U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Dead but Not Forgotten

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Thanksgiving week New Yorker featured this article by Nick Paumgarten on the Grateful Dead–“Deadhead: the Afterlife,” aptly under the Annals of Obsession–that would interest any of this blog’s readers who possess a fascination for this band or its cultural moment (either the original moment of supposed authenticity or the attenuated moment of revival, take your pick). Or those who don’t.

Any true aficionados or ersatz Deadheads, of course, should treat themselves. But the essay presents a plethora of details one need hardly be a fan to enjoy. In fact, in two long paragraphs preceding his in-depth discussion of the near-reverence the Dead has occasioned, Paumgarten delivers a wonderful riff that could stand on its own as an impressively succinct critique of the whole scene inspired by people like Garcia; it lends itself beautifully to being quoted out of context as a rather damning indictment of all participants in what was undoubtedly at times a crazy-ugly circus, from performers and audience members to the drugged-up hangers-on who never made it past the parking lot. Here it is and if the shoe, or sandal, fits…

“What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things….

Most objectionable, perhaps, were the Deadheads, that traveling gang of phony vagabonds. As unironic as the Dead may have been, Deadheads were more so….They dispensed bromides about peace and fellowship as they laid waste to parking lots and town squares. Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of ‘Franklin’s Tower.’ The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in ‘Land of the Lost’—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.”

But, really, his acknowledgement of the downside of the Dead and their sideshow is probably what kept me reading what Paumgarten presents in terms that are nothing if not hagiographic. (See also his great listing here of his favorite concert recordings, which could match the vocabulary of appreciation of the wine connoisseur with the most subtle of palates.) Even those, like myself, who might love some of the music but be profoundly disturbed by sadly believable secondhand accounts of the larger scene and times, might find the piece of interest. If a hagiography of the Dead might not appeal, perhaps the idea of a kind of hagiography of hagiography will exert a strange pull, as it did for me.

The main focus in Paumgarten’s piece is actually not so much the band and its followers, or even the music, although he has perceptive commentary on each of these, but the way in which the music was recorded and preserved. As such, it is a kind of study not just in the fascination with the Dead but in fascination itself.

Why and how do we become fascinated with particular people, places, things, and events more than others? Once in thrall, what do we do with those moments of encounter that strike us as some of the most intense and genuine, of great meaning and importance.

How do we–and should we–preserve and remember those moments? The answer here–and maybe everywhere–seems to be simple. How, indeed. Through that same obsessive-compulsive eye for detail that explains just about everything we do that actually lasts.

Paumgarten’s article traces with care a partial answer to these questions–when it comes to this particular object of fascination. It’s a story not just of passive reception of moments of performance, or even of active-passive participation, such as it was, but of the active recording of those moments even as they unfolded, of the anticipation of a future, of the creation and overseeing of an archive, of a deliberate and sustained re-experiencing of those moments after the fact.

Paumgarten’s piece takes our eyes off what might have seemed to have been, without question, the main event, and, in the manner of the most interesting writing–of history or perhaps any kind–makes us question what the main event really was and is. He directs our attention to a subset of fans of the music, as set within yet also implicitly of interest outside of its original context, whose fascination runs so deep as to be strangely fascinating in its own right.

“There is a silent minority, though, of otherwise unobjectionable aesthetes who, as ‘Grateful Dead’ has become a historical record, rather than a living creative enterprise, have found themselves rekindling a fascination with the band’s recorded legacy. These are the tapeheads, the geeks, the throngs of workaday Phil Schaaps, who approach the band’s body of work with the intensity and the attention to detail that one might bring to birding, baseball, or the Talmud. They may be brain surgeons, lawyers, bartenders, or even punk-rock musicians. Really, it shouldn’t matter what they do, or what they smell like, or whether they can still take a toke without keeling over. It’s the music, and not the parking lot, that’s got them by the throat.”

Even further, Paumgarten’s portrait fuels meditations on the very activities that define us–as both creatures and creators of the past, whether through our collecting, connoisseurship, research, scholarship, or mere inhabiting or enduring of moments, whether of the original-feeling kind or those seemingly once, twice, or thrice removed but perhaps in fact just as originating–in their own story. In the words that touched me the most, he captures a side of the sensibility of some of these lovers of the music. Rather than inevitability placing the highest value on the most scientifically accurate reproduction of the sounds of the original event, some embrace the imperfections as part of the experience of re-experiencing it. This of course abandons the hubris of a certain kind of attempt at mastery masquerading as earnest fidelity; it humbly accepts the passage of time; it defers, making it clear a recording is not trying to be one and the same as the original. It also appeals to me, perhaps, because our record-keeping no longer privileges the past over the present as the main moment of generation and our sole entry into the fascinating kingdom of authenticity, but allows us to start to live again,  fascinated all over again by each new moment, but with the help of the past, which is always a necessary prerequisite anyway, even when we don’t intend for it to be as much as some did in the case of the exquisitely well-preserved legacy of the Grateful Dead.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Paumgarten’s portrait fuels meditations on the very activities that define us–as both creatures and creators of the past, whether through our collecting, connoisseurship, research, scholarship, or mere inhabiting or enduring of moments, whether of the original-feeling kind or those seemingly once, twice, or thrice removed but perhaps in fact just as originating–in their own story.”

    What marvelous reflections here. Thanks. I take the main theme to be the meaning and power of creating what might be called informal archives—constellations of artifacts assembled outside official channels, constellations that continually regenerate memories and meanings in endlessly reshaped reconfigurations.

    Paumgarten reaches to express something like this theme, and in a way he demonstrates it in the loving details of his and others’ obsessive listening habits, which even they themselves are somewhat sheepish and embarrassed about admitting. But he does not quite get there at the theoretical level. Well it is a New Yorker piece, not something for History and Theory, so we should give him a break.

    But I take your point to be that in the obsession by Paumgarten and others with the archive of live Grateful Dead recordings there is not an aim for fidelity in the empirical sense but rather in the emotional sense. And shifting to that register of fidelity entails raising extremely important and difficult questions about what history is exactly, how we determine it, and what it means to draw upon sources to make it. What does it mean to study moments when people were trying to live in the now, as it were. How does living in the now always involve an effort to live in (with?) the past? How do archives enable this strange pursuit?

    ….to part 2…

  2. …part 2…

    My question is this: is there something particularly “sixties-ish” about this story? In that the Grateful Dead’s musical ethos features a kind of twin movement toward blasting memory away and, at the same time, preserving it? They wanted to “live in the moment, man,” but, in doing so, in the band and their audience’s shared goal of reaching states of pure improvisational collective musical creation, they also wanted to “make history,” which is to say they dreamed of imprinting the suffused authenticity of the immediate moment on their minds and bodies forever and even, perhaps, of using the energy of that shared effort to alter the future and possibly change the world around them for the better.

    That dream was so awfully subverted, or at least obscured, by the aimless, decadent, upper-class hedonism that became the element of the band and the Deadheads by the late 1970s (and maybe was already there in that the band arose within the Cold War suburban defense industry technoworld of Palo Alto/Stanford in the mid-60s). Which is why Paumgarten turns to describing what at many levels was the tragicomic failure of the Dead milieu when it came to social change. Yet always lurking in the music, even through the 80s and 90s, was this spirit—magical, phantasmagorical, probably deluded—of somehow seizing history by its sensorial horns through musical communion, of losing oneself to the moment in order to pull away from it to some greater transformation. That’s religious in its roots, but also profoundly modern, even postmodern, in that it partly included the feeling of joining, of making, of being, of becoming part of a living archive comprised, paradoxically, of fleeting moments and psychedelically-infused flashes of powerful feeling.

    Did something about the pressures and possibilities of the 60s moment create this kind of historical sensibility? Pardon the awkwardness of the term, but is this mode of historical consciousness itself historicizable? Perhaps it explains the oft-repeated reflection among participants in the more tumultuous events of the 1960s that they felt as if history had suddenly come alive, unhinged, that they were “living in history,” that history was suddenly swirling all around them, that they were even “making history.” The period in which the Dead forged their musical style was shaped by a strange mix of dreamlike surreality and the feeling of lifting the veil off a kind of canned experience. The war, the fraying of Cold War consensus, the radical energies that the nuclear age unleashed, the continued struggles among many for equality before the law and beyond it, these rendered a particular vision of history, of what counted as part of its archive of the past, and how this archive and its history might be made and unmade and remade again. The Dead’s music always, even as it changed into something far more formulaic, a brokedown palace of sound, retained the stamp of its origins in that 60s moment.

    So what then does it mean exactly, this living sonic (and if you go on youtube visual) archive of the dead, this historical monument to a thing that sought, at its essence, to breakthrough from history and yet also seemed, from the get-go, to have an eye on itself from a perspective of the beyond, of historical legacy itself (they were the Grateful Dead after all)?

    There’s certainly a lot of pointless philosophical noodling to do here, as befits the music and its stoned vibes I suppose, but the topic also raises up to consciousness the very deep levels at which history emerges, levels at which aimless noodling suddenly becomes a psycho-social spaghetti of tingling nerve endings.

    …part 3…

  3. …part 3…

    Finally, isn’t it funny—and is it important—that so many of the key “texts” of this masculinist world of archival and Talmudic Grateful Dead study were created and compiled by a woman? And that this woman, Betty Cantor-Jackson, was among the first to perceive the historical consciousness in play through what she experienced as the beauty of the Grateful Dead’s concert experience. It certainly makes one think about gender in all of this collective history and memory stuff.

    Listen to how Cantor-Jackson talks about these matters so eloquently and provocatively:

    “She mixed to her own taste. ‘It has my tonalities. My sound is beefy. My recordings are very stereo, very open, with a lot of air in them. You feel like you’re standing in the middle of the music. My feeling is everyone wants to play in the band.'”

    The goal here is at once to make an archive of the self (“my tonalities” “my sound”) and create a space of collective sharing (“very open, with a lot of air in them” “you’re standing in the middle of the music” “everyone wants to play in the band”). So not only does this music and social experience pivot on simultaneously exploding and preserving history, it also turns on the creation of a kind of subtle, barely discernible filter between the individual and the collective. How do I, how do we all, fit in, both temporally and spatially? That seems to be the motivational calling card for those drawn to the Dead’s informal archive. It is the continual cataloging and recataloging of possible answers to this question that makes it significant.

  4. Dr Quinn, this is a very interesting post, framing the New Yorker article as an analysis of the analysis (for the record, I am one of those ‘otherwise unobjectionable aesthetes’ who is extraordinarily interested in the band’s legacy). The Grateful Dead were the first band that had toured for decades for whom tapes survive of a huge percentage of their shows. Opinions of their music aside, we can assess their musical legacy because we have such a vast, accessible archive.

    Going forward, the recorded legacy has become more common, and in the future it will be standard issue. Just as the history of writing was changed by first the printing press, then the typewriter and ultimately the xerox machine, so various kinds of technologies have made recorded music more generally accessible. A band starting out today would record every note they played without reflecting upon it, because they could do it.

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