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The Grateful Dead: The Ship of the Sun Bids Farewell

Check out Ron Jacobs on this week’s CounterPunch Radio with Eric Draitser where they discuss many of the important themes of Ron’s new book Daydream Sunset, including the role of music in reflecting the evolution of counterculture in the 1970s. – JSC & JF

I’m writing the first part of this piece on an iPod in San Francisco airport. It’s about 11 at night and my plane back to the east coast boards in thirty minutes. I recently spent a long weekend in the San Francisco Bay area to see longtime friends. Among them was the band the Grateful Dead. Unless you have ignored the news entirely, you know that this band just finished playing five shows—two in California and three in Chicago. I attended the first show of the run. I was more than pleasantly surprised not only by the list of songs they played that night, but by the group’s execution of them. Trey Anastasio of the Vermont band Phish stood in for the late Jerry Garcia on lead guitar and did a fine job. The only weakness as far as I am concerned was the vocals. This would hold true for the entire series of shows.
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A band that played together for forty years compiles quite a catalog. The Grateful Dead were no exception to this fact. From the early psychedelic mind-warping of tunes like Dark Star, The Eleven (written in 8/11) and the entire album titled Anthem of the Sun to the rootsy, bluegrass and country tunes of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty and beyond, their compositions evoke a multitude of influences and tell tales that span a wide breadth of human experience. In addition to their own tunes, the band drew heavily from the American folk and blues traditions, interpreting the latter songs in their own unique way.

This series of concerts was a farewell from the band. The Grateful Dead were the headlight on the train known as the Sixties counterculture. Or, as the quotation from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and appropriated by the band’s fans states: “In the Land of darkness, the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.” As we all know, that counterculture of possibilities dissipated into the stormy winds of history sometime during the transatlantic reign of Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan. Those dinosaurs of reaction and almost everything evil about capitalism intensified the reactionary campaign against a world envisioned in several periods of Western history–usually by a vocal minority and most recently during those mythical Sixties. Remnants of that period still exist, but the ugly and mean culture of war and capitalism are the true victors of the great battles of that period called the Sixties. The remaining members of the Grateful Dead are but some of the survivors who, because of the phenomenon their music created, can still stand upright and make us dance.

The Sixties counterculture always tread on a thin layer of cosmic ice. The authorities never truly understood it and did their best to quash its more extreme and lawless elements. The Grateful Dead and their fans were often among those latter elements up until the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. Cops often met the psychedelic-fueled gentle anarchy of the parking lot vendors (of legal and illegal goods) with multiple arrests and occasional violence. City fathers banned the group’s performances and denied the fans camping areas. This only served to convince the band and its fans that their lives meant something that was more than just rock and roll, although rock and roll holds plenty of meaning in itself on occasion. Being closely identified with the elixir of LSD, federal drug agents infiltrated the fan base of Deadheads and entrapped numerous folks involved in selling both small and large amounts of the drug (as well as other substances.) Naturally, this only served to enhance the fears of middle America while also making the outlaw so many of the band’s songs depicted a three dimensional reality for its fans.

Besides the police and DEA, there were other aspects of the greater world that wanted a piece of the Grateful Dead’s reality. These were not as easily identifiable, given their nature. They came in the guise of money and fame. From rock promoters like Bill Graham (who understood the Dead’s scene and always put on a great show) to dishonest drug dealers and merchandise profiteers, it was this all-too-American bunch of moneychangers that would ultimately make the band and culture something less than what it hoped to be. If there was one valid criticism I have of this set of farewell shows I describe at the beginning of this piece, it would be that the Grateful Dead finally gave in to the capitalist devil that bought the counterculture so many decades ago. Sure, they had made plenty of money in the past—once they figured out how to do so—but they had always kept their tickets reasonable and seemed to discourage gouging. This time around that did not happen. Fortunately, most fans were so happy they were able to see the band again, they didn’t seem to care.

Culture under capitalism is always at risk of becoming less than what it could be. After all, when the primary motivation for those who handle the creators of culture is the maximization of profit, then it is that which has the broadest appeal that the handlers will promote. Bucking this trend requires a genuine artistic vision and a commitment to said vision. The failure of some artists to negotiate the struggle between their vision and the monetary rewards of fame under capitalism are well documented. Just in rock music, there have been too many who failed: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia are those names that readily come to mind. The fact that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead who, like their fellow rockers the Rolling Stones, continue to negotiate this path with artistic integrity must be due to some kind of deal they made at those legendary crossroads or some kind of peace they have made with themselves.