full of people before the show and we surfed all the way up to the rail during Space.’” These “in” phrases, along with combinations of time and space, like “Red Rocks 77” or “Egypt 78,” would surely get anyone’s head spinning without the use of a serious translator if one is not yet “on the bus.” Natalie’s presentation created more conversation and excitement than any of the others, and her spirit spilled into both the round-table discussions (which featured, among others, Silberman and the young, extremely busy and charismatic David Lemieux, deceased Dead archivist Dick Latvala’s successor) and the late-night parties held in the Sheraton room occupied by a few presenters. As a result of the doors of perception opened by Natalie, or perhaps the doors of perception opened by the obligatory vices, these late-night parties served as a sort-of second conference, with more personal stories being told, people playing and listening to music, and everyone sharing everything, from memories and opinions to weed and beer. It was at the parties, in an Albuquerque Sheraton surrounded by professors and journalists all at least 15-20 years older than me (almost all of whom were as drunk and high as me), that I came to terms with the fact that I’m a Deadhead, however scary that is now or may have been then. I didn’t so much as like the Grateful Dead until a year and a half ago, when Silberman, who I’d been pals with for about six months (talking about everything from William Burroughs to Ween to two-timing drug-addict girlfriends who spontaneously shave their heads) sent me a copy of So Many Roads, the 5-disc live Dead boxset he helped produce. Within a few months after hearing that collection, I owned every studio album and just about every official live release the Grateful Dead ever recorded. I had never heard music as open as this; never heard a bunch of guys putting so many musical styles together into something all their own, something no one will ever equal again. Most of all I’d never heard lyrics this side of Dylan that came within miles of Robert Hunter’s. In short, I was hooked and still am, but I never once thought of myself as a “Deadhead” until New Mexico, when after the second day of the conference Mary Goodenough, baby in hand, stopped in the middle of a conversation we were having to ask “are you a Deadhead?” I had been taken aback, and perhaps frightened, on the first day of the conference when, walking into the hotel, Natalie Dollar had approached me to ask, “are you here for the Dead conference,” simply wondering if I looked like a Deadhead to the world, but this was different. “Well, I never saw them as the Grateful Dead, never saw Garcia,” I said. “Let me rephrase that,” she countered, “are you an appreciator of Grateful Dead music?” “Yes.” “Face it, you’re a Deadhead.” I was shocked at the thought, to say the least, but somehow it felt like coming out of the closet in many ways. However, the conference was wonderful in reminding me just why I was a Deadhead. Apart from being a cultural phenomenon (“anthropologists would have been flown in by the dozens if this had been a tribe of half a million people following a group of musicians in Africa,” Silberman would say during the roundtable discussions) the Grateful Dead spent thirty years playing music (from the first notes of “Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion” to Garcia’s death in August 1995, and all the live performances in between) that wasn’t always great, but always brought people together and made miracles happen. They were human, and the fans were human, and they both knew it. “They don’t know what they’re saying, we don’t know what we’re saying, but we know we’re saying the same thing,” Garcia once gladly admitted. In Goodenough’s words, “the Grateful Dead became a living myth – everyone moved in syncopation and everyone felt the togetherness. The songs teach by suggestion rather than force or preaching, and (the lyrics) can teach you about your own life.” Deadheads continue to quote Hunter and Barlow’s lyrics the way people quote the bible (“to emphasize a lesson,” someone said) and miracles continue to happen: I for one found it amazing that a painting of a crow that remarkably resembled the Dead Records logo of the mid-70’s was painted on the Hotel wall above the podium where the presenters spoke from. But the biggest miracle of all is that “the music never stops.” Both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, at 55 and 61, are on tour this summer, taking the songs of the Grateful Dead, and their own new music, to uncharted waters. The Grateful Dead conference in New Mexico, like the Grateful Dead themselves, was an awesome time, a coming together of very different people, and an eye-opening experience. But, unlike the Dead (who promoter Bill Graham once called “the greatest rock n’ roll band there ever was”) the conference will happen again, and if I had been a presenter in 2001 the one thing I’d like to have said is that we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in what is remembered about the Grateful Dead and their devoted fans most important is what they both inspire.

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