A Kind of Innocence We'd Never Seen Before
August 29, 2004 7:30 AM   Subscribe

A Kind of Innocence We'd Never Seen Before: Thoughts on the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, and Collective Consciousness
posted by moonbird (17 comments total)
It's an ambitious and sweet essay, and Robertson's descriptions of the feeling of organic connectedness among the members of the Dead's audience strike home. But Robertson suffers somewhat from a kind of fuzzy-minded nostalgia-by-proxy that many post-Boomer hippies (including myself, once upon a time) are prone to.

For instance, Robertson paints the 1973 "Summer Jam" by the Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers as the apex of his modern-day Eleusis. Why? Statistics. 600,000 people! 200,000 more than Woodstock! But the Summer Jam was already a self-conscious exercise in nostalgia: an attempt by the promoters to recreate the excitement and communal vibe of Woodstock. In fact, I attended Watkins Glen. It was my first Dead show, and I went on to see a couple of hundred more over the next 25 years or so. But Watkins Glen was, more or less, a misery. The headline on the New York Post that weekend read something like 500,000 HIPPIES WALLOW IN SEA OF MUD -- it not only rained during the festival, there was an unseasonable frost at night. One consequence of "a crowd that stretched over two miles from the stage," as Robertson puts it, is that drinking water and Port-o-Sans were a mile of dense muddy stepping-over-people from wherever you happened to be. You know how it is to work your way down a fully seated aisle at the multiplex? Try doing that for a mile, when all you need to do is to take a pee, and all your worldly goods are buried under half an inch of recently-frozen gunk.

That's not to say the music wasn't great. It was. In fact, when I was choosing music for the Dead's box set So Many Roads (1965-1995), I was very happy to include the so-called Watkins Glen soundcheck on the album, because that 18 minutes of free jamming was some of the most glorious, Miles-Davis-esque open-ended improvisation the band ever produced. But that had nothing to do with my own experience at the festival. Of course, I was 14 at the time. Maybe the older folks there were all attaining satori at once. But I somehow doubt it. By lifting events out of their historical context, Robertson mistakes pure volume for quality of experience. I would certainly have rather dropped into one of the original Acid Tests, with a mere few hundred people in attendance. From what I hear (though I may be nostaligic-by-proxy about this myself), there really was a feeling of breaking into the New at these events, into unmapped territory both musically and psychedelically.

Robertson writes about screaming Beatlemaniacs:

It was as if they were ripping holes clean through the walls between them: Who knows the depth of impact this had?

Well, one "impact" this had was to discourage the Beatles from playing in public ever again, until the rooftop concert at Apple filmed for Let It Be. Granted, the Beatles becoming strictly a studio band did produce miracles, such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But at the same time that these events might have been enormously bonding times for the audience (and they certainly were at Dead shows), the sheer scale of devotion and abandon in the crowd may have contributed to the alienation of the performers. This was certainly true in the case of Jerry Garcia, who might have been happier playing in small Bay Area venues like the Keystone and the Greek Theater than in the enormous arenas required to hold the throngs of Deadheads by the late 1980s.

In other words, while I feel great kinship with Robertson's interest in these events, some of the grand rhetorical questions he asks are not as unanswered as he thinks.
posted by digaman at 8:54 AM on August 29, 2004

I think that organic connectedness, the ritual celebration, is the essence of the Dead's mystique. There is no other band like them. God I miss Jerry.

By the way, very nice perspective digaman.
posted by caddis at 9:10 AM on August 29, 2004

digman, you are a brave Dead-head to remind our poster of the muddy squalor that accompanies these mass gatherings. An old girl friend of mine who'd been at Woodstock in 69 told of how she and her friends were bathing nude in the river, wallowing with the innocence of young otters, until they came up in the middle of a raft of fresh turds.
The worst scare of my life was being trapped in a mob in front of the stage at a Beatles concert in 1966, where I was literally lifted out of my shoes in the hideous press and swept along, while a few feet above and away, Paul McCartney swung his guitar at the mob pouring onto the stage, until John and Ringo came along and tugged him from behind to follow him as they ran offstage for their lives. (I fully believe we were a few moments away from the kind of crowd suffocation that occurred a few years later before a Who concert in Cincinnati, leaving 12 dead.) With the crowd pressing and crushing and you being unable to breathe, the mind has this moment where it realizes you are totally out of control and the horror is beyond belief. It is enough to put you off mass movements of any kind, forever.
Like digaman, I enjoy this writer's sweetness, but -- man -- to compare the best band in the world -- the Beatles -- with the worst band in the world -- I-don't-have-to-tell-you-who -- is incredibly deluded. The Greatful Dead were among the many turds that came floating past as we all frolicked in the clear, sparkling waters of Beatlemania.
posted by Faze at 9:23 AM on August 29, 2004

Faze gets a C- on the troll meter.
posted by caddis at 9:28 AM on August 29, 2004

with the worst band in the world -- I-don't-have-to-tell-you-who

Ah, c'mon, Faze. The Starland Vocal Band wasn't that bad.
posted by SPrintF at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2004

Robertson is also a little dewy-eyed about the nature of collective mystical experience. He says this:

Shamans, or magicians—they created an atmosphere of wonder. Their music was a gateway to another mind entirely, a mind with fewer boundaries, full of space and unexplainable inventiveness.

Well, that's true -- but shamans in particular created an "atmosphere of wonder" by subjecting the potential initiate to an "atmosphere" of terror. Young male initiates in many cultures were taken away from their mothers by force -- sometimes even an exaggerated show of force, which suggests that the perception of forced abduction was crucial -- and spirited away far from the village and the known world, into the wilderness, by the older men in the tribe. (Perhaps I should discreetly not mention that in many cultures in the South Seas, part of the initiatory process was having sex with the shaman -- discreetly metaphorized by Melville in Moby Dick as the night that Ishmael spends in bed with Queequeg, a "comely looking cannibal" indeed.)

The missing keyword in Robertson's descriptions of mystical initiation is ordeal. Typical shamanic initiations involved starvation, long periods of solitude, exposure to the elements, and physical pain caused by ritual wounding. A high proportion of initiates died in the process. One worthy koan when thinking about these things is, "What kind of esoteric knowledge is so important that generations of human beings all over the world were willing to sacrifice a significant proportion of their teenage population for the sake of imparting this knowledge to the ones who survived?"

One extremely interesting angle on the Deadhead/jamband phenomenon is pondering whether the muddy ordeals in places like Watkins Glen, the cross country odysseys in lice-ridden motels and sweaty tourbuses, the bad trips, the skulls in the iconography -- and the very name "Grateful Dead," which is as succinct a summation of the primary teaching of the shamanic process as I can imagine -- were not collateral unpleasantness accidentally endured in the pursuit of the Eternally Blissful Love-Vibe, but the very things that helped make this modern-day initiation effective, real, and connected to the ancient traditions that human beings have used to initiate young members of the tribe for millennia.
posted by digaman at 10:27 AM on August 29, 2004

Since when is speaking the truth "trolling" caddis?


I keed, I keed. ..
posted by Quartermass at 10:30 AM on August 29, 2004

I'm babbling on way too much here, but if anyone is interested in hearing more from me on this subject, which has been of lifelong interest, the author of The Phishing Manual, Dean Budnick, and I had an extended conversation on many of these issues back in 1998 on jambands.com. It's a pretty Phishy/Deadheady exchange -- Faze would have run screaming from the room -- but it gets deeper into this stuff than is possible here.

"That's what I thought was so ironic in the late '80s after In the Dark - when endless newspaper articles would depict Deadheads as these happy-go-lucky, tie-dyed, '60s lava-lamp-head marshmallow people with the avuncular Jerry Garcia, Papa Bear of the Tie-Dyed Hordes, as their department-store Santa Claus. I thought that the Dead played some of the most frightening music that I ever heard..."

--Energy is Eternal Delight

posted by digaman at 10:39 AM on August 29, 2004

Like digaman, I enjoy this writer's sweetness, but -- man -- to compare the best band in the world -- the Beatles -- with the worst band in the world -- I-don't-have-to-tell-you-who -- is incredibly deluded. The Greatful Dead were among the many turds that came floating past as we all frolicked in the clear, sparkling waters of Beatlemania.

I too have been up front at dead shows ("at the rail") many times where it got intense and way too tight. The funny thing is, in each case, the band would simply start playing every deadhead's favorite game, "Take a Step back". And it would work, individually and collectively to relieve the intensity. Other times, it was the crowd itself that by consensus would diisperse a bit to alleviate crowding.

Other times still, I saw people passing cups of water through the crowd all the way to the front, again to support the rail. So, I'd suggest that crowd behavior at these affairs have evolved since the Beatles and The Who.

(I wouldn't count on this effect at a Metallica concert though)
posted by Fupped Duck at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2004

shamanic initiations

That's an interesting insight.
posted by stbalbach at 2:25 PM on August 29, 2004

I imagine that 500 years from now when people speak of 20th century music they will be talking about these two bands.
posted by euphorb at 2:38 PM on August 29, 2004

Yes, euphorb, 500 years from now, they'll still be asking, "Why couldn't Yoko Ono have sunk her talons into Jerry Garcia instead of John Lennon?"
posted by Faze at 5:44 PM on August 29, 2004

Your Favorite Band Sucks.® Brought to you by insecure pedants everywhere.
posted by jester69 at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2004

I wonder if "What Is Enlightenment" realizes that their magazine shares the title of an 18th century German pamphlet.
posted by goethean at 11:59 AM on August 31, 2004

Here's an article about the founder of the magazine.
posted by homunculus at 12:58 PM on August 31, 2004

I still look back fondly on my deadhead years (1981-1993) and I am still pissed off at Jerry for not controlling his habit.

Goin' down the road, feelin' bad....
posted by Slagman at 11:39 PM on August 31, 2004

As for the Beatles... eh. Overrated. I overplayed them in high school. When they come on the radio, the only thing I can bear to hear anymore is a George Harrison tune.
posted by Slagman at 11:41 PM on August 31, 2004

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