Last weekend, tens of thousands converged on Autzen Stadium to either witness or relive a Grateful Dead concert. Next weekend, an equal number will travel to Veneta to bask in the same spirit at the Oregon Country Fair. Today is smack between these two events; the eye of a storm between two counterculture gales.
In this quiet moment, let us ask the question: What was it about the Grateful Dead that has given its followers such endurance? We talk — usually derisively — about how the mood of the movement hasn’t changed in 50 years, but how was that accomplished? Whether you like what it stands for or not, the fact that the movement has barely changed in two generations is remarkable. So let us remark.
First there’s the music. While other bands were busy defining rock, blues, modern jazz, and country music, the Grateful Dead was blending them. Band members have always borrowed freely from any genre that pleased them, sometimes in the middle of a concert.
Many — supporters and detractors alike — would insist that drugs must be mentioned first. I don’t agree. The music and the light shows and the vibe of the crowd may be impacted by an altered state, but nobody discusses college football fandom by first asking how many hours of tailgating preceded their stadium experience.
In both cases, it’s not an irrelevant factor. But it’s not central. In fact, I would argue that the blending of musical styles and the band’s preferred alteration of awareness flow from a common source. There’s an underlying ethos: Distinctions are not to be trusted. Boundaries must be blurred.
Those rules can create a mystical concert experience. Once you arrive at the venue, everyone is sharing something larger than self. There’s a melding that takes place.
They called it “free love” when the movement began, but its goal was not to reject marriage or to upend patriarchy. It was simply to question power structures and let people decide for themselves. Whether the sexual revolution empowered or objectified women is not knowable, because it was — and is — different for each individual.
The radical charge of the movement was also completely natural: ask questions. That’s almost always enough to upset the status quo.
Over the decades, popular culture has drifted toward the Grateful Dead’s world view; not the other way around. Marriage today is viewed skeptically by many. Marijuana inches toward widespread legalization and long ago surpassed many of its stigmas. Society at large doesn’t yet look like a Grateful Dead concert, but it’s getting closer — and only one side is moving.
None of this begins to answer — at least not directly — how the Grateful Dead’s following has remained stalwart and surprisingly true to its 1960s roots. Most of the band’s followers have gone on to lives that are outwardly indistinguishable from others. And yet there remains something that has not been extinguished.
I give credit to another boundary-blurring aspect of the Grateful Dead concert experience. Compact cassette recorders hit the consumer market in 1964. Sales increased roughly tenfold each year. By the end of the 1960s, most households owned at least one personal audio recording device.
Concert promoters began to strictly prohibit recording of concerts. The Grateful Dead did the opposite. They encouraged fans to record every minute of every concert. Copying and trading cassettes was promoted. Bootleg recordings became a lifeblood.
The Grateful Dead charted a new path when that decision was made, if it ever really was a decision at all. It may have just felt to them like the right thing to do, even if everyone else in the music industry was doing the opposite.
The audience brought energy that a studio recording lacks. Doesn’t that make every person in the stadium a co-creator? The band and its fans become just one more distinction not to be trusted — another boundary worth blurring.
Think about what a difference that has made. Those who came late to the movement have never lacked access to its origins. No one bothered to scrub the imperfections — they celebrated them instead.
Nothing was perfected for posterity. And how has posterity responded? Perfectly.
Don Kahle (email@example.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.