FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Eros and the Grateful Dead

 

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: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Tracey L. Rogers
Dear White Women, There May be Hope for You After All
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Thomas Knapp
Scott Gottlieb’s Nicotine Nazism Will Kill Kids, Not Save Them
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robert Koehler
The New Abnormal
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
November 15, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Ukania: the Land Where the Queen’s Son Has His Shoelaces Ironed by His Valet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Spraying Poisons, Chasing Ghosts
Anthony DiMaggio
In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics
Christopher Ketcham
Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve
Meena Miriam Yust
Today It’s Treasure Island, Tomorrow Your Neighborhood Store: Could Local Currencies Help?
Karl Grossman
Climate of Rage
Walter Clemens
How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers
Brandon Lee
Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition
Kim C. Domenico
An Anarchist Uprising Against the Liberal Ego
Elliot Sperber
Pythagoras in Queens
November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail