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.
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.