Here Beside the Rising Tide Talk & Slides

the dead, the counterculture, & american democracy – keynote talk from so many roads: the world in the grateful dead conference, san jose state university, 8 november 2014.

Grateful Dead performing on flatbed trucks for free concert on Haight Street, San Francisco, 1968. Photo: Jim Marshall.

For the Deadheads and maybe those of you just curious about the Grateful Dead, the 1960s counterculture, and US history too, here is my keynote address from “So Many Roads: The World in the Grateful Dead” at San Jose State University, 8 november 2014.

Please do not publish or quote from this without permission. Comments, thoughts, perspectives are all welcome.

Here Beside the Rising Tide: The Dead, the Counterculture, and American Democracy (PDF)


5 thoughts on “Here Beside the Rising Tide Talk & Slides

  1. Singing power to the people
    Power to the people
    Power to the people
    Power to the people, right on
    Now, now, now, now

    –John Lennon

    I was never as cocksure as John Lennon was about just who the people were who were the people. In fact, I had no idea. Still don’t.

    It did seem, however that the people were some amorphous mass that Lennon, Hoffman and others of that ilk would call forth from the bowels of hell to wreak havoc should their non-negotiable demands not be met. All these demands were delivered in overwrought, sterile and depersonalized language more suited to a Bolshevik committee meeting.

    So, instead of democratic (well maybe democratic in the sense that North Vietnam was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) there was a nasty tinge of totalitarianism to it or Mafia strong-arming. It was the tyranny of the minority.

    Tom Wolfe likened the scene in the Haight in 1966 or so to the post World War I socialist movement in which everyone had a “manifesto and a typewriter or mimeograph machine and they’re all fuming and cranking away like mad over each other’s mistranslation of the Message” (Kool Aid 337).

    (I did, however, like it when the Diggers were holding one of their walk-ins on the street and were told to disperse by a police officer because the streets were for the public. Participants then announced, “We are a public.”)

    The same thing goes for the idea of free. Didn’t musicians have expenses? Instruments, amplifiers, the need to eat, have shelter trail to gigs? Who was going to meet these expenses? Not these so-called revolutionaries. That’s for sure. And where were they when Garcia, Kaukonen, Cipollina were spending hour upon hour mastering their craft and then rehearsing with their bands? Out shaking people down or raising money for their group which couldn’t operate for free. Ah the sweet irony.

    Besides who were they to say who the music belonged to? Flashback to who were the people anyway? Who elected these knuckleheads to run the revolution anyway? I sure never voted for any of them. Besides anyone stupid enough to follow Abbie Hoffman deserved what he or she got.

    But I digress. Bill Graham’s autobiography includes an incident with the Motherfuckers and the demands they placed on him concerning their free use of the Fillmore East, his attempts to placate and work with them and then Bill having enough of them. It’s very instructive and is to be found on pages 253-257. Too much detail to go into here and I don’t like typing that much.

    There’s also a scene in Festival Express where some Canadian revolutionary group wants a free concert and you see Jerry Garcia’s attempt to reason with them.

    To me the trouble began when people tried to turn the cultural renaissance into something, to direct it a certain way or another and to politicize it. That’s death.

    In looking at the nascent counterculture, perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was that it was totally unanticipated and that it happened without a plan (though not without inspiration). While it’s true that certain individuals ultimately would attempt to influence the direction this culture would take, in the beginning it was more a matter of individually similar visions somehow finding each other and forming some sort of bond or connection. It was spontaneous and represented a charismatic and visceral sort of experience. There was a sense that these people were inventing it as they went along without any thought given to really inventing any “thing.” They were just doing it, whatever it was — music, painting, light shows, film, writing, or simply being. As a result, people did things solely for their own sake and enjoyment (and their friends’ as well) with little or no eye to the marketplace.

    The trouble began when people tried to turn the cultural renaissance into something, to direct it a certain way or another and to politicize it. That’s death.

    Norman O. Brown foretold the path that the counterculture would take in his 1960 essay “Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind”:

    I sometimes think I see that civilizations originate in the disclosure of some mystery, some secret; and expand with the progressive publication of their secret; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say profaned.

    So did Time magazine to Marty Balin:

    There was a scene there, it just wasn’t formed. As soon as everyone started doing something there were all these people suddenly, like light people, rock people, managers, and suddenly they were a scene. I remember it was really pretty and beautiful for a year or two and then Time magazine came out and they were interviewing me. I told the guy, “It’s great that you’re publicizing this beautiful-feeling scene out here,” and he looked me right in the eye and said, “Fastest way to kill it.”

    The music still rings true, however.

    1. Thanks Ragshag Bill —

      This is eloquent and thoughtful. I really appreciate your comments and reflections. One thing, for me, that you point to is the magic of things that aren’t quite given conscious form yet, but a kind of almost-conscious form–like a secret that people are in on but no one has quite spelled out yet. There was—and probably still is—a power in that. It makes so much sense then that music was one of the key modes for this, since the music could circulate shared feelings without putting labels on everything. Without ever taking the sounds too seriously (which takes us toward paranoid Charles Manson hearing secret messages about apocalypse in Helter Skelter land), but just letting it be there, suffusing life and experience with possibilities and openness. That.

      One perspective on this that I would add is that the *real* story is not what Hoffman or some other “leader” said was going on or should be going on. The real story is how lots of people took it upon themselves to try to make sense of these deep difficult questions about art, culture, fun and how they could connect to making the world a better place, a more democratic place, that reckoned with material needs and resources (how do you support “free” stuff economically?) and welcomed discussion and reflection right alongside healthy doses of dancing and “imbibing” and getting wild. It was in the mix between the two, and the openness to bring them together—the seriousness of thinking about the world and the fun of dancing in it (or just as convincingly, one might reverse that formula: the fun of thinking in the world and the seriousness of dancing about it!) that the counterculture left a legacy worth continuing to remember and assess and explore and, perhaps, carry forward. That part of it.

      Thanks again for these thoughtful reflections. I am so appreciative of them.


  2. A few things

    Sorry about the repeated paragraph. It happens.

    You speak about the nameless thing in your first paragraph.

    Or as the Tao Te Ching puts it:

    The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao

    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

    We are not content to leave well enough alone, however. We are driven to label things so we can dispense with them a Richard Farina observed. It’s a control thing.

    There are several aspects to dancing’s importance in the early days of the Haight. Barbara Wohl, a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, recalls:

    Everybody was dancing. . .the world had a need to dance and everybody was a participant in it. You danced without clutching. Everyone was independent in their dancing, yet everybody danced together. [There] was this need to dance or being a participant instead of. . .sitting there watching the band. . .it was something other than a performance. [Later] it became a performance. It was just this little instant of time when the dancer was equal to the musician on the stage and there was no difference between the performer and the performed upon.

    It was ecstatic but by 1968, reports indicate, nobody danced at rock concerts any
    more, but in 1966 and 1967 nobody sat down. It was quite impossible. “The concerts were a melee of bodies. It was a wonderful inspired sense of oneness.”

    It kind of reminds me of the ghost dancers of the Plains Indians who danced their ghost dance to reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to native peoples throughout the region. The dance itself was performed in a circular pattern continuously – which induced a state of religious ecstasy.

    Jefferson Airplane manager Bill Thompson “remembered “long lines of people, holding hands, dancing to the music. I mean, 20, 30 people sometimes, going around in a circle. They’d get caught up in the energy of the music, and the excitement. There was so much freedom.”

    These modern dancers were fueled by “the consciousness of one last good time before the rumbling thunder and black storm clouds that put out the best lit fire.” They were moved as well by the ache that accompanied disappearing childhoods.

    The sickness in the nation that had been spreading since JFK’s (still unsolved and unpunished) assassination (though we have edged r in the past 50 years and know a few and understand the nature and reason for the murder) was becoming apparent and was a felt presence much as the war was in Dylan’s later John Wesley Harding album. The Warren Report. Vietnam. The heroin plague built on shipments from the Golden Triangle in CIA planes. The figure of the murderous and corrupt Lyndon Johnson in power. Riots. More assassinations. And on and on until our democracy has become the shell of its former self and we find ourselves where we are today with no end to the misery and death in sight.

    But I pontificate.

    Lastly, Allen Ginsberg and others saw in this dancing in the midst of an environment of singing and music and lights as crucial to returning poetry to its proper role and place in society. This view held that each stage in poetry’s evolution marked an increase in its degradation. When poetry was tied to dance and the natural rhythms of the body, it was at its zenith. It lost the important physical aspect when it was reduced to music and shed the critical musical aspect when it was relegated to the spoken word. Finally, poetry was condensed to its weakest, most “disembodied” form – words on the printed page. There was now optimism about the promise of the new, fully “embodied” musical poetry of the mid-1960s and its reunion of verse, rhythm, and dance in the quest to again make poetry an integral part of everyday life.

    The whole free thing was distorted by the media’s portrayal of the Diggers as “Robin Hoods” dedicated to providing free goods and services to the community and of the hippies in general as lazy indolent louts. The truth about many of the hippies was they sought work that was meaningful to them. As far as the Diggers were concerned, there was a complete failure to recognize what they were, which was a theatrical enterprise.

    Sure they gave away free food in the park but that was theater as you were asked to step through a large frame and wear a small frame around your neck as a sign that everyone was in the same frame of reference. This was true of their free store as well. Sure you could go in a take a sweater off a rack and pay nothing for it. But the whole thing was a giant scene in which everything was free. You were free to do as you wished and to assume any role you chose. You could become a cashier, the manager, a clerk.

    And yes Abby Hoffman was a media whore of sorts. I do, however, salute those other people you mention who made the decision to question things and make the country and the world a better place for their courage, self-reliance and patriotism. The media was incapable of covering much beyond the superficialities and was plugged into ego and profit and the CIA (Operation Mockingbird). Oh well as Dino sang:

    The newspapers they just put you on.
    They never tell you the whole story.

    Someone back in the day said that the beauty of the Byrds playing Dylan was that now the kids could dance and think about the war at the same time. There was probably more dancing than thinking going, though. For Kesey serious fun was instead “hard kicks” when it came to LSD (I’m sure the pun was intended). I’ve always seen the acid tests as Kesey’s next literary work instead of a political entity. A “real” work if you will.

    Anyway I’ve ranted enough. Thanks for the opportunity. Have enjoyed it. I do have a 7.5-hour speech on this I could share with you if you wish (Just kidding).

    Keep ‘em coming.


    There was Ragshag Bill from Buffalo, I never will forget
    He would roar all day and he’d roar all night and I guess he’s roaring yet
    One day he fell in a prospect hole, in a roaring bad design
    And in that hole he roared out his soul, in the days of ’49
    In the days of old, in the days of gold
    How oft’times I repine for the days of old
    When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

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