Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 11 Jun 07 09:58
We're pleased to introduce our next guest, Nicholas Meriwether, who'll be joined by fellow Deadhead and longtime friend Christian Crumlish to delve into details from Nicholas's new book, "All Graceful Instruments".
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 11 Jun 07 10:00
Nicholas Meriwether is the Oral Historian at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. As a student, Nicholas attended Princeton and Cambridge. His special studies there focused on the history of the bohemians; this ultimately led him to create "All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon." Nicholas's writings on popular culture, music, Southern literature and history have been published in numerous anthologies, journals, and books. Christian Crumlish first met Nicholas when they were undergraduates at Princeton, and they've been friends ever since. Nicholas encouraged Christian to pursue Dead scholarship from without academe, and now they usually meet in person once a year at the annual Dead Caucus at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association conference, often in Albuquerque. Christian is the curator of Yahoo!'s interaction design pattern library. Welcome to Inkwell, Nicholas and Christian!
Christian Crumlish (xian) Mon 11 Jun 07 11:38
Hey now, Nick. I've been trying to get you onto the Well for years and now that you've edited this collection you've fallen into my snare. Hah! OK, I have tons of question to ask and I may start by throwing out a few that you can tackle one at a time, but first just to get some formalities out of the way, I'd like to disclose that, yes, we are friends and that I've been privy to your plans for this book all along, and that you wrote a very kind acknowledgment for me. So, broadly speaking, a few themes I'd like to get at are: * Grateful Dead studies (what are they and why, and do they indeed, as they appear to, welcome scholarship from outside of the academy to a degree uncommon, even for the realm of popular culture studies) * the significance of "contexts" in the title of this volume * how this book came about and how you curated the contributions * how this book differs from some of the other scholarly tomes addressing the Grateful Dead phenomenon out there * a little about the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, the Dead Caucus (as its informally known, or "Grateful Dead area" as it's more technically listed) there, the Deadwood Society mailing list, and Dead Letters, your journal of scholarly Grateful Dead writings * Your particular contribution to the book (your essay relating "It Must Have Been the Roses" to Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily") * Your devastatingly thorough introduction to the volume, which makes perhaps (in my humble opinion) *the* definitive case for the value and significance of Grateful Dead studies as a legitimate and worthy multidisciplinary field of scholarly inquiry whew, more came off the top of my head than I may have expected. So the above are not strictly speaking questions but feel free to cherry-pick the topics and address them as you would. If I detect you ducking any I will address direct questions to you that will require definitive answers!
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Tue 12 Jun 07 05:58
Thanks Xian! Nice to be here at long last ... and very good questions, each of which deserve good answers; will get a bunch done this evening. But to start with, I'll tackle a fun one: you asked about "the significance of 'contexts' in the title of this volume". One of the things that most strikes me about the whole Dead phenomenon is the degree to which it touches on so many different academic disciplines; put another way, it is a phenomenon that has so many dimensions, from the art to the sociology. What I wanted to do with this book is show that despite the immense range of approaches in the essays, each of the fields and methodologies they represent have substantive contributions to make to Dead studies.
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Tue 12 Jun 07 06:12
OK, I can't resist one more ... Xian, you also asked, "how this book differs from some of the other scholarly tomes addressing the Grateful Dead phenomenon out there." I'd say that AGI is similar to one other out there, Rob Weiner's Perspectives on the Grateful Dead (Greenwood)in the diversity of approaches and disciplines represented, although the introduction to it kind of skates around and on top of the literature; the other academic book, Rebecca Adams' and Rob Sardiello's Deadhead Sociology: You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Want to Know (Alta Mira Press) is much more narrow in the range of disciplines represented, with a predominately sociological focus. I think AGI represents the first attempt to make a holistic view of the work done on the Dead, with an eye toward explaining how the phenomenon not only embraces a wide range of approaches but actually requires them in order to be fully understood and appreciated.
martin corey gonna be my name (xian) Tue 12 Jun 07 08:14
Excellent, thanks! Not to make the backlog worse, but another question that occurs to me from time to time and that follows from your point about this "phenomenon that has so many dimensions" is to what extent could that not be said for any number of rock 'n' roll bands? Putting aside the easy ones that surely do warrant their own areas of study and conferences and journals (you know, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Banana Splits), could a similar book or body of scholarly book be generated about - I don't know - The Doors? Led Zeppelin? Jefferson Airplane? Nirvana? NRBQ? The Police? etc.? It's a leading question, because I suspect (and I suspect you also do) that there is something qualitatively different about the Grateful Dead and its attendant phenomenon, but if so, what?
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Tue 12 Jun 07 16:27
That's a great question and one that I have mulled and continue to mull often. One interesting way to approach it is backwards: the Dead have generated more academic work in more fields than any other band - - including Beatles and Dylan, who also have a fair amount of high-level work done. But not in sociology, geography, micro economics - - and not to the extent that the Dead have. A couple of obvious points are that Dylan is a solo performer and the Dead are collaborative: several lyricists and songwriters, etc. Another point is the Dead's longevity - - far longer than the Beatles. One loming point for me is that again and again, I find a fundamentally scholarly approach in the way that almost all of the band members approached their craft and in some ways how the band as a whole went about their career. You see this is big ways - - the Wall of Sound, the music and lyrics - - but also in so many small but very cool ways; as an oral historian, I am fascinated by how Garcia used interview encounters to try to say something meaningful (even some of the worst ones) and when he repeated himself, would say that he was doing so, almost as if he were thinking of how the collected record would look. If there is a rumbling subtext in all this of "sheer significance," on so many levels, then perhaps as good a way of summing it up is Dennis McNally's comment to me, many years ago, when we were ruminating on this; his comment on why the Dead were great was, "Three geniuses," by which he meant Garcia, Lesh and Hunter; to which my quick response was, "and seven virtuosi."
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Tue 12 Jun 07 16:51
... and continuing to address the backlog: Xian, you also asked about how this book came about ... it's funny, but the genesis of the idea came at that first conference that you and I attended, in Feb. 1999; that was the second time that the Southwest/Texas American/Popular Culture Association had featured a separate Grateful Dead subsection. There were enough good papers presented there to make me think, we should publish an anthology (and remember, this was before Rob's Perspectives on the GD and Rebecca's DH Sociology had come out, though both were well underway and I think Rob's was done) ... so I took notes on what we heard and sidled up to folks who had given papers that wowed me and said, "psst, wanna publish that?" Of course, what ends up happening is that some papers don't quite turn into articles and some are so Deadheadocentric that broader audiences are impossible, so I ended up putting the ones that were really for Deadheads with a scholarly bent into Dead Letters, which is kind of our group's unofficial proceedings, and working with the contributors over the next three years to revise and get them into shape for an academic book. The basic difference is that AGI is intended for a broad and basically hostile audience: it's designed to make it impossible for critics to dismiss the artistic ambition and achievement of the band, and the sociological and cultural significance of its following. I had very much in mind the kind of ad hominem attacks that were thrown against Rebecca Adams for her exemplary (and wholly defensible, by even the most conservative academic standards) work in taking students on tour in 1989 ... she should have been welcomed and applauded by the folks who threw rocks at her. Now, a personal note: one of my most stringent critics for years was my father, a noted Faulkner scholar; part of this book was my manifesto to him that in fact this topic was very much worth a grown-up's time, just as my chapter on Hunter's "Must Have Been the Roses" (which footnotes my father in a couple of places) was designed to acknowledge his influence on my approach to scholarship. I'm happy to report that I don't think he ever really "got" the Hunter chapter until I played him some Dead toward the end of his life - - and he was delighted. For a Toscanini scholar and a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music to say that he really appreciated the Dead was something of a watershed for me. That's kind of what I'm hoping AGI will make possible: that a hostile academic will sigh, grudgingly pick it up because a grad student has said "no, I really want to study this and I think it can be done," and after a few minutes with a few of the chapters will say, "OK, I don't get it but I least recognize that there's something there, and that something more than sustains serious, high-level scholarly work."
went taxis cowboy (xian) Tue 12 Jun 07 18:53
So many threads to explore, and I don't want to overwhelm you just out of the gate, so a few more bullets and then on your next pass just pick up on whatever you like: * Longevity: OK, so how about the Rolling Stones? And I grant your "argument from the sheer weight of scholarly work" but doesn't that beg the question, the "why" question? Now I guess you did answer that, with your startling (I think) suggestion that a bunch of hippie druggies approached their work in a fashion that could be considered scholarly (diligent, sure; intense, of course; obsessed, no doubt; but scholarly?), and with the point about significance, and I think all Deadheads at one point or another reached that moment of noticing that the thing was really art, really meaningful, in a way perhaps qualitatively different from other rock 'n' roll, no matter how great. * Re Rebecca Adams' groundbreaking work: I think that touches on an interesting direction we might want to pursue that transcends Dead studies: to wit, the academic taboo against "going native." * There is no third thing. (Or rather, I will just refer, for now, to my original string of bullet/asterisks for jaw fodder.)
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Wed 13 Jun 07 08:37
Good points. Quick responses ... Re: the Rolling Stones: awesome discography; very well documented tours. (And I'm a huge fan.) But: not on the same level as the Dead. In terms of sheer significance, the Dead's setlists are far more varied; there's also more shows. And as much as I love the Stones, I don't have a similar sense of wanting to explain how and why their music works on me; one edit Shaugn O'Donnell made to his essay that saddened me a bit was when he cut out an opening paragraph in which he related how some Dead songs called for explanation in the way that certain great classical pieces did - - I think he mentioned Brahms' Second and a movement in a Beethoven symphony. I bask in the Stones; but I've never felt a need to figure them out in the way that the Dead seem to challenge me. Re: scholarly ... very much. When Garcia describes looking for and finding and memorizing a 1930s pamphlet on strengthening hand muscles for guitarists, that's scholarly; when Hart and Lesh and Hunter and Garcia and Weir discuss the way they sought out sources, that's scholarly. When they acknowledge those sources in interviews (and books), that's scholarly. I don't think the adjective implies value judgment, just methodology: a kind of rigor and open-mindedness and attitude toward antecedents. Those guys were/are far better scholars in their own right than some folks with PhD's ...
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 13 Jun 07 10:01
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Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 13 Jun 07 10:18
>> I bask in the Stones; but I've never felt a need to figure them out in the way that the Dead seem to challenge me. Great intro, Nick. Certainly, the lyrical, existential brilliance of Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil" is on par with Hunter's amazing collection of poetic ambiguity, but as far as the impact of the two bands culturally, there is much to be said about The Dead as an American product steeped in the eclectic diversity of American roots music as opposed to The Stones who with their British clip and bluesy black American appropriations were always more commercially driven. The Stones certainly established a broader appeal in the world of rock. The Stones also kept their more mainstream audience more at arm's length. The Dead, by comparison, were a rolling thunder venue that kept alive the waning spirit of the hippie counterculture. >> intended for a broad and basically hostile audience: it's designed to make it impossible for critics to dismiss the artistic ambition and achievement of the band, and the sociological and cultural significance of its following. Whenever writing about The Dead/ hippie phenomenon, isn't it interesting how much work needs to be done to contextualize the subject matter in ways that a "hostile audience" won't immediately dismiss the subject matter because of the drugs, flamboyance, and surface attributes that offend the mainstream sensibility? [I could substitute the word "literature" for "band" and written the same sentence.] I love the anectdote about your scholarly father coming around to appreciate Hunter and The Dead. A cool bit of consciousness expansion going on there!!
rocky raccoon (xian) Wed 13 Jun 07 10:26
Interesting also that the turn off of drugs, flamboyance, and surface attributes are also mirrored (for others) by turnoffs of "boring," "no stage show" and "obscure" I've also found the Dead metier to contain its own opposites. Almost every assertion about the band and surrounding scene can be negated and also be true, at least in some contexts. They contain(ed) multitudes, no?
*%* (jewel) Wed 13 Jun 07 12:19
One thing that comes to mind in what separates The Dead from other bands is that although there are bands that have massive, dedicated followings, and bands that have insightful and poetic lyrics, the earth-shattering, life-changing experiences that deadheads experience are more akin to what is described as a religious experience, and not necessarily associated with music or performance. There are certainly people whose lives turned on a dime because of a lyric heard here or there, but having it happen en masse seems unique to this particular phenomenon.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Wed 13 Jun 07 12:39
question from Rob Weiner:: "Do you think there is more room for more volumes such as a Perspectives on the GD volume 2 or some more specific GD volumes such as music studies volumes etc., I know there is the forthcoming GD and philosophy. I guess I am asking is there still room for more general volumes and those that are field specific? It seems to me that writing on the GD could go on for many many years and really never be exhausted. People are still writing about the Beatles and they broke up several decades ago. "Because you really have put together a definitive work!"
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Wed 13 Jun 07 13:44
Great thoughts, Scott and Jewel, and thanks ... Rob, yours in a moment. One minor aside about Jagger and Hunter: much as I think Jagger's lyrics are great rock lyrics, I don't know that they'll ever elicit the kind of academic analysis that Hunter's already gotten - - Hunter is such a scholar of literature himself that he makes it pretty easy to engage his work on that level. This is no slap at Jagger at all; just a thought based on reading a lot of Hunter (and Jagger) interviews, and also Brent Wood's essay on Hunter's poetics (cited in AGI in several places). Thanks for the kind words on Pop's enlightenment, Scott ... and you're right, I do think that's an indication of the kind of uphill battle Dead studies faces. My frame of reference is that what we're doing now is no different from the fight that jazz and blues scholars fought in the forties, fifties and sixties - - if you read Frank Kofsky's Blues and the Poetic Spirit, he's simply scathing on the fact that not one of his colleagues thought jazz worthy of academic attention (and that book came out in 1969!). The theme I subsume all of that under is stigma, which - - as you note - - attaches to all things sixties. Very respected mainstream academics such as Nick Brommel and David Lenson got a lot of flack for their straight-forward attempts to deal critically with drug consciousness ... why I truly love working in a library, where I can publish without getting grief from my chair (or worry about getting tenure).
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Wed 13 Jun 07 13:53
More on Jewel's comment: this is huge area that really needs to be done from several angles ... so far, it's hard to really measure the uniqueness of the Dead's ability to have those groupmind transcendencies. One fine early work is Natalie Dollar's MA thesis on Deadheads as a "strong musical taste culture," which provides one frame of reference; Rebecca Adams (like Natalie, also a sociologist) also has some good comparative contexts, but what I was really aiming for in the part of my intro that touched on epiphany is the degree to which that sense of communally unfolding revelation, both on the stage and in the hall, was something unique to the Dead experience ... I'm not sure it is; but I'm also not sure it wasn't.
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Wed 13 Jun 07 13:59
And now for Rob's good question: yes, I'd very much like to see more good edited anthologies of academic writing on the Dead, but I don't really think that ones as variegated as Perspectives and AGI are helpful anymore ... the point has been made: the band and fans are interesting from a wide array of perspectives; coming up with useful generalizations at that uber or meta level is pretty damned difficult, and runs the risk of blithering into insubstantiality as you try to rope it all together. Note how hard I had to work in the intro to mesh Barry and Ken's very theoretical article on business with the other contexts ... What I would very much like to see are more focused collections: a whole book of Dead musicology; of lyric and literary exegeses; on business practices and theory; and so on. Steve Gimbel's forthcoming The Grateful Dead and Philosophy is just such an example (and a gem of a book - - recommended!).
Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 13 Jun 07 15:32
God, all this yakking. "Dark Star," goddamn it! :) Hey Nick. It's great to see one of the smartest, most thoughtful Deadheads I ever met here at last on the Well, and with a new book, which I can't wait to see. Congratulations! My question: What are your personal favorite *very subtle and smart little moments* in the lyrics of the Grateful Dead?
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 13 Jun 07 15:42
>> I've also found the Dead metier to contain its own opposites. Almost every assertion about the band and surrounding scene can be negated and also be true, at least in some contexts.>> The realm of binaries are always problematic, so, especially with Dead music as an acquired taste, what one person finds to be exciting another finds boring. But in other contexts, no one would ever call Dead music "bubblegum," "unintelligent," "neutral," "blasé", etc. The more intriguing question is in understanding what it was about the music and the Deadhead phenomenon that yielded such a sustained momentum among those immersed in the scene. This speaks to Jewel's comments and this idea of "groupmind transcendencies." Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure, by Carol Brightman touched on the Deadheads as more Dionysian and mystical than the more politicized members of the counterculture. Nick, how you see this Dionysian archetype fitting into your observations on the music and culture surrounding The Dead?
Gary Burnett (jera) Wed 13 Jun 07 17:38
Welcome, Nick! It's great to finally see you here on the WELL, my friend! I'll be chiming in throughout your time here, 'cause All Graceful Instruments is terrific -- in particular, your introduction is a definitive statement. Great work! One passing comment: >> no one would ever call Dead music "bubblegum," >> "unintelligent," "neutral," "blasé", etc. Well, I have to disagree. "Bubblegum," no ... but I have certainly heard all of those other terms applied (and sometimes applied directly to me, as an academic who does write about the Dead). There has often been, in my experience, an assumption within academic circles that one cannot be interested in the Dead and Deadhead culture unless one is either not very smart or just plain lazy. That seems to be changing, thankfully, due in large part to efforts such as yours. No real question here, I guess ... but welcome! It's a very great pleasure to have had the chance to read All Graceful Instruments, and to see you here!
streaming irreverent commentary (pauli) Wed 13 Jun 07 19:34
Good to see ya here Nick! I enjoyed reading All Graceful Instruments. I agree with Christian that your introduction makes a great case for the value and significance of Dead studies as a scholarly inquiry and is backed up by the excellent essays that follow, including your own. I'm curious about how you decided on the order of the essays in the book. One of the things that comes through most clearly in the collected essays is how the Dead as musicians and the Deadheads as a community are both inheritors of numerous traditions and also innovators in taking those traditions in new directions. This depth is one of the key elements of the Dead Phenomenon that make it a subject of sustained interest.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 13 Jun 07 20:28
I see what you're saying, Gary. I shouldn't have used the phrase "no one would ever..." I should have said "very few of those who have taken a serious look and listen to The Dead would ever..." I would love to have a blind test at some national poetry conference where professors from all walks would critique Robert Hunters' lyrics as lyrics without knowing who wrote the pieces. I doubt the words "blasé or unintelligent or boring" would surface. On the other hand, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. I remember when I was a teen wanting to like Frank Zappa. In college I went to his movie "200 Motels" predisposed to like it. I came away thinking that when Frank decides to really play lead guitar, he can really jam. Most of the time I thought he just liked to play space noodling free form shit just to be different. I can't tell you why I could never get into Zappa's schtick, but I would never call his music and weird wit unintelligent, blase, boring, neutral, etc. For me, it was simply too often inaccessible. On the other hand, even with plenty of space noodling jams, I totally got into The Dead. So when I made my comment, I was thinking of those who would take a serious look at the Grateful Dead, not those who write them off because they can't get past the tie-dye and longhair, and for that reason carry the sorts of biases you encounter. But back to Nick... I do have this intuitive sense that the sort of serious analysis and writing coming from so many people here in The Well, including this inviting collection of essays, will be greatly appreciated by serious scholars long after all of us are dead.
my name is obviously wasted (xian) Wed 13 Jun 07 22:53
which is a great lead-in to my next question (not to jump the line on the many good ones already raised in the interim): Nick, your day job these days is that of an oral historian. Can you speak from your experience there about the peculiar opportunity and obligation Dead scholars have at this moment to gather and curate as much oral history as possible from those who saw the thing as it was happening in real time, before it's too late? I ask because I remember dorm room conversations, perhaps the same evenings when we discussed whether this music was really Art (and visualized four-dimensional time-space manifolds), when we marveled at the accident of history that allowed us to hear this stuff at just the moment it was being improvised, collectively, to some extent by (or at least with the collusion) of all of us present.
Robin Russell (rrussell8) Thu 14 Jun 07 08:19
Further to Christian's last point about gathering and curating oral histories (and the reminder of our mortality, as if a deadhead really needs it), to what extent do you think the online discussions at the Well, Dead.net, Philzone etc represent a base resource for this kind of work? There are also a lot of interesting comments in, for example, the Deadhead's Taping Compendia. Valuable elucidation could be obtained by researchers if this material were to be mined soon. Congratulations on an excellent addition to the literature.
Nicholas Meriwether (nicholasm) Thu 14 Jun 07 11:30
Wow, so many great posts ... I'm falling behind. Will catch up more tonight, but wanted to get something out to let y'all know how much I do appreciate the thoughtful questions (and kind remarks!) ... so I'll start with the most difficult of the new questions (coupled with one of the kindest compliments I've ever gotten) from Steve Silberman, the most eloquent Deadhead writer we've had to date ... And I'll also dodge it completely. What are the most subtle lyrics? Depends on what I'm listening to, really ... What I would say generally is that one of the greatest strengths of the Dead's lyricbook - - especially Hunter's, but also Barlow's (to a lesser extent, IMHO) and Petersen's, though his lyrics always seem more poetry put to song than born-lyric (yes, dubious waters) - - is the degree to which it lent itself to revelation: lyrics that seemed obvious and over time might even have become hackneyed had the capacity to, either in concert or just listening at home, suddenly amaze, and dazzle you anew with with nuances and subtleties that you never heard before. That to me is one of the hallmarks of great art in all genres - - that endless capacity to amaze and reawaken thought - - and it's part of why I steadfastly maintain that our enthusiasm and appreciation for this band and phenomenon is ultimately no different from the great chain of cultural enrichment that has fueled human society and the West for millennia. (I only say West because that's all I'm qualified to speak to; also, it's what the entire academy is steeped in ...) Taking a cue from the opening line in your post, Steve (LOL), I was listening two nights ago, at long last, to the closing of Winterland CD; first time I've actually sat and listened to that show since I reviewed it for Vol. 2 of the DH Taping Compendium, when it was not yet released and I had to cobble together bits and pieces of soundboards and radio broadcasts and a truly unlistenable audience tape of the third set ... and "Dark Star" seemed so apropos of so many themes I had thought about that show; such a malleable and useful way of organizing thoughts about the passing of eras, of the durability of art in the face of evanescence, of the frailty and power of human effort and its myriad manifestations that night, like a crumbling hall whose demise Phil was hastening with every bomb he dropped (which apparently brought down chunks of plaster with every note) ... Enough dancing. A more straightforward answer is that I really like Hunter's more oblique and surrealistically-inflected lyrics, which goes to your question ... I find "Blues For Allah" among the most cryptic and also explicit of his efforts, as if the marvelous Joycean/Lewis Carrollesque playful surrealism of "China Cat Sunflower" filtered through the tantalizingly more concrete (but also deliberately obscure, at least until Hunter published his spectacular riposte to Jurgen Fauth's attempt to destroy it) "Franklin's Tower" had culminated in "Blues For Allah." I've always seen those three lyrics as somewhat defining or spanning a continuum ... (One day, all of us should put together a graduate level seminar in Dead studies ... )
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