Deadology – or the study of the Grateful Dead – is a burgeoning industry. As the 50th anniversary of the band’s creation arrives this year, a number of new books about them are being published. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, by Peter Richardson (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), differs from most of the existing books about the Dead by situating the band in the broader political and social context of their time.
Most books about the Grateful Dead – and about any popular musician – tend to be a series of anecdotes. There are plenty of good such books about the Grateful Dead, and one could say that the field doesn’t need any more. But this book is different. Written not by a band member or insider, No Simple Highway is the first “scholarly” history of the band.
Don’t let that term scare you away; the book isn’t boring at all, it’s quite well written and very interesting. But the author’s approach is that of someone who, while he grew up in San Francisco, didn’t really pay attention to the Dead until recently. Richardson looks at the band as a social phenomenon, rather than writing about the music and the people who make it. He spends a long time at the beginning of the book outlining the context of the period in which the Dead were formed, and then discusses how the counterculture that was active in San Francisco helped spawn this type of band. He examines the groups that were around the Grateful Dead – the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers, and others – that helped extend the Dead’s ethos. And he discusses the effect of acid and other recreational drugs on the society that the Dead was a part of.
In essence, only about half of this book is about the Grateful Dead; the rest discusses political and social issues. This isn’t a bad thing; quite the contrary. It’s good to see how the Dead were part of their time – this band couldn’t have existed as they did if they were formed in a different decade – and how they remained outside many of the social currents throughout their career.
Richardson looks at the defining events in the history of the Dead, from the festivals they played (or didn’t play), to the social events that rocked California, such as the Manson murders and the Jim Jones mass suicide. He spends a lot of time discussing both Nixon and Reagan, and highlighting how these presidents, and their policies, had a strong effect on the Dead and the people who followed them, through the “war on drugs,” as well as through other policies.
Richardson charts the Dead’s trajectory through their first decade or so, and then gives a sketchy overview of the band’s career. It’s fair to say that after about 1978, the Grateful Dead didn’t innovate much, and through the 80s and 90s were pretty much a concert machine, with little good new music. But there is probably more to say than to simply discuss Jerry Garcia’s health problems during that period.
As a scholar, Richardson remains on the sidelines, only discussing his attendance at a Furthur show with some “age-appropriate psychoactivity” at the very end of the book. As such, he misses the whole point of the Grateful Dead. He tries to explain the band’s importance like a sociologist, and even breaks his book into three sections, “Ecstasy,” “Mobility,” and “Community.” But these sections don’t really fit with the periods they cover. They seem like a scholarly attempt to define something that is ineffable, and he never explains why “there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” He gives a lot of facts, and facts are useful, but it seems odd to read a book that treats the Grateful Dead as an object of cultural research, while some of its members are still alive and playing music. The passage from a living cultural entity to one that is studied in universities is strange, and is likely to lead to more books of this type, attempting to “explain” the Grateful Dead, whereas all we need to understand this band is a few tapes and a stereo.
Update: in response to a question posed in a comment, here are the books about the Grateful Dead that I’ve found to be the most interesting: