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The Loop

Published: 2010/12/03
by Jesse Jarnow

The All American Kalediscoped Steam-Driven Love Band in the Popular Press: "The Grateful Dead Reader"

A look back to Jesse Jarnow’s review of The Grateful Dead Reader in December 2000

“The Grateful Dead Reader” edited by David G. Dodd and Diana Spaulding
Oxford University Press, 200. 330 pages

Hey, hey, hey, another book about the Grateful goddamn Dead. What’s there to say? A lot apparently. A lot of it has already been said, though. That’s pretty okay, because that’s what this book is a collection of what’s already been said. “The Grateful Dead Reader” is a wonderful new anthology of articles written about the band over the course of their 30 year career, beginning with a manic excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s legendary “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and ending with a heart-wrenching eulogy for Jerry Garcia (and the Dead themselves, for that matter) by noted Dead scholar Steve Silberman.

In large part, this is as much a narrative of the band as it is a history of how people wrote (and write) about the Dead. As writing tends to reflect the music it’s describing (such as Jack Kerouac’s stream-of-conscious word jazz or Lester Bangs’s soul-scraping early punk manifestos), the stuff here evolves with the band, moving from the chaos of the early Acid Tests (Wolfe and William J. Craddock) to an emerging structure in the madness (Charlie Haas and Lee Abbott) to an entirely new kind of form with established conventions and terminology (Blair Jackson and Steve Silberman).

Like the “So Many Roads” box set, this gives a broad sketch of the band. Themes weave in and out. For the most part, the book is comprised of field reports from Deadland. The best field reports have the ability to examine with a sense of historicity, where the best historical writing has the ability to convey the immediacy of the event. The two are related, but fundamentally different. As such, Steve Silberman’s fine essay on the February 1970 shows at the Fillmore East (“Primal Dead at the Fillmore East”) is extremely out of place.

Historical documents – as most of the articles in the book are – contain clues as to the world in which they were forged social mores and popular culture are coded deeply into the text. That is as much part of their historical value as the content itself. The Silberman piece has much of this historical coding, but coded for a different decade. It belongs with the historical criticism of “the Deadheads’ Taping Compendium” the first generation of Dead reportage to exist in age without the band. As insightful as it is, it is a very definite break in the flow, reflecting not so much the energy of the shows themselves but the enthusiasm of listening to them.

Ed McClanahan’s incendiary “Grateful Dead I Have Known” (written in between 1971 and 1972) holds up on all counts, imbued with the crackling challenge presented by the music. It is simply one of the most incredible pieces of writing about the Dead I’ve yet encountered, a rare and potent combination of gonzo and b’gock journalism that shoots straight for the molten core of the Grateful Dead experience circa 1971 and manages to masterfully tie together the musical and sociological elements of the scene into a ball of energy that makes total sense. Or, if you’d prefer Total Sense.

Entries from the late 1970s capture a band at odds with the increasingly Reaganomic world around them. Here, the idea of historically coded writing comes into play again. While the authors attempt to connect the Dead with the world outside the GD bubble, we get a much clearer picture of that difference through the use of negative space. Certainly, the articles have many valid points to make, but just as many can be derived by the cultural assumptions that the authors are working from. They are a joy to read. Dodd and Spaulding’s selection of authors tends towards Deadheads attempting to explain the band to the rest of the civilized world. Throughout the pieces from these years, there’s a perceptible glee that emerges from the idea that the band is, in fact, getting away with something gasp fun.

However, this emphasis on Deadhead writers falls a little short when the turn of the decade rolls around. The upside of Deadhead writing is that it is filled with an undying love for the band that’s marvelously contagious. The downside is that a lot of it turns away from the grim reality of what was happening to the band in the 1980s both on and off-stage. It’s a shame that the early ’80s aren’t more well documented here. This is history now and hardly time for revisionism. I suppose that there really wasn’t too much truly dark stuff published about the band during this time period, but – in light of what we now know about the period – it almost begs explanation. Both Paddy Ladd’s and Blair Jackson’s state of Deadland reports from the early ’90s work effectively in this context. But both are, to some degree, after the fact — at least in the sense that Garcia’s coma had already marked one bottoming out and had, as such, validated them to write about the band’s decline.

I would’ve liked to see more field notes from the heart of darkness — 1981-1985. Surely, Dead scholars kept private journals during this time. Excerpts from these would be hugely enlightening, as well as quite powerful emotionally, I’m sure. This is the period almost wholly ignored by Dead writers though, as tough as it might be to write about, is also extremely interesting. In his afterward to “Perspectives On The Grateful Dead” (an anthology of critical writing about the Dead released earlier this year), Silberman wrote that the book was “a record of the first generation of Dead historians and interpreters laying down critical, anthropological, and sociological approaches to the subject while the memories of the experiences were still fresh”. Dammit, this stuff is still fresh please get it down!

If Silberman and David Shenk’s “Skeleton Key” and David Gans’s “Playing In The Band” are text books for 100-level courses on the Dead, then “the Grateful Dead Reader” is a fine 200-level assignment (where the three volumes of the “Taper’s Compendium” along with Weiner’s book make up to the core of the 300-level classes). Along with Gans’s “Conversation With The Dead”, this book is brimming with un-self-conscious source material absolutely ready for Deadheads to scour. In short, a great addition to any Deadhead’s shelf.

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