Buddhism through the
Eyes of the Dead
The San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s was an epicenter for cultural change. The Grateful Dead were caught up in and were a motive force for that change. The city already had a long history as a haven of outsiders when many of the Beat writers, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure, made San Francisco their home. Ferlinghetti’s bookstore became a meeting place for young people with a literary bent. The Beats (a name with obvious musical allusions that has other significance as well) are best known for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” The Beats took the freedom of Bebop Jazz as inspiration and developed not only a new literary style but challenged what they saw as the hypocrisy of 1950s middle American values. This throwing off of convention, which included such challenges as Ginsberg’s frank depictions of human sexuality in “Howl,” would be central to the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, and Phil Lesh came together in the context of this creative and experimental setting. Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, then the Warlocks, who soon became the Grateful Dead, played at poetry readings, sharing the stage with many of the Beat poets. The Grateful Dead’s social circle included Ken Kesey, one of the next generation of writers emerging in the area. Kesey discovered the recreational use of LSD through his participation in an experiment covertly sponsored by the CIA and began sharing that experience through what would come to be called the Acid Tests. The Acid Tests, festivals of multimedia