One of the reasons I was asked not to join the Revolutionary Communist Party when it was being formed in 1974-1975 was because of my petty-bourgeois tendencies. Although the RCP was quite a different animal then, I have to acknowledge that I was relieved when our cadre leader suggested that I might be more effective as a supporter instead of a member. Then, after the revolution, I joked, it would be easier to shoot me, just like the Kronstadters.
I only mention the party because one of the expressions of my petty-bourgeois tendencies was my insistence on smoking weed and going to rock concerts, especially the Grateful Dead. These practices were considered to be bourgeois decadence by many post-new left leftists. For me, they were part of what got me into the revolution in the first place. Sure, there were elements of hedonism involved in these pursuits but, like Emma Goldman is reputed to have said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Besides, the desire by the RCP and other such left formations to be truly “working-class” was based on a caricature of who the working class really was. Their model was the reactionary white male who carried a lunch pail to his factory job and came home at the end of the day to his beer and tract home.
There were only a few women in this working class and no young people. That wasn’t the workers I knew. We slung burgers, dug basements with shovels in garden apartment building projects, painted houses and government buildings, and waited tables. Then, when the working day was over, we hit the bars where rock music played, joints were smoked, and antiwar politics and hitchhiking trips were discussed. To their credit, it didn’t take long for most of those Left formations to figure out that their original perception of the working class was based on false representations that attempted to present the most reactionary workers as being the most typical.
It only took them a few years of actual participation in the workplace to realize that.
Anyhow, the only reason I’m even flashing on this is because I saw the most recent incarnation of The Dead this past weekend in Saratoga Springs, New York. This band has come and gone since the death of its inspiration and leader, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995. At first, the remaining members were not interested in reforming at all. However, as the years passed, they changed their minds and have toured under various names and with different lineups for the past two or three years.
The current lineup features the four remaining members of the Grateful Dead-Phil Lesh on bass, Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart on percussion-Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, and Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring on guitars. This lineup certainly comes closest to the musical spirit and abilities of the Grateful Dead (by the way, the word grateful was retired in honor of Garcia), largely because of the guitar styles of Haynes and Herring.
For those who have always considered the Dead to be just an excuse for a bunch of middle-class kids to take drugs, they miss the point. Indeed, this is certainly an element of their audience, but the same could be said about almost any rock band. In short, people don’t need an excuse to get high, although rock and roll concerts certainly enhance the experience for many. The Dead have always been identified as a counterculture band. That hasn’t changed. The history they represent is part of the band’s appeal. Where else can people go today and feel that they are part of something that everyone knows changed the world somehow? Their audience looks considerably different than it did when I first began attending their shows, but that’s to be expected-over thirty years have passed since then. The politics of the crowd-when they come up at all-tend to be more liberal than anything else, although the overwhelming sentiment is more of a gentle libertarianism of the mutual aid type. Not in the negative sense, but in a “leave me alone and let me have my own life” sense. The more popular political tables at their shows tend to be those representing environmental and peace organizations. Overall, though, the show and surrounding scene is mostly about having a good peaceful time.
On to the music. The show I saw started off slowly. The band struggled to find its groove through most of the first set, finally pulling it together on the last song “The Music Never Stopped.” This song is a celebration of the potential power that music has. You know, when it takes you away from the heat and the worry and transports you to this place where everybody’s dancing and smiling. The version this night was a frolic that had echoes of calypso with a rock and roll backbeat. Weir’s voice fit in nicely with the guitars and bass as the song spiraled to its chorus and back down. Then silence.
It was the second set when the music truly kicked in. August 1st is Jerry Garcia’s birthday and his spirit was apparent in the selections played. Almost every song was a tribute to the spirit and legacy of the counterculture’s inspirations and mentors. The highlight was Rev. Gary Davis’ blues classic “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Warren Haynes’ guitar soared above the crowd, retrieving Garcia’s soul and sowing it among the dancing fans. This was the blues in its transcendent form-telling us all about death and its permanence in the human experience, but making that somehow okay, as if we were some Zen master and not afraid of it at all. It wasn’t just Garcia’s spirit coming through Warren Haynes’ guitar; it was Willie Dixon’s, John Lee Hooker’s, Robert Johnson’s, Muddy Waters’, Son House, Jimi Hendrix’s, and the spirit of every guitarist who ever played the blues he or she knew in their gut and soul. Mourning as ecstasy. (Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Iraq, where death truly has no mercy).
Next came Garcia’s paean to the dead songstress, Janis Joplin, “Birdsong.” Lesh did a fair job of singing this beautiful poem to the lady of the Haight and, by doing so, turned it into a tribute to Jerry as well.
Anyone who sings a tune so sweet is passin’ by,
Laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night.
Don’t cry now, don’t you cry, don’t you cry anymore.
Sleep in the stars, don’t you cry, dry your eyes on the wind
From there, the band rambled into a Robert Hunter take on the old tale of love and lying titled “Ruben and Cherisse.” Then came a rather ethereal, spacey percussion jam with various keyboards and electric guitar sounds intermingled in-kind of like Sun Ra when he goes beyond the astral plane and onto that plane for which there is no name. This slowly and slyly slipped into the Dead’s take on Pink Floyd’s paean to its founder and genius, Syd Barrett: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Like Floyd, the Dead sang this to Garcia. Once again, Haynes took the piece and moved it up into the stratosphere. This time, he had plenty of help from Jimmy Herring, a subtly accomplished guitarist whose jazz-like licks complemented the serious electric blues that emanate from Haynes ax. From there, we were treated to a raucous and rocking version of the Dead tune “St. Stephen”-a rather arcane tale by Robert Hunter (Dead lyricist) about some prophet who may or may not have existed in the Haight in 1967 or in some Brueghel village in the Middle Ages. Like many of Hunter’s works, you feel like the tale he is telling is older than language itself yet as new as the trip you took last week. This song is a cautionary tale about trusting those who would allow themselves to be made into prophets that is set to a tune that motivates even the dead to dance. Finishing up with their quick history course on the origins of the counterculture San Francisco-style, “The Other One,” the Dead kept the crowd on their feet with their arms and bodies flailing and sneakily slipped into “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” rendered this time with a sparse guitar accompaniment and tuneful harmonies. Then, as if bidding Garcia’s spirit goodbye and releasing it back into the skies full of stars above us, they continued their harmonies with an accapella rendition of the bluegrass gospel tune “The Angel Band.”
As the crowd filtered into the night, I moved with them, ready for another round of life’s daily grind and all the stupidity and lack of consciousness I would encounter.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org