Pop Culture Legends Series

By Weiner, Robert G. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Pop Culture Legends Series


Weiner, Robert G., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Chelsea House Publisher's newest addition to their Pop Culture Legends Series (which includes books on Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Stephen King, and Bruce Springsteen, among others) is a short history of the legendary Grateful Dead (GD). These, books designed for young adult readers and the general public, provide a unique perspective on popular culture icons. Scholars of Popular Culture can study and analyze books like these in order to have a greater understanding of how such figures fit into the popular milieu and mindset of our culture. The Grateful Dead traces the group's beginnings in San Francisco in the mid-sixties through the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 and the subsequent breakup of the band.

Piccoli, a journalist for the Washington Times, begins the story of the GD with Jerry Garcia's childhood and the traumatic events which eventually shaped his world view and his interest in art, philosophy, literature, and music. A teenage Garcia read works by Kant, Heidegger, and Schopenhauer, and when Garcia first heard artists like Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent in the late fifties, he knew he wanted to play music. Piccoli also describes how Garcia's interest in bluegrass music during the early sixties led to the formation of the Warlocks-which ultimately became the GD. (Mention of the fateful meeting between Garcia and his friend and thirty-year songwriting partner, Robert Hunter, during the early sixties is strangely absent.)

From the band's beginnings as the Warlocks, they experimented with improvisation and free form song structures which became their trademark throughout their thirty years. The band's sound appealed to those "weary of the same pop" (30). The author also looks at how the GD fit into the San Francisco music scene and the drug culture during the later sixties. Piccoli describes how early Warlocks/Grateful Dead performances provided the soundtrack for Ken Kesey's infamous Acid Tests (an experiment with drugs, music, and media which Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters staged in the mid-sixties). Piccoli explains how all these activities fit historically into the overall scheme of the sixties and mentions other key players in the drug culture: Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Augustus Stanley Owsley. There are chapters discussing the GD's role in San Francisco's HaightAshbury district and the ill-fated performances at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969). The author also explains, why, four months after Woodstock, the Dead did not play at the Altamont Speedway concert where, during the Rolling Stones performance, a spectator was stabbed.

Piccoli describes the GD's recording career in minor detail, spending most of the text discussing the early albums. …

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