In The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph
Campbell claims that “the Grateful Dead are the best answer
today to the atom bomb” because “the atom bomb is
separating us and this music is calling up the common humanity” (225).
Campbell first articulated this belief about the psychedelic
rock band from San Francisco after attending one of their concerts
in 1986 in Oakland, California, where he witnessed what he refers
to as “one incredible Dionysian ritual,” “a
dance revelation,” and “magic for the future” (225,
221). As Campbell explains, “They hit a level of humanity
that makes everybody at one with each other. It doesn’t
matter about this race thing, this age thing, I mean, everything
else dropped out. . . . [I]t was just the experience of the identity
of everybody with everybody else. I was carried away in rapture.
And so I am a Deadhead now” (221).
As a Deadhead, Campbell was a late bloomer: he attended his first
Grateful Dead show at the age of 82. However, Campbell’s
description of how he became a Deadhead – attending a show;
feeling a loss of self in the rapture of the music and fusion
with the community; and understanding the experience as magical,
communal, spiritual – is a common narrative of Deadhead
identity formation, regardless of age or other factors (see Jennings,
Sutton, Reist). This common narrative of transformation tells,
in part, the story of how Deadheads come to embrace beliefs and
enact behaviors that can “answer the atom bomb.” Using
the band members’ and Deadheads’ stories and comments,
this article examines the role of language in the process of
Deadhead identity formation, and argues that Deadhead identification,
understood as a product of a socio-rhetorical process, implies
commitments, beliefs, and attitudes that idealize nonviolence,
experimentation, and community action. For this reason, the Dead
and their fans offer an important alternative, as journalist
Milton Meyer puts it, “in a world stoned on suspicion,
hostility, war, and woe” (qtd. in Grushkin 217).
Since 1965, when the Grateful Dead formed,
over a half million people in the United States and around the
world have become
Deadheads (Adams, “What Goes” 28). 1. New
Deadheads are still arriving on the scene in the twenty-first
ongoing tours of surviving band members and recordings of the
old shows, and hippie values remain a defining feature of Deadhead
culture. No prerequisite to Deadhead identity exists other than
a passionate connection with the music of the Grateful Dead;
beyond that, generalizations about what constitutes Deadhead
identity are difficult to make. According to sociologist Rebecca
Adams, most Deadheads are white and come from middle or upper-middle
class backgrounds (“Stigma” 4). However,
as many Deadheads have turned on to the music of the Grateful
lives have been utterly changed, as they actively reject values,
beliefs, and styles associated with their backgrounds and US
mainstream culture in favor of a bohemian, hippie life characterized
by liberal or radical views and alternative forms of community
and family. 2.
Many Deadheads express a feeling of being “outsiders” in
their biological families and native communities, a sense of
alienation that disappeared when they found the Grateful Dead.
As John Fritz, explains it, “when I went to my first show,
I felt like I had finally come home.” The appeal of the
Dead, for many, is the feeling of fitting in with a bunch of
other misfits. Bob Weir of the Dead coined the phrase “misfit
power” to explain “the particular appeal that the
Dead have for those on the fringes of what the straight world
defines as the mainstream” (Shenk and Silberman 195). Misfit
power is a celebration of difference, of misfits finding commonality
through a shared sense of alterity, of “otherness.” Thus,
even though Deadheads seem to be a relatively homogeneous group
of white kids, we should not assume sameness as a precondition
for acceptance in the Deadhead community. Quite the opposite
is the case: a feeling of being “different” or “Other” is
something many bring to their first encounter with the Dead.
The space of a Dead show invites and allows difference to emerge
as a condition of community and not as a hindrance to it. For
example, Deadhead scholars have made connections between Deadheads
and another “outsider” group present at shows: gays
and lesbians (see Silberman, Gunthmann). As Deadhead Molly Lewis
[T]here is something about being with a certain group of people
that makes you feel at home. I know that feeling. Chosen family.
. . . Deadhead, gay. The black sheep of the world pull together
to give comfort to each other, celebrate the feast days, greet
each other with hugs and open hearts. Interesting that both of
these groups get ostracized from their relatives too.
The transformation that occurs when these “outsiders” find
the Dead is often a feeling of finding something that was perhaps
missing in their traditional families and communities. In part,
the process of becoming a Deadhead relies on a felt sense of
difference people carry to their first encounter with the Dead.
The rest of the process of Deadhead identity formation occurs
as individuals are socialized into the Deadhead community.
These individual transformations occur, in
part, through a socialization process involving the rhetorical
effects of language and other
symbolic means. 3. Drawing on the work of rhetorical
theorist Kenneth Burke, I consider Deadhead identity as the effect
terms “a rhetoric of identification.” Traditionally,
rhetoric has been narrowly defined as public, persuasive discourse
addressed to a particular audience. While Burke retains the traditional
idea of rhetoric as “addressed,” he considers that
individuals often address one another (and themselves as their
own audience) in more subtle ways than direct persuasion. Using
his concept of identification, meant to suggest more
powerfully than persuasion the workings of rhetoric
in everyday discourse, Burke focuses on “the ways in which
members of a group promote social cohesion by acting rhetorically
and one another” (A Rhetoric xiv). Identification,
he claims, “can
operate without conscious direction by any particular agent” (A
Rhetoric 35). Identification suggests identity formation
as simultaneously an individual and a social process, and it
highlights the rhetorical
relationship between language and identity. Focusing
on the primacy of language in the development of human subjectivity,
on the role of rhetoric in the formation of individual and collective
subjects, a move which makes possible a discussion of something
called “Deadhead identity,” understood not as a clearly
defined homogeneous social group but as a rhetorical construction,
a product of language and symbolic activity. 4.
Burke’s rhetoric of identification concerns itself with
how individuals come to identify with one another; yet it is
also equally concerned with how individuals are at odds with
one another. To understand identification, he explains, we must “confront
the implications of division” (A Rhetoric 22). To illustrate
this ironic pairing of identification and division, Burke gives
the example of war, in which millions of cooperative acts are
required for one destructive act. Writing A Rhetoric of Motives during the years of the Cold War, Burke is concerned with the
relationship between language and conflict in human dramas. As
David Cratis Williams points out, Burke “view[s] language
in the context of, and as a potential motivation for, nuclear
war” (200). Williams also argues that “Burke’s
entire project is motivated by a ‘humanitarian concern
to see how far conflict (war) may be translated practically into
linguistic struggle and how such verbal struggle may be made
to eventuate in a common enactment short of physical combat’” (211).
According to Burke, the duplicity of language allows for movement
towards conflict and towards ameliorating conflict; it is through
language (and the failure of language) that war is made, but
it is also through language that war is avoided.
Burke’s concern with language and conflict compels him
to consider the relationship between rhetoric and the creation
of ethical communities, how language shapes cultural attitudes
and practices within an ethical framework. The Grateful Dead
and the Deadheads, I believe, embody the kind of ethical community
Burke imagines in his theorizing. The overlapping concern with
war in Burke’s theories and Campbell’s claim about
Deadheads suggests a consideration of Deadhead identification
as a rhetorical resource motivated by a desire to create an ethical
community that discourages violence and encourages peaceful coexistence.
Given identification’s significant role in socialization,
rhetorical processes necessarily inform every aspect of Deadhead
identity formation, including the shaping of cultural attitudes
toward violence. In what follows, I examine Deadheads’ use
of the language of family as a central feature of Deadhead identification,
a feature that, I suggest, socializes Deadheads to believe that
part of what makes one a Deadhead is to “be good family,” (an
expression found on bumper stickers and t-shirts at shows) which,
ideally, means acting peacefully, being kind, and sharing resources.
It would be utopian to expect that Deadheads are always ethical,
kind, and peaceful (they are not), but these utopian ideals do
form the basis for a shared ethic of responsibility toward others,
which qualifies Deadheads as an “ethical community” in
the Burkean sense. Ideals of kindness, responsibility, and ethical
awareness are reiterated through Deadheads’ use of family
rhetoric, which circulates through Deadheads’ language,
and confirms the importance of taking care of each other and
acting peacefully and kindly.
Deadheads act on these ideals in multiple ways, including repetition
in speech acts, such as referring to one another as “family” or “sister” or “brother,” and
through behaviors such as sharing and practicing kindness. The
term “family” is used often in the Deadhead community,
and, as such, its use resonates with meaning among its members
and forms a basis for identification among Deadheads. As Burke
argues, “To call a man friend or brother is to proclaim
him consubstantial with oneself, one’s values, or purposes” (A
Grammar 1320). Deadheads’ use of the language of family
invites individuals to identify with speakers as family, and
use of familial terms plays a major role in Deadhead identification.
These terms are often used ambiguously: “family” sometimes
refers to the band and their immediate relatives, co-workers
and inner circle of companions; other times it refers to the
entire Deadhead community; and sometimes it refers to all of
humanity. Although these multiple uses of the term are ambiguous
in the Deadhead social world, the term “family” nevertheless
operates definitively in the process of becoming a Deadhead.
Deadheads act upon themselves and one another to promote identification
by the repeated use of these familial terms.
Deadhead identity is not something consciously argued for and
accepted; rather, it is learned through the effect of a repeated
reinforcement of the language of identification: “[O]ften
we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular
address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their
convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily
reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill” (Burke,
A Rhetoric 26). Deadheads make many references to “family,” from
a Deadhead at a show calling another “sister,” to
the use of the term “family” by the band to describe
those close to their organization, or to the use of the phrase “tour
family” to describe the ones with whom a Deadhead travels
on a tour. As Adams explains, these familial terms induce cooperation
among Deadheads: “With kinship comes certain obligations
such as running interference when there is ‘trouble ahead,’ offering
comfort when there is ‘trouble behind,’ and sharing
resources even when it would not normally cross your mind” (qtd.
in Shenk and Silberman 84). The material reality of life on the
road often requires the kind of sharing with “family” that
enables Deadheads to live a nomadic life on a tour and have their
needs met. The use of the language of family is unquestionably
central to Deadhead identity formation even though who is considered “family” shifts
across various contexts.
Originally, this emphasis on family grew out of the 1960s San
Francisco counterculture. As Dan Healy, sound technician for
the Dead, explains:
[In San Francisco in the mid 60s] a network began to form, of light shows and
all, at the same time. Bill Hamm, who was one of the original liquid light show
persons, was around doing lights. A production company formed so that we could
produce shows. Not that it was all one company (everyone would function as an
individual), but in those days everyone would fit together as a whole when you
got there. There was not a whole lot of consideration given to whether it was
part of one company or not.
That’s where the original “family groove” came from. It wasn’t
just the Grateful Dead, but it was the whole entire scene that began happening
around San Francisco. (qtd. in Brandelius 35)
The “family groove” that Healy describes took hold in the fan culture
surrounding the Grateful Dead and spread around the country – and eventually,
the world – through tours that brought thousands of people on the road
together for extended periods of time. Use of family rhetoric has helped solidify
the Deadhead subculture into a cohesive, ethical community.
As Healy’s description of the “family groove” also suggests,
the band members and audience understand their relationship as collaborative
in the production of a show. A collaborative “family” identification
between the musicians and the audience is an important aspect of how the music “call[s]
up the common humanity” and creates “the identity of everybody with
everybody else” (Campbell 221, 225). Although in many ways, seeing a show
is a profoundly personal and individual experience – an “inner journey” for
many, a “religious experience” for some, a “trip” for
most – these individual experiences are contextualized rhetorically as
collective experiences as well. From the beginning, the Grateful Dead and Deadheads
have considered their shows collaborative productions between band and audience.
The rhetoric from the band and the community on the subject of the music itself
consistently blurs the boundaries between performer and audience. Bill Kreutzmann,
one of the Dead’s drummers, refers to the audience as the “seventh
band member” (qtd. in Brandelius 193). A popular bumper sticker made by
Deadheads proclaims, “We’ve seen the Dead and they are us.” Grateful
Dead historian Dennis McNally explains this band/audience relationship as one
unique to the music industry, as there
are none of the usual accoutrements of entertainment. As well, the distinction
between performer and audience is blurred here, because to a remarkable extent
this audience is part of the act. When the Dead play, there is a family – an
inner family of band and staff and crew, and an extended family of “audience” – all
come together for a ritual that most closely resembles a stoned religious proceeding.
Familial ties between band and audience are formed through the collaborative
production of a show, the creation of a space where, according to Steve Silberman, “the
Dead and their audience are bound strongly together in the cultivation of a field
of mystery” (218).
The blurring of boundaries between audience and performers in this cultivation
of mystery originated during the Acid Tests: psychedelic drug, music and artistic
happenings in the mid-60s which involved the participation of everyone in “the
show.” The band was only one part of the Acid Test, an experience that
Jerry Garcia describes in a 1970 interview in Rolling Stone:
It was something
more incredible than just rock & roll and a light show;
it was just a million times more incredible. It was incredible because of the
formlessness, because of the thing of people wandering around wondering what
was going on . . . and stuff happening spontaneously and people being prepared
to accept any kind of thing that was happening, and to add to it. . . . Everybody
was creating. Everybody was doing everything. That’s about the simplest
explanation. (qtd. in Trager 6)
In the same interview, Garcia calls the Acid Test “the prototype for our
whole basic trip” (6). The sense of audience collaboration with the band
is fundamental to the Grateful Dead experience, and has consistently remained
a defining feature of Deadhead culture from the 60s into the twenty-first century.
At the end of a Phil Lesh and Friends concert on December 30, 2005, Lesh, bass
player for the Dead, returned to play an encore. The audience was cheering as
he walked onto the stage and said,
I hope you’re giving yourselves a hand because this community – it’s
the group, it’s the combination, it’s the alchemy – that makes
this music happen. Literally, it could not happen without you folks. Even if
we came here and played and there was another group of people here, it would
not be the same. It would not be the electric alchemy that we have with this
Lesh rarely misses an opportunity at the end of his shows to comment on the role
of the audience in the production of Grateful Dead music, reiterating to each
new audience its own special place in the collaborative experience of a show.
The rhetorical effect of Lesh’s statements is to shift some responsibility
for the success of the “alchemy” to the audience and to highlight
the fans’ necessary role in the production of the music itself. Therefore,
though many experience a show as a personal, individual transformation (as Campbell
describes), in large part, this transformation is made possible by a de-emphasizing
of individuality in the process of group collaboration.
This “electric alchemy” is explained by Kreutzmann not as a magical
experience but as a rhetorical one, the result of communication: “Grateful
Dead is all about communication between the band and the audience” (qtd.
in Brandelius 193). This communicative act in the context of a show occurs as
a back and forth “between the band and audience,” not as a one-way
communication from the band to the audience. The show itself is understood as
the product of performer/audience interaction, not the passively received music
offered up by the musicians. Live shows teach Deadheads to identify themselves
as a part of the band and to take responsibility for the production of the experience,
including the music itself, as well as the creation of a community. This collaboration
is authorial in the sense that the band and the Deadheads together write the
story of what the Grateful Dead means. The rhetorical emphasis on this group
collaboration forms an important aspect of Deadhead identification, and it begins
to explain the relationship between the band and its followers as a collectivity,
a group identification based on a collaborative creation of the music and the
Importantly, the collaboration between audience and band that results in a show
requires a shared responsibility for creating the space where a meaningful and
peaceful event can occur. The Dead have been very responsive to their fans’ needs
at shows. For example, as Eileen Law, who’s been responsible for communications
between the band and audience through the Deadheads’ mailing list since
1973, explains, “I’m sure a lot of groups aren’t aware of what’s
going on at their shows. We always tried to keep up with what’s going on.
The tapers were starting to sit in people’s reserved seats. There were
arguments. So the band decided to give them [the tapers] their own section, right
behind the soundboard.” The Dead and the audience share the responsibility
of reducing conflict and addressing needs at shows. The “tapers” Law
refers to are the Deadheads who were legally taping shows because the Dead allowed
them to tape, an unusual practice at concerts. And, as Law explains, tapers were
not only allowed to tape openly; they were given their own section at shows to
ameliorate conflict between the tapers and non-tapers. The kind of responsiveness
on the part of the band is a crucial aspect of the Dead/Deadhead relationship
Also, from the beginning at the Acid Tests, family rhetoric has been rooted in
the cultural use of hallucinogenic drugs as part of the Deadhead experience.
For many, psychedelic drugs play an important part in community identification
and in the experience of a show. As Deadhead Amy Cross explains, “Feelings
of openness [with] others was often facilitated by the use of hallucinogenic
drugs. These experiences would often strip away defense mechanisms built up over
a lifetime, and allow people to see others more directly, and thus increase the
feelings of family relationship.” Psychedelic drugs remain an important
part of Deadhead culture and continue to inform the rituals surrounding a Dead
show. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to go into depth on the
subject, drugs are, for many, an important aspect of Deadhead identification
and, as Cross suggests, one of the catalysts to family identification with other
Whatever the source of the “feelings of family,” understanding shows
as family events and experiences clearly expands the boundaries of the traditional
notion of family beyond a nuclear, blood and marriage model. Deadheads are actively
involved in expanding and altering traditional notions of family, home, and community.
For many, these welcome alternatives are informed by the Grateful Dead ethos
of seeking out new possibilities and experimental forms of living. According
to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead,
The son of a recent president of our country told my lyricist, who’s a
friend of his, that the Grateful Dead were more important to him than his mother
and his father and everything that he learned in school. Of course my lyricist
said, “Surely you’re outta your mind?” But he said, “No
because these people showed me, more than anybody else, that there is another
way.” We’re committed to that ideal. (qtd. in Brandelius 184)
Weir’s statement underscores the kind of alternatives that the Dead offer:
alternatives to the traditional nuclear family (the Dead are more important than
this son’s mother and father); alternatives to mainstream US politics (the
father is a recent president); and alternatives to US education (he learned more
from the Dead than he learned in school). These alternatives might be left intentionally
vague because there are many alternatives; the point is that the Grateful Dead
teach others to imagine (and enact) new ways of living life. Garcia expresses
a similar idea using the metaphor of the Dead as a “signpost” pointing
to unexamined or unknown possibilities:
I think of the Grateful Dead as being a crossroads or a pointer sign and what
we’re pointing to is that there’s a lot of universe available, that
there’s a whole lot of experience available over here. We’re kinda
like a signpost, and we’re also pointing to danger, to difficulty, and
we’re pointing to bummers. We’re pointing to whatever there is. .
. . [T]hat’s the function we should be filling in society. (qtd. in Grushkin
Garcia’s signpost metaphor suggests that the Dead fill an important ontological
function for many Deadheads: they expand the perception of reality itself, and
moreover, they expand the scope and understanding of available life choices.
That Garcia mentions “danger, difficulty, bummers” shows that the
Dead do not necessarily offer up utopian, rosy images of reality. The difficulties
of human experiences are acknowledged as part of “whatever there is,” but,
as Weir’s quote suggests, these difficulties can be approached with the
understanding “that there is another way.” Grateful Dead rhetoric
is not utopian, but it does encourage the imagining of utopias – new forms
of community and cooperation born out of deliberate experimentation.
One mistaken interpretation of a Dead show is the idea that “anything goes,” but
that is not the case. Fans will not stand for disruptive, violent behavior that
interferes with others’ experiences, nor will they stand for actions that
threaten the future of the group (for example, gate crashing at shows, which
endangers people and poses a threat to future gatherings at a particular site).
If a fight breaks out at a show (and they sometimes do), others will step in
and mediate. Violence rarely escalates because a critical mass of Deadheads can
be counted on to defuse potentially violent situations. Most fans feel a sense
of responsibility for taking care of one another and for co-creating the meaningful
and peaceful experience that a show is. Deadheads perceive it as their responsibility
for creating the music, the community, and the space (the show) where something
The responsibility of the fans to take care of the “scene” became
more important than ever in the 1980s, when the Dead began to allow camping at
shows where they played multiple nights. The Dead hired their friend, Ruby, and
a few others to take care of the campers and to make sure that things ran smoothly
in the campgrounds. As Ruby remembers,
[In the early 1980s] we got a call from Bill Graham’s office about allowing
people to camp at Ventura. He said, “It would be better if you guys were
here to keep an eye on it all.” We got into a vast summer tour situation
for years. We were the facilitators, making sure nothing was wrong, helping people
out, this and that. The campgrounds were an incredible learning experience for
a lot of people. It facilitated making us feel like a larger family, is what
it did, rather than just being consumers of music. We all felt like we had a
part in keeping this thing together, you know. People got to know each other,
and it stuck together a lot better that way.
The Dead orchestrated the camping at shows and facilitated its success by putting
seasoned Deadheads on the road and paying them to look out for the community.
When I asked Ruby what she did as “camp counselor” for Deadheads,
she explained further: “When people would be complaining about their neighbors,
we would wonder what was the matter and take them by the hand and go back there
and see what was going on and make friends with them. You know, that’s
it.” Living together in the campgrounds created the conditions for tension
as well as for bonding, and working through conflict became part of creating
the ethical community. Ruby and other longtime Deadheads helped teach the new,
younger generation how to live together and resolve conflict, a key aspect of
Deadhead identity, according to Ruby. “We [Deadheads] tend to make friends
out of everybody we meet as long as we have some interaction with them,” Ruby
explained, “and I think that’s a really good thing for the world.
. . . When Bush started this war in Iraq, I said, ‘he’s stupid: he
should’ve brought a thousand of us.’” Like Campbell’s “atom
bomb” comment, Ruby’s statement about the Iraq war sounds excessively
idealistic; nevertheless, she seriously considers learning how to work through
conflict as a defining feature of the Deadhead community. Moreover, Ruby’s
comments suggest that living in close contact with many others for days and weeks
in campgrounds at shows taught Deadheads how to think and act as a family, and
the skills learned in that environment have potential for resolving conflicts
larger than the ones found at shows.
Living together and using family rhetoric bonds the community together in a shared
experience, confirming a shared identity and purpose, and countering and correcting
the misguided assumption that “anything goes,” an assumption that
some fans bring to shows that potentially threatens the creation of a peaceful
gathering. Family rhetoric promotes social cohesion through addressing the divisions
and sources of conflict that emerge within the community. According to Burke,
identification implies division and therefore, “Identification is affirmed
with earnestness because there is division. Identification is compensatory to
division. . . . If men were wholly and truly of one substance, absolute communication
would be of man’s very essence.” (Burke, A Rhetoric 22). Deadheads’ use
of family rhetoric reveals a source of conflict and tension in the community
as well as a source of amelioration and belonging. On the one hand, family rhetoric
functions inclusively, encouraging Deadheads to take care of one another and
to act with kindness toward others. On the other hand, though, to call someone
family is to initiate a set of expectations that is easily exploited. For example,
it’s harder to refuse requests for money or favors if someone addresses
another Deadhead as “sister.” As backonthebus, a Deadhead who posts
on an Internet fan site states, “The term family is often used by an opportunist
to make someone trusting. These days, if someone calls me ‘sister’ I
am on guard.” According to Chez Ray Sewell, the Dead’s former chef,
this problematic attitude of entitlement has been around since the beginning
and has always created tension within the community: “People used to show
up [at the Dead’s concerts] with nothing to offer. You didn’t need
to have money to contribute something. All you needed to do was find out how
you could help, and you could. But some people didn’t get that. I mean,
how dare they show up with nothing?” This problem was kept in check as
long as the great majority of Deadheads did show up with something to contribute
and a willingness to share.
The freeloaders and “tourists” at shows have always been a drain
on the community, but, for most of the Dead’s history, the majority of
Deadheads have not fallen into this category. In the late 80s, though, with a
top ten hit and a new generation of fans, the Dead’s popularity brought
huge numbers of ticketless fans and many non-Deadheads looking for a party. This “dead
weight” at the shows threatened the band’s future, wearing out the
Dead’s welcome at many venues across the country; as a response to this
crisis, new divisions arose alongside community identifications. During this
same period, the expression “be good family” emerged, along with
a new term in the community’s discourse: “custy.” As one touring
Deadhead explained to me, “you were either custy or family, and by the
end of the first week of tour, everyone knew who was who.” “Custy,” taken
from “customer,” is tainted with connotations of commercialism, tourism,
and consumerism. In this binary relationship between family and custy, family
is, by definition, anti-commercialistic. “Family” operates within
a barter economy (in which tickets are traded for food, handmade clothes for
marijuana, etc.) or a need-based “miracle” economy (in which resources
are freely shared, “miracle tickets” – free tickets to shows – offered,
or free rides given to the next show). “Custy” operates within a
capitalist economy, in which everything is for sale and the profit motive is
placed above human needs. A “custy” Deadhead became the object of
derision and contempt, and a scapegoat on which to place blame for the problems
at shows. The disdain for “custies” placed social pressure on individuals
there primarily as “tourists” to act more like “family” in
order to identify and belong in the Deadhead subculture.
As the use of the term custy shows, family rhetoric also functions in the Deadhead
community in the form of resistance to capitalism. Many Deadheads’ rejection
of the “American Dream” of material success forms the basis of Deadheads’ identity
as family. As Sue Swanson, founder of the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion fan
That’s something that was said to all of us when we were young – “You’re
not working to your potential.” That’s what we had in common, and
that’s why it’s been so amazing, such a blessing for us, that we
all found each other, and found in each other something that encourages us to
be ourselves. That’s why we really are a family. We have biological families,
but we are our real family, and we love each other as real brothers and sisters.
(original emphasis, qtd. in Shenk and Silberman 195)
Swanson’s statement defines family as a belonging based on a refusal to “work
to your potential,” a refusal to define success by a materialistic impulse
or Protestant work ethic. What defines a “real family” is the creation
of a space and a community in which “something encourages us to be ourselves,” a “family” with
a definition of success based on the ability to share and take care of each other
in a hostile world where the profit motive reigns and wars erupt as a result.
The Deadheads who created the “be good family” stickers and t-shirts
explicitly connect the family ethos with a progressive social and political consciousness
tacitly present in the community. On one t-shirt, for example, the back reads, “Clearly
Channeling for Profit Sucks,” a reference to the music company, Clear Channel,
a corporate giant with a profit drive that has caused everything from inflated
ticket and food prices at shows to a national radio monopoly that controls the
careers of musicians. The front of the shirt reads “Be good family,” connecting
the rhetoric of family to anti-commercialist discourses. Being good family is
actively resisting the drive to “work to [one’s] potential,” where “potential” is
synonymous with commercial success and materialism, a world in which Clear Channel
is a model of success.
The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads offer an alternative model of American identity.
They comprise an ethical community that reverses many traditional American values:
idealizing experimentation, transcendence, freedom, and non-violence without
compromising individuality; privileging searching and mystery over absolutes
and answers; and prioritizing creativity and autonomy over making money or chasing
the so-called “American Dream.” These qualities of the Deadhead community
find expression in discourse and in action at shows, and support the idea that
ethical communities are formed rhetorically. While Deadhead culture is far from
utopian, it does idealize certain values and behaviors, thereby making utopia – a
world characterized by peace, love, freedom, and music – something to be
achieved, or at least attempted, through a rhetoric of identification found in
everyday acts, speech, and attitudes.
I would like to thank Georgia Rhoades, Jill Ehnenn, Kim Hall, and Kirsten
Tiedemann for their suggestions toward improving this essay. My thanks
also to the Deadheads
who offered their time, energy, and thoughts on my research topic: Chez
Ray Sewell, Eileen Law, Ruby, Molly Lewis, Amy Cross, John Fritz, Backonthebus,
the Grateful Dead Caucus at the seventh annual SWTXPCA conference, and
Philzone.com community. I greatly appreciate their willingness to think
this through with me.
1. I count myself among the half-million who self-identify as Deadheads.
I saw my first Grateful Dead show in 1986 and have been to hundreds
since then. The arguments in this essay are supported by my own experience,
observation, reflection, and dialog with other Deadheads.
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2. Adams points out that many Deadheads (eventually)
hold white-collar jobs and “are successful and hardworking by mainstream standards. Rather than
reject the mainstream value of individual material success, they supplement
it with an appreciation of collective experientialism” (“Stigma” 4).
I would argue that this “supplement” of “collective experientialism” includes
beliefs, values, and practices that fall outside of the mainstream; that is,
most Deadheads with white collar work continue to identify with an alternative
value system, one that closely resembles the values of other Deadheads, perhaps
with the exception of valuing “individual material success.”
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3. Communications scholar Natalie Dollar argues that Deadheads
constitute a “speech
community” whose members “use communication as
a means of connecting with other Deadheads, of realizing shared
identity, of accomplishing the communal
function” (97). With Dollar, I assume that Deadhead speech
communication contributes to the formation of identity, community,
and culture, but I use
rhetoric and identification rather than speech communication
as my framework for anaylsis. This shift in terministic screens
enables me to address the ways
that rhetoric and identification are involved in socialization,
a process that Dollar’s work implies but doesn’t
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4. The process of identification is complex and multi-faceted,
and it includes the symbolic dimensions of music, dress,
and other extra-linguistic
as well as language itself. For my purposes here, though,
focus primarily on the rhetoric of language and less on
the rhetoric of, say,
dress or dancing; however, it should be noted that rhetoric
functions on all symbolic
levels and not simply on a linguistic level. Exploring
these other rhetorical elements of Deadhead identification falls outside
scope of this essay,
though they are crucial to understanding the multiple ways
rhetoric operates in identity formation.
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