How Dead Beats Became
Deadheads: From Emerson
and James to Kerouac and
Dennis McNally recounts how, at one of his first meetings with Jerry Garcia after becoming the biographer of the Dead, Jerry’s dressing room “was decorated with two pictures, one of his late friend and musical cohort, Pigpen, and one of Jack Kerouac” (A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead [New York: Broadway, 2002], p. xiv). McNally had sensed a fundamental connection between these two phenomena, the Beats— Kerouac in particular—and the Dead (indeed, he became the biographer of both). It may seem a stretch to attempt to connect these two icons of post-World-War-II American bohemia with pragmatism, America’s indigenous philosophical movement, but to understand Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James is to know that these American philosophers would heartily approve of being linked to the hipster poetry, prose, and music of the twentieth Century.
Their philosophies point to a transcendence of philosophy; not a complete transcendence, mind you, but a view from which philosophy can be seen as only one piece of a larger reality. The Beats and the Dead are able to do what Emerson and James could only talk about. One cannot philosophize while one is doing. But when the doing is timely, the result is timeless, just like philosophy can be. Plato said that to be is to do, Aristotle said to do is to be, and Jerry Garcia said only at a human be-in can a human being be free.