I don’t agree with William Leitch that this is best explained by the band’s lyrics, although I recently wrote about how different their lyrics are from the popular image of the band. Leitch argues that the band’s songs are about freedom, and what Libertarian-minded Ayn Rand acolyte doesn’t love freedom?
The problem is, I think the band’s lyrics are a lot more complex than that. What’s definitely true is that their songs were remarkably free of overt political messages. Not totally free, however. Take Bob Weir’s 1980’s anti-Cold War/environmental anthem, Throwin’ Stones, where “commissars and pin-striped bosses role the dice, any way they fall guess who gets to pay the price?” and “money green or proletarian gray, selling guns instead of food today.” If you think that’s a pox on both their houses ethos, read on:
Shipping powders back and forth
Singing “black goes south and white comes north”
And the whole world full of petty wars
Singing “I got mine and you got yours”
And the current fashions set the pace
Lose your step, fall out of grace
And the radical, he rant and rage
Singing “someone got to turn the page”
And the rich man in his summer home,
Singing “Just leave well enough alone”
But his pants are down, his cover’s blown
When Bob Weir concludes “it’s all too clear, we are on our own,” he’s talking about Deadhead Nation and the values they espouse and not about each of us individually. If we don’t figure out how to end all these petty wars and stop degrading the environment then “the game is lost [and] we’re all the same. No one [will be] left to place or take the blame. We will leave this place an empty stone…that shining ball of blue we call our home.”
While the politicians are throwing stones, the kids they dance and shake their bones. But there’s a mission there. When the Dead recently concluded their last-ever Bay Area concert, drummer Mickey Hart took to the microphone to advise everyone to take the good feeling they had generated together back into their communities and help them in their mission to basically save the world from itself. After 50 years and countless shows in that community, that was the message the band wanted to leave with their fans. It isn’t an independent-Republican message.
It might be grandiose, self-important and utopian, but it isn’t individualistic.
It’s probably not possible to pin down a belief system for the Grateful Dead, and their lyrics are a bad place to start for the simple reason that Jerry Garcia told the chief lyricist, Robert Hunter, to avoid political themes. That didn’t prevent the Dead creating the Rex Foundation in 1983 “to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, assist others less fortunate than ourselves, protect the rights of indigenous people and ensure their cultural survival, build a stronger community, and educate children and adults everywhere.”
In 1988, they did concerts to benefit the rainforests.
Going back further in time, the Dead came out of the mid-1960’s Acid Tests and were fellow travelers with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Initially, at least, they seemed to believe that we could end warfare and achieve world peace if enough people would just try LSD. Again, there isn’t much we’d associate with independent-minded Republicans in that.
As I noted in my earlier piece, their lyrics were different and didn’t reflect these values very often, at least not in any kind of linear way. Most of their songs took place or seemed to take place in the 19th-Century. Mentions of cars, airplanes, computers, or modern appliances were almost completely lacking. People rode horses or trains, and the setting was usually a saloon, jailhouse, or dusty trail. Robert Hunter once included a reference to styrofoam in a song. Garcia accepted the lyric but he complained about it and Hunter never made another reference to something that could be dated that way.
It’s probably true that by refusing to discuss contemporary political disputes in their lyrics the Dead made it possible for Republicans to listen without feeling threatened, at least most of the time.
Well I’m dumping my trash in your back yard
Making certain you don’t notice really isn’t so hard
You’re so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them
Well it’s oil for the rich and babies for the poor
We’ve got everyone believing that more is more
If a reckoning comes maybe we’ll know what to do then…
…Today I went out walking in the amber wind
There’s a hole in the sky where the light pours in
I remember the days when I wasn’t afraid of the sunshine
But now it beats down on the ashphalt land
Like hammering blow from God’s left hand
What little still grows
Cringes in the shade ’til the nighttime
Go out to the Bay Area today and you can see how dry it is. The flowering plants are indeed cringing in the shade until nighttime. There’s nothing about that that argues “Drill, baby, drill.”
Most of all, it’s a mistake to think of the Grateful Dead, whether you’re talking about the musicians or the legions of fans, as being primarily about misspent youth. Musically, they were anthropologists and archeologists of folklore and old time music and bluegrass and early blues. Philosophically, they believed in the power of group consciousness and sought to summon it through mind-expanding drugs and improvisational music in which the audience was considered a vital participant, or instrument in their own right.
I’ll leave you with the wisdom of Jerry Garcia, and you can decide how well his band fits with Republicanism and why some Republicans might be such huge fans:
Rebecca: What do you think that the future of the human race depends upon?
Jerry: Getting off this lame fucking trip, this egocentric bullshit. There’s entirely too many monkeys on this mudball and that’s going to be a real problem. People have to get smart. I’ve always thought that the thing to do is something really chaotic and crazy like head off into space. That’s something that would keep everyone real busy and would also distribute more bodies out there.
Otherwise, we end up staying here and kill each other and damage the planet. I’ve gotten into scuba diving, so I’ve developed a great affection for the ocean. I just don’t want to see it get worse than it is. I’d like to think we could get smart enough sometime soon to make things better than they are instead of worse.
Rebecca: When people say they’re optimistic about the future, they usually mean the future of the human race. But you can be optimistic about life and perhaps pessimistic about the future of the human race.
Jerry: I think the earth doesn’t have any real problems, in the long run. I think we’re just another disturbance. I don’t think even we can really fuck up the earth.
Rebecca: Do you think it’s arrogant to think that we have the ability to save the earth? And even if it is, do you think it’s a healthy attitude to develop anyway?
Jerry: It’s arrogant, but I think we should develop it anyway.
In the end, if you like the music, you like the music. It will mean what you want it to mean.
But the band has always stood for something more than youthful irresponsibility or some kind of atomistic personal freedom.
This weekend the Dead will play their final three shows in Chicago. It’s been a long, strange, joyous trip.