Acouple weeks ago, the surviving members of the revered California rock band, the Grateful Dead, said they would play their final concert over the July 4 weekend in Chicago at the site where they played their last concert 20 years ago. It is also the band’s 50th anniversary.
While the announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by two or three generations of Deadheads (some of whom were born too late to ever see their favorite band play live), there have been voices on the radio and Web who have suggested that a concert held so long after the band’s spiritual leader, Jerry Garcia, died — the reason the band dissolved — diminishes his legacy.
Having attended my first Dead show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972 and my last at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in San Francisco in 1995 (and a couple dozen in between), I feel some ambivalence over the issue even as I plot to secure tickets to the Chicago shows. I wonder whether I’m indulging in sad nostalgia.
It was good timing when a friend alerted me to Peter Richardson’s new book, “No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead.’’ The author, a San Francisco native and professor of humanities at San Francisco State University, says in his introduction that the Dead “helped make San Francisco a center of the rock music world, and almost three decades after that, they were the nation’s most popular touring band . . . the Grateful Dead became one of the counterculture’s most distinctive and durable institutions. This book raises a deceptively simple question: why?”
If you want to read about the band, there is already a lot of choice out there, from “The Golden Road and Beyond: A Grateful Dead Primer’’ to “Aces Back to Back: The History of the Grateful Dead (1965 to 2013)’’ to “Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead’’ (by bassist Phil Lesh) to “Everything I Know about Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead,’’ and many, many others. Richardson’s contribution to the canon attempts to give historical and cultural context to the formation of the band in 1965 and their evolution over the ensuing years. In the introduction he says “I hope to place the Dead’s achievement in the broader sweep of American cultural history.”
For readers familiar with a few of the other Dead books there is not a lot here that will feel revelatory. Richardson begins by connecting Garcia to San Francisco’s Beat scene in the 1950s, especially Kerouac’s mania for the road and the rampant (if somewhat secretive) drug use among the bohemian set as the young guitarist was coming of age in the Bay Area. Garcia’s identification with Kerouac was new to me as were the ties of Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the band. In the book’s early going it felt as though Richardson might just have a fresh approach to connecting the Dead to some interesting dots.
But it proved disappointing when most of those dots did not materialize. Sure, Kesey and the Pranksters and Garcia and his friends liked taking LSD, but it seems they didn’t much care for each other. Any speculation they shared the same creative gestalt seems tenuous at best. The author also tries to make a case for a decades-long struggle between the Dead and then-governor, and later president, Ronald Reagan — he of the antidrug, anticounter-culture crusade.
This attempt to paint the Dead, and Garcia, into this political context feels thin and even false. One of the reasons the Dead still have such an immense and loyal following so many years after disbanding has to do with their singular authenticity, their humility, their sense of community. Bands who involve themselves deeply in national politics — whether the left or right — risk losing credibility in the natural libertarianism of rock and roll. “No Simple Highway’’ reads like a distillation of all the previous Dead histories and memoirs overlain with a transparency of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s American cultural and political history.
In the end, Richardson’s work is not overly successful at answering the ambitious question he poses. More like a long graduate student paper that stretches too many points too far simply to substantiate a thesis, “No Simple Highway’’ will not add to the Dead’s legend and legacy, but thankfully, neither will it significantly detract from it.
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.