The last time I heard Jerry Garcia play his guitar live was in the summer of 1995. Bill Clinton was president of the US, Saddam Hussein still ran Iraq, Iraqis were dying because of US imposed sanctions on their country, and the US war there involved a series of occasional bombings. George Bush was a neophyte governor of Texas and the Grateful Dead were touring the country for the last time because Garcia would be dead by summer’s end. The show I heard him at that summer was in Highgate, Vermont. Most of the tunes that Garcia sang on were weak and his command of the lyrics was sporadic. Even his guitar work was inconsistent, leaving the task of carrying most of the tunes to his band mates, who undertook the task like true troupers.
At one time, I lived in the land that the Grateful Dead describe. Fennario was my address and Ramble On Rose my lover. Somewhere between Penny Lane and Johnny’s basement, I caught a ride to this fantastic place where reality isn’t changed except by those who live in it. Much like a childhood fantasy. Unlike any other rock musicians (except for Bob Dylan), the Grateful Dead created a history that wasn’t real but seemed like it should have been. Garcia’s guitar playing had a lot to do with this imagined world. Dripping like a psychedelic flower at times and crisp as a Satchel Paige fastball at others, Garcia’s guitar work combined the best of American traditional music with the manic bebop of John Coltrane. A pioneer in the genre, his electric guitar work during the Grateful Dead’s early days blasted those aware enough to listen out of their complacency and into the madness of the America that Neal Cassady and LSD helped to create.
It may be hard for people today to understand, but there really was a cultural revolution going on in the western world during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Puritan element in US culture was on the defensive. The phenomenon that philosopher Herbert Marcuse called eros in his book Eros and Civilization really did have a hold on a sizable number of Westerners who did not want to live in the world of corporate conformity. In one sense, this eros was to liberate society by eroticizing it. While sexuality is an aspect of this eroticization, it is not the be all and end all of it. Indeed, the connotation Marcuse was aiming for was one that liberated humanity from the strictures of sexuality and moved us all into a world where thought and beauty brought us closer to the Eden-like state that Genesis claims we were born into. Like many other utopians, Marcuse considered the advance of technology to be beneficial-a force that could liberate humanity from the drudgery of industrial labor and free us to create. At the same time, he understood that technology could (and would) be used for purposes more appropriate to Thanatos. After all, Marcuse had been exiled from the war machine of Nazi Germany and saw the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So, in a story well told, the sons and daughters of the man in the gray flannel suit smoked pot, wrote poetry, discovered human politics, got pissed at their society’s racism, and started playing and dancing to blues-based music. Technology played a part in this, too. Rock and roll music would not have existed if the electric guitar hadn’t been invented and it would not have taken us to the transcendent states it did (and does) if Albert Hoffman hadn’t discovered how to produce lysergic acid diethylamide (and Owsley hadn’t mass-produced it). Elvis and his early bands broke down the barriers between black and white, Bob Dylan made the personal political, the Beatles made it all bigger than life, and the San Francisco rock bands (with the Grateful Dead at the helm) created an ecstatic community that traveled the western world, spreading its theme of a postindustrial tribal life where humans used technology to celebrate their humanity.
Marcuse’s vision of eros was hijacked. Instead of the eroticization of human life, we ended up with a Madison Avenue pornographic masturbation session. Life and love weren’t celebrated, just sex at its basest. Drugs became a stone around the counterculture’s neck, bringing the whole anarchic experiment into the hellhole of addiction and crime. The egotism of capitalism turned shamans into coke snorting dealers with guns and musicians into accountants. Jerry Garcia tried to ignore this mark on the world he thrived in. The Grateful Dead even joined together with other bands and some counterculture activists to create a cooperative venture that would provide celebratory dances and concerts without the profits demanded by the big corporations in the biz. Unfortunately, their business instincts did not include the requisite predatory mindset and the endeavor failed.
The Grateful Dead were an underground band in most senses of the word. They refused to tailor their music to the corporate radio of their day and insisted on total artistic control of their projects. They played lots of free shows and also donated money to a variety of causes, from the Black Panther Defense Fund to the Rainforest Action Network. They began as a house band for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests and were an essential part of the community that grew out of the oppositional consciousness in the western world after the Second World War. Although that experiment was ultimately assimilated into the greater scheme of things, its influence continues to be heard. One regrets that its foundation has become so obscured. Not only have the Puritans experienced a rebirth of political power, many of the counterculture’s adherents have renounced the eroticization of their youth and now clamor for the eradication of sexuality from their adolescent children’s lives. Those children, meanwhile, accept Hollywood’s portrayal of love and eroticism as violence and brutal sex tinged with jealousy. That version makes calls for censorship seem almost reasonable. However, such censorship does not address the confusion around what love is, it only hides it.
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