The below was mostly written almost a full year ago, around the time my day job gave me the occasion to converse at length with some folks directly covering the story. Engagements and hesitations, I fear, have now delayed this little provocation well beyond the rim of relevance. Still, there is perhaps merit in the presentation of even rascal polemics, since all we are here are bloggers extraordinaire.
I do admit that it will shock some readers to discover conservative plaudits for the Grateful Dead.
San Francisco hippies and drug-addled fools who engendered a romance of dreary dissolution: How could any self-respecting conservative spare a word of praise for them?
Well, I speak only for myself, and with no pretended want of reservations.
The surviving Grateful Dead played a mass of reunion concerts over the summer of 2015, first and less successfully in California but then in full flavor over Independence Day in Chicago. The shows sold out. The ancillary cover-band hanger-on concerts sold well. The Windy City, by all accounts, filled up with Deadheads.
Will Herberg, writing in National Review in 1967, when the Dead were just getting going, supplied a memorable summary evocation of their culture’s pernicious influence:
I will pass over the dangers to society that the hippie way of life brings with it — widespread drug addiction, rising incidence of infectious hepatitis and venereal diseases, danger of outbreaks of polio and typhoid. I will also pass over the false and dangerous consequences of the hippie “ideology,” such as their antinomianism, their hostility to authority, their sexual looseness, their leftist leanings. All these dangers, while real enough, are of a secondary order; primary in criticizing the hippies is their doctrine of love, upon which they so pride themselves.
Love, for them, is an orgiastic feeling in which they wallow in self-indulgence. This kind of love is corrupting both to the cultist and those upon whom it is lavished. Love, in any true sense, does not arise spontaneously as dumb feeling, to lose itself in a turbid morass of love mystique. Love is concern and commitment in its ultimate dimension. Not he loves his neighbor who sings love chants and invites the “experience of love,” but he who understands how to share his neighbor’s hopes and concerns, and to support his neighbor by helping to erect personal and social protections for his neighbor against the sinful self-aggrandizement of men in society. Love as feeling without doing rots and spoils; and surely it would be hard to find anything so rancid as the love-unction of the hippie love mongers.
And now we come to the final point. It is not innocent to pretend to an innocence impossible for man; unacknowledged sinfulness is a deadly poison, ruinous to the individual and to society both. For unacknowledged sinfulness means a refusal to see oneself in realistic perspective; it means a loss of the sense of ambiguity in life, of its hopes and possibilities, indeed, but also of its perversions and frustrations. The hippies, with their paradisal naiveté, would encourage this illusion of primal innocence in us and in mankind, an illusion so appealing that we are forever falling into it even without encouragement. The hippie spectacle is a kind of Medusa head; but it will turn those who gaze upon it without adequate protection not into stone images, but into fools and simpletons.
Perhaps the most shattering comment on the hippie love-mystique was made long in advance by that well-known protagonist of the Old Left, V. I. Lenin. It is a familiar hippie slogan, as an expression of love, love, love, that “if it moves, fondle it. . .” Keep this in mind. An anecdote is recalled about Lenin, years before the Revolution. Lenin was passionately fond of classical music; and, one day, as he was listening to something from Beethoven, his favorite composer, he turned to his companion, and said: “What greatness, what beauty, men have produced. One feels like patting them on the head for such marvelous achievements. . . .” Then, suddenly, he caught himself and exclaimed: ‘‘But be careful! They’ll bite your hand off!”
Saint Augustine somewhere says very much the same thing. And when Augustine and Lenin agree on something, it is surely a something well worth taking note of.
No doubt it is. Still, I hold to my opinions.
Following Herberg, some say there is no more accurately descriptive name for the particular subset of hippies who are preoccupied with the Grateful Dead: Deadheads. I may be forgiven for my demurral. These people are still alive.
Fortunately, the antinomianism and self-indulgence did not take, at least not in all cases.
At some level of sophistication well below Herberg’s elegant analysis, we might emulate the braggadocio of, say, a certain Manhattan real estate magnate running for President: “Get a job, or at least take a shower, you dirty hippie!” Then there is Reagan’s superb crack, “I had a nightmare today; I dreamed I owned a laundromat in Berkeley.”
Turns out some of the hippies of Haight-Ashbury cleaned up and got good jobs. Many of these Deadheads are by now successful professionals: lawyers and businessmen, bloggers and bankers. I daresay more than few of them voted for Reagan.
So the Grateful Dead had a reunion, and here I am writing about it.
Professed socialism all to one side, the capitalistic character of these events, somewhat remarkably, predominated. The Chicago Dead shows were big US commerce: Don’t look now but the financiers were interested. I wonder if Jerry Garcia ever wrote a song about usury.
The Reprise of the Dead was a big American business story. The Wall Street Journal covered it, ably and assiduously (with ample room for curmudgeonly dissent), starting with the announcement of the reunion shows in January  and following through with amusing analyses of the market for tickets, the choice of venues, and other angles on the business of the shows.
Still not convinced that the Dead deserve my attention? Maybe I can at least sell the reader on curiosity. This case for the Grateful Dead is not without considerable gawping interest.
So what of substance can be said in favor of band composed of the likes of the late Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Robert Hunter and all the others?
The first thing in favor of the Grateful Dead is that they led a movement of liberals in the direction of private organization and enthusiasm. This is truly no small thing – since by and large the recent movements of liberals have entailed shackling men with the chains of government coercion. These are, after all, people who jail dissidents on gay marriage and plot to extirpate soup kitchens and homeless shelters in order to enforce other deviant sexual orthodoxies.
No, the Deadheads mostly carried on their business as private stoners, concert-goers and funlovers. Sure, they always voted Democrat (unless mercifully, on account of supererogatory indulgence of intoxicants, they failed to vote at all).
But these bohemians mostly gave themselves over to a private venture — to a band that played great music, to a peculiar collection of enthusiasts. It was the pursuit of ever more Dead shows, and a deeper relation with Grateful Dead music and community, that animated them.
Now, as indicated, “they” comprises a more varied lot than readers may anticipate.
The whole thing cannot be explained by drugs and intoxication and dissolution. I have known more than a few Deadheads who will have no truck with any intoxicants beyond a couple beers or a glass of wine. Sober people do enjoy Grateful Dead songs. Garcia played a mean guitar and “Ripple” and “Casey Jones” are very fine songs.
I myself, a Deadhead fellow-traveler you might say, have experience precisely concluding with what my home state has wisely or unwisely liberalized; while I know one Deadhead, now a blogger of renown with real verve in his pen, who was pleased many years ago to show up as among the precious few ROTC officers at Grateful Dead concerts; and who now abjures all but the very best bourbon, on worthy occasions. “The girls were fun,” he deadpans.
Oh dear. Well, again I’ll state that liberals organizing a movement of Deadheads, whose energy, altogether innocent of government insinuation, built up a strange but ultimately impressive community of characters, deserve a hearty bid of praise. The aging basketball player and sports announcer Bill Walton shows his nearly 7-foot frame in many pictures from the Chicago shows. Ms. Ann Coulter, when she’s not emulating Joan D’Arc against alien PC conquest, enjoys listening to the Dead.
In the end, rarely do our American liberals embrace anything that is not direct government dictation; but here they have done, and it’s not worth nothing. This principle – that creative power may inhere in private activity, rather than collective coercion, is not an idea that liberals often entertain.
Now what of the delicate matter of lyrics of Grateful Dead songs?
The best I’ll say is that they are pleasantly derivative. Mostly Americana adaptations mixed with superb improvisational instrumentation, they disclose an idiosyncratic but undeniable creative range. The Dead played many Bob Dylan songs, variations of classic blues, country, jazz, Southern rock, folk, and a collection of their own entrancing oddities. Sadly, they were not always sober enough to play well. But play well they could. On the whole the oeuvre speaks of a core of creative genius.
Jerry Garcia led with his guitar and crank charisma. Addiction sunk him, but his songwriting achievements are evident. His voice was distinctive and his antic guitar magnificent.
With Robert Hunter, Garcia wrote the very odd “Blues for Allah”; Garcia and Weir wrote numerous tunes of vaguely misogynistic defiance. Not a few young Deadhead ladies, having given away their purity cheap after a Dead show, failed utterly to discern the irony in burning their bras to the chords of “Sugar Magnolia.”
Deceased by dissipation in 1995, Garcia sounds like an Islamophobe mansplainer by today’s standards.
The main thing that can be said in favor of the Grateful Dead is that they played great music. Not with notable consistency, but still observably; for a long period of time, the Grateful Dead were composing and performing some really excellent songs. I never saw a show (Garcia perished when I was a junior in high school) but I wish I had.
Virtually the entire Grateful Dead audio archive is available for free. They made most performances public domain through the Library of Congress at Archive.org. Anyone can listen and examine it.
No one is obligated to like the Grateful Dead. De gustibus non est disputandum. But no principle impels us to dislike them either. I say their musical virtues outweigh their social defects and I will go on enjoying the songs filling the air.
[Edited subsequently for a very few, but embarrassing grammatical mistakes. -- PJC 5/27]