For better or worse, my being was permanently altered by my adolescent encounter with the Grateful Dead in the early 1980s. Murky days for the band for sure, but the shows my teenage drug buddies and I caught throughout California poured psychedelic kerosene onto the dying embers of the hippiedom we emulated. The Dead offered more than a hedonic escape hatch into a world of resonant songs, hermetic rituals, and the bone dance of the gods. They also handed us a fabulous passport into the misfit lore of America, a shaggy allegory of drifters, seers, and wayward hicks that seemed as embodied in the Deadhead experience as it was imagined in the band’s elastic cowboy jams and magic-lantern ballads. One thing was sure for us then: this was the closest our belated souls would ever come to “the ’60s.”
Placing the Grateful Dead against the shifting backdrop of countercultural politics and passions, Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos attempts to answer, in a rather roundabout fashion, just how the band managed to keep this peculiar version of the ’60s alive. Best known for her biography of Mary McCarthy, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Brightman at first seems like an unlikely person to tackle the Dead. It turns out that she spent her salad days as a hardcore ’60s radical, which places her on the politico side of the great Berkeley–San Francisco, activist-hippie tug-of-war. On top of that, her sister Candace was a member of the Grateful Dead “family,” running the lights for over two decades, and all of this gives the author precisely the near distance that a Dead book needs in order to transcend, while tasting, the obsessions of the band’s cult.
Brightman wisely concentrates on the 1960s and early ’70s, after which the Dead pretty much stuck to their chewy groove. The story begins, appropriately, with LSD. Brightman argues that Ken Kesey’s famous fetes—with a soundtrack supplied by the Dead in their early guise of the Warlocks—provided the band with their fundamental musical tropes: indirection, communion, and the experience of chaos accepted and embraced. Brightman is only half taken in by this enchantment. But for all her critical distance, she has also supped on the mystery. “Behind the Dead’s jingle-jangle rhythms—carny music, inflected with Gregorian tones—behind the skeleton who tips his hat, and the dancing bears…the collective soul of the band, and its followers, was (and remains) a witching well of mystic yearnings.”
Brightman groks the Deadheads, but she does not overly romanticize their subculture as a purely organic phenomenon. As the Dead grew into a touring behemoth in the ’70s, dragging their monstrous Wall of Sound to university halls throughout the land, the group consciously nurtured their growing army of fans through live radio, free shows, and communiqués to budding “Heads.” This helped the group establish their unprecedented independence from the recording industry, an antiauthoritarian practice that in turn lent the Dead a seductive aura of rebellion.
Sweet Chaos is by no means the definitive history of America’s most Homeric rock band. Though Brightman evinces keen insight into lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s ex-wife, Mountain Girl, the musicians are less sharply drawn, and the author failed to interview the burly wizard before he kicked. There are some good stories here, like the one where a teenage Bob Weir jumps a chain-link fence to chase after the Beatles’ limo, but lore geeks will have to wait for Blair Jackson’s fact-filled Garcia bio, or, more indefinitely, band flack Dennis McNally’s “authorized” history of Dead.
On the other hand, I suspect such tomes will have little appeal to the unconverted. The strength and freshness of Brightman’s book lies in her ability to articulate the band’s considerable significance to the unHead, to sidestep the hermeticism that made the band’s electric folk-magic powerful to its fans and incidental to everyone else. By shifting her focus in an appropriately kaleidoscopic manner from band members to roadies to managers to fans, and by lacing in plenty of personal memories alongside interviews and some literate if occasionally creaky rock criticism, Brightman succeeds at placing the Grateful Dead in their broadly American context. She recognizes their “kinship with the frontier ruffians of the 1850s, and the actors, musicians, and fandango dancers who crossed the plains to amuse them.” But she also drags the band into an arena they consistently dodged: politics, and especially opposition to the Vietnam War.
As such, Sweet Chaos could be read as an extended meditation on the counterculture’s dueling ideological banjos of “Change the World!” and “Change Your Consciousness!” In a series of chapters dubbed “Their Subculture and Mine,” Brightman alternates between an account of her experience in radical politics and the flowering of Dead fandom. Brightman draws forth the secret sympathy between activists and freaks, arguing that the Vietnam War opened up precisely the kind of crack in consensus reality that Kesey described. But her real aim is to argue that the Dead’s trippy carnival sapped revolutionary energies, and that the band’s hostility to radical politics would “pan into gold when the doors of change began to slam shut.”
Though Brightman is right to attack the band for remaining silent when the DEA targeted Dead shows in the ’90s, her political concerns occasionally go overboard. Garcia was not, as she claims, “a scruffian defender of the status quo.” The Dead were hippie libertarians, not unlike their many digital fans, and Garcia’s personal passivity was intimately related to the egoless genius of his guitar playing and the nonautocratic structure of the Deadhead “family” enterprise. But Brightman thankfully devotes the bulk of her energies to unpacking the band’s Whitmanesque universe: their epic fondness for innuendo, their transit from defiance to communion, their lyric sensitivity to whatever subterranean American blues links child ballads and Howl. For all their musical rhetoric of rapture, the Dead made music that “spoke to the dailiness of experience, the experience of getting by…and [that] satisfied a longing for songs that come from somewhere, that have a past, if only a sense of the past.” Perhaps that is also their psychedelic politics: to acquiesce to ecstasy as we must also acquiesce, in the end, to the shapes and shortcomings of history.