Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings

By Robert G. Weiner | Go to book overview

The Grateful Dead vs. the American Dream?

Jason Palm

There is no doubt that the American Dream came under intense scrutiny by the counterculture of the 1960s. Throughout its entire thirty-year career, the Grateful Dead maintained an uneasy and ambiguous relationship with the American Dream. Such was not the case for the other two major West Coast bands of the sixties. The Jefferson Airplane, a fellow Bay Area band, was clear in its contemptuous and scathing attacks on what it saw as the hypocrisy of the older generation and the shallowness of their dream of two cars, a home in the suburbs, and a freewheeling and materialist lifestyle. The Doors, down the coast in LA, twisted the American Dream into a scary psychedelic nightmare. But by the early 1970s, when the sixties experiment had finally ended, the Doors were creatively bankrupt and the Airplane had shattered into the more laid-back Hot Tuna and the embarrassing and irrelevant Jefferson Starship. However, at that same time the Grateful Dead was still mounting its slow but steady (and eventually spectacular) artistic climb, which would only end in 1995 with the death of Jerry Garcia. Throughout its long career, the band not only held onto old fans but continuously found new ones. The author saw his first show in 1991, when he was 20 years old.

In this short chapter, we would like to argue that through its work, the Grateful Dead developed a fascinating and realistic critique of the American Dream. Furthermore, this complex but implicit understanding gave the band the artistic foundation for creating and developing an intelligent and interesting body of work. By rejecting the simple stance of other sixties bands, it discovered a path into the heart of the American psyche that has been unrivaled in rock ensemble work, especially over the long haul.

The secret to the Grateful Dead’s success in songwriting was, paradoxi-

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