A Project That Never Stops Truckin’
PCC’s Conversation with Peter Richardson,
Author of “No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead”

By Paul Freeman [February 2016 Interview]

You can’t kill the Dead.

Most of the 1960s San Francisco rock groups have long since succumbed to tragedy, nostalgia or obscurity. But one just keeps on truckin’.

As Deadheads dance in celebration of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, original band members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (joined by John Mayer, Jeff Chementi and Oteil Burbridge) have announced what promises to be one of 2016’s most in-demand tours. They’re calling the new incarnation Dead and Company. More than 20 years after Jerry Garcia’s passing, there’s no end in sight for the band’s impact.

Peter Richardson, who coordinates the American Studies program at San Francisco State, has written “No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead.”

His book views the indomitable band from a different perspective than the many other tomes on the Dead. It has blossomed from a class he teaches, which focuses on the various utopian and dystopian aspects of California culture.

Richardson makes clear that the innovative, enduring Dead, who paved the way for jam bands, communal rock, free live recordings and the touring machine, is deserving of our attention, respect and, yes, gratitude.

There was so much work involved, what made you decide to write this book and how did you decide what approach to take on the story?

There was already a pretty good bookshelf on the Grateful Dead. I actually started by reaching out to a couple people who had already written a lot, some very good stuff, on the topic. At the time, I was working in publishing and I set up a lunch with Dennis McNally, who used to be the Grateful Dead’s publicist and wrote a very strong history of the Dead, based on a lot of interviews, almost 400 hours of interviews. And he introduced me to Nick Meriwether, who is the Grateful Dead archivist, down at University of California Santa Cruz. And I started going to the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucuses, which Nick organizes. And it started as a reading thing. I just couldn’t get enough information about the Grateful Dead and their story.

Actually, I need to backtrack. The first conversation I had on it was actually with David Gans [author of “Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book”]. We were on an advisory board together at the Oakland Museum. I sat next to him all day and he recommended a book on the Grateful Dead. And I read that. And one thing led to another. And I realized I’d read almost the entire bookshelf of books about the Grateful Dead. But what I thought was still missing was more of a cultural history that wasn’t written for insiders or people who already knew a lot about the Dead and were dedicated fans, but rather for people who, like me, weren’t Deadheads, but would be fascinated by their project, not just the music, but this kind of larger, cultural project that the Dead undertook.

So after going to three or four of these Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus meetings, I decided that there was more of an interpretative history that I wanted to try out. And I had a little bit of a head start on it, because I teach a lot of related material in the courses I’m responsible for at San Francisco State University. So I tried to figure out what kind of unique contribution I could make. And that’s what started me off on this writing project.

What was the course you were teaching that related?

I guess the main course, I teach a course called California Culture. And it’s an upper-division Humanities and American Studies course. And it’s based on representations of California, utopian and dystopian representations of California. And you look at “The Grapes of Wrath” and you look at “The Big Sleep” and “Chinatown.” And I realized that the Grateful Dead and their project fit perfectly into that kind of frame. Or, rather, that’s the argument that I make in the book, that maybe the best way to understand the Dead and their project is to think of it in the context of these kind of utopian impulses that animate a lot of works that either come out from California or are specifically about California.

And in some ways, the Grateful Dead were kind of the embodiment of that theme that I had been working over in this course, reading Kerouac, and, of course, Kerouac was a huge influence on all of the Dead, but especially Jerry Garcia. And then I read more and more about the San Francisco renaissance and then the artists that Garcia met as a teenager, that he referred to later, in his interviews, that they really taught him how to be an artist and how to live like an artist - not only how to make art, but how to live like an artist. Anyway, it was a great, great kind of open-ended research project for me that got me deeper into the material that I was already teaching in my classes.

You say you weren’t a Deadhead. Were you just peripherally aware of their music as you were growing up? Did you attend any of their concerts?

I did. But really the thing that happened first, in my family, was that my oldest brother was a Deadhead. By the time I was in high school, the Dead was on hiatus. They took a year-and-a-half hiatus in the 70s. but my brother had gone to many, many concerts, not just the Dead, but Jerry Garcia, the Jerry Garcia Band and then all the sort of side bands that he had. We grew up in Berkeley, in the East Bay. So the music was really the sonic wallpaper in our house [laughs]. I knew all the music, but I never chose it… or thought about it. It was my older brother’s music.

So I was very familiar with them and their project, without ever really sort of making a decision to learn anything about that or to attend any concerts. So in a way, I was kind of born into that world, a world that they helped shape. As a result, as an adult, I had to kind of come back and rediscover it. When you’re born into a particular place and period, you just think that’s the world, that’s it’s the universal, permanent reality. You realize, as you get older, the Bay Area, in the 1960s was not a typical place and time. It has to be understood on its own terms. So that was part of my motivation for undertaking this project - the desire to understand better the world that I was born into.

How much was the band impacted by the San Francisco scene rising at the time and how much did they impact that scene?

I don’t think they can be understood apart from the scene they grew out of. I try to trace that scene. They’re obviously understood as the 1960s San Francisco counterculture band. And for very good reason. They were a huge influence, almost like an institution in that scene, in the Haight-Ashbury art and music scene. But one thing I worked a little bit harder on, in my book, compared maybe to some of other ones that I read, I really wanted to trace the origins of the band, at least the idea for their project, not to the 60s, but to the 50s.

Four things happened between Jerry Garcia’s 15th and 16th birthdays. He got his first electric guitar for his 15th birthday. He smoked pot for the first time. He signed up for art classes at what’s now the San Francisco Art Institute. And through his art teachers there, he learned about Jack Kerouac and the Beats. And I argue in the book that really those four things, that 12-month interval between his 15th and 16th birthdays, you can really find the seeds of the Grateful Dead’s project. And that was 1958. And later, Jerry Garcia said, “I really took my cue from all these artists from the 1950s.” People think of the 1950s as being dull and bland and anxious, Cold War-themed. But the artists Garcia sort of stumbled upon as a teenager really were very bohemian and very irreverent and exuberant. And he really picked up on that.

The band was nothing if not collaborative. So you don’t want to trace everything back to the autobiographical details of Jerry Garcia, but there is a way in which that whole scene, the whole Beat scene, the San Francisco renaissance, and the art scene that he found at the San Francisco Art Institute, I think those are really formative for him.

And then, at the other end, what they were doing, which was an extension of what these earlier San Francisco artists were doing, was really a powerful part of the success of the music scene in 1960s San Francisco. That success even shocked the record company executives back East, the Ahmet Erteguns and so on, the Atlantic Records, back in New York, who were looking at what was happening in San Francisco and were like, “There’s some sort of secret sauce [laughs] in the San Francisco music scene,” because so many of those bands were charting.

The Dead, it took them a little while. The first four albums were not that commercially successful. But starting in the late 60s, early 70s, there really was some magic there. And that lasted maybe five, seven years or so, and then the San Francisco music scene kind of settled down. It fell apart or one thing or another. And then of course, that success was paced by Rolling Stone magazine, a San Francisco magazine that started in November, 1967. So they had somebody there to kind of watch them and write about them and tout them, through Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason’s magazine. So there were a lot of different pieces that were kind of coming together at the same time.

Even though they symbolized the counterculture in those days, in may ways they really outlived the whole hippie/peace/drug movements. Why do you think they endured as a phenomenon.

That was one of the main questions I was trying to answer - why not only the success, but the durable success? I trace it back to their underlying values. Their music changed over time. Their organization changed over time. A lot of things changed. But their underlying values were remarkably stable. And one of the things they were shooting for, and that the Deadheads were part of, was the goal of ecstatic rapture. The music scene and the art scene at that time, the Beats and the musicians were going for something very specific and that was a kind of transcendence, to get high, and to get high through the music. So that urge, in typical San Francisco fashion, they invited the audience into that experience, as well. It wasn’t just a matter of them up on the stage doing something. It was much more interactive and participatory than, say, what The Beatles were doing over at Candlestick Park, just in 1966, their last public performance.

Then with the success of their albums in 1970, “The Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” they had to tour. They decided to stay in San Francisco and not go to Los Angeles or New York. They couldn’t live off of their album royalties, so they decided to tour, which was kind of born of necessity. But they decided to make touring not only part of their operation, but also part of their mythology.

So they started writing songs about the road, again, kind of reenacting a big, important Beat theme, also Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters - it was all about getting out on the road and having adventure. And that got folded into songs like “Truckin’,” for example. And that was another thing that they modeled, that kind of wanderlust for their fans, as well, who began following them on tour, the Deadheads. And with that participation and with those adventures, they had what they needed to continue to make music, no matter what. No matter what happened with their album sales, they could always sustain themselves with their touring operation.

And then, the third thing, maybe the most important thing, was that they were, from the outset, totally devoted to community, in a way that the Stones weren’t, The Beatles weren’t, Dylan definitely wasn’t. Those other artists were never really trying to create a kind of community. The Grateful Dead really were. And that, I think, really accounts for their durable success - they built this community and then that community sustained them. Even through their creatively slack periods, they could still rumble on with their touring machine.

And then, of course, they had their first and only, really, Top 10 hit, in 1987. They were two decades into it as a band, before they had their first Top 10 hit - Top 10 single and Top 10 album. The song was “Touch of Grey,” which was a kind of an anthem to their own survival. It was all about getting older and enduring and trying to live with a little grace in middle age. And it was during the age of Reagan, which is something I point out in the book, too, that it wasn’t just about the survival of the band, but the survival of their whole community and project during the age of Reagan, the drug war and so on. When things weren’t looking that good for hippies, they actually pop out their first Top 10 single.

Was it just in the personalities of the band members to constantly be risk-takers and individualistic? Was there a conscious decision to avoid the mainstream?

Well, they always disavowed that, in public. They always said, “We’re just bumbling along. We don’t really know what we’re doing.” They really deflected any kind of attention regarding any sort of plan that they had. They denied that they had a plan. You couldn’t even have set lists. They left a lot of room for improvisation in their music and in their organization.

I think there’s something, it’s not a specific plan or intention, but I think there was a set of guiding principles that they stuck with, even when they faced some daunting challenges. And some of the toughest challenges came when some of their impulses or values were in conflict with one another.

So on the one hand, they were very devoted to community, but that actually led to some pretty touch outcomes. They’re also devoted to rapture, but they lost several people to drugs. Brent Mydland [the band’s keyboardist/vocalist, 1979-1990] overdosed. Keith Godchaux [another of the group’s keyboardists, in the 70s] didn’t die when he was in the band, but he had a very serious drug problem, then left the band and died in an auto wreck about a year-and-a-half later. Pigpen [Ron McKernan] was the original keyboard player and he died at 27 of kind of alcohol-related illness.

So, in other words, there were a lot of challenges they had, personal ones, creative ones, organizational ones. But I think you can say that they stuck with their original values, even when the going got very tough. And I think the community, the Deadheads, really appreciated that and saw an authenticity in what the band was doing. They were frequently faulted, even by their own fans, for being too commercial and selling out. People were very watchful around those issues. So it wasn’t like they were perfect. They were far from perfect, actually. They made a lot of mistakes, they had a lot of setbacks, but they were able to endure, when most of the other bands that they came up with sort of flashed across the American scene, some very quickly.

Nobody really had that kind of long-term success, of the San Francisco bands. I guess you could say Santana certainly did, but with a very different dynamic. The Dead really invited the fans to participate on a very different kind of footing and then they got that fan loyalty and that gave them a lot of creative freedom. I think those were all factors, for not only the success, but the durability.

Author Peter Richardson

Even though they did have their share of related tragedies, was the drug experimentation vital to the band’s artistic development?

They would say no. Jerry Garcia was asked that question many times and would say, “We were into drugs. We were into music. But it wasn’t like one thing led to the other.” But they were very committed to exploration and improvisation, both in their lifestyle and their music. That’s fair to say. And I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of, for example, LSD, in the original 1960s San Francisco counterculture.

I mean, you can just look at the poster art. I think it’s helpful to look at the poster art, because there was a kind of visual analogy to what was happening musically. And also the Dead were really into it, especially Garcia. They really appreciated what was happening with the poster art and a lot of people thought they got the best poster art because of their name, mostly. It just evoked a lot of images - the Grateful Dead.

But if you look at the poster art in 1965, and then the poster art in 1966, you can really tell that some big changes are happening. And then the Dead, very shrewdly, kind of tapped those images and they’ve been part of their project, as well, for example the skeleton and roses. As soon as that Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse poster becomes popular, the Dead sort of say, “Hey, that’s cool!” And you start seeing the skeleton and roses over and over again. There are some other images, too. But they had a kind of iconography, their own distinctive iconography. And that became part and parcel of the music’s reception. It’s on the album covers. It’s on the posters. It’s a kind of total project in some ways. The music’s a big part of it, the community’s a big part of it. But there’s also a visual component to it, too.

And the way they ran their organization reflected that, as well. It was very distinctive, very different from The Rolling Stones. And when you see them interacting, I think there’s some footage online of Jerry Garcia with the Dead interacting with Jagger and the Stones, as they’re about to take their helicopter out to Altamont, and you can kind of see that they’re in different worlds. They’re trying to do different things, even though they have the same manager at different times - Sam Cutler. The Dead hired Sam Cutler after Altamont, actually. Cutler had been working for The Rolling Stones before that.

So it’s that distinctive project and the underlying values behind the project that I thought could be held up a little bit and examined more explicitly. That really hadn’t been done before. The pieces were there, but nobody had really looked at the Dead’s history with those things foremost in mind.

And the diverse musical influences of the Dead, was that just a result of eclectic tastes or did they consciously want to draw from a lot of different source material?

Both of those things. Some of them started as folkies, like Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were really into the folk revival. They got into the Harry Smith anthology of American folk music. Greil Marcus called it “the old, weird America.” They were really into that. Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer, had a different musical background. So did Mickey Hart. Phil Lesh was more into jazz and classical music, before he became a bass player. So they drew from many, many, many music streams.

They were incredibly open to new and different kinds of music. And then, according to Robert Hunter, their chief lyricist, they really were trying to produce this sort of amalgam, to let all those music streams feed their music. So they go from folk to electric blues to acid, very experimental stuff and then they come back to the folk a little bit. They have some commercial success with that, with “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead.” They get a little jazzier, especially in their live concerts in the 1970s. So they’re just constantly evolving and exploring musically, and with varying success.

I don’t think anybody thinks that they hit it out of the park every single night, largely because they were improvising every night and they were taking real chances. And you can hear that in the music. And it didn’t always work out, But because they did something different every night, if you’re a fan, you could go see them three nights in a row and not be bored. If you went to an Eagles concert three nights in a row, it’s like a recital. They’re doing the exact same thing every night. And it’s perfect. It’s really tight and controlled. But you probably wouldn’t want to see it three nights in a row.

But the Dead, by doing something different all the time, it encouraged their fans to come back and experience it every night. So that made it a little bit more reasonable for their fans to follow them on the road. And that becomes an important hallmark of the project, is that they’ve got these fans who are arriving in town with them. And that really shapes the media story, too. You can go back and look at these articles, as I did, you go into the Grateful Dead archive and go through their press files and just see the same story, written over and over again [laughs]. “Here come the Grateful Dead!” It was like the circus had come to town.

You mentioned your brother seeing a lot of shows. When did you experience their concerts?

I saw them in the early 80s. And then, as I began getting more and more interested in this project, I began going to their shows and this, of course, was long after the band had dissolved. I started going to see Further and Seven Walkers and all the different kind of iterations of the band. I went to the first show, the Rainbow show, at Levi Stadium, this year. I saw three of the four core play at Great American Music Hall. It was supposed to be just Bill Kreutzmann’s band, at that time Seven Walkers, but there was some talk, some online chatter in the Dead community that the others were going to show up. And three of the core four did. Phil Lesh wasn’t there. But Kreutzmann, Hart and Weir were there to play with Seven Walkers and for 25 bucks, you could just walk up to the front of the stage.

So I really enjoyed it. The live experience was such an important part of what made them successful. It’s not just the music. People sit down and listen to their music and pass a judgment and think that their work is done with the Grateful Dead. But there’s something about that, that almost misses the point. If you’re going to take a snapshot of one album or one concert or a few concerts, you miss that larger project. And they had one. Even though they always said they didn’t, they really did. And part of the project was employing their friends. They wanted to create a kind of hip economy that supported their friends. There was an economic or business component to this project, too. And they went pretty far down that road, actually. They did support a lot of their friends.

So the project was essentially an artistic community they wanted to create?

Yeah, that was part of it. That was something that came out of the Haight-Ashbury years, like, “Hey, let’s set up an operation. We’ll be part of it. We’re not all of it, but we’ll be part of it, where we can support freaks and heads.” And that was something Garcia said. He was asked a lot about politics and he really didn’t like to talk about politics that much. You could find of figure out what the band’s politics were, if you really wanted to. But one thing he did like to say was, “We succeeded. There’s hippies everywhere. Everywhere we go, there’s hippies.” And that was part of the project.

When the Grateful Dead came to town, you were getting a kind of traveling simulacrum of the 1960s San Francisco counterculture. And you were invited. You could join it. You could be a part of that community. And, you know, in the 70s, they were accused of being a kind of nostalgia act, because they were still kind of rolling along with that same project. But they weren’t a nostalgia act, in the sense that The Beach Boys now are. The Dead were doing new things musically. But two decades before their biggest success, they were being written off as a nostalgia act.

In the research process, were there discoveries that surprised you?

Oh, yeah. For sure. Just part of it is what we’ve been talking about. You get fooled by this kind of California studied nonchalance, where nobody wants to look like they’re trying very hard. But everybody is like, underwater, they’re just stroking furiously. [Laughs] The Dead were really like that. You want to look like you’re not trying very hard, but you want to be an accomplished, interesting person. It’s a kind of California cultural aesthetic. Make it look easy. And the Dead were really good at that. And if you take them at their word, you think it’s just a bunch of stoners, bumbling along, but, in fact, they were far from that. There was a lot of intelligence, a lot of humor, a lot of savvy. There was a lot of hard work, behind all of this. You don’t have that kind of success in the music business unless you know what you’re doing and are good at doing it. They get underrated a lot.

One of the things I wanted to say about them is that they deserved our attention. For one reason or another, a lot of people bought into the cartoon version of the Grateful Dead, the Cheech & Chong version of the Grateful Dead. But in fact, there was this really rich music and art and history behind this project that is really, really interesting. Just listen to Jerry Garcia talk. He’s one of the master gabbers of all time, super interesting, smart, funny, huge range - and not just about music, although he was kind of a walking encyclopedia of music. But he had a lot of interests. And unless you’ve really made a decision to learn about this stuff, one way or another, it’s really easy to overlook how talented these guys were.

So what do you view as being the most important aspects of their legacy, both musically and in terms of their effect on society?

Well, musically, a lot of people think that, without the Dead, there would be no jam bands, which you see now. And just in terms of the music, they have this tour-heavy model, where you treat your people, your audience, really well. You make them part of your project. That’s standard now. They were the only ones doing it in the 70s. And now, as the music industry has changed, it’s much more about the tour now, it’s less about the recording. You’ve got bands that don’t even have labels.

So a lot of people are realizing that, not only is the Dead’s music really cool, and has this kind of retro, almost kind of vintage appeal, but also the way they did this was very forward-looking. They have the taping. They recorded everything. And made it available for free. That was supposed to be financial suicide. But it turned out to be the smartest thing that the Dead ever did, because those tapes became the currency within the Deadhead community. You couldn’t sell the tapes, but you could trade them. And that kept the community connected in between tours. So there’s a lot of different kinds of legacy there.

A lot people might have been surprised by the success of their 2015 anniversary tour. I was not surprised, because I knew there was a lot of interest and demand for what they were doing, that the community was still very large, and very connected, and very motivated and interested. The Chicago shows were announced four days before my book published, which was a complete coincidence. The calendar for my book was determined in large part by the fact that my publisher was also publishing Bill Kreutzmann’s memoir and they wanted to put a little bit of space between my book and his book. So my book came out in January and his book came out in the spring, closer to the time of the concerts. But mine came very close to the announcement of the concerts, in January 2015.

The numbers are in now - they were the top-grossing band last year in North America… with five shows. The individual dates did great and then, collectively, it was by far, the dominant musical act of last year… after 50 years! The band dissolved 20 years ago. The band was formed 50 years ago. And they get together and they kill it! [Laughs] It was pretty bizarre. And then, by the end of the year, they’re playing with John Mayer. So there’s some interesting stuff happening. They’re not ready to call it quits. There’s interesting musical things happening. There’s interesting things happening in the community. And I think it’s a nice testimony to their project, that this community is still so connected and so motivated to turn out unique projects.

In terms of the readers’ takeaway from the book, do you hope they view band differently, that they listen to the music differently?

I wanted to satisfy the aficionados, and they are legion - there’s a lot of people who know a lot about he Grateful Dead. But I taught a class to senior citizens at Sonoma State University and I said, “You don’t have to like their music to love their story.” There’s something really compelling about their story, too. And one of the things I was trying to do was to reach the many people who may have liked the Grateful Dead at one time, but never really thought about what they were all about and, as I said earlier, accepted this two-dimensional cartoon version of the Grateful Dead.

So one of the things I was trying to do with the book was to suggest to people that there’s something quite a bit more substantial and richer about their project. They were so identified with the 1960s San Francisco drug culture, for example, that people don’t take them seriously. And they didn’t take themselves seriously. But they took their project very seriously.

So I’m trying to get a little more attention paid to both the substance and also the remarkable durability of their project. There’s a lot more there than meets the eye. You know the part that stands for the whole? They were the part that stood for the 1960s counterculture. And that still, to this day, brings out some really interesting animosity - most of it political. The Dead became the whipping boy for people like George Will, William F. Buckley and Mike Barnicle, people like that. As late as the 1990s, they were writing insane diatribes directed at the Grateful Dead. And the cultural stakes of the 1960s are still being debated and fought out, sometimes very bitterly. And the Dead got kind of bound up with that. So I think it’s just time for a fresh review of the Grateful Dead and their music and their project.

They put such an emphasis on community. And that was very cutting edge. People thought it was insane. It was absolutely counter-conventional. But the Dead knew their people, they knew their community.

They made some mistakes. They were a little bit too caught up in the theory of what would work and what wouldn’t work. And they found that some of that wasn’t true, that the mainstream way of selling records wasn’t quite as bad as they thought it was. They started their own record company for a while and then realized, “You know what? We’re not that good at it. Let’s just give that back to the label and then we’ll focus on the music,” which they did.

But they were the ultimate do-it-yourself. They invented every aspect of their music - the instruments, the sound system, the way they approached the music, the way they performed the music - everything was done from scratch, essentially. And a lot of people are trying to do that now, too.