interview with David Gans
Broadcast on the Grateful Dead Hour - January 1999
Carol Brightman was an anti-war activist in the '60s and later the biographer of the writer Mary McCarthy. She sometimes wondered why so many of the committed social-change movements of the '60s were crushed or co-opted, or just fizzled out, while the Grateful Dead's hedonistic, tribal road show grew and throve and wound up a cultural institution.
Carol Brightman's perspective is not entirely that of an outsider: her sister, Candace, was the Dead's lighting designer for 25 years, and so Carol saw her share of shows and spent time with the band members and others.
I wrote the blurb for the back cover of Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, so you know in advance that I am giving it a thumbs-up review. Carol and I met in Chicago in December, where Ken Nordine was kind enough to let us do this interview in his studio. Thanks also to Kris Nordine for engineering the session. here's Carol Brightman, in a conversation recorded December 19, 1998 in Chicago.
David Gans: Even though you had a relative who was closely involved with the Grateful Dead, you really weren't part of that culture. You were part of a different stream that came out of the Sixties, and you decided to write a book about this interesting subject from your outside perspective.
Carol Brightman: Right.
DG: How did you begin to get a handle on what the Grateful Dead means,and what it's about?
CB: Well, I think when I started interviewing, my first interview --when I truly was an ignoramus about the music, a little more so than I am now -- was with Mickey Hart in 1992, and he began to speak very eloquently about the ambiguity that occurs when the musicians are playing overlapping themes, and so on. I might read from that for a moment. But it was when I began to realize what it meant to improvise in music, and how you had to truly let go of the formulas. . . you had to know the formulas, you had to know your technique. Jerry, probably more than anyone, represents that obsession with technique, in order to let go of the formulas.
In that way, you could listen to each other; you would have to listen to each other, and you would then pick up phrases or little bridges that might allow you -- and it wasn't just you and one other person, it was a group -- to reach another shore. I heard that, I have to admit -- maybe because I'm a word person -- I heard it in interviews with the band most eloquently before I actually heard it in the music. Although I had been hearing, even in '90, '91 -- I think it was in '91 at the Meadowlands, before I thought about writing a book -- I had heard these transitional riffs of Jerry's, and I would say to myself, "This is jazz," because jazz was more familiar to me in a way.
And I would hear the letting go of the last tune and the kind of groping -- I didn't know the phrases of all the tunes yet; that came later, but I knew that he was letting go of whatever was happening, and probing, and throwing out these little phrases, and they were being answered kind of call-and-response. And that process was fascinating to me musically, but it was when I heard Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh talk about improvisation and how it worked for them that I began to sense that this was a very profound metaphor for our culture. Even though, as Mickey pointed out and as everybody knows, it was very rarely practiced toward the end; those risks weren't really taken. The pressure of performing on a monstrous stage in front of 60,000 people, night after night, year after year, made it very hard to let go of anything. In fact, everybody was hanging on their teddy bears, whatever they were.
But still, I think I began to think -- and now I can say this, and even now it's not every clear -- I think we're in a period now when we have to pay attention to the chaos around us, and put our ear to the ground. And I think musicians know that; there are jam bands everywhere. It's one of the traditions that's been inherited from the Grateful Dead that will always be there.
DG: They really are the sort of grandparents of a whole generation of young bands.
CB: Yes, they are.
DG: I always thought that the mainstream rock critics were really missing the boat. Some of the more polemical rock critics - Dave Marsh, of course, being the emblematic Dead hater -- I think they really missed something about the Grateful Dead, because in a way, the Grateful Dead embodied everything that Lester Bangs and all those guys thought was important about rock 'n roll, which is attitude and a total disregard for convention. They created an entire universe for themselves, and proceeded to succeed with it and to attract many people to it. And in a way, they fulfilled the promise of rock 'n' roll to phenomenal degree, and I always thought it was a shame that the critics who demanded that sort of thing of their heroes were so dismissive of the Grateful Dead.
CB: Yeah, well that's a whole subject. There's a way in which the fact that the Grateful Dead succeeded in creating this universe drove critics and the industry crazy, because they did it. And it wasn't trusted, because they had their own bands, their own radio station, their own trucks at a certain point, their own records briefly, and they tried to do it all themselves. I think this is something which maybe has 19th-century precedents, but it doesn't allow for good media exposure, because you haven't involved the larger entertainment industry in your product. So classic rock stations and critics -- the critics that were created by the explosion of rock 'n' roll, the founding of Rolling Stone, and so on -- are not beholden to you. They don't feel connected to you. I think there was a negative aspect to that, too, which was that the Grateful Dead stayed contained within its own culture. The positive part is that as musicians, they were constantly reaching out and making these connections that other rock'n'roll bands that faded by the wayside weren't making. They had to keep reaching out for their own survival, and so they took in other influences, as you know much better than I can say, far beyond the American roots music that propelled them.
DG: Why don't read a little bit from "Sweet Chaos" here?
CB: I'm not sure what this is going to lead to. . .
Mickey Hart speaks eloquently of the ambiguity that occurs when the musicians are playing overlapping themes during the little grey areas between the songs. "For a while, nothing happens and you stay on a pulse, and things start bubbling up and somebody makes a decision and they try to push or pull the rest of the band there," he tells me. It's a moment that every creative person knows: the worst and best of times, when you empty the mind to make room for the uninvited guest.
For the Grateful Dead, such moments could last seconds or many minutes. I ask Hart if the band ever loses the audience. "You might," he says, "but that's not important. The idea is to stay with it yourself. Playing for the audience is pretty foolish. I mean, you can't *play* for the audience, you"ve got to play for yourself and your mates." I'm surprised by this response, which sounds like heresy coming from a band whose symbiotic relationship with its fans is nonpareil. But I will hear it again, and come to appreciate how the Dead's introversion, and matters both musical and political, contributed in no small way to their holding power.
Anyway, it started a long time ago, with Jerry Garcia's penchant for playing new songs in front of a live audience. Each new setting provided an edge against which the band played, changed how a song developed, as if the listeners, seen but not heard, and treated more often than not to musical chaos, were nonetheless a necessary catalyst to the creative process.
"The Jefferson Airplane certainly never went out there with anything they didn't have down cold," Rock Scully observes. "The Dead would play stuff that they didn't even remember having written that day." Marmaduke Dawson, guitarist of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, who toured with the Dead in 1970-71, agrees. "None of them knew where they were going, especially during the long, three- to five-hour sets when, fortified by a good bit of LSD, they were trying for the magic."
"Garcia would be there playing around with something and Weir would be playing around with something and everybody would be doing five things together on the stage, and people would still be listening and saying, what the hell is going on here? And sometimes they would get it, the magic of all of them seeming to think together. The magic could be worth waiting for, but for the fans, so too was the waiting.
This is something that took me a while to understand. I had to talk toa lot of Deadheads to understand this.
The waiting, of course, was part of the existential rush of teetering on the edge of chaos, when chaos is giving birth to new forms. For the musicians, finding the "good stuff" entailed a surrender to a higher power, which was the group -- the group grope. When Bill Kreutzmann speaks of his distaste for the long, showy solos of drummers in the late '60s, he reflects a similar spirit. "I like playing in an ensemble," he declares. "That's the most fun for me, to complement the lead player, lay off a little when the vocals are going. Sometimes virtuosity is lost on me, on any instrument. Kreutzmann makes a point of establishing eye contact with the others, moving cymbals around to see Garcia better -- or he did until the 1990s when, seated on the drummer's throne, with his grey head thrown back, eyes rolled up to the sky, he looked like Nero, contemplating the angels, while Rome burned.
It was in earlier years, the Dead's last show at Winterland, for example, which is the subject of The Grateful Dead Movie, that he relished the moments when "we'll be in a jam, and I'll look over at Jerry, and he'll look back at me, and it's like -- This is great! You havin' fun? I thought so."
DG: I asked the notably recalcitrant Robert Hunter a few questions when I was doing the update of my book, "Playing in the Band," following Jerry's death. I was asking four questions of a number of different people, and I asked those four questions of Hunter, who was sort of reluctant and gave me the answers -- and proclaiming himself to not be responding to the interview -- but basically I asked him, what was it about the Grateful Dead? And he said, "We raised self-indulgence to a high art."
DG: And again, that goes back to the thing about what rock 'n' roll was all about. Everything about rock 'n roll was about self-expression, about self-indulgence, about being in the moment, about making it real, and being honest about it. And I think the Grateful Dead did that, in a collective way, and sort of modeled a higher consciousness. It's interesting to read your book, and other people's books from more inside perspectives, about how chaotic and untogether it really was, and how unconscious that all was. Because we out in the audience believed this was an intentional chaos, that they designed it that way. Jerry's rap had this thing about trusting the moment, and the situation is the boss, and all these things, and I didn't realize until much later that that was the sort of stuff that he could say easily, because he was the absolute commandant of that whole chaotic thing.
CB: Right, right.
DG: So, it was self-indulgent, and that was what it was meant to be, and we were all in on that and very happy to be receiving the products of that self-indulgence.
DG: So I don't see what the problem was. <laugh> Know what I mean?
CB: <chuckle> I could ask you: you know the answer, but what's your question?
DG: Why did people outside this world find it so hard to like it, or to tolerate it, or even to accept its validity?
CB: Well, one thing -- I was thinking of this earlier when you mentioned critics, like Dave Marsh -- one thing, of course, that a lot of those critics -- maybe not Marsh, but people like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau -- they were caught up, they went to concerts and they wrote about the band, until the early '70s, when Deadheads -- that didn't start then, but they stopped writing [about the Dead] in the early '70s, and I think they were -- I'm speaking for them and they should speak for themselves, but I think they couldn't accept the music culture of the Grateful Dead, once they began to see it as a sociological phenomenon. Which was scary to them, and if they wrote about it in any serious or favorable way, perhaps they'd be tarred by association with what they saw as a cult.
And that's an interesting question. I think the reason why -- as far as Jerry constantly talking about hanging with the moment and so on -- there is something ersatz about that. The honesty of that was what described their primary experience playing at the Acid Tests and later. It was really their credo, and they came by it honestly. And improvisation was real, as it is for many serious musicians, and you do have to let go, and they did discover things, because a lot of them had done their homework. And sometimes they were just lucky. And most of the time they *didn't* get to a new shore; you know, they fumbled around.
But I think it was the fact that that mantra was repeated in a context when it was no longer really being practiced, is where it began to be edgy. And then when it was embraced, perhaps -- I can't speak to this, because I don't have the experience, and I'm not a Deadhead, but when it was embraced over and over again, again as a kind of a mantra, was it practiced? Was it understood? Were the risks involved really understood, about living with the moment and all of that stuff?
I mean, there's a way in which that defined a cultural moment, when living with the moment involved denying the past and forgetting about the future. And yet, if you're someone who has your feet on the ground and you have a past, as the Grateful Dead did musically, and you have a future, and they certainly did -- they wanted to create an audience; that was their program, I believe, as well as playing together, which they're still doing -- then living with the moment was a necessary means to those ends. But if you're just kind of floating around, and you really don't know where you come from and you're not sure where you're going, living with the moment can just be a dead end.
I don't know if that's what -- I can't start speaking for critics and all the rest, but I think that one of the reasons why the -- I think the Grateful Dead's message is best understood by people who are applying it creatively, and that now involves a broader spectrum than just music. The fact that the Grateful Dead has spun off infinite numbers of projects -- you know, visual, as well as music. . . not so strong in the political department, but that's not their department, but the fact that they're at the center of many, many things in this culture that people don't even relate to the Grateful Dead, is the real testimony to the power of that institution, in the larger culture.
DG: Where were you in 1970 when this stuff was happening?
CB: I was in Berkeley, in '70-'71, but I really thought then and I do think now that '70-'71 was a real significant year. It was a turning point; it was the end of the Sixties. You might say the Sixties really started in '64, with the Free Speech Movement, with Kesey's bus trip across the country, with the Tonkin Bay incident, which Johnson used to declare war on North Vietnam, and even at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, which was when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, representing black Mississippians, was admitted briefly, and then disenfranchised from the convention. All these things marked the beginning of the Sixties.
But in 1970 I was out in Berkeley, kind of burnt out, with a lot of radicals. And the Haight Ashbury was totally burnt out, you know, it was just a drug ghetto. And the Grateful Dead was in orbit. They had begun to go into orbit nationally. They had started a couple of years before. And in 1971 is when they sent out their famous message: "Dead freaks unite." You know, who are you, where are you. And they touched a chord, at that particular moment, and I remember -- I mean, this is putting two things together that I certainly did see as related at the time, because I saw the Grateful Dead as sort of just a fringe group that was just a *musical* phenomenon. When I first saw them play in 1972, I really saw that it was a social phenomenon. That was on the East Coast, when I saw them play in '72.
But I was a political radical who had been active in the anti-war movement for five or six years, and I was living in a commune in Berkeley called the Media Collective, or Stuart Street -- all the communes had street names. Our claim to fame -- my comrades, not myself -- they were all art students who had left their colleges in 1970, right after the shootings at Kent State, and they did the posters and shrouds for the silkscreening for the Black Panther Party, along with a lot of other events in the Bay Area.
And I was, I think just by virtue of being on the West Coast, and of leaving New York and the East Coast, coming to California and settling in the Bay Area was a kind of a groping towards -- looking for a cultural experience outside the mainstream. I mean, I was already politically way out there. But if you were interested in music, and drugs -- I was a little late for that, but some of us were still starting at that point -- the Bay Area was very attractive. Berkeley was like a liberated zone, you know. The paradoxes in that were apparent to me at the time. But still, where else were you gonna go? You were on the edge there.
I actually saw the Grateful Dead as not an outlaw culture at all then, but young people in colleges, I now know, did, in '70-'71. Going out on the streets was scary then. That wasn't the option it might have been for their brothers and sisters, either in high school or college. The Grateful Dead arrived with their sort of Hell's Angels, you know, stomping toughness, and the drugs, which was a way of jumping over the barricades without ever moving out of your dorm room --
CB: -- and they had this music. So, this is one of my theories, that I came to only in writing the book, helped along by the fact that I discovered the Grateful Dead systematically cultivated college audiences in '70-'71, intensively. You know, playing at places like Harpur College, or Franklin & Marshall, four or five times at a pop. And then coming back year after year. So, I then did decide that there was a kind of connection between the breakdown of my movement -- which I realize I haven't talked about, but you can't say everything -- and the blooming of the Grateful Dead as a national phenomenon that was here to stay. Who knew it was here to stay then?
DG: I think the killings at Kent State really scared off a lot of people who decided maybe it wasn't such a good thing to take to the streets and protest the war. I realize that protests continued and movements did continue, but you know, somewhere along in there the Weather Underground split off and started doing some really ugly stuff, and I think maybe a lot of people gravitated toward the Grateful Dead because it was a way to get out of the mainstream without getting into a dangerous sidestream.
DG: And it was a thoroughly pleasant place to be. And an undisciplined, uncontrolled, unpoliced one.
DG: You could get away with a lot, psychically and physically, in that world -- and plus, you know, the music was great.
CB: Right, right.
DG: But I also think -- you mention the "Dead freaks unite" thing, and that brings up one of the interesting contradictions. The Grateful Dead have always had this legendary reputation for being anti-marketing --
DG: -- and a completely noncommercial thing, but they were very conscious and very ambitious from the get-go. And maybe they did a brilliant job of masking their ambition and their marketing.
CB: I don't think they set out to mask it. I think they were both things. You know, they were stumblebums, and they were -- when you hear the Grateful Dead described by people like Smith, Joe Smith -- he was from Warner Brothers?
CB: He talks about going to meetings and the women are nursing babies, and Owsley's there and he's passing out the latest bit of acid, and half are stoned and half are this and that -- and he used to arrive with a bodyguard. I haven't interviewed him; I found this out second-hand, but that's fascinating in itself. This was in the Sixties still. Then you realize that this band really appeared to be Neanderthals, and really seemed quite unprofessional. On the other hand, if you look at the record, and what they did, it didn't matter who was doing it. You know, you look at who the managers were, or what was happening to the money, or when decisions were made or how they were made; the fact remains that they set out, around the late Sixties, to create an audience that would support their habit, which was music.
And save them from their dismal recordings; this was their opinion. I mean, the dismal record of their recordings. They really decided quite early that records were not gonna make their career; I think that's pretty well known. And no other really serious songwriting -- I could be challenged on this! -- was really done after Workingman's Dead and American Beauty and those 1970 records and that music. And that spoke for an era in a very powerful way, and has come to *stand* for the era, those songs. That's why they were played over and over, all through the years. But I really think that -- if you look at a group like the Dead from its practice, you have to say that they were absolutely brilliant in the way they marketed themselves. And the most brilliant decision they ever made was to try, to the best of their ability - they didn't always succeed; look at Warner Brothers -- to do it themselves.
DG: Mm-hm. I have to take issue with your contention that no serious songwriting took place [after 1970]. Bob Weir hadn't even begun to be a serious songwriter at that point, and he sort of made his debut with an album full of tremendous stuff, called Ace, that came out in 1972. But I think the collective composition era ended around that time -- when they were all hangin' out, living together, and working on the songs together. And the real serious, hardcore woodshedding --
DG: -- sort of peaked in '70 and '71, and from that time on, there was individual songwriting going on. Hunter and Garcia certainly wrote some wonderful stuff after that.
CB: Yeah, I know.
DG: But, I think you --
CB: No, I think you're right, except I want to point out that this is a reflection of the shift in drug use. I think what ended, as you say, was the woodshedding -- the collective, in the larger sense, involvement in writing the songs.
DG: Yeah --
CB: And certain partnerships persisted -- of course, Barlow and Weir, and as you say, Hunter [and Garcia] wrote a lot of good songs later, but they were not the products of the band, in the same way that those songs that came out in 1970 are.
DG: Now, in Sweet Chaos; The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, you tackle the subject of drugs in a way that really, I think, an insider couldn't do. It's been mentioned -- Rock Scully's book is a very colorful and sort of horrifying account of Jerry's drug history and stuff, but what I learned from your book that I find useful, if somewhat hard to absorb at times, is what happened collectively to the culture when the socializing, happy psychedelics gave way to the alienating, compartmentalizing stimulants --
CB: Right, right.
DG: -- and I'd like you to read a passage from the book about that. I think it's on page 170.
CB: Yeah, this of course didn't just happen to the Grateful Dead. This is about the whole transformation of the hippie culture, so-called. That was a Time magazine pejorative phrase used at that time.
Hard drugs had chased out the soft, as they had begun to do inside the Grateful Dead organization. "In 1969 and 1970, it became apparent that something was going on with the drug supply," Mountain Girl recalls. "Acid was getting harder to get. And there was all this other stuff around, especially cocaine, which was being touted by doctors like Dr. Hippocrates, Gene Schoenfeld, in the Berkeley Free Press. It's great stuff, they'd say. It's pure, and it helps you get through your work day, and there's no hangover." And Mountain Girl wants to know, "Where does this cocaine come from? Could we ask this question?"
With Paul Krassner, she believed that cocaine, like heroin, which moved in on the Dead some year later, was not necessarily coming by donkey back over the mountains of Mexico from campesinos far away. It was coming on 747s from Southeast Asia and South America, with the CIA. "They were flying it into this country, she says. and dropping it off to their informants in the inner cities. And it made its way to our scene right away, because so much of it went to San Francisco and Berkeley. And it destroyed our scene," she exclaims. "And it destroyed the scene in Berkeley, too. It did its job, boy, and it was like a bullet right at the heart of the whole thing. And it scared the shit out of me. I was sure we were being targeted."
"You probably were," I suggest. "You were a market. Druggies with a public who wanted to do everything you did."
"I never thought about the wider thing," Mountain Girl says. "I only thought about us; I only thought that we were being targeted. The bullet had struck at the heart of the band's extended family, which in a couple of years would be surrounded by "rich fringies" connected to invisible dealers who "started showing up on our doorsteps with big old sacks of this stuff."
"Hey, look what's happening here," Mountain Girl would say. Everybody's running off into the bathroom. They're jumping into their car or disappearing. They're not coming home. Dinner doesn't matter. Forget doing anything together. You come home, and you're in a terrible shitty mood, coming down from this stuff."
Mountain Girl has her own take on CIA drug-running at the time. She's inclined to think it was for the money, that it was this little branch that had run amok, she says. "They were down tinkering with these little wars in South America, and their agents got into the blow. And they realized they could sell this stuff and make money and fuel their secret wars, in Guatemala and Colombia, especially.
"Who were the dealers who were showing up on your doorstep?" I asked. "Not dealers," she says. "We never saw the dealers." Or at least she didn't. "You'd hear, 'Hey, man, wow, this is the new thing.' I tried it and hated it immediately," she declares. "It made me dislike music. It made me dislike my clothes. It made me dislike people. I didn't want anybody to touch me. It turned me into a horrible, whining Nazi bitch, and I decided it was not my drug, immediately."
"It must have been terrible for the band's music," I say, "because they weren't listening to each other."
"But it wasn't, no. They played faster and louder, but it didn't seem to affect the music itself that much. Besides," she says, "there were still enough psychedelics around that there was some balance."
For Jerry and Mountain Girl, the arrival of these drugs was the beginning of the end."It was disconcerting," Mountain Girl tells me, "to be the only one holding back in a room full of friends with whom you always used to do things together." All of a sudden, she was the odd guy out, she and Sue Swanson, who didn't like cocaine either.
Sometimes Mountain Girl would stay up all night with Jerry and the others and rap and talk. Then the next morning, she would say, "Jeez, did anybody say anything worth anything? No, nobody said anything worth shit. All this extra-powerful conversation lead to nothing, led to insight, led to no improvement in the consciousness of the people involved in it. It was just a bunch of surface crud."
So her half a dozen cocaine experiences ended. She lost many friends, but fortunately, she and Jerry were living with Bob Hunter and his girlfriend Christie Bourne in a nice house in Larkspur. Annabelle was a little girl, and she and Sunshine had a decent home life. Watching the kids play, though, Mountain Girl remembers her spirit sinking. In fact, she hadn't known what was going on at first, just that something awful had happened, and she was powerless to stop it.
"Cocaine is a crystal that wants you to want more of it," Kesey explains. You can have a hundred dollars of acid in the refrigerator, and a hundred dollars in coke, and you'll use the coke before midnight. You won't use the acid all year. You don't know anybody who's going back and taking these monster trips," he adds, answering a question I've had. Are these old acidheads still dropping 500 micrograms of LSD? The answer is no, though both Mountain Girl and Kesey still dabble with psychedelics.
And Kesey regards the right to use such drugs as equivalent to a woman's reproductive rights. "What's going on inside you is your own business," he says. Every Easter, he and his Prankster friends and families drive to the top of a little mountain in front of the Kesey ranch in Pleasant Valley and drop some acid. Kesey, who believes that the federal government made LSD illegal in 1966 after recognizing how it might threaten the status quo, also believes that the government sent in the "counter-revolutionary drugs," booze and heroin and coke, "to break up the community."
"Everybody who has been through the coke scene knows that all you ever care about is yourself," he asserts. "You're suspicious of everyone because they're out to get the stash," and he tells me a story about how Hitler and five buddies were into cocaine. When the war was about to start, Hitler was afraid the supply would be cut off. So he ordered some chemists to come up with a substitute, and the substitute they came up with was methedrine.
"That's where meth came from" Kesey states. It came from the Nazis. It's a Nazi drug. Everybody has used speed to try to get stuff done," he says, "but if you use it for too long, pretty soon you begin to become violent."
By 1971, meanwhile, meth and cocaine had turned the Haight into a drug ghetto. It had become a teenage slum with a soaring crime rate, something new on the American map, in that its inhabitants were largely white and middle class. Hard times had eaten into the salad days of the mid-'60s, when $50 and a little help from your friends could carry you across the country, Vietnam spending was exacting its toll on the domestic economy.
For while the troops had begun to trickle home, the bombing had escalated and the war had widened. In Berkeley and San Francisco, the curbside free boxes, where almost anything could be found, were emptying. The boomtime surpluses of the 1950s and '60s were drying up.
David Gans: Your direct connection to the Grateful Dead was through your sister, Candace, who was their lighting director for 25 years or so. And I gather that that brought you into contact with the band; you'd go to shows from time to time, maybe even socialize with them a little bit. I always thought that, whatever else was going on, they were a fairly likable buncha guys, in casual encounters, and they certainly had a charisma on stage that was undeniable, to those who got it. And maybe that's one of those things; if you didn't get the music, you didn't think they were so cool, or whatever. How did it look to you, in your sort of sporadic encounters?
Carol Brightman: Well, I have to say, to begin with, it's true -- I went to the first concert in '72, and that was when Candace started working full time for the Dead. Before that, she had worked at the Fillmore, as a lighting designer there. And I didn't pay a lot of attention to the band, to tell you the truth, or the music. I was there to visit Candace and to see what she was doing, and I was checking out the lighting. And the backstage scene always seemed kind of, oh, unreal, you know. The backstage always seemed to me much emptier than what was happening in the audience, when the music was happening. People would wanna get backstage because they'd wanna sort of be part of the inner circle. And yet there was always this feeling I felt backstage of emptiness, as you feel when you're around celebrities. And what's going on is, people wanting something they don't have, which is one of the saddest things in the world. Maybe for the celebrities as well as for the audience.
But I didn't get the sense -- Candace, as time went on, would ventilate, and she would talk about her frustrations with the band, touring with the band, or the crew, and I would pick up stuff and I might come back and say, well, how can you stand this? And then she would jump on me and she'd say, oh, but we're family!
CB: This was a one-way conversation for a long time. She would stay with me often in New York when she was at the Meadowlands or in New York at Madison Square Garden. She would stay with me when I lived in Brooklyn. She even lived next door from Brooklyn when she dropped out of the Dead for a couple of years in '73; we were neighbors. But I wasn't allowed to vent. I didn't make many comments; I just heard her out.
But I didn't form the opinion of [the Dead as] a tight, collegial group at all. But I sensed that they had assimilated a level of abrasiveness among themselves that was almost as important as the cereal in the morning that you start your day with. I think if I was working within that circle, I might be able to be less sanguine about it. You know, maybe it was really much worse than that. But I just assumed that they thrived on conflict and confrontation, even among themselves. So I never really quite understood this mystique about the brotherhood of the Grateful Dead, as a band, outside their music.
DG: I think it's possible that the brotherhood existed when it was a much, much, much smaller unit --
DG: -- when it really was five band members and their just immediate people, and the road crew. Now, I've been a touring musician, to a very, very minor degree, and I've seen enough of the sense of concerted quest that accompanies that thing. There is something -- there is a bond that forms almost instantly when you are in this little space pod traveling through reality, And I have a feeling that by the time it got even as big as it was in '72, which was nothin' compared to what happened by '87 or so --
DG: -- there were already too many outsiders in it, and it was not possible for the real nut of it to encompass all of these other people. And it may be that, as integral as Candace Brightman was to the presentation and to the touring company, she still was too late an arrival to be part of the inner family. And it may be that the sort of secret language that those guys shared was part of what made it difficult for other people to. . .
CB: Maybe so, but I have a feeling I that even if she had arrived earlier, she would have stayed outside, by her own choice. I think you're right when you talk about her existing in between the zones of the band and the audience, and I think her deepest allegiances were with the audience, is my feeling. Which could sometimes frustrate her, you know, and she could sometimes be as abrasive, probably, as anybody else when they were in the way, but not really, because I think she had their interests -- I think she was really playing, in some ways, for the audience.
And of course, the band finally at long last picked up on that. And when the music began to falter, as you say, and improvisation had sort of dried up, the lighting became more and more important, The spectacle became more and more important. And she was, in fact, entertaining the audience, sometimes. And some of the band members, Bob Weir in particular -- and Lesh, also -- was quite aware of that. Even though they never saw her performance, because they were never on the other side.
But I really think that she was, by temperament, probably, and by choice -- well, she was a woman; it would not have been an issue for her, but it might have been an issue for the guys. And of course, Mountain Girl drifted away, you could say in the sense that that same year when cocaine came in and she found herself hanging out with the guys less and less, and being excluded because she wasn't using it -- she was already outside the inner circle by '72, '73. That was a circle that made it very hard to be a part of, from a very early time on.
David Gans: It was more than just the music that attracted me to it at first. I didn't comprehend what was really great about that music, at first. It was the songwriting that attracted me, and the vibe, and the sort of sense of magic. And the feeling that I was in this room of ecstatic, magical stuff happening. And then, over the first few years of my involvement with it, I really came to appreciate and understand and internalize the musical conversation and the thing that was unique about Grateful Dead. I mean, they would -- it was like instant architecture. These guys would take off from structured places and go into this uncharted place, and build magnificent structures together, and then decide on a path and glide back down to earth. And this thing was happening -- and at their peak in the '70s, I think, there was just nothing like it.
And then, as the time, alienation, drugs -- all these things took their toll, and the magic sort of eased out of it, and it became more and more of a ritual. I sort of began to wonder how anybody could come into it and be attracted to it, and how they still acquired new fans, even after the time when I think their real peak days were past. And it's clear that what was happening was the ecstasy was still there, and those of us who were habituated to it were still able to get what we wanted from it. And *that* was transmissible. People would come in for the first time and see it, and they would be in this room full of people having a great time, and even if the greatness of it wasn't the same as it had been, there was still greatness there. It was a more universal kind of -- the ecstasy that was happening was still available to anybody who tapped into it.
Carol Brightman: Right, right.
DG: And I guess there was a point in their history when it became a job.
DG: And an obligation, and maybe even kind of a drag, at times.
CB: Oh, sure.
DG: And yet, people like Candace, and all of us fans who kept going, I think nourished a hope and a sense that it still payed off often enough to make it worth the struggle, and worth the sort of unpleasant and lurchy times that we had to endure.
CB: I didn't interview Deadheads systematically, by any means, but I think, from interviewing younger fans who came in, say, the early '80s -- it's a different group when you're talking about the late '80s, after the whole MTV phenomenon -- but say the early '80s, which is a lot later than you, and when the music was quite erratic, they still had a similar experience that maybe you had, or even [earlier] people originally had. This was a theme that came up, that they were all habituated to pop music, whatever it was -- you know, the usual rock 'n' roll. And rock 'n' roll had a beat, and it made you excited, and you rose to it. The Grateful Dead was off-putting at first, because it didn't have a beat. The Deadheads I talked to -- then their friends would say, you gotta listen, there's something else going on here.
And then they would start to see that this was -- some of them would say that it was like jazz, or they'd have their own analogies. But they'd learn to listen to music; they learned listening. Especially for musicians among Deadheads, or musically sophisticated Deadheads, listening to the Grateful Dead was an eye-opener, an ear-opener, because it forced you to pay attention to levels of the development of a melody, out of chaos, that rock 'n' roll per se didn't provide at all. So it was a kind of a musical education.
The other main attraction, to answer your original question as to what really held people to the band long after they were doing their peak performances, was because it did come to embody this lost decade. You know, this lost Atlantis, the Sixties -- which I think is a lot of crap, in many ways. But what's important is that the need and hunger for the Sixties, or for something approximating it, still exists, and is far from satisfied by the commercial romanticizations, or the commercial putdowns, of the Sixties. One of the things I try to do in the political sections of this book is to bring out the parts of the Sixties that are rarely talked about; the political activism that really did rock the boat. It was sometimes very foolish -- Weathermen, for example -- and sometimes had a meaning that wasn't appreciated at the time but I think has a meaning that's appreciated now, like the groups of volunteer [sugar] cane cutters that went to Cuba in 1970, '71 -- I was one of them, with the Venceramos Brigade.
DG: What was that about? Tell us a little about that.
CB: That was an effort on the part -- I don't know what the real origin of it was, but I think young American radicals were looking for a way to relate to this revolution that was only 90 miles away, that wouldn't be just handing out leaflets or applauding, you know, or romanticizing the dead Che Guevara -- he had been killed, of course, in '67 -- and also they were looking for a way to challenge the blockade. I mean, this is a history that hasn't changed. We *still* haven't demolished the blockade of Cuba.
CB: And so they wanted to do it through work. That was on our side, say. And on the Cuban side, the Cubans were always trying to -- and Fidel, in particular -- sugar was still the primary source of capital, of hard cash, beyond whatever subsidies they were getting from the Soviet Union, which were huge, of course. They were still trying to make it go, trying to have an independent economy, but at that point it was sugar, so there was this effort to have a 10 million-ton zafra -- sugar harvest, 1970. So a lot of us volunteered and were enlisted to participate in this harvest; they fell far short of the harvest.
Our interest, of course, was in defying the blockade; we were portrayed in Congress by Senator Eastland as going down there to fashion missiles to sent back to the United States, and going for guerrilla training. It's a fascinating story, and the interesting thing for me was that in the brigade I went on in 1970 -- the second brigade was almost 600 people, and it was a mixture of blacks and whites and Chicanos and Puerto Riqueños working together, such as never happened up here. And even, say, among blacks in the group, there were contacts between Black Panthers and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and groups that were divided by region, and even among the black movement it was an attempt to sort of meet up with their counterparts from around the country. For whites, it was an unprecedented experience, to share work and to work towards common goals with a truly multicultural -- to use a current word -- group.
But the real thing -- one of the things, looking back, that to me seems very peculiar and important about that enterprise, which is full of adventures and has never really been seriously treated or written about, as far as I know, is that what it introduced Americans to -- and in 1970, this was very important -- was to an optimism that we were already losing by 1970. The war was -- we had done everything we could do. The polls were all on our side, as far as the war, but Nixon had just expanded the war and was bombing the hell out of Cambodia. And Hanoi would be bombed in 1972. So there was this frustration. What can you do? How can you have any impact on the policies that were most disruptive to our lives, literally, and to our hopes and ideals, which was the war at that point.
In Cuba, there was the optimism that you could change the course of history, and then Fidel would come into the cane fields and he would talk about how all of human history up till now was prehistory because we had not been able to realize the ideals that man was born for, that men were created for. And this was the beginning of real history, when men could take control -- men and woman, of course -- of their destinies through direct action and they would not be dependent upon the various sovereigns through time, through ages -- kings, corporations, cartels, whatever. That was a message which we heard. And the vision of a head of state trekking out in the cane fields and talking and having questions asked and even being debated -- Fidel was questioned why he insisted that the American [men] have the first glass of orange juice, and he was told that this was very backward, men and women were equal. And then he would say, does that have to go, too, in the revolution? Do we have to give away our respect -- he was saying this as a man, of course -- for women? And the young American says, absolutely, that must go.
These kinds of back and forth were happening in the cane fields, at a time when the communication between young Americans and their government was one of either, you avoided any confrontation at all costs, or if you had one you might end up in serious trouble. This was, after all, a month or two before the National Guard shot the four students at Kent State. And it was also around exactly the same time that Weathermen blew up three of their own members, making pipe bombs in a town house in Greenwich Village in New York. So, 1970-71 is the true framework for this book, and there's a lot in the book which tries to recall something that most of us who are this old remember, that this was a period of time of enormous chaos, both socially and politically, in this country, and that the edges of that have been pretty much ground down in the versions that were shown on television and in movies and read in books.
DG: And from that crucible, that boiling pot of weirdness, the Grateful Dead kind of appeared to be this pied piper leading these people away into a never-never land of not worrying about that stuff.
DG: And I suppose the positive way --
CB: That's right.
DG: -- of framing that is to say well, they did the thing of living by example. They didn't agitate for political change, they just set up a society that worked in a more or less harmonious, or at least nonconfrontational, nonauthoritarian way. The reality of it was a whole lot more tumultuous, internally, than the public image that the Deadhead community carries would indicate. But it was a place to go that got you away from the boring, grey mainstream Sixties consumer culture --
DG: -- without requiring you to throw a rock, carry a gun, or get shot by the National Guard.
CB: Right. But I still think -- I can't turn to it right away, but there's a great interview with Jerry -- I think it was in '82, which is a little late -- Jerry Garcia said, you know, he looked back on all the Sixties stuff and he thought it all looked ridiculous and such a waste of time. I think he had hardened a little bit by '82, as a lot of people did, but I think he always did think this. He said, "You can't change the world; why even attempt it? It's not gonna change, it's always gonna be the same, and even if we could, how do we know we'd make anything better?" he says, which is interesting. Then he says, really all you can do is try to find a little corner there for yourself, meaning yourself collectively; he did not mean myself, Jerry Garcia -- he meant my world, my society. So that has a paradox there. Because if you find a little corner for yourself, you're gonna have very little responsibility or control over what's gonna happen outside. You sort of give it up. And so your own little corner becomes quite imperiled, in a way, or incidental to what's happening outside. The old question right now I think is still very important: can we change what's going on? I think the general tenor of popular opinion now, I would guess, probably is more on the side of Jerry, Jerry's opinion, that things are unchangeable. And yet I don't think there's anything permanent about that point of view. I just think that obviously, looking around you now -- and at the same time, I don't think anyone now who really thinks about it equates political action with voting, or with participation in government. But the idea that political action can be based upon the needs of people in real communities coming together to get something done is an idea that has to be reborn.
DG: Well, as we're having this conversation, Congress has voted to impeach Bill Clinton over petty sexual matters, and we are bombing Iraq. In a way that I never experienced in my 45 years, I had this sense of outrage, in a conversation I had with somebody last night here in Chicago. What right does any society have to just go end the lives -- in a blink of an eye -- end the lives of innocent people who have nothing whatsoever to do with this geopolitical struggle. I don't know why it took me so long to experience it on that level, and I didn't know what it meant before, when I was a kid. I skipped school, you know, and went to Moratorium Day in 1970, but I didn't really know what it was about. For some reason, yesterday was the first time I'd ever had this visceral understanding of the absolute immorality of this thing, that the economic political interests of this large thing would feel that it had the right to just expunge innocent lives elsewhere. It's just -- it makes me wanna go change the world. It makes me wanna go raise a little hell about, and it makes me want to shake the sons of bitches in Washington who are prattling on and destroying lives in the name of this other irrelevant stuff, while ignoring this greater injustice that's going on.
CB: Yeah, I think that's just a perfectly human reaction. It's like a atrophied limb that's gone kind of dead from disuse that's coming alive because of the horror of what's happening right now. But when you really think -- I'm thinking about what Jerry Garcia said in that 1982 Playboy interview, about making your own little world, accepting the fact that you can't change the larger one -- that's the dominant ideology right now. And privatizing your experience is really the primary response that citizens -- who operate fundamentally as consumers in relation to the powers that be -- that's really the response. The notion of trying to find your own peace and your own satisfaction within your own circle is the dominant ideology.
I think that's being shaken right now, and I think that there are challenges that are shaking it from inside and from outside, by the utter absurdity and the lunacy of what's happening within the American government and the horror of what's happening -- the demonstration of the power that that government still has to wreck havoc in the world. So it's a terrible way to be forced to consider the options, the alternatives to turning your back on it all and ignoring it, but it may work out to have that effect.
DG: And I still think that voting is worth doing.
DG: I think that if more people voted, the world would be a little bit less beholden to the manipulative interests of the corporations and stuff. I still vote --
DG: -- and I still wish that everybody listening to this radio program would register and vote. Small numbers of votes have made differences in various elections. The Dornan-Sanchez race in Southern California was a very important one, because it got a vile and repellant, ugly voice out of the Congress. He fought like hell, Bullet Bob Dornan, or B-1 Bob, whatever he's called -- he fought like hell to contest that election, but he lost it fair and square. And then he ran for that seat again and he lost it again, resoundingly this time.
DG: And that was a few hundred votes, I think, that made the difference in that district. So it *can* make a difference, and it's still worth doing. And maybe if enough people voted, it would change the tone of things a little bit.
CB: Mm-hm, mm-hm. I don't disagree with you there.
DG: We're not gonna solve any problems by talking about it. We're not gonna answer any of these questions, unfortunately, but it is good to raise the questions, and I very much appreciate the questions that are raised in this book and the information that is given in it about what my culture meant to your culture, as it were.
CB: <chuckle> Right.
DG: The name of the book is Sweet Chaos; The Grateful Dead's American Adventure. The author is Carol Brightman. It has been my pleasure to speak with you, and thank you.
CB: You're welcome. It's been a very interesting conversation. I hope it continues.
David Gans/Truth and Fun, Inc.
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