Redefining America through Rock Music after Woodstock and Altamont: Texts and Contexts of Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty

part 2

The band came to represent all that the spirit pervading San Francisco in the summer of love seemingly was all about—what is usually associated with the "hippie smile," to borrow Neil Young’s phrase. They were the staple of the psychedelic ballroom scene; they often took the stage of Bill Graham’s Fillmore, and frequently they also did free concerts in Golden Gate Park—obviously continuing the style of the Acid Tests. They were fiercely anti-establishment, contemptuous of the commercial spirit that dominated the music business, but they were never as openly political or topical as the Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe & the Fish; they were content, it seemed, with doing their thing—which was music, their music.

The Grateful Dead brought together a number of disparate musical elements into an innovative and influential whole. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia had served stints in jug bands like the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers and Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions; bassist Phil Lesh was involved in the frontiers of electronic music; keyboardist/vocalist Ron McKernan had a background in the blues, while rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and drummer Bill Kreutzmann were well versed in rock, folk, and rhythm & blues. What they made of it was eclecticism in its very best and highest sense. At the same time, the music played by the Grateful Dead in those early days was fundamentally different from what was normally offered to concert audiences at the time. Rather than the usual run of three-minute pop songs, they did open-ended jams, using the standard line-up and instrumentation of rock bands. They fused jazz structures and blues sensibility in long improvisations, expansions on a theme and variations that would go for twenty minutes and more, all clad in a show that easily lasted for three or four hours and was enhanced by caleidoscopic light effects. (Ken Kesey, the choreographer of the first Grateful Dead concerts, is often credited with having invented the light show as an asset that was soon indispensabe in rock concerts.)

The first four albums, The Grateful Dead (1967), Anthem of the Sun (1968), Live Dead (1969), and Aoxomoxoa (1969) reflected the band’s style.

Aoxomoxoa (1969)

The raw, improvised sounds were meant to convey the feeling of a concert; even the takes recorded in a studio were to reflect the spontaneity of a live performance. The spirit of the early years is perhaps best captured on the double album Live Dead, which contained only six songs, and those songs, moreover, seemed to melt into each other.

Live Dead (1969)

A little more needs to be said about Grateful Dead concerts, for they are peculiar in the atmosphere that is created. They demonstrate what the interaction between performer and audience can amount to. The band’s insistence on being free of the self-dramatizing posturing so common with rock stars—that posturing may be taken as one kind their audience would accept. For three main points of the Dead Head worldview are close to unanimous: the warm sharing of a family; the hippie contempt for commerciality that makes Deadheads stubbornly condescending to most other rock bands; and a noisy but peaceful determination to have a good time.

Dennis McNally also notes the "familial feeling of a cult" that is a characteristic of Dead concerts; "the distinction between performer and audience is blurred here, because to a remarkable extent [the] audience is part of the act. When the Dead play there is a family—an inner family of band and staff and crew, and an extended family of ‘audience’—all come together for a ritual that most closely resembles a stoned religious proceeding."

"Me a Deadhead?" onother critic begins, implying that the answer is no. And then he writes this: "At the highest moments, the crowd’s intensity was reflected in the playing: performers and audience seemed to coalesce, to spark each other and erupt, creating the kind of spontaneous magic that vinyl never delivers." Less emphatic, though no less positive, is the summary Richard Kostelanetz, a noted expert on postmodern literature and culture, gives of his experience at a Dead concert. "The audience seemed a microcosm of a new society that was free of both race prejudice and class prejudice, free of middle-class inhibitions about pleasure, free of censorship, acutely sensitive to political and social evil."