Return of the Living Dead

"It's an adventure you can still have in America, just like Neal Cassady on the road. You can't hop the freights anymore, but you can chase the Grateful Dead around," Jerry Garcia explained in a 1989 interview. "You can have all your tires blow out in some weird town in the Midwest, and you can get hell from strangers. You can have something that lasts throughout your life ... the times you took chances."
For many this extramusical allure remains the sole explanation for the Dead's enduring appeal, an appeal that seemed to defy all the conventions of the music marketplace. With little presence on the charts, and an image that often seemed wildly out of sync with the prevailing cultural mood, the Grateful Dead continued to pack stadiums and sell out tours, right up to Garcia's passing in August 1995. A cult the Dead may have been, but it remained a cult of surprising vitality.

But even in death Garcia is lauded more as a countercultural heavyweight than a musician. The actual notes he played are dismissed as the soundtrack for vapid Sixties nostalgia, a footnote to the sociological phenomenon that is the Deadhead experience. Three new discs -- two from the Dead's voluminous live archive, and a third release featuring the band's survivors -- help define that legendary draw, presenting the music in exactly the form that cast its spell over audiences.

Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions unearths a rollicking 1964 live set that captures the Dead in embryonic form, as an acoustic jug band. Dick's Picks Volume 13 is the latest installment in the ongoing issuance of the Dead's concerts on CD, courtesy of their tape archivist Dick Latvala. This time he presents a complete New York performance from May 6, 1981. Proving that the long strange trip of the Dead is far from over is The Strange Remain from the Other Ones, an assemblage led by the remaining Dead members (including bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, and drummer Mickey Hart) that toured nationwide this past summer. The Strange Remain cherry-picks two discs' worth of live highlights from that tour.

Along with these CDs, a new book, Sweet Chaos -- The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, offers a fresh approach to deciphering both the band's music and its magnetic allure. As a committed antiwar activist in Berkeley during the Sixties, author Carol Brightman traveled in circles related to the Dead (her sister became their lighting designer), but her political convictions kept her from getting on the bus. Accordingly her critique of the Dead comes from the Left: In her eyes the Dead's hoary cultural baggage wasn't that they were revolutionary ambassadors for the New Age, but that they weren't revolutionary enough. At a point when Brightman was decrying Amerika, breaking bread with the Weather Underground, and organizing the Venceremos sugar-cane brigades to travel to Havana to labor in solidarity with the "New Man" of Castro's Cuba, the Dead was taking the opposite tack.

Brightman cites an interview with the Dead's main lyricist and spiritual guide, Robert Hunter, who provided the words for the bulk of Garcia's songs. Speaking of the band's 1970 breakthrough album American Beauty, Hunter says, "There was a photograph that was due to go on the back cover which showed the band with pistols. They were getting into guns at the time, going over to Mickey's ranch, target-shooting. It wasn't anything revolutionary." Rather it was simply part of their neo-cowboy ethic. "I saw that photo," he recalls, "and that was one of the few times I ever really asserted myself with the band and said, 'No -- no picture of a band with guns on the back cover.' These were incendiary and revolutionary times, and I did not want the band to be making that statement. I wanted us to counter the rising violence of that time. I knew that we had a tool to do it, and just didn't dare go the other way. Us and the [Jefferson] Airplane -- we could have been the final match that lit the fuse, and I went real consciously the other way."

In her own interview with Hunter, Brightman returns to this point. Precisely at a period when so many in the New Left were seeking a way to politicize the hippy hordes of the Woodstock Nation, the Dead seemed to be herding the flock away from the barricades. "The [political] movement, being Marxist-based, had a script, and anything that would further that script was allowable, including unethical and immoral actions," Hunter explains. "There was a lie in it that just turned me off, and that was the true source of the collapse of the movement. The Grateful Dead was the opposite of that ... the masses that were following us and saying 'Yes, this is speaking to me!' It wasn't Karl Marx speaking to them; it was something deeper, something American."

You can hear exactly what that "something American" was, even as early as the 1964 summer evening captured on Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. "It's great to get together," a 22-year-old Garcia exclaims earnestly in a postshow interview that bookends the Mother McCree set. "We don't expect to make a fortune at it or ever be popular or famous or worshipped or hit the Ed Sullivan Show or anything like that. As long as we can play, we'll play, regardless of what it's for or who it's for, or anything. It's fun for us, that's the important thing."

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