“There must be some kind of way out of here”
Sensory bombardment via information overload has become ubiquitous in society, normalized to the extent that many are unaware of the toll the combination of perpetual stimulations can begin to take on the psyche. “Who hasn’t – sometime – wanted to escape? But from what? To where?” This open-ended question frames Yi-Fu Tuan’s Escapism. Affect governing tangible social tendencies change according to time and culture, nonetheless pushing groups towards activities and events which then assume a maximized role in these individual’s lives. Tuan argues that the desire to escape is essentially human, I find it necessary to begin at the most fundamental aspects of the human experience as it relates to escapism before setting out to illumine the Grateful Dead phenomenon, lest we make the mistake of over simplification.
Tuan begins by placing Disneyland up for examination. He recalls taking a vacation there, on a whim deciding to escape the cold Wisconsin winter I can still remember all too well having lived there several years as a kid. “But, to my surprise, I found Disneyland delightful. I say ‘to my surprise’, because well-educated people, among whom I count myself, are taught to dismiss the theme park as unreal, fantasy supported by hidden – and therefore somewhat sinister – forces. Granted that theme parks are escapist fantasies, suitable only for the immature, what human works aren’t? Is there a ladder of aspiration or pretension, at one end of which are the exuberantly or crassly playful and at the other end the deeply serious and real? ” I include this long stretch from Tuan’s book because it is the question, the internal debate that provokes a response when it comes to thinking about socially agreed upon points of reference, ‘escape’; (albeit, socially agreed upon occurs vastly differently across ages, cultures, etc.) the Grateful Dead, nationalism, sports teams, shopping malls, or Disneyland.
“A peaceful place, so it looks from space. A close look reveals the human race.”
-Grateful Dead, Throwing Stones
Who the Dead are is a vital question when one considers the Deadhead movement as a social phenomenon. The members of the Dead combined to form a cohesive musical understanding made immortalized by their famed live performances, which often featured extensive improvisation and audience interaction. Take the band’s explosion in the sixties and remarkable longevity into the future. How a group of ragtag hippies managed to produce and sustain one of the most successful musical acts in history can be understood both from a financial and aesthetic perspective, and this is essential when it comes to making sense of the culture. In a quick, insightful article from Forbes, front man Jerry Garcia’s creative intelligence is juxtaposed with that of Steve Jobs, this is one of many examples of the group’s impact on culture in a way that causes individuals to take note of a phenomenon, labeling it as valid and acknowledging it’s primary innovator.
Garcia showed himself time and time again to be one of the most flexible, innovative leaders in the music industry. Through their creative direction the Dead created a psychosocial dynamic founded upon a key concept, Steal Your Face. What this meant, and what it represents to fans is in essence described in Reading the Dead: A Critical Survey. “Without distinguishing characteristics of identity, one is stripped of structured social distinctions and this may reinforce an ideal state of unity. Therefore, the skull may be seen as a common trait underlying the social and physical diversity the human species. Moreover, this [mythical] model symbolically incorporates elements of humanist philosophy and Eastern religious doctrines, resulting in a system of belief that combines values that recognize human potential and creativity to form an encompassing worldview” (Meriwether, 52). Deadhead folklore functions in such a way as to filter incoming cultural norms and societal expectations into a space of acceptance where race and social status were irrelevant to the ultimate goal of unity.
“If you get confused, just listen to the music play”
-Dead, Franklin’s Tower
From a sociological perspective the focal point at the center of these affect-induced acts of escapism is the totem, the visual, ideological, or otherwise tangible representative/representation of the specific act. As previously mentioned, the totem does not have to be a singular person or an object- it can be an idea, a notion, and it is usually some combination of these elements. The Dead function in such a manner; art, music and band form a cohesive experience of sound and vision. The totem is understood and interacted with differently from person to person based on things like individual characteristics and temperament; a Deadhead might express their identification primarily via music, another through the visual art. “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” (Sacks, 178) The Dead’s success and longevity can at least partially be explained here. Extensive audience exposure through many famed tours and an aesthetic that not only encourages but invites fan interaction inspires individuals to formulate their own understanding of the Dead, thus interpreting them on their own level. This makes for a highly personable experience that is transmutable across time and culture. Another important aspect of Deadhead is concert going as a ritual. An interesting point is addressed at through a social lens in Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion, in which the pilgrimage is argued to have a stripping back effect of social masks, so to speak. “The pilgrimage provides a testing ground for new ideas, and moreover lending itself even to something fundamentally populist, anarchical, anticlerical.” (Coleman, Eade, 2) This is a notion placed at the forefront of Dead culture through the Steal Your Face symbol and exercised through the pilgrimage ritual of the concert, which acts as one of the primary mechanisms of escape through the experience of inter-subjectivity.
In many society’s cultures these socially contingent acts of escape I’ve been consistently referring to are looked down upon or outright forbidden (in the case of Western culture there have certainly been many examples, my own mother, for instance, was forbidden to listen to the music of or go to Grateful Dead concerts). This is important to understand when we consider societal impact, an essential component of any sociological inquiry. Individuals are then forced to decide, ‘am I to stifle this creative energy I feel towards this totem, (be it music, painting, or what have you), or do I rebel against what is acceptable by mainstream society, thus entering a gray area between member and outcast’. Slavoj Žižec, contemporary cultural theorist and philosopher address this dilemma in his film A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Using German metal band Rammstein as an example, Žižec successfully argues that the essence of the band, the energy the mainstream media and many parents groups cautiously condemned on the basis of its aggression and seemingly fascist displays of marching, and so forth, is actually a cathartic, artistic expression of energies which were negatively manifest in reality. As artistic or otherwise forms of expressions become repressed in any sector of life there will be the potential to deprive individuals from an important experience of aspects of the human condition. Further, in a racially filtered society creative expression becomes even more difficult for marginalized groups.
“If you plant ice you’re gonna harvest wind”
-Dead, Franklin’s Tower
Let us not be hindered in thought by the negative. The value is in the understanding of the positive, as it is this understanding that allows people to form a creative and thus cathartic experience – be this experience in the classroom, on an album, or at a concert. Deadhead culture taken in its proper context “gives birth to, negotiates, and expresses a rhetorical vision grounded in beliefs such as freedom, human rights, self expression, the importance of life and familial responsibility for the preservation of Mother Earth.” From the positive nature of the music to the aphorisms in the lyrics these ideologies are distilled in the participant at a conscious as well as subconscious level. Ripple effects of this mentality are felt globally; whether the origin lies in Deadhead culture or elsewhere is irrelevant. The relevance is felt with humanitarian success, events such as the Dakota Pipe Line show that real people unite to defend the planet and each other’s lands. In a time where cynicism is cheap and everywhere, an ‘escape’ of this sort is exactly what we need.
Certain aspects of social adherence are best described as felt, qualitatively. There is something very natural about the music of the Grateful Dead. As I type this I can’t help but move with Sugar Magnolia. My foot taps steadily in rhythm as vocal harmonies interplay far above the beat, weaving a beautifully reminiscent, resonant sound in my mind. The Dead are among the earliest and best examples of psychedelic music. Genius musicians create tangible atmosphere through their understanding of music, art, even life. The Dead’s music and lyrics combine to create on one hand an atmosphere of ease and open mindedness, and on the other an expression of spiritual yearning and disillusionment with the woes of society. Thus the Dead focus more like a religion in which the primary goal of the movement is the escape from ‘false’ society and to merge with a truer, eternal one. Take the following lyrics from the song Ripple:
There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.
Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.
Something from nothing; how do you light a candle without a match? An understanding of the divine nature of reality strikingly similar to Taoism, Buddhism, as well as is apparent in the Dead. Their aphoristic style of lyricism in particular reminds me of the seemingly paradoxical prose in the Tao Te Ching, messages designed to undercut Western logic, which becomes quite hindering to spiritual growth.
Deeply affective both on the level of music and aesthetics, it’s easy to understand fans’ experiences of something resembling the shedding of one’s ego, an experience of inter-subjectivity, even transcendence. Albert Einstein understood the universe in a similar way. “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” This, I posit, points to a fundamental, universal way of grasping and understanding the nature of reality that manifests itself through social movements and within individuals and has done so since the dawn of consciousness.