No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson

Grateful Dead

Our Aux.Out. Book Club regularly reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, an in-depth inquiry into why The Grateful Dead became “one of the counterculture’s most distinctive and durable institutions.” Read on for the Book Club’s reaction to No Simple Highway.

Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer

Recent Book Club Reviews:
The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses by Zoë Howe
Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of the Clash by Randal Doane
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.

Purchase: Buy a copy of No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead here.

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Matt Melis (MM): I always like to begin Book Clubs by having members tell a little bit about their relationship with the band we’re reading about. I’m no Deadhead. Save for “Touch of Grey”, I can’t sing (or jam) along to any Dead songs. But like Peter Richardson, I am drawn to the mystery of how this band became such an enduring institution. The only other phenomenon I’d compare it to in terms of fan devotion is the KISS Army. Even in terms of iconography, the skulls, roses, and dancing bears might only be rivaled in notoriety by the Rolling Stones’ lips logo or Prince’s love symbol. Maybe what’s most fascinating to an outsider is that this level of devotion has been maintained throughout the 20 years following Jerry Garcia’s death and the band’s subsequent dissolution.

Now, lo and behold, we have the 50th anniversary shows at Soldier Field coming up in July. Do you already have your tie-dye packed for Chicago, Henry?

Henry Hauser (HH): While I’m definitely grateful for the Dead, my Head has always been alive and well. My first writing gig out of college was covering jam bands in Berkeley for a Grateful Dead blog, and I currently live less than a block from the Dead house on Ashbury in San Francisco. Granted, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are both masterpieces, and I’ve got a soft spot for a whole slew of scattered deep cuts and live bootlegs, but I can’t credibly claim to be among the Grateful Dead faithful.

I went to see Phil Lesh and Bob Weir play Outside Lands back in 2010 and caught Mickey Hart’s bizarre electronic-experimental gig commemorating the Golden Gate Bridge 75th anniversary a couple of years after that, but I don’t see myself trekking out to the heartland to see the latest reunion show. That being said, credit where credit is due: They’re definitely doing it right. Getting Phish’s Trey Anastasio to sub in for Jerry Garcia is a brilliant (albeit obvious) move. How about you?

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MM: I won’t be attending, but I live only a few miles away. It’ll be interesting to see if my Wrigleyville neighborhood becomes a makeshift commune for that week. Maybe I should let out rooms, which is a challenge in a studio apartment. But it’s a guarantee that Deadheads will flock from all over the country, if not the world, to catch one or more of these anniversary gigs, which really does bring us to the central question of Richardson’s book: Why do Dead fans go to such lengths? What’s the draw of this band? Why do they remain relevant 50 years after their inception? Richardson, a professor of humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University, breaks down the band’s appeal into three categories: ecstasy (or transcendence), mobility, and community. What did you think of Richardson’s exploration of this driving question, Henry? Did he touch upon anything that rings true to you?

HH: Richardson sets out to explain why and how the Dead became such an enduring and visible cultural institution. In almost every city, there’s a community of tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads humming the band’s tunes and singing their praises.

Yet this is a group that never had a No. 1 song, only broke into the 10 once, and shunned popular “rock theatrics.” According to Richardson, it’s the band’s commitment to authenticity, their pursuit of a utopian, communitarian, and transcendental ideal that drove their cult following and laid the foundation for their lasting legacy. He calls the Dead’s tours “mobile social laboratories,” presenting an alternative to the static “sober, God-fearing, and profit-maximizing” ethos of mainstream American culture.

He also hopes to refute the characterization of the band as “grizzled hippie throwbacks” by stressing the “talent, range, intelligence” and musical diversity of the band. He wants to debunk the “cartoon version” of the Dead by showing us what made the band great, where they came from, and challenges they faced: profiteering record companies, greedy managers, and militant activists.

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And there’s plenty of fun trivia: how they got their name, where the skeleton and flowers iconography came from, who cooked their acid, and that time they spiked Hugh Hefner’s Pepsi with LSD at the Playboy Mansion.

So yeah, it struck a twangy chord. But I felt Richardson’s ecstasy-mobility-community segmentation was pretty weak. These are three important pillars, but that’s no reason to divide the book so rigidly along these lines. His discussion is mostly chronological anyway, and works better as a smooth narrative than an academic thesis. The “ecstasy,” which is Richardson’s sexed-up word for transcendence, was always intertwined with community. And when the band started to hit the road with a vengeance, all three elements were inseparable.

Buttons_Grateful_Dead_-_Working_Mans_Dead_ButtonMM: I agree that the ecstasy-mobility-community partitions are a bit too strenuous, especially when, as you say, Richardson’s story largely unfolds in linear fashion. Look, his book’s aim is to pinpoint something (why the band and its fan base endure) that might not be identifiable — or at the very least may be a moving target dependent upon which band member or Deadhead you ask. For instance, I love the Garcia quote about the Dead being a particular generation’s substitute for running off and joining the circus. But clearly that’s not the appeal for everyone. “Why?” is such an ambitious — almost doomed — question. In searching for the reason behind the devotion surrounding the Dead, however, Richardson manages to show us what that adoration actually looks like, and that’s no cheap feat.

As a San Franciscan, Henry, I know you were interested in his treatment of your hometown. Richardson goes to great lengths to detail the regional and cultural context during the band’s formative years. To me, it felt like the world shrunk, with every cultural touchstone of the ’60s — from the Beats and Merry Pranksters to the Hells Angels and the Black Panthers — making cameos. And I absolutely loved that about this book. Christ, Garcia transcribed Lenny Bruce’s stand-up gigs for a while to be used in Bruce’s legal defense. Even when Richardson abandons the band for too long of a stretch to provide this context, I still enjoyed soaking up that feel of the ’60s.

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HH: That’s where we disagree. The book is supposed to be about the Dead, not Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. Sure, historical context is crucial. But there are long intervals where the author abandons the Dead to go off on a History 101 tangent. I’m not reading to learn about Charles Manson, the Jonestown tragedy, or the Moscone-Milk assassinations. He makes us trudge through dozens and dozens of pages on the development of SF’s cultural landscape before we’re even introduced to the band. I found a lot of Richardson’s contextualization to be overkill. If you’re reading a book about the Dead, odds are you know about the Bohemians, you know about the Beats, and you’ve got some sense of what the summer of love was about. I mean, give the reader some credit! We’re not philistines! To me, it seemed like he was delivering a cursory history lecture without catering it to his central themes. The book could — and should — have been tighter.

grateful dead american beauty lg No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter RichardsonMM: I agree that Richardson strays too far from the Dead at times — like a predatory bird circling its prey so long that by the time it finally swoops in, dinner may have scampered away — but I enjoyed most of these tangents. I also think Richardson considers that cultural context to be equally important to his inquiry, as much so as the musical context. Kesey’s in there because the Dead played his parties and shared that scene. Kerouac’s in there because Garcia cited him as a tremendous influence: “It [On the Road] became so much a part of me that it’s hard to measure; I can’t separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac … I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something outside with my life — or even suspected the possibilities existed — if it weren’t for Kerouac opening those doors.” Given quotes like these and Richardson’s argument, I understand why we got so much context. Garcia himself speculates that without Kerouac, there’s no Grateful Dead.

HH: Now, on the other hand, his analysis of the musical — as opposed to historical — context that spawned the Dead was brilliant. One of the most amazing things about the Dead is their musical diversity and eclecticism. They drew inspiration from roots musicians like Bill Monroe, Appalachian fiddle tunes, church music, British Isle ballads, and Harry Smith’s folk anthology. Phil Lesh was into jazz in a major way, and incorporates it into his long, free-form jams. When they’re playing country, there’s lots of acoustic guitars and pedal steel. Mickey Hart experimented with electronic pulses, and Pigpen McKernan was a blues man through and through.

Then there’s Robert Hunter, looking to writers of prose (James Joyce) and lyrics (Dylan) to craft songs that “hint at either a larger story or something behind the scene.” Garcia captured it perfectly when he spoke of “the power of the almost expressed, the resonant.” It’s something that Dylan does often. Like the old, weird America of Harry Smith’s anthology, a lot of Hunter’s lyrics are about death and suffering. These are the scoundrel songs, the tracks about folks who ain’t never been no good and never will be. The outcasts, the outlaws, the freaks.

Speaking of outlaws, drugs come up a lot in this book. The author actually kicks things off by discussing Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. No book about the Dead can be complete without at least touching on the role of drugs in creating, enjoying, and bonding over their music. So how’d Richardson do?

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MM: The book does start with three pages of background on Huxley’s book about his days on mescaline. It’s definitely a preview of how Richardson feels the need to heavily contextualize throughout. Call me square, but I didn’t find the talk of drugs and its role in the Dead’s story all that compelling. Sure, I see how for a while it was the spice of life for the many characters here. But, like all drug stories, we find that tipping point, that point of diminishing returns, where drugs and alcohol become a set of chains rather than something that promotes escapism, freedom, and enlightenment. It gets heavy, man. We see McKernan, Kesey, Garcia, and countless others fall victim to it here. What did you take away from Richardson’s treatment of drug culture, Henry?

ben jerrrys cherry garcia detail No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter RichardsonHH: Drugs and the Dead are inseparable. It all started when Hunter volunteered as a test subject at Stanford, where he was given psychoactive drugs that the military was testing as an interrogative aid. But it wasn’t just LSD — the band did its share of grass, uppers, and heroin, too. Toeing the line between functional and destructive addicts, the Dead did pretty well for a number of years. For them, it wasn’t about zonking out, it was a means to become fully conscious, totally in the moment. Drugs are something that connected them with their audience. Artist and fan, united under a common trip. Very democratic. Of course, things got bad eventually, with Garcia becoming a heroin junkie, Lesh hitting the bottle hard, and Pigpen dying young.

But enough about puffs and pills. How about politics?

MM: Richardson goes to great pains to convey the message that the Dead weren’t politically motivated. There wasn’t an ulterior motive or hidden agenda; they were there to “turn people on” and “trip” with others through music. Apart from some of Garcia’s understandable jabs at the Reagan era, there seemed to be little interest in politics. However, that’s not to say that the Dead didn’t recognize their potential to influence their growing fan base. At one point, lyricist John Perry Barlow comments to Robert Hunter that the band “was turning into a cult, or a religion, or something. So far it doesn’t have any dogma, which makes it kind of okay as a religion, but it’s got ritual, it’s got iconography, it’s got all these characteristics of religion; it just doesn’t seem to have a belief system yet.”

That idea might even help Richardson to answer his driving question a bit. It seems that all the elements for a religion or political movement or cult or some mobilizing force were there except for a common belief system. So, in a way, Deadheads from all walks of life were hearing the music, taking the drugs, and following the band, but each seemed free to create and derive their own meaning from that experience. Maybe the diversity of the following actually helped prevent the band from inadvertently slipping into that political sphere.

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HH: It’s not just that the Dead weren’t politically motivated; they were downright anti-political. According to Richardson, they actively avoided politics, marches, and rallies, instead telling their fans to “just turn your back on it and split,” find some quiet place and be at peace.

At times, the Dead’s shunning of causes and movements almost seemed like they were flaunting their anti-politics. But the band was living through some very turbulent times: political assassinations, Vietnam, the Attica prison riot, Nixon’s draconian drug busts, carnage at Altamont, etc.

Grateful_Dead_CarSometimes, the peace activists come off just as bad as the war hawks. At Columbia, students kept storming the stage to make political announcements, snatching the mic away from Weir. I loved his response: “No, man. These microphones are for the music.” The Dead showed people that there are alternatives to fighting violence with violence. Aggression, even against injustice and savagery, just breeds more hate. The Grateful Dead offered a way out, a means to transcend the trap.

MM: So what are your big takeaways from No Simple Highways, Henry?

HH: The modern caricature of the Dead as a group of lazy, stoned-out hippies is about 10,000 miles off base. They were one of the hardest-working bands around, playing sets that lasted four, five, even six hours night after night, year after year. What’s more, they consistently swam against the prevailing tides. This is a band that did what they felt was right, rather than what was expected of them. They shunned politics at a time when bands were pressured to take a strong stance and incorporate it into their music.

But it’s not like they failed to take a stance on anything. In fact, it was quite the contrary. Once they started playing larger venues, they spent a fortune on sound equipment to give their fans a truer, cleaner, more intimate sound. This was an effort to erode the distinction between the performer and his audience, a very noble goal. Similarly, dissatisfied with the profit-maximizing ethos of the record industry, they went out on a limb and started their own label. Genre-based divisions meant little to the Dead, whose music spanned nearly every American musical tradition.

The key to the Dead’s enduring cult status is, as with most art that spans decades, authenticity. They really did love their community, their music, and each other; it was no act. Robert Christgau writes of their “almost cosmic benevolence,” and The Harvard Crimson put it best when describing an early Dead show: “[The Grateful Dead] play without putting on a show of themselves. The music is enough.” This was also one of the most egalitarian bands of the ’60s. They didn’t have a traditional frontman, shared their earnings equally, and made decisions democratically.  Lazy and apathetic? Not a chance.