Culture Rover

#65 - Week-End Hippies and the Rosebud Blues

Dissertation research led me to this photograph of the Grateful Dead by Herb Greene. It's the late 1960s in some still rural Eucalyptus-grove corner of Marin County, and the "peaceful" hippie band carries knives, sticks, and firearms. They look like they have joined the disturbing hippie guerilla army cannibals in the FLSO, from Jean-Luc Godard's angrily satirical film Week-End.

The angle of the photograph beneath the trees creates a cave or tunnel effect, as if one is getting sucked into a black hole, or shot out of one. Time itself suddenly spins out of its secure nest, like a bullet revolving out the barrel of a gun. The Grateful Dead, various members of the band's larger gang in the background, have become Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. They have become swashbuckling pirates. They are an outlaw gang in the Wild West. They have landed in some New World to rape and pillage.

They look ridiculous. But there is also something very naughty, perhaps even violent, about the photograph. These hippies could be crazed revolutionaries rather than tame, mellow pot smokers. They are alive, young, twisted: part of a Guitar Army. It's all a fantasy, of course -- hyper-macho, little-boy, Cowboys-and-Indians fantasy at that -- but it's potent dream-nightmare nonetheless. Lurking in a nostalgic cloud of happy faces, beatific beards, and cheesy New-Age spirituality, the photograph leaps out incongruously, recapturing something of the ferocious Pop Art-politics-dirt energy of the 1960s.

Best of all in the photo, patron saint Jerry Garcia leeringly points a gun directly at the camera, and looks like he's enjoying the view from behind the trigger. He wears a pancho and boots, and seems as if he's about to hop on his horse to ride away with the loot. Or he might shoot you just for kicks. There's a rage there, channeled through sardonic Western matinee pic surrealism, that is a much fresher image of Garcia than the usual gentle-uncle-spreading-joy portrayals.

Speaking of Jerry Garcia, Ryan Adams has an intriguing song about Garcia and his distinctive guitar Rosebud on the new album, Cold Roses. Adams, who has prolifically moved among genres, from alt-country to punky rock, has been rethinking the links between bands like the Grateful Dead and Black Flag.

The song "Rosebud" reflects on the energies Adams hears in Garcia's guitar, which is now "shipwrecked up on the Ohio," that is on display behind a glass case at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Taking a photograph of the guitar, which is "just a wooden machine," Adams seems to wish he could bring back the power of Garcia's music to knit together a community in the wake of its solos. Adams also hears in the silent guitar behind glass a warning to himself and his friends about the madness of this rock-music quest -- the kinds of dangers it unleashes as well as the utopian promises.

It's a good song, and along with Sonic Youth's recent tribute to Garcia, "Stones," on the album Sonic Nurse, it suggests that the ongoing generational discussion between Gen X (and Gen Y?) indie-rock and Gen baby boomer classic-rock continues.

25 May 2005

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