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Keeping Time for the Grateful Dead

In a decade that was replete with important years, 1965 was one of the most important in terms of politics, civil rights, rock and roll and the counterculture. If one was a teenager with any awareness about the world outside their everyday life, it would have been hard to stay put and pretend that life was like it appeared on television’s Leave it to Beaver or even My Three Sons. Protesters against US apartheid were getting beaten and hosed in the American South while others protesting their racist conditions enforced by racist police burnt up parts of Watts in Los Angeles. The US war on the Vietnamese was ramping up, with bombers attacking Vietnamese villages daily while at home the military draft stepped up its game. There had been a huge antiwar protest in Washington, DC in the spring organized by a New Leftist student group called Students for a Democratic Society and their message had reached millions of young men around the nation who were considering their options when the letter from the draft board came. The Beatles “invaded” the United States the year before. Bob Dylan released (or was in the process of releasing) two albums that changed the world of rock music forever. The Rolling Stones were kicking it up with their own versions of American blues numbers and the radio played their hit tune “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” repeatedly. Then, there was this stuff called LSD.

Bill Kreutzmann was one of those teenagers. His family life had created a situation where he was living on his own at age sixteen. He was learning drums and he had met this older cat named Jerry Garcia. They knew this other guy named Bob Weir and this rugged fellow named Ron McKernan. They all liked music and a couple of them could even play (or sing.) So, that’s what they did. Their first bass plyer didn’t pan out and Garcia found a guy named Phil Lesh, who was studying music composition across the Bay from San Francisco. From these beginnings, a band was formed. Add a connection to the scene (nominally “lead” by writer Ken Kesey) existing outside of Stanford University in a Palo Alto district called Perry Lane and one arrives at the band called the Grateful Dead.Deal-My-Three-Decades-of-Drumming-Dreams-and-Drugs-with-the-Grateful-Dead-353x

This band was more than the jingle to everyone else’s jangle in the heyday of the counterculture. It was also more than a flashback to those times after they had passed. A quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead that they placed on their second album hints at their role: “In the land of the night/the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.” This type of understanding, however grandiose it may seem to those not attracted to the phenomenon of the counterculture or the Grateful Dead, is emblematic of how they were (and maybe still are) perceived by millions.

Like any cultural phenomenon with its heft, the Grateful Dead has had a few books written about them. From the original band biography written by hippie hustler Hank Harrison titled The Dead to Candace Brightman’s (who was also a light technician with the Dead) cultural history Sweet Chaos: The Cultural History of the Grateful Dead; from band biographer Dennis McNally’s comprehensive history titled A Long Strange Trip to Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings—just to name a few—the Grateful Dead and their storied history is well documented. In addition to the histories and cultural analyses, there are the memoirs by band members and members of the broader Grateful Dead family. The most recent of the latter is drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s Deal: My Thirty Years of Drumming, Drugs and Dreaming with the Grateful Dead.

Kreutzmann, who was a founding member of the band, tells a story of the Grateful Dead from its beginnings in the 1965 San Francisco Bay Area to its last show in Chicago in 1995. In telling his tale, he also chronicles the freewheeling anarchy of the counterculture and its demise. Likewise, he reflects on the institutionalization of rock and the commodification of the scene. Like other rock biographies, there are tales of hijinks on the road, women, and drugs. There is also a lot of discussion about drumming; time signatures and tricks with the sticks. What is different from other rock biographies, though, is Kreutzmann’s everyman observation. According to Kreutzmann, he was always a fan of Jerry Garcia, even thirty years after he started playing drums behind him. Although he ultimately became a rock star like his bandmates, the story he relates in these pages indicate an ability to ignore much of the ego stroking that comes along with that stardom. In part, this is due to the nature of the Grateful Dead and its existence for much of its life as something like a house band for hippies and their hangers on. The pedestal of stardom where performers like Mick Jagger and so many of today’s superstars seem to thrive was not where the Dead preferred to be. Much of this can be attributed to their beginnings as participants in the Acid Tests organized (if that’s the word) by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. If it does anything to most people, LSD makes one realize they are not any better than anyone else. Of course, there are some exceptions to this truth; one thinks of manipulators in the counterculture scene who took advantage of people on psychedelic drugs. The worst example of the phenomena would be Charles Manson, although there were others (Tim Leary, Mel Lyman) whose head trips pissed plenty of people off.

After reading this book and enjoying the stories and anecdotes therein, whether the story was about Bob Dylan showing up at the Dead’s San Rafael studio and playing the Beatles song “Nowhere Man,” or a tale about a pot bust in New Orleans, I realized the underlying context of this book is the transition of the Grateful Dead from a bunch of hippies to a corporation. Implicit in this tale is the similar trajectory of the counterculture the Grateful Dead sang to and for. It is a story with as many different reasons and interpretations as there are tellers. Bill Kreutzmann’s is one more. It is a personal tale of universal intention told with humor and the sense of fun that was crucial to the experience of a Grateful Dead concert and the counterculture itself. Like the daily lives of every hippie freak (or an acid trip), it wasn’t always easy street, but it was always an adventure.

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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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.

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