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The Little Counterculture That Could

SWEET CHAOS
The Grateful Dead's American Adventure
By Carol Brightman
Clarkson Potter

In 1965, Carol Brightman helped found a useful little periodical called Viet-Report, whose well-researched battles against government disinformation helped fuel the antiwar movement. By 1969 she was organizing the Venceremos Brigade, a grander, riskier, more deluded enterprise that sent American radicals to Cuba for the sugar harvest. She spent the early '70s as part of a typically hypercharged and atomized Berkeley collective, fomenting a revolution that never began. Then, as near as one can determine from Sweet Chaos, she disappeared for 20 years, surfacing (the jacket informs us--the book never mentions it) as the author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, which won a National Book Critics' Circle Award in 1993.

Since Sweet Chaos is ostensibly--and also actually--about the Grateful Dead, you might think it peculiar that it reveals even this much about its author, whose earlier tome, as near as I can tell without actually reading the thing, only breaches polite standards of "objectivity" in its introduction and postscript. But then, Sweet Chaos is a peculiar piece of work. Although much of its story was familiar to me as the reader of several books and countless articles on the Dead, I found Brightman's retelling swift and compelling. And for a literary scholar to describe any species of rock and roll with such clarity, delicacy, and detail is a mitzvah if not a miracle. Yet consider these anomalies.

Thematically, Brightman's prevailing interest is the Deadheads, who in their nomadic pursuit of Dead concerts became a piece of Americana in the '70s, and who remain today the most visible remnant of a counterculture she and her friends believed would spearhead a revolution. Yet she doesn't home in on them until well into the final third of her book. Instead, and despite the fact that she only attended her first Dead concert in 1972, she devotes most of Sweet Chaos to the band's mythic early career--acid, Ken Kesey, the Haight, the Warner albums, the fabled '60s. This story she has reconstructed without interviewing Jerry Garcia, who died well after she began her research and who she rightly identifies as the essential genius of the Dead's sprawling collectivity. In fact, despite the entree provided by her sister, Candace Brightman, the Dead's lighting designer for upwards of two decades (and also her roadie brother Chris), she seems barely to have gotten to the band at all--mostly, one infers, because the Dead's PR honcho had his own bio in the works. Instead, her main informants are Garcia's second wife, the formidable Mountain Girl, and his principal lyricist, the paradoxical Robert Hunter. As I said, peculiar.

You can see why Brightman couldn't resist this project. It was redolent, it was commercial, it was a change, and that family access--whoo! She's such a smart cookie that she's come up with a very readable book, too. But there's clearly a sense in which the subject was too much for her. The Dead weren't the problem--they've never gotten the critical respect they deserve, and she might have done a service by focusing more faithfully on their music. No--where she founders, like so many before her, is trying to figure out the fabled '60s. If she didn't go in with that juicy subtext in mind, it soon took over her research and speculations, so that what begins as an exploration of a vast alien world just beyond her field of vision turns into a postmortem on her own life choices that's sometimes an all too thoroughgoing defense of same. Hence the coyly selective autobiographical detail. We never learn where she went to college or what her father did for a living--the sort of angle-of-vision info that's always more useful than vague references to middle-classness in calibrating the reliability of any participant-observer's truth. And of course, we never learn how Brightman-as-paradigmatic-politico occupied her time while the-Dead-as-paradigmatic-freaks built their road show into a mass-bohemian religious enterprise and entertainment empire.

This question looms especially large because Brightman states explicitly that the hippies were "the last hurrah for American bohemianism" and acts as if the New Left vaporized once its revolution did. From my more distant participant-observer vantage, these positions appear patently unfactual. I know many individual radicals who remained politically active--democratic-socialist union steward and Marxist-Leninist tenant organizer and tragic cultist, troublemaking journalists and barely middle-class legal advocates and prophets of a dubious academic "vanguard"--even after concluding that they were doomed to struggle and compromise all their lives, that the "long march" Brightman and her comrades referenced so proudly in 1970 would in fact be endless. As for bohemianism, it would seem a permanent adjunct of and/or alternative to bourgeois society--one whose veterans whine about the good old days as much as any other self-pitying old fart on the cultural landscape. You may not think the posthippie punks of the '70s and the postpunk slackers of the '80s and '90s deserve the tradition of Ada Clare, Max Eastman, and Gary Snyder, each of whom was very different from his or her predecessors. But they're of it nevertheless.

Why did this particular bohemia fall apart? Common sense tells us that affective and material ties with spouses and especially children are sure to undermine a youth subculture conceived without them, and that revolutionary energy, whether cultural or political, is generally short-lived. Any pop sociologist could mix in an economic double whammy: just as the end of the postwar boom was radically diminishing leisure time, capital was figuring out dozens of new ways to make money off it. But although she's aware of these factors, Brightman--who only started smoking pot in 1968--can't resist another notion. In her best Viet-Report mode, she recapitulates the CIA's many experiments with psychedelics, concluding quite credibly that without these experiments the Haight might never have happened. This sort of accidental historical synergy is common enough, however. To believe in addition, as Brightman implies and has Kesey say in so many words, that the government deliberately destroyed '60s bohemia with "counter revolutionary drugs--booze and heroin and coke" is a self-protective if not paranoid if not drug-induced fantasy.

It's hard to pin down where the Dead fit into this schema, in part because there's never been anything remotely like them. The closest analogy I can think of is the Oneida community, which began as a free-love experiment in 1848 and ended up a major industrial corporation. But music isn't silverware, and this music is even less a consumer durable than most, because by mutual agreement it only truly occurs when artists and audience feed off each other in the same physical space. For an intellectual to respond with warm insight to such an evanescent aesthetic is a rare thing. There are moments when Brightman seems naive musically, but her naivete is preferable to the preconceptions of rock critics who measure the Dead by rhythmic and emotive criteria that refuse to address the more associative and unpredictable music they set out to achieve.

Brightman is too dismissive of the band's experimental '60s albums and doesn't realize that two drum sets can't generate much groove unless the bass plays rhythm. But she appreciates how uncommonly open-ended the Dead's vision of folk-rock eclecticism was. She loves the Hunter-Garcia poetry of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty: "western songs" in which "the frontier seems to have closed," "which sing more sweetly than they read--so sweetly that one can forget one's troubles." She describes in-concert epiphanies so acutely that it's possible to believe something like them actually occurred, though she acknowledges that they got rarer and rarer as the band played on. And she grants Garcia's guitar the awe it generated.

Sociopolitically, Brightman is just as enlightened. She's too good a leftist to fall for the fatalism that attributes the communal virtues of Deadhead culture to the band while blaming its failings--from countless drug horrors to its unwillingness, especially once the '60s were history, to address any concrete political question, much less change society--on karma, human nature, and other such imponderables; she's scathing, for instance, about the band's refusal to protect fans from narcs when the drug wars heated up in the late '80s. But she has the decency to see that the Deadhead culture, for all its infuriating interlock of know-nothing hedonism and mystical jingoism, succeeded where the New Left failed. It stands as a social formation of relatively "ordinary" people--Brightman uses the word to refer to class, which is crucial; I would add that, in my experience, they tend to be a shade dimmer than radicals, or than the early movers and shakers of alternative rock--who within Deaddom try to live by such oft-preached values as tolerance, human-kindness, and utopian imagination. These are values that the seekers of the Venceremos Brigade, inspired by their vision of Castro's Cuba, sought to inculcate in themselves. ("You thought we were perfect," one Cuban noted, "and we thought you were revolutionaries.") Though the Venceremos Brigade wanted more--the end of racism, sexism, and capitalism, to be precise--and Deadheads often settle for less, Brightman has reason to worry about how one success reflects on the other failure.

As a leftist since the '60s whose deepest loyalties ended up with rock and roll, I don't think the solution to this puzzle is merely that Deaddom succeeded because it was willing to settle. It's that the Dead understood America better than the New Left did--a lot better. As Brightman observes: "Their politics, loosely speaking, mirrored the laissez-faire libertarianism that most hippies and students lived day to day, whatever the latter's views on the war in Vietnam, or how to end it." And in a lovely sentence at the end, she sums up what Deadheads treasure in their nomadic phase: "An odd kind of security, it's the sweet oblivion of the road, the music, and the friendship of strangers." In the absence of economic disaster--not just a downturn like the one that took hold between the revolutionary illusion's circa-1969 peak and circa-1973 fizzle--the individualism encompassed by "laissez-faire libertarianism" and "the friendship of strangers" is inimical to revolution.

No matter what countervailing tendencies it's possible to discern and righteous to encourage, this individualism is at the heart of both rock and roll and the American ethos. Moreover, it is inimical to most of the communal ideals leftists hold dear--and a starting place from which any American leftist must work. Brightman has been pushed very close to a bedrock truth by prolonged contemplation of the Grateful Dead. It is my sincere hope that now, instead of devoting her impressive intellect to either literature or CIA conspiracies, she will figure out a way to lay out the political options such a truth leaves open.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1999