Ways of Seeing the Grateful Dead:
It often surprises music fans to learn that rightwing author/commentator/shock jock Ann Coulter claims to be a Deadhead who has seen over 60 shows. You can read all about it at: http://www.jambands.com/features/2006/06/23/deadheads-are-what-liberals-claim-to-be-but-aren-t-an-interview-with-ann-coulter It also surprises some to learn that there is an ever-growing body of scholarship called “Grateful Dead Studies,” that the PCAACA has a Grateful Dead area chair, and that a Grateful Dead Archive has been established at the University of California Santa Cruz: http://guides.library.ucsc.edu/grateful-dead
Whatever one might think of Ms. Coulter’s claim that Deadheads are what liberals claim to be but aren’t, there’s little disputing this quote from her: “Watching a Deadhead dance is truly something to behold.” Ms. Coulter’s strong identification with the Grateful Dead suggests rich teaching opportunities. A sociologist, for example, could construct a lesson about the dynamics of groups and the formation of group identity that affords opportunities to discuss the role (or non-role) of ideology in group dynamics; a political scientist could fashion something similar on the rhetoric and meaning of ideology in contemporary politics in keeping with recent studies suggesting that many aspects of politics are as much performance as deeply held values. A dance professor might also take the above Coutler quote at face value and explore the role of ecstasy in dance, to say nothing of the free-form aesthetics of Grateful Dead dancers. Of course, professors specializing in popular music have unlimited opportunities.
Those looking for some strong images to supplement their lessons can find them in two recent works from photographer/film maker Jay Blakesberg. The San Francisco-based Blakesberg has produced untold numbers of rock photos, album art images, and videos, but he’s also part of that amorphous group sometimes labeled Grateful Dead “insiders.” His aptly named 2015 collection Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender (Rock Out Books) is a no-apologies look at music as a form of physical abandonment. It consists of 445 images Blakesberg took over three decades. It’s not entirely about the Grateful Dead–he even got Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) to write the introduction–but those joyous Deadhead dancers of which Coulter speaks are heavily represented. In a strange way, Blakesberg also gives us a needed corrective to looks at the Sixties that focus too heavily on politics and disruptive behavior at the expense of the era’s playful and cultural milestones. Take a look at hippie dancers and compare them with those of earlier generations, and not even 1950s poodle-skirted American Bandstand twirlers can match them. Blakesberg might be open to charges of male gaze exploitation in some cases, but this too makes good classroom fodder.
His Fare Thee Well (Rock On Books) came out at the very end of 2015–just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. This one focuses entirely on the band and if you want to know what being an insider means—Blakesberg estimates he shot the band over a thousand times–this collection from the band’s 2015 swan song concerts (minus deceased members such as Jerry Garcia and Ron McKernan) shows it. Anyone wishing to explain the importance of spectacle will find a visual feast for illustrating the concept. And, yes, one might even make the case that the 2015 tour oddly justifies a few of Coulter’s more provocative remarks. It’s no stretch to think that cultural capital might have transcended music or ideology. A good way to introduce the thought of Pierre Bourdieu? Why not.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst