David Gans (tnf) Tue 25 Nov 03 17:31
Max Ludington's first novel, "Tiger in a Trance," is the story of Jason Burke, a young man who begins following the Grateful Dead on tour in the mid-80s. But don't make the mistake of thinking this is a novel for Dead- heads only! The book has been called "Lucid and powerful.. destined to be a kind of classic" by New York Magazine; "Riveting... a mesmerizing picaresque tale" by the LA Times; "Excellent... a work that transcends the Grateful Dead genre (four stars)" by Rolling Stone; and "Startlingly good... fero- cious command of character and Americana (grade: A)" by Entertainment Weekly. Max's fiction has appeared in Tin House, Nerve, Meridian, and the KGB Bar Fiction Anthology, among others. He lives in New York. Hosting the interview is Steve Silberman. Steve is a contributing editor of Wired magazine; his articles appear regularly there. In 1993, he wrote "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads" with David Shenk. He co-produced the Grateful Dead box set "So Many Roads (1965-1995)" with David Gans and Blair Jackson, and his writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Salon, and many other national publications.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 26 Nov 03 11:59
Welcome, WELL and Web readers, and welcome, Max! It's a deeply personal pleasure to interview Max, mostly because "Tiger in a Trance" is such a well-crafted book, and also because the weird world surrounding the Grateful Dead and their fans has proven tough to capture in lucid prose. There have been many many non-fiction books written on the subject, some excellent, but the previous attempts to render that chaotic, messy, glorious landscape in fiction fell rather flat to me. It was clear, while I was reading Max's book, that he was writing it as a Writer first, and a Deadhead second -- and in doing so, produced a book that was truer to the experience than accounts written by authors who came to the subject mainly as fans; and he also produced a book that can be read by people who don't care about the Dead's music at all, but simply want to read a very vivid novel. So Max, my first two questions are: 1) What was your personal journey toward becoming a novelist -- what books and authors inspired you to become a writer? 2) When you began to conceive of "Tiger in a Trance," how did you hope to balance your approach to the subject between the hard-eyed fiction writer inside you and the guy who was a fan?
David Gans (tnf) Wed 26 Nov 03 12:05
Off-WELL readers are invited - urged! - to participate by sending questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Max Ludington (maxludington) Thu 27 Nov 03 21:22
Thanks Steve, 1) It took me a while to come around to actually beginning to write in earnest--I did when I was about 27, but I always loved reading and books, and always had the idea in the back of my mind that I might be a writer. Then once I started writing, it was 5 years or so before I began producing anything publishable. The witers I admired most who influenced and inspired me directly were people like Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, and Thomas McGuane; as well as Walt Whitman, who was more of a talisman than an influence somehow. 2)The balance between writer and fan was eseentially this: the writer was the one conceiving and writing the book, the fan was the one on whom the character of the narrator was loosely based. It's probably always a fine balance for a somewhat autobiographical novel in first-person, but the hard-eyed writer must ultimately be in charge.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Fri 28 Nov 03 06:25
Thanks, Max. Next questions: 1) Besides the fact that "Tiger" is so well written, why would someone who isn't a Deadhead -- or even someone who hates the Dead's music -- care about this subculture? What function do you think the Deadhead subculture filled in the larger societal context, besides being really fun for the people who were in it? 2) What aspects of this world are you proudest of capturing in your book? Is there something that was missed by previous writers on the subject -- from Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which was probably most people's first glimpse of at least the very beginnings of the subculture, to later writers who tried to chronicle this world historically? 3) In a related question, I've heard a couple of people say that, because (without revealing too much for those who haven't read it) heroin plays a role in your book, you chose to focus on certain "darker" aspects of what was going on; what do you say to people who claim that you centered on a particularly sleazy side of the scene? After all, weren't there just a lot of squeaky-clean kids who smoked pot, maybe dabbled in a little acid at most, and most just treated Dead shows as a giant picnic? 4) OK, a big question. There has been a lot of talk over the years about how something spiritual was going on at Dead shows -- from the naive kids who believed that Jerry Garcia was somehow enlightened, to those who used the situation of the concerts as a kind of ad hoc peyote ritual, to sober Deadheads who held meetings at shows and used the music to access their Higher Power. Did you experience something transcendent at shows, and if so, why? What was happening that encouraged that kind of experience? 5) Do you still listen to the Dead? Has your feeling about the music changed since Jerry died? What other music do you listen to?
No hablo Greenspaņol (sd) Fri 28 Nov 03 15:30
Hey Max, A wonderful book. thanks. I'll let you get on with Steve's chunk of questions but want to say how glad we are to have you here. I dug that Whitman was big for Jason. The other references you mention above seem to be real guy type writers at least on the surface. Stone's Outerbridge Reach was a guy book with a secret female hero i suppose. Are you working on another project yet?
beneath the blue suburban skies (aud) Fri 28 Nov 03 18:38
Hi Max, hey guys. Your book grabbed me right off, starting out at one of my favorite times ever on the road, Richmond '85. I'm interested ot know how much of what you wrote came from personal experience...so much of what you wrote was familiar to me, though I am damn glad I missed the dark side of the tourheads...
Steve Silberman (digaman) Sat 29 Nov 03 05:21
Hey, sorry for that stack of questions. I promise to keep it one at a time. :)
No hablo Greenspaņol (sd) Sat 29 Nov 03 08:34
a born enthused interviewer is our diga. our hope for years to come.
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Sat 29 Nov 03 13:18
Hey there. I picked your book up today, Max. I'll be joining in with question, I'm sure, soon now!
David Gans (tnf) Sat 29 Nov 03 14:22
Chris Willman gave "Tiger in a Trance" an "A" in his review in the 8/22-29 issue of Entertainment Weekly: TIGER IN A TRANCE Max Ludington Debut novel (Doubleday, $21.95) Deadheads will form the initial queue for this startingly good debut, a road book that follows a boarding school dropout-turned-Ecstasy dealer who intermittently joins the movable feast that trailed Jerry Garcia & Co. in the late '80s. Ludington earns knowing laughs from critical quirks among the faithful ("Taking a piss during 'CC Rider' had become almost automatic for me ... I would usually be standing at a urinal when Bobby's lugubrious, off-key attempt at a slide solo reached me muffled by a cinder-block wall"). And few writers have managed more clearheaded descriptions of getting high - or coming down. But it'd be a shame if the words "Dead" and "drugs" scared off serious-lit types, who might otherwise marvel at Ludington's ferocious command of character and Americana.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 29 Nov 03 14:23
A couple of my favorite passages from the book: > "There are two times of day on heroin: dusk and night. Night feels more > comfortable, because it is what it is, there's no real change in it. The > daylight hours become an eerie protracted dusk, and for the strung out, > true daylight ceases to exist. A thin, smoky filter has been drawn across > the sky (or across the eyes -- does it matter which?), and even the > brightest light seems attenuated. I became aware of this only because > when night did fall, halfway back to Carmel, I realized it had seemed to > be about to fall for hours. This had the dual effect of an expected and > unexpected arrival: expected because it followed dusk, surprising because > after so long a dusk it might not have been coming at all." > "With the city of vehicles laid out around it, the Hampton Coliseum became > the spot, the place where it was happening. The country was full of these > hollow cathedrals, kept useful by hockey and basketball games, Promise > Keeper rallies, golf equipment expositions. Then we came and filled them > up for a night or three, made them shine. I was reading Whitman, and > thinking of the whole country as holy: every unfurled prairie and oil- > stained filling station and filthy city, every mountain range and strip- > malled nowhere had its eidolon; but when we gathered for shows it seemed > to focus this quality, and the stadiums shimmered like mirages in the > rising excitement. Any show might be one of those nights when the crowd > and the band got together and hammered out something powerful, joyous, and > deeply, if fleetingly, important. The parking lots teemed with old- > timers, fledglings, saints, schoolkids, ccrazies, metalheads, jagged-eyed > prophets, punks, junkies, ascetics. Why did so many people congregate > around a rock band? Put their lives on hold, or make their lives on tour? > To have fun, yes. To party and get high and associate with all manner of > freaks, sure. But that couldn't be the crux of the biscuit, as Zappa put > it. There was something the music drew from us, and from the ether, and > on those nights we became distilled, purified, drunk on it. The drugs and > love and sex and craziness were crucial, but it was the lenslike qualiy of > the music that gathered and focused the inner numen of the land, drew us > back again and again, and created among us a vortex of expectancy, obses- > sion, and ritual."
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Sat 29 Nov 03 19:55
So to the folks who've asked me if I'm reading the book yet, yes, I am reading the book. I'm not to the heroin, and I'm not to Hampton Coliseum yet. I just finished Part One. Nice work, Max. I'm hearing voices instead of reading words, and it already feels like I know some of the people. I don't read a lot of fiction anymore, and am not used to caring about characters right off, but this is a little different. Have you already answered the big Why? Why'd you write this piece? I'll go back and reread these first few posts again now.
Howard Levine (hll) Sun 30 Nov 03 08:05
Hi Max - I enjoyed reading your book. I have to say, though, that I got a little angry while reading it. Although I knew a little about the dark side of the tour, your story made me think of the destruction of the scene that I had known and loved from the late '60s through the '70s. Your reporting of the scene around the shows, although in some ways mimicking part of what was happening on the inside, made me sorry that this "alternate" fringe of people got associated with the band's scene. It is my thoguht that, just as it led Bill Graham to close the Fillmore East, it led to the Dead losing their "anonymity" and the laissez-faire attitude with their fans. On th eother hand, I really enjoyed your portrayal of the characters, most somewhat superficially, but that's probably all that was there.
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Sun 30 Nov 03 21:17
From <4>, <digaman> >>After all, weren't there just a lot of squeaky-clean kids who smoked pot, maybe dabbled in a little acid at most . . . Many people would disagree that is squeaky-clean behavior. Which leads to a question: Were people who didn't do drugs a part of the scene? If so, were they marginalized, or embraced? And what percentage, best guess, were they?
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Mon 1 Dec 03 06:36
Wharf Rats! When did they start?
Max Ludington (maxludington) Mon 1 Dec 03 06:57
Hi everyone! sorry for my little absence. I had a houseguest and family stuff this weekend. I'll try to get to everyone as today goes on. Right now I'm going to read all the questions and think a bit before spouting off. okay...
Max Ludington (maxludington) Mon 1 Dec 03 09:34
Okay, first to Steves questions. 1. I think Jerry said it best in an interview when he talked about how people in this country used to head west, or run away with the circus, or ride the rails. The Dead filled that spot for young people seeking adventure and experience beyond the confines of society. Of course there was more to it, on different levels for different people, but essentially that was the thing in terms of its place in the culture as a whole I think. Plus a lot of great, completely unique music. 2. Im not sure there was something that was missed by earlier writers, but the experience changed and evolved over timenot always for the best, obviously. I empathize with Howard, who commented later, about the anger over the deterioration of the scene on some levels. I wasnt around in the 60s and 70s, so I could only go on my own experiencebut Ill get into that in the next question 3. I guess I just used my own experience as a guide. I know there were a lot of people who had different experiences, and a different kind of book might have been able to encompass, or show, all of them. To be honest, among the people I knew who made their lives completely on tour, I didnt know many who werent fairly deeply entrenched in the drug scene, at least in the 80s. That doesnt mean they werent there, and it doesnt mean everyone got into heroinnot by a long shot. But drug taking was ubiquitous, and drug abuse and dealing were everywhere too in the tour sceneat least the one I was involved in. 4. Did I experience something transcendent at shows? In a word, Yes. Yes. This too may have been many different things for different people, but I think most would say they felt something of it. The without a net improvisation combined with a kind of group-mind energy, and on the good nights it was something deeply special. I entered the Dead scene as a non-believer in any kind of higher plane, afterlife, whatever, and became a believer along the way. Do I claim to know exactly what I believe in? No. But I experienced something that changed my mind. Something great as Whitman said. I always feel that things like that suffer from over-analysis, so Ill leave it at that. And yes, I still listen to the Dead, and love it! I also love jazz and blues, and try to keep up with new stuff thats good. Coldplay has grown on me recently, and Im listening to a lot of old Stones and Aretha Franklin for some reasongreat stuff. Okay on to the rest. Thanks SD. And yes, I guess those are kind of guy writers, though maybe not Denis Johnson so much. And Stone does women beautifully usually. Im reading Shirley Hazzards Transit of Venus right now, and it is spectacular. Thanks Izzie. As to the big Why, I guess it was more of a personal imperative than a societal or cultural one. As a writer I felt compelled to write this book. Why did I feel compelled? Hmmm Ill think on that some more. Howard, as I said earlier, I understand your feelings. Obviously I didnt write the book as an indictment of the scenes destruction, but I tried my best to give an honest portrayal and let people take it on their own terms. As to Wellelp, Yes I think people who didnt do drugs were definitely a part of the scene. Anyone who joined it was in their own way a part of it. I know a lot of people who cleaned up and kept going to many shows and having a great time, and Im sure there were plenty who had no need of cleaning up too. Dont know when the Wharf Rats started. I dont think the act of writing this book has made me any kind of an expert on the Dead scene. Im just another Deadhead who happens to be a writer too, and like most first-novelists I drew on my own experience to write a book. I hope the book stands as a story and character studya novelfirst and foremost, and also that my evocation of the scene was a true one. Okay, on we go
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Mon 1 Dec 03 10:03
thanks, Max! I joined the scene in the 80's too (although I think my first how might have been a '79), so can't say that I was there for the 60's and 70's stuff either. And I was only on the scene for a few years - not the whole decade. But. I went to the first two Further's in Denver, and was appalled by the scene. that's kind of what I hear Howard saying - those damned kids! Look what they've done to Our Scene!
didn't anybody tell them about the dumpster in back? (jonsson) Mon 1 Dec 03 12:52
in humbolt county where i lived for a few years, the dead related shows were rife with shoplifters. i didn't take the shorthaired retailer's complaints seriously until on a concert afternoon, i saw a couple of tie-dyed non-locals kneeling before the granola bins at the grocery store and wolfing down by the handful. on the otherhand i met a few deadhead in the bay area that could pass almost for mormon missionaries. i need to read this book, to get a fuller picture. lenny kayes liner notes for live/dead reflect on the dead/biker thing. i was wondering how much of the biker/dead connection continued into the 80's & 90's?
Adam Perry (adamice9) Mon 1 Dec 03 14:30
Max, first of all it was great meeting you and getting to see that you're a great guy and not just a great writer. I am in fact a Deadhead, but one thing that really made me love your book was that it was not a book about the Grateful Dead, and so many previous authors have missed that point, in my opinion. In "Tiger in a Trance, the Grateful Dead's music was simply a character in your story and their shows/tours a setting, while other writers have simply made themselves characters in (their perception of) the Dead's story. I was re-reading "Narcissus and Goldmund" at the same time I read your book and I saw some great parallels, especially how Jason and Narcissus both realized that pain and pleasure are essentially the same thing and embraced the fact that words are all but unnecessary many of life's most important moments. One thing I was curious about, and that you may have touched on slightly already, was how much writing you actually did during this period of your life, the life on tour. Did you sit down years after Garcia's death and just start writing from scratch, or did you have notes, poems, journals, etc from your touring years to browse through? Also, on a less serious note, what was your last Grateful Dead show and to what extent are you still a Deadhead? Do you listen to tapes often, do you go to see Phil and Friends, Ratdog, the "Dead," etc? And what do you think of Phish (both their music and the mostly evanescent culture that surrounds them)? They have been called the heirs to the Grateful Dead's throne, but in fact their music, lyrics and following are very different for better or worse. Do you think this "last American frontier" that you experienced, and that Garcia frequently spoke of, was paved over with the disastrous Summer '95 tour and with his death? And do you think Garcia would still be around if the Grateful Dead had taken a 2-year hiatus (maybe after Brent's death) the way Phish took a hiatus from 2000-2002?
Steve Silberman (digaman) Mon 1 Dec 03 14:56
> I was re-reading "Narcissus and Goldmund" at the same time I read your book and I saw some great parallels, especially how Jason and Narcissus both realized that pain and pleasure are essentially the same thing and embraced the fact that words are all but unnecessary many of life's most important moments. That's a brilliant insight, and Narcissus and Goldmund is one of my favorite books -- my second favorite tale of homosexual mystical initiation, after Moby Dick. :) Thanks for your comments, everyone. Keep 'em comin'!
Howard Levine (hll) Mon 1 Dec 03 18:02
I'm not saying "those darn kids". The scene in the '60s and early '70s was not a clean scene by any stretch. There were all kinds of freaks thrown together in the circus. But, it didn't seem to have the nasty edge that emerged. Maybe the harder drugs taking over had a big role, maybe society's change during the '80s forced people to the road as life (not putting it down), but something in the scene took a turn, IMO for the worse.
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Mon 1 Dec 03 18:42
Cool, Howard. Thanks, for my part, for clearing that up! (I know tha might sound snarky in ASCII, but really - it's cool. thanks.)
Steve Silberman (digaman) Tue 2 Dec 03 07:57
Max, what were the hardest parts of the book to write? Also, you've gotten some great reviews. (In fact, have you gotten even a single negative one?) But is there anything in Tiger in a Trance that you wish more reviewers -- or more readers -- had picked up on?
weird and conflicted and all resentful and shit (izzie) Tue 2 Dec 03 09:51
got to the real heroin parts last night. my goodness - you really nailed it, Max. I am liking the web of characters. the coming and going of the various people in Jason's life. It's coming across to me as very genuine - these are real people, in real events, making their way.
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