Here Beside the Rising Tide

So Many Roads Conference 2014

upcoming talk, san jose, ca, 8 Nov 2014 – here beside the rising tide: the dead, the counterculture, & american democracy.

Deadheads (and not-Deadheads) Unite! I will be speaking at the upcoming conference and symposium, “So Many Roads: The World in the Grateful Dead” at San Jose State University, 5-8 November 2014. Come on along or go alone, here’s what I will be talking about (and don’t forget to buy a copy of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture while you are there–hip capitalism at work!):

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

The Grateful Dead played a triumphant free gig at Kezar Stadium on August 12th, 1969 as part of the Wild West Festival. Or so the poster, with a giant Aztec sun god on it, tells us. Only, they didn’t. The show was cancelled at the last minute, along with the rest of the Wild West Festival, which was to be a massive three-day free arts and music event in Golden Gate Park but was called off due to protests not from outside but rather within the Bay Area counterculture. Scheduled for the week before Woodstock (which one Bay Area newspaper referred to simply as Wild East), the Wild West Festival’s failure was, in its way, a kind of success. Although the show itself didn’t go on, Wild West unleashed fervent, spirited debate about what it meant to create a counterculture in modern America in terms of democracy, liberty, participation, inclusion, and fairness. The lost story of Wild West, which the Dead played an important part in shaping, asks us to rethink the typical Woodstock-Altamont trope that dominates how we remember rock music and sixties history.

Wild West Festival Poster 1969

Meanwhile, further afield and two years later, a rather unbelievable rock festival one would think would never happen did: the Saigon International Rock Festival of 1971. As young Vietnamese and other Pacific Asian bands took the stage in long hair and bell bottoms at the Saigon Zoo, they seemed to create a Summer of Love outpost within the war zone itself. This event also challenges the stale (and merely American-focused) trope of Woodstock and Altamont as countercultural Garden of Eden and sinful fall of hippie from innocence and grace, respectively. It reminds us that the Dead’s story links to an international tale of countercultural engagement through rock’s sounds and styles. Yet the tale of the Saigon International Rock Festival, like that of Wild West, is also complicated and vexing: seemingly part of the peace movement and the counterculture, it was paradoxically sponsored by the most hawkish, corrupt, pro-American wing of Vietnamese society.

We might say, then, that while Wild West’s success as a countercultural event was to be found in a funny kind of failure, the Saigon event’s failure lurked in its very success. Such were the ironies of rock music, the counterculture, and American democracy in the world during the late 1960s and early 1970s. These were ironies, paradoxes, contradictions that the Dead themselves struggled mightily with throughout the band’s career, from the breakthroughs of the Acid Tests to the closing era of MegaDead. So in this talk, I encourage you to think this through with me—to consider what it means to try to make truly democratic music that fosters democratic culture, and to do so in a world that remains tragic and flawed but also, still, to this day, filled with hope and possibility whenever we come to hear Uncle John’s Band by the riverside, whenever we try to tell the fire from the ice.

Full text and slides from talk.

2 thoughts on “Here Beside the Rising Tide

    by Ken Kesey

    Hey, Jerry– what’s happening? I caught your funeral. Weird.

    Big Steve was good. And Grissman. Sweet sounds. But what really stood

    out — stands out — is the thundering silence, the lack, the absence of

    that golden Garcia lead line, of that familiar slick lick with the uptwist

    at the end, that merry snake twining through the woodpile, flickering in

    and out of the loosely stacked chords…a wriggling mystery, bright and

    slick as fire… suddenly gone.

    And the silence left in its wake was– is– positively


    Now they want me to say something about that absence, Jer. Tell

    some backstage story, share some poigniant reminescence. But I have to

    tell you, man: I find myself considerably disinclined. I mean, why go

    against the grain of such an eloquent silence?

    I remember standing out in the pearly early dawn after the Muir

    Beach Acid Test, leaning on the top rail of a driftwood fence with you and

    Lesh and Babbs, watching the world light up, talking about our glorious

    futures. The gig had been semi-successful and the air was full of exulted

    fantasies. Babbs whacks Phil on the back.

    “Just like the big time, huh Phil.”

    “It is! It is the big time! Why, we could cut a chart-busting

    record to-fucking-morrow!”

    I was even more optimistic. “Hey, we taped tonight’s show. We

    could release a record tomorrow.

    “Yeah right–” (holding up that digitally challenged hand the way

    you did when you wanted to call attention to the truth or the lack

    thereof) “–and a year from tomorrow be recording a Things Go Better With

    Coke commercial.”

    You could be a sharp-tongued popper-of-balloons shit-head when you

    were so inclined, you know. A real bastard. You were the sworn enemy of

    hot air and commercials, however righteous the cause or lucrative the

    product. Nobody ever heard you use that microphone as a pulpit. No

    anti-war rants, no hymns to peace. No odes to the trees and All things

    Organic. No ego-deaths or born-againnesses. No devils denounced no gurus

    glorified. No dogmatic howlings that I ever caught wind of. In fact,

    your steadfast denial of dogma was as close as you ever came to having a


    And to the very end, Old Timer, you were true to that creed. No

    commercials. No trendy spins. No bayings of belief. And if you did have

    any dogma you surely kept it tied up under the back porch where a smelly

    old hound belongs.

    I guess that’s what I mean about a loud silence. Like

    Michaelangelo said about sculpting, “The statue exists inside the block of

    marble. All you have to do is chip away the stone you don’t need.” You

    were always chipping away at the superficial.

    It was the false notes you didn’t play that kept that lead line so

    golden pure. It was the words you didn’t sing. So this is what we are

    left with, Jerry: this golden silence. It rings on and on without any

    hint of let up…on and on. And I expect it will still be ringing years

    from now.

    Because you’re still not playing falsely. Because you’re still

    not singing Things Go Better With Coke.

    Ever your friend,


    1. I’ve always loved that eulogy. But do they go better with Fruitopia or Ben and Jerrys…(or Springfield Creamery?!)? That may be the question!

      In another telling of this story it’s Kesey making the things go better quote. A mythic folk tale!


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