"Comedy Is What We're Really About":
The Grateful Dead in a Comic Frame


Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2020, Volume 19, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2020/zwagerman.htm

 

Sean Zwagerman
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada


We owe respect to the living;
to the dead, we owe only the truth.
–Voltaire

 

One can tell the story of the Grateful Dead as a tragedy. The hero Jerry Garcia's appetite for experience – "you can go at any moment so you might as well crowd as much as possible into your life," he once said (Garcia, "Jerry Garcia Opens Up") – was also his tragic flaw as his superhuman consumption of junk food, heroin, and cigarettes led to his demise at 53. And now, even after the band's death, its surviving members continue, zombie-like, to roam the earth performing as Dead and Company, drawing life from the blood of their young guitarist John Mayer and the wallets of the nostalgic. One can also describe the Grateful Dead in Romantic and mystical terms as a band devoted to the muse of "divine inspiration" (Wood 75). Their performances were treated as spiritual experiences by their followers, who claimed to become one with the musicians in a communion that defied earthly explanation. Though such mystical descriptions are unlikely to persuade – much less convert – non-believers, one cannot fully understand the Grateful Dead phenomenon without acknowledging the importance of the spiritual motives of the faithful, and the mystification of the experience by fans and even some band members.
           
As terminologies for understanding the Grateful Dead phenomenon, the tragic and Romantic frames are best deployed as complementary rather than competing vocabularies – and, of course, there is always room in Romanticism for tragedy. But even together, these two frames remain at best partial and incomplete. As Kenneth Burke states in "Terministic Screens," even if a particular terminology is "a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (45). And indeed, there is more to the Dead phenomenon than rock-and-roll tragedy and hippie Romanticism. By "more," I do not mean more greatness, that we must join those who exalt the band as "one of the most extraordinarily creative ensembles in twentieth-century music" (Jackson, Garcia xii); overstatement of the band members' genius is a shortcoming of both the tragic and Romantic frames. By "more," I mean something other, described in a different vocabulary entirely: namely a consideration of the Grateful Dead through the comic frame as described by Kenneth Burke. The comic frame explains aspects of the Dead phenomenon that the tragic and Romantic frames disregard or misrepresent, and has a notable spokesperson in Jerry Garcia himself. The comic frame accounts for Garcia's embrace of spontaneity, but – unlike the Romantic frame – in the pursuit of pleasure rather than the sacred. Against the tragic frame's emphasis on fallen greatness and the Romantic frame's focus on artistic genius, the comic frame accommodates Garcia's insistent self-deprecation and rejection of genius, and his ready acknowledgment of imperfection and failure. The comic frame accounts too for Garcia's humility, his refusal to overstate – that is, take too seriously – the Grateful Dead's musical accomplishments or its social and spiritual significance. Finally, Burke's comic frame explains Garcia's attitude toward his philosophical and pharmacological self-exploration.1
           
This study focuses on the use of tragic, Romantic, and comic frames both in writings about the Grateful Dead written for mass audiences – biographies, autobiographies, magazine articles, and interviews — and in scholarly works in the multidisciplinary field of Grateful Dead studies.2 The latter works have much in common with the popular and fan-oriented genres since, as Nicholas G. Meriwether writes, "One of the most interesting aspects of the scholarship on the Grateful Dead phenomenon is its outspoken partisanship" ("The Thousand Stories" 35). Indeed, many Dead scholars begin their work with a statement of faith, eagerly acknowledging their own "ritualistic participation" in the Grateful Dead subculture (Trudeau 86). A consequence of this partisanship is that even when Dead scholars cite some critical or philosophical heavyweights, it is often to append some theoretical gravitas to Romantic prefabrications and mystical experiences they have already decided are real. Stanley Spector cites Heidegger in order to celebrate the ineffable "'isness' of everything" experienced at Dead shows, David Malvinni invokes Heidegger and Deleuze to endorse the "telepathy" and the "X factor" as constituents in the phenomenon of "Deadness," and Mark Tursi musters Arendt, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Lyotard, and Marx to caution that the essence of the Grateful Dead phenomenon will be sullied if too much academic attention leads to its "assimilation" into the status quo (Spector 232, Malvinni 26, Tursi 214.). So while the current essay begins to fill the absence of humor studies in Grateful Dead scholarship, the comic frame's irreverence toward "priestly euphemisms" may also serve as a counterstatement to those moments when the scholarship itself becomes a little too devout (Burke, Attitudes 166).

 

The Tragic Frame

Jerry Garcia died of heart failure in 1995 at the age of 53, the fourth of five Grateful Dead members to die between 1973 and 2006. Although the surviving members continue to perform in various combinations, the Grateful Dead ended when Garcia died. Thus can the Grateful Dead story be told as a series of tragedies ending in the final tragedy of Garcia's death. Obituaries and statements from fans invoked the tragic frame. One fan described Deadheads commiserating over their "common tragedy" (Slatalla). "It's just the biggest loss [Deadheads] could imagine," wrote Mary Kaye Schilling for Entertainment Weekly. "They look at him as if he were some sort of a religious figure." Writing for UPI, Valerie Kuklenski referred to Garcia as "a beloved hero." Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Garcia's smiling, bearded face became an icon of a utopian 1960's spirit." "There's no way to measure his greatness or magnitude," Bob Dylan said (qtd. in Gundersen). The tragedy of Garcia's death was thus amplified by describing him as an "icon," his death as "the passing of an era" (Markoff), and that era – the sixties – as if it were a sort of halcyon cultural adolescence.
           
"The tragic is the inevitable,' Frederick Buechner writes (57), and given Garcia's habits, his death at a relatively young age was indeed inevitable. But the tragic frame as it is most often applied to Garcia denies the inevitability of his demise and the essence of inevitability in the tragic itself. Instead, the popular version of the tragic frame casts Garcia's death not as the inevitable outcome but as a terrible surprise. Kuklenski writes that "Garcia's unexpected death...at age 53 stunned the rock world." Garcia's longtime roadie Steve Parrish begins the final chapter of his memoir, "Ironically, Jerry died at a time when he seemed most committed to changing his life" (273). Edna Gundersen writes in USA Today that "Garcia had a long history of drug abuse, but in recent years, dieted, quit smoking and began a fitness program." The band's publicist Dennis McNally claims that "it was clear in recent days [just before Garcia's death] that he turned the corner and was ready to confront" his heroin addiction (Gundersen).
           
But through a nuanced appreciation of tragedy's narrative logic, the circumstances of Garcia's death are not only inevitable but sadly fitting. Shortly before his passing, he prematurely left the Betty Ford Center in Los Angeles for another treatment center in Marin County where he had lived since the 1970s. If Garcia's life is, to use Burke's terminology, "translated into the terms of tragic outcome," then his death in a drug treatment center in Marin is the "perfection" – in the sense of "completeness" – of his life as tragic "entelechy," in which one defines "an essence in terms of its end" (Rhetoric 14). To fully acknowledge the tragic frame is to recognize that of course, Garcia's life ended this way; his last 20 years – right up to the end – featured repeated vows to moderate or cease his drug use, interventions, aborted trips to rehab, and short stretches of abstinence followed by relapse. The title of the final set of essays in The Grateful Dead Reader (2001) does seem to recognize the inevitability of Garcia's demise, quoting his song "Black Peter": "'See here how everything lead up to this day': Jerry Garcia's death and the end of the Grateful Dead, 1995-1996" (Dodd and Spaulding 266).

But elsewhere, the way in which Garcia's death was tragic – tragic in its inevitability, a tragedy that one could have seen coming for decades – is rejected in favor of a popularized tragic framing in which the celebrity-hero dies unexpectedly just before his redemption. So the flaws in this version of the tragic frame as applied to the Grateful Dead phenomenon are the mischaracterization as a hero and an icon of a musician who vehemently refused such status, and its deflection of the inevitability of the demise of the actual, unmythologized Jerry Garcia – Garcia the "stone junkie," as he once referred to himself (Gans). Biographer and Deadhead Blair Jackson claims that Garcia's "strongest addiction was music, not drugs," but in the tragic end this was obviously not true (Jackson, "American Beauty" 290-91). Though Garcia hated the nickname "Captain Trips," which had followed him since the Acid Tests in 1965-66, it persisted because it remained fitting, and Garcia's heroin addiction places him – incongruously, but accurately – alongside figures like Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious whom one cannot imagine dying any other way.

 

The Romantic Frame

Dennis McNally and Brent Wood both explicitly trace the Grateful Dead back to the Romantic tradition, "through the Beat poets...to William Blake, the romantic poets, and beyond," McNally writes (166); Wood positions the Dead "in the wave of North American neo-Romantic popular culture" (2). What I am characterizing as the Romantic frame is an attitude toward artistic production that privileges inspiration, genius, spontaneity, and the ineffable while diminishing practice, planning, aptitude, and craft. My use of "Romantic" aligns with the term's usage in writing studies where it may also be called expressivism; I am extending it here to a different act of creative production, namely music.3 Here, “Romantic” is shorthand for a particular set of attitudes in a specific social context; I am making no broad claims about the Romantic era or Romantic philosophy.
           
Though I dispute the factual validity of Romantic explanations of creation and reception, of consciousness and intentionality, the Romantic frame is important for understanding the phenomenology of the Grateful Dead scene, which exemplifies what Michael Kaler calls "the sacralization of popular culture phenomena" ("Music and the Divine" 5). Fred Goodman distils to a single sentence the Romantic and quasi-religious framing of the Grateful Dead: "Receiving their artistic baptism in the LSD-soaked Haight-Ashbury rock scene of the late sixties, the Grateful Dead remains an adherent to the spiritual legacy of the times, anachronistically mystical and tribal." With varying degrees of distance or devotion, many have written about this aspect of the Dead phenomenon,4 and many of the band's followers did – and do – believe that Dead concerts were magical, ineffable experiences: "no description can adequately capture the sense of 'magic' of a show," writes David Bryan in "The Grateful Dead Religious Experience" (126) while David Malvinni locates the essence of "deadness" in "the singular moment, a unique performative moment that is by definition unrepeatable" (13). (Many Deadhead writers revel in this Romantic toil to express the inexpressible and capture the ephemeral.) "Large numbers of Deadheads report a psychic connection with the band," writes Anthony Pearson (419). Jackson for example, attending a concert in 1995, sees Garcia smiling "ever so slightly," which Jackson experiences as an "enlightened moment, a shared reality full of spiritual nourishment and humanity, that kept Deadheads coming back for more." For him, Garcia smiled because he "recogniz[ed] that the crowd and band had experienced a moment of the soul together" (Garcia 445). Rob Weir is correct that "dispassionate readers of rock history" will find such beliefs "fanciful" (138), but many Deadheads do believe such things, and their belief was sufficient to give the concerts an atmosphere of communal, quasi-religious ritual.
           
The band members too, especially in the early years, espoused the psychedelic spirituality of the era; "music is like the key to a whole spiritual existence which this society doesn't even talk about," Garcia says in 1971. "The Grateful Dead plays at the religious services of the new age" (Jackson, Garcia 191). However, Garcia stopped talking this way when fans started worshipping him. Though less so over time, when describing his experience of performing, Garcia did continue to include vaguely metaphysical – though not explicitly spiritual or religious – terms such as "energy" or "synchronicity." In a 1979 interview, he referenced astrology and the I Ching then stated the following about performances where he felt he had played poorly:

Sometimes on those nights people will come up to me and say, "God, that was the most incredible music you guys have ever played"...I listen to a tape and it sounds amazing and I say, "I don’t remember that; I didn’t play that," and it's those moments that I realize that my conscious will...is just really not very involved in this whole thing...It's something that occurs in a mediumistic way, something involuntary. (Haas 131).

But we don't need the supernatural to explain the workings of the universe, so we certainly don't need it to explain the Grateful Dead. It is hardly unusual for audiences and performers to have different assessments of a given performance. And while Garcia is correct in a way about the uninvolvement of his "conscious will," it does not follow that his guitar playing is involuntary or that we need a "mediumistic" explanation. All we need is the commonplace observation that a high level of aptitude in a particular skill does not require – can, in fact, be impeded by – conscious attention to one's physical movements. To use John Searle's terminology of intentionality, prior intentions are those "formed before the performance of an action," and intentions in action are "those that we have while we are actually performing an action" (65). The latter intentions – for example, our intentions in action while driving a car – are often unconscious for periods of time, and, if our thoughts wander, we may later not even remember parts of the drive. These experiences may feel uncanny, but they are not mysterious, and certainly not divine; what Garcia is describing above is the intention in action of playing guitar.
           
Jackson writes of the band's better performances:

It wasn't something the Dead could conjure exactly, because it depended on innumerable other factors – the moment-to-moment disposition of each player; whether his equipment was functioning properly so that he could hear himself and the others;...each member's sensitivity to what everyone else was playing; the responsiveness of the crowd...The Dead used to say that at those times, the music played the band, meaning that as a group they were operating beyond cognition and intention – beyond the mechanics of simply playing well – to a nearly effortless state of grace. (Garcia 385)

Committed to the Romantic ineffable, Jackson calls these performances "inexplicable," though he has just finished explaining them as the result of such common factors as the quality of the stage monitors and the extent to which the musicians are paying attention to one another (386). And as with Garcia's explanation above, what's happening is beyond "cognition" and "mechanics" only in the sense that aptitude does not require – can, in fact, be understood as the absence of – conscious attention to every physical action. Mediumistic explanations are completely superfluous and are often merely the prefabricated conclusions of those who have already decided that magic exists; Bryan, for example, makes the circular argument that, "If creativity is divine activity, then one way to experience the divine is through such creativity. Thus, the creativity of musical communication between band members is a possible avenue through which the divine can be manifested" (Bryan 135). It is also worth pointing out that Garcia's failure in the interview above to recall a given performance may well be explained by drug use; whether it was LSD in the sixties, cocaine and heroin in the eighties and nineties, or marijuana in any decade, Garcia was regularly high on stage, and often doing drugs or noticeably high during interviews.5
           
Far more so than Garcia, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann as well as bassist Phil Lesh embrace the Romantic frame preferred by Deadheads. Hart stated, "On a very good night, the magic will visit us. On other nights, for whatever reason, it stays away" (Jackson, "Dead Heads," 154). Kreutzmann concurred: "There is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights" (Connors 29). Lesh adorned his autobiography with quotes from Romantic poets and asserted that the Acid Tests transformed the Dead from "a band playing a gig" into "shamans helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners" (Lesh 76). On good nights, Lesh claimed, the band tapped into a collective "order of energy" that was "anything but rational thinking" (Haas 133) where "we were one in the music, and the music was playing us...One isn't creating, but being created" (Lesh 260-61).6 Lesh conceded, however, "that we've never been able to really do it two nights in a row" (Haas 133). Deadheads who recognized this variability and shared Lesh's and Hart's preternatural explanations travelled from show to show in part to try to catch one that would confirm their faith in the mystical nature of the experience (Pearson 422). Here again, we can do away with the mystification of the variability Lesh and Hart are identifying and simply attribute it to inconsistency, remediable by fewer drugs and more rehearsal. In explaining why the Dead played "as if they'd discovered some new source of power within themselves" during their widely praised 1977 concerts, Jackson unRomantically attributes it to the fact that record producer Keith Olsen had been forcing the band to rehearse (Garcia 285). Lesh identifies the Dead's 1978 performances at the pyramids in Giza as their ultimate attempt to tap into the "power" of a place (Haas 133), but both band members and fans agree that these performances were average at best, adding more support for the importance of practice and the irrelevance of spiritual energies.
           
In its logic, the Romantic framing of artistic production is a paradox and an oxymoron. The Romantic obsession with inspiration is, paradoxically, a sort of rigidity: the true artist must be inspired. The oxymoronic practice that derives from this postulate is that artists must make spontaneity a goal, must approach their art planning to be spontaneous. Since artists, when they are in touch with their genius, cannot but create a masterpiece, the Romantic frame can only account for failure as the absence or blocking of genius. So if Garcia is a genius, as everyone from his daughter to Bill Clinton declared upon Garcia's death, how do we account for his failures, for the 1990s concerts where he seemed indifferent or incapable? Something external, something beyond the artist's control, must be to blame. Something at the show must have come between Garcia and his muse and prevented the magic from visiting: it's the crowd, it's the cops, it's the new keyboard player, it's Cleveland, etc. Because Jackson's terministic screen is that the "mystical union of artist and audience was at the core of the Grateful Dead's appeal," his reading of a 1990 concert in Denmark that both fans and band members agreed was poor is that the concert was "completely lacking in inspiration" (Garcia 451, 399). But a few sentences later, Jackson mentions a more likely and less ethereal explanation: "right before the show Garcia had gobbled a potent pot cookie, so by midpoint of the first set he could barely stand up, let alone play well" (399). Explanations of the Dead's inconsistency that rely on inspiration and genius may serve the belief in Grateful Dead exceptionalism, but they deflect the far more obvious and persuasive explanations of effective and ineffective artistic performance: aptitude and effort, capacity and incapacity, and the amount of work and practice invested in improving their craft. Pianist Bruce Hornsby, who played with the band in the 1990s, says simply of Garcia's poor performances in that era, "I don't think Garcia practiced much in the last two or three years" (Jackson, "Outtakes" Ch. 23).
           
Garcia himself affirms that the Romantic vision of the inspired artist fails as an accurate description of his experience of and in the Grateful Dead phenomenon. In discussing himself and the band, he consistently rejects the quintessential Romantic concepts of inspiration and genius, often preferring the comic frame. It is perhaps ironic that the man nicknamed "Captain Trips" is the voice of understatement against Deadhead panegyrics, and of biological materialism against Romantic mystifications. Granted, as descendants of the New Critics, we know that we do not need to give the author – or the lead guitarist – the last word on the meaning of his performance. But Garcia does get the last word when describing his own attitude toward the band and his role in it, and his "lived experience" is at least as informative as that of individual Deadheads; Garcia, after all, attended every Grateful Dead show. And in numerous interviews, Garcia rejects Romantic framings of the Grateful Dead phenomenon by making clear that even if the fans are having some sort of spiritual experience, they are not having it as part of, or in response to, Garcia's spiritual ministrations on stage. "Deadheads believe in magic and ritual and the input of spirits," Ken Kesey said in a 1986 interview. "They go to Dead concerts asking questions and sometimes the Dead provide the answers" (Jackson, "Outtakes" Epilogue). And it is Garcia, Pearson observes, who "more than any other member is attributed spiritual qualities by the audience" (425). But this idea that he or the band were a source of inspired knowledge for others was one Garcia always vehemently rejected. In 1972, he argued, "As for coming to me for advice and shit like that, that's ridiculous. That's like 'Captain Trips.' That's bullshit" (Garcia, "The Rolling Stone Interview"). Twenty years later, Garcia continued to insist that he was not a guru and not the leader of anything, not even the band: "I don't feel like I'm guiding anybody. I feel like I'm sort of stumbling along and a lot of people are watching me or stumbling with me or allowing me to stumble for them."

David: How do you feel about the fact that many people have interpreted your music as the inspiration for a whole lifestyle – the Deadhead culture?
Jerry: Well, a little silly!...[O]n one level it's amusing that people make so much stuff out of this and on another level, I believe it's their right to do that, because in a way the music belongs to them. When we're done with it, we don't care what happens to it. If people choose to mythologize it, it certainly doesn't hurt us. (Brown and Novick)

As this interview progressed, Garcia enthusiastically discussed consciousness and psychedelics, but nowhere did he espouse spiritual explanations or any sort of substance dualism. Garcia understood states of consciousness, altered or not, as features of the embodied human mind. "I believe that anything that I was ever in touch with was fundamentally a part of this world," he insisted. Steve Silberman, grandly described in Jackson's biography as "a Grateful Dead scholar and veteran psychedelician," said of psychedelic drugs, "You don't have to even speculate about whether there is a God out there; it's obvious from accumulated cultural evidence that these chemicals are a key to the experience of the sacred" (Garcia 72). Though Jackson included the above quotation from Garcia on the very same page as this quote from Silberman and in the context of Jackson's discussion of "the spiritual possibilities of the [LSD] experience," Jackson seemed unaware that Garcia was not endorsing that spiritual terministic screen (73). Instead, Garcia described his experiences with both musical performance and psychedelics as varieties of conscious mental states. Of drugs, Garcia – who nearly died when he lapsed into a diabetic coma in 1986 – said, "I don't think there's anything else in life apart from a near-death experience that shows you how extensive the mind is" (Garcia, "The Rolling Stone Interview" 1991).

Silberman, Jackson, and other Grateful Dead scholars including Nancy Reist and Ryan Slesinger all regard the use of LSD for spiritualistic reasons as superior to its use just for fun and transfer this pietism to their conception of Grateful Dead concerts as religious rituals. But Garcia repeatedly identified his primary motive for playing music and for altering his mental state as pleasure rather than spiritual enlightenment. "I loved pot," he said. "Pot was right up my alley. Anything that makes you laugh and makes it so that you love to eat – to me, that's fun" (Kahn, "Jerry Garcia"). Of the arrival of LSD in the mid-1960s, Garcia recalled, "I was glad to be in on that. That was a remarkably lucky moment historically; that was fun" (Jackson, Garcia 72). Of trying to write songs that captured that era, Garcia asked, "What could you say? 'We took a bunch of acid and had a lot of fun?'" (123). It is noteworthy that, in support of his thesis that the mystical attitude toward the Dead's music was shared by the band members as a "religious mission," Kaler must rely on quotations from Hart and Lesh since Garcia's words do not cooperate ("Music and the Divine" 10).
           
Kaler identifies the Dead's role as house band for the Acid Tests as the "foundation story" for the quasi-religious mythologizing of the Grateful Dead phenomenon. But though Garcia, like Lesh, acknowledged that the Acid Tests were transformative, Garcia spoke of this transformation in terms of states of consciousness, not in quasi-religious terms. The band's modest role, as Garcia saw it, was to be the musical accompaniment for whatever sorts of experiences people wanted to have: "What the Kesey thing was depended on who you were when you were there...It was whatever you made it" (Jackson, Garcia 92). In interviews fifteen and twenty years after the Acid Tests, Garcia described his role and the concert scene around him in the same way: tolerant of those who come for something spiritual while making clear that his own motivation is enjoyment. Why, asked, interviewer Charlie Haas, is there all this "'travelling and lyric quoting and the 9 zillion skulls on everything?' 'That's an interesting question,' Garcia replies. 'It can't be solved by examining our motives'" (130). Fans, Garcia believed, were "people who want some excitement, they want something to look forward to, and people who want to have some fun. And if they want more than that, then that's their business. The Grateful Dead experience...does for them what they want it to" (Garcia, "Jerry Garcia Interview"). As in the quotations above regarding pot and LSD, "fun" is the very commonplace and unRomantic word Garcia used to describe his motives and experiences. In a 1967 interview, Garcia sounded as if he were going to invoke Romantic utopianism to explain the Grateful Dead phenomenon: "I'm hoping this all represents another alternative world." But then he described that alternative in a way that was decidedly unspiritual: "Like, yeah, let's take it easy and have a good time" (Gleason 35). His instruction to keyboard player Vince Welnick when the latter joined the band in 1990 was, "Play anything. Have fun" (Jackson, Garcia 397).
           
As for the role of inspiration in musicianship, Garcia claimed in a 1976 interview, "When a song comes into my head, it comes with a complete sound to it, a complete arrangement, a complete format and a complete thing more often than not, which represents my relationship to a personal vision" (Garcia, "The Grateful Dead Revisited"). This certainly sounds like an endorsement of Romantic artistic inspiration. But fifteen years later, he stated, "I don't think I've ever actually written from inspiration, actually had a song just go bing! I only recall that happening to me twice...I mean, that's twice in a lifetime of writing!" (Garcia, "The Rolling Stone Interview" 1991). Garcia, then, was not an entirely reliable or consistent interviewee. So we go with the preponderance of the evidence: the interviews in which Garcia spoke of Romantic or divine inspiration are few and far between. Regarding inspiration and performance, his explanations as to why Grateful Dead shows were as much miss as hit were very different in tone from those of Lesh, Hart, and the Deadheads. According to David Gans, who writes about the Dead in a Romantic frame and plays in a Grateful Dead cover band, "The job of playing Grateful Dead music is to open yourself up to divine inspiration, to put yourself at the disposal of the collective muse" (Jackson, Garcia 144). Garcia did not describe the job in that way. "I'm not a believer in the invisible," he said (Jackson, Garcia 349), attributing the variety and spontaneity of Grateful Dead performances not to inspiration but to temperament and preference: "Some people can play the same music every night over and over again and maybe never get bored by it, but for me, I hate to play anything the same twice – ever, you know? In fact, I'm almost constitutionally unable to do it" ("Jerry Garcia Opens Up"). Again, the Romantic frame has explanatory power for understanding why Deadheads like Gans, Silberman, and Jackson speak the way they do. But Romantic explanations of reality – including the reality of mental states – are only useful, if it all, as metaphors. The Romantic frame also fails as an explanation of how Garcia experienced the Dead phenomenon. Asked what "a Grateful Dead show in Virtual Reality would be like," Garcia replied, "Deadheads would want to be part of the band, I would imagine. I think it would be fun if they could be, because it would make them see the experience differently. But I think they would be disappointed if they saw our version of it" (Brown and Novick). Garcia said such things, with charming self-deprecation, often enough that one should take his self-assessment seriously.

 

The Comic Frame

Although the Romantic frame dominates writings on the Grateful Dead, it is not the case that humor and the Dead have never been mentioned together. First of all, there is plenty of humor at the Grateful Dead's expense:

What did the Deadhead say when the drugs wore off?

This music sucks.

But those who have written "seriously" about the Dead acknowledge the comic perspective only briefly if at all, before returning to the Romantic or tragic. In his introduction to the Grateful Dead Reader, Silberman writes:

It's that tension between what the fans hungered to see and how acutely the musicians were aware of their shortcomings and humanity that makes for some of the funniest moments in this book...As much as the music could be glorious and subtle (or volcanic and primordial), there was always a whiff of scrofulous, priapic Coyote Old Man malingering behind the altar and guzzling from the communion cup to keep things from getting too precious. (xx)

But Silberman cannot or will not sustain the comic perspective. He returns to the Romantic framing and to preciousness in the very next paragraph to illuminate something more "essential" than humor: "the only fitting tribute to the ecstatic moments recorded here is to act with as much hope, as much abandon, and as much faith as possible that, with craftiness and joy, you can build a bridge to an order beyond planning and naming" (xx). Jackson too can momentarily adopt the comic perspective, as he does when describing the band's legendary inconsistency: "the Dead hit a musical peak that had every Deadhead in Madison Square Garden believing that the band was beginning a new golden age. This warm, sunny feeling lasted all the way until...the very next Dead show” (Jackson, Garcia 398-99). But since Jackson states at the outset that his purpose in Garcia is "illuminating [Garcia's] splendid creative gifts," he finds the tragic and Romantic frames better suited to hagiography (xiii).

Brent Wood writes that Grateful Dead concerts "embodied elements of both comedy and romance," but believes that "the essential mythos...was tragedy, evident in the cathartic effects facilitated by song lyrics, psychedelics, and the creative capacity of Garcia" (10). Wood's book itself is a stream-of-consciousness catalogue of speculations about things that "may have inspired Garcia" or things Garcia "may have felt" (46, 88, 184), along with imagined synchronicities among lyrics, places, and events, a work of – as much as a work about – psychedelic Romanticism. A comic frame does not offer a different "essential mythos," but rather introduces an interpretive perspective that has been deflected by the dominant vision of Grateful Dead Romanticism. Yes, Garcia once said, "Magic is what we do. Music is how we do it" (Jackson, Garcia xi). But he also said, "this music thing is all well and good, but comedy is what we’re really about," and we need a comic frame of analysis in order to understand what he meant and the extent to which it is true (B. Weir).
           
Humor and comedy take so many forms and are analyzed through so many theoretical lenses that I will not pretend to consider them encyclopedically. Since, as H. L. Mencken states, "A professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas" (12), theories of humor are often cast in competition to one another, seeking to have the last word. I would suggest instead that any claim that one theory of humor is correct must be qualified with "somewhat" and "sometimes" (Zwagerman 2) and that humor theories be used as complementary terministic screens rather than as universal explanations (Dickinson et al. xix-xxxvii, Raskin). The present study considers the Grateful Dead phenomenon through Kenneth Burke's "comic frame of motives," as a corrective to the Romantic frame and an explication of Garcia's attitude toward both the Grateful Dead and himself. But this terminology by no means excludes other ways of analyzing humor and the Grateful Dead. If one wanted to locate Burke's approach within the theoretical categories of humor studies, it is best identified as an incongruity theory. But Burke does not provide a theory of humor so much as an account of humor as an attitude, an epistemology, and a terministic screen in its own right.
           
The comic frame, Burke writes, is a "corrective" to Romantic "mystification," but not with a purely "debunking" motive (Attitudes 166). Rather, the comic frame represents a "charitable attitude towards people"; the comic attitude succumbs to neither the "mystifications of the priestly euphemisms" one finds in the effusions of the devout – Dead archivist Dick Latvala calling the band "flabbergasting, unbelievable, the most incredible thing on earth" (Latvala) – nor the cynicism of reducing motives to purely "material interests" (Attitudes 166): the complaint that the Dead "sold out" with their 1987 hit "Touch of Grey," for instance. Instead, the comic frame embraces the "two-way attributes" of "ambivalence," and thus exists "halfway between the extremes of 'hagiography' and 'iconoclasm'" (Attitudes 166, 337): between Blair Jackson's mystification of Dead shows as "transcendent musical moments that moved the body and enriched the soul" (Jackson, Garcia 219), and an unknown iconoclast's assessment that the Grateful Dead had the aspiration of the John Coltrane Quartet with the ability of the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Both hagiography and mystification on the one hand and iconoclastic debunking on the other perpetuate the oppositional love/hate, greatest/worst opinions about the Dead so that whether one wants to argue that drugs and improvisation lead to musical epiphanies or to long-winded incoherence, one can use the Dead as a persuasive example. As a result, neither position in this debate nor the debate itself offers novel insights into the Grateful Dead phenomenon. As a terministic screen, the comic frame is a method of terminological transcendence and terminological play. To transcend this debate in the Burkean sense does not mean giving the Dead a C rather than an A+ or an F. Rather, it means finding a position which is "halfway" in the sense of "not exactly either one or the other, [but one which] can ambiguously contain them both" (Burke, Rhetoric 10). Such recognition and its "charitable" attitude come across in this description of rhythm guitarist Bob Weir from Keith Olsen, producer of the band's Terrapin Station album: "He's very talented in his own way, but definitely only in a Bob Weir kind of way. It's like all the guys in the Dead are talented in a Dead kind of way. They can't really run out and do that many other things because outside of that idiom they get lost" (Jackson, Garcia 283). The comic perspective of ambivalence is most succinctly expressed by the band's long-time promoter Bill Graham, who introduced the band by saying, "They're not the best at what they do, but they're the only ones who do what they do."
           
As terminological play, the comic frame involves what Burke calls "perspective by incongruity" or "methodical misnaming," "a methodology of the pun": "A pun links by tonal association words hitherto unlinked. 'Perspective by incongruity' carries on the same kind of enterprise in linking hitherto unlinked words by rational criteria instead of tonal criteria. It is 'impious' as regards our linguistic categories established by custom" (Attitudes 309). One takes a word or phrase, Burke writes, "belonging by custom to a certain category – and by rational planning you wrench it loose and metaphorically apply it to a different category" (308). Since, as Burke says, many of our "observations are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made" ("Terministic Screens" 46), such a playing with words might reveal hitherto unseen associations, explanations, and insights – or at least new metaphors. The point is not to start renaming things willy nilly, but rather to "remoralize" our terminology "by accurately naming a situation demoralized by inaccuracy" or by stagnant debates (Attitudes 309). In the case of the Grateful Dead, we have these impacted arguments about which other musicians the Dead are rightly aligned with: Stravinsky or Phish? Ornette Coleman or Vanilla Fudge? Beneath the opposition is a shared notion of artistic quality invoking the same touchstones of musical seriousness: symphony and jazz. Silberman enthuses, "The [Dead] reaches a level of subtle empathy equaled only by, say, the Bill Evans Trio" ("Primal Dead" 49). But we can transcend these eristic debates by suggesting incongruously that what the improvisational Grateful Dead resemble is improvisational comedy, with Garcia the lead comic actor. And perhaps this comparison is not as incongruous as it might first appear; after all, the Dead had a decades-long association with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, forging a clear connection among the Grateful Dead, comedy, and improvisation. Prankster Del Close helped create some of the Dead's early light shows and went on to be a significant influence on American improvisational comedy through his work with Second City and Saturday Night Live. The band members performed some comedy at their own expense in a series of skits with SNL writers Al Franken and Tom Davis filmed during a series of concerts at Radio City Music Hall in 1980. Franken and Davis, boasting that they had been at "the Acid Tests with Ken Kesely and the Merry Munsters," introduced the band on stage after trying to get members of the band to first introduce them; Bob Weir declined, saying his hair would not be ready in time (Franken and Davis).
           
Burke writes, "It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene...[Comic works] may deliberately set these elements at odds with one another" (Grammar 3). Slouched on stage, disheveled and overweight, wearing a loose and untucked black T-shirt, Garcia was at odds with the nature of the rock concert scene, with its light shows, fireworks, giant projector screens, and 50,000 screaming fans. Was Garcia literally lead comedian and not lead guitarist? Of course not. But his incongruous presence makes sense within the comic frame. Were the Grateful Dead literally a comedy improv group? Of course not. But the two can be understood as continuous with each other, and perspectivally the qualities of the Grateful Dead phenomenon that do not conform to rock concert conventions become coherent when seen as continuous with improvisational comedy: the band's sets were only loosely planned in advance, certain songs were vehicles for improvisation, the band sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed – even from song to song within a given performance – and the audience not only tolerated but expected this variability. What remained consistent was Garcia's embodiment of the comic attitude, and the comic frame as described by Burke accounts for, and renders coherent, Garcia's embrace of spontaneity, his acceptance of imperfection and failure, his attitude of humility, and his lifelong interest in consciousness-altering drugs.
           
Garcia himself deploys the comic rather than the Romantic frame in associating the Grateful Dead's spontaneity not with inspiration and genius but with humor: "we do whatever we can to keep it spontaneous and amusing for ourselves" (qtd. in Brown and Novick). And while Garcia did – especially in his younger days – describe the interplay among band members in Romantic/mystical terms, he also explained it as, "I think the...Grateful Dead is like one dumb guy, instead of five, you know...dumb guys” (Garcia, “The Rolling Stone Interview” 1991). For his most famous description of the relationship between the Dead and their audience, Garcia turned not to the mystical realm but to a humble, humorous, and incongruous example from everyday life: "Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice" (Paumgarten). "Incongruity," Burke writes, "is the law of the universe; if not the mystic's universe, then the real and multiple universe of everyday life" (Attitudes 311). Through his incongruous licorice simile, Garcia once again eschewed the language of the "mystic's universe" in favor of framing the Grateful Dead phenomenon as part of humble, everyday reality.

Like Garcia, keyboard player Brent Mydland used the comic frame to describe becoming part of the Grateful Dead: "When I first joined these guys I had the feeling I was on the outside of a massive inside joke, but I think I'm beginning to catch on" (Garbarini). Jokes, to use Ted Cohen's term, are "hermetic": they only make sense within a particular community, and to "get" and appreciate the joke is to recognize one's self – and to be recognized – as sharing a perspective with the others who get it (Cohen 12). To share the camaraderie of laughter – that pleasure, as Freud calls it, of "absolute psychic agreement" (Freud 233) – requires only shared language and cultural context, and an attitude of play. No metaphysical attributions to group mind are needed.
           
Regarding the acceptance of imperfection and failure, Garcia said of performance, "There's always a dissonance between what you wish was happening and what is actually happening. That's the nature of creativity, that there's a certain level of disappointment in there" (Brown and Novick). In another interview, he mused, "with a Grateful Dead record...comparing the record to the [original] vision, I always feel that it fails" (Garcia, "The Grateful Dead Revisited"). Burke refers to this inevitable disappointment as "the bureaucratization of the imaginative," "the vexing things that happen when [people] try to translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment"; the attitude which properly "mediates upon" the translation of idea into action is the comic frame, the "methodic view of human antics as a comedy" (Attitudes iii). I quote again from Frederick Buechner, this time the complete sentence: "The tragic is the inevitable, the comic the unforeseeable" (57). Burke concurs: essential to the comic perspective are spontaneity and flexibility, adaptability to the unforeseeable both in action and nomenclature. Failure in the comic frame is not something one must attribute to a fatal flaw or to malign external forces, or reluctantly acknowledge and then quickly counter with a reaffirmation of genius or inspiration; "Yes," the Romantic will admit, "the Grateful Dead sometimes played poorly, but..." Because the Romantic frame must deflect or rationalize failure, it fails to give failure its due. The comic frame, on the other hand, renders coherent the necessary relation between improvisation and failure and casts failure not as a potential risk in a Grateful Dead performance, but a feature. It is through failure that the tragic and comic frames have a complementary relationship: it is unforeseeable when the inevitable pratfall will occur. "How would you like to get up there in front of ten thousand people and make a fool of yourself?" Garcia asked in a 1990 interview. He went on to say, "What we do is kinda precarious, and we don't always succeed. In fact, many times we fail. Maybe that's what keeps the audience interested" (Alvarez). Offering another of his incongruous and comic comparisons, Garcia explained, "The Brooklyn Dodgers were kind of like everybody's favorite team because they lost a lot, but they were very human. Well, [the Dead are] kind of like the Brooklyn Dodgers of rock 'n' roll. Y'know, people don't care whether we win or lose a lot of times, it's just as much for the audience if we lose" (Jackson, "Outtakes" Ch. 20). In these two interviews, Garcia acknowledged that both failure and its comic acceptance are features of the Grateful Dead phenomenon.
           
Through a process Burke playfully called "the socialization of losses" – a phrase borrowed incongruously from capitalist economics – the comic perspective distinguishes itself from the tragic and Romantic in that, through the former, one creatively reframes one's failures and "liabilities" as "assets," as we do, for example, when we describe misfortune as a learning experience (Attitudes 171). Garcia models this attitude in a 1993 interview: "Our strong suit [is] the fact that we aren't consistent. It used to be that sometimes we'd reach wonderful levels or else we played really horribly, terribly badly. Now we've got to be competent at our worst" (Brown and Novick). The losses Garcia acknowledges in his Brooklyn Dodgers comparison were certainly "socialized" with the Deadheads in a literal economic sense: by becoming one of the biggest concert draws throughout the 1990s, the Dead turned their musical liabilities into financial assets. Cynical debunking might suspect that the Dead discovered that the way to keep fans coming to show after show is only to play well every few nights. Echoing Lesh, Deadhead Dan Aniello said, "The Dead will almost never play great two nights in a row; and you never know which night will be the hot one, so you've got to see them all" (Jackson, “Dead Heads” 145). The comic frame presents a more charitable explanation, and one more attuned to the reality of the Grateful Dead: in response to producer Keith Olsen's frustrated insistence on multiple takes in the studio, Bob Weir replied, "But we don't play any better than this" (Jackson, Garcia 283).
           
Mistakes are a frequent trope in comedy and a feature of Grateful Dead concerts, and the comic frame recognizes people "as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy" (Attitudes 41). Of those who worship him, Garcia remarked, "I know better, you know? I mean, no matter who you are, you know yourself for the asshole that you are. You know yourself for the person who makes mistakes and is capable of being really stupid, and doing stupid things" (Jackson, Garcia 363). Contrary to fans who rhapsodize the Grateful Dead's "many periods of Olympian greatness" (Jackson, Garcia 12), Garcia compared the Grateful Dead to "one dumb guy," a losing baseball team, and licorice.
           
As Burke says above, "the lesson of humility" both "underlies great tragedy" and characterizes the comic perspective, which necessitates humility and self-awareness because to recognize absurdity and foolishness is to recognize too the fool in the mirror. Humility characterizes Garcia's self-awareness, and he regularly deployed the comic mode of self-deprecation. Asked to compare playing at the Acid Tests to Grateful Dead performances thirty years later, Garcia said, "Well, [now] we're required to be competent, but the sense of accomplishment has improved a lot. Now when we play, the worst playing we do isn't too bad. So the lowest level has come way up, and statistically the odds have improved in our favor." Asked how he remained humble despite his celebrity, Garcia replied, "If you were me, you'd be modest too" (Brown and Novick).
           
But writers in the Romantic frame show a remarkable insistence on rejecting the person Garcia claimed to be in favor of the person the writers need him to be. For example, Jackson writes:

If the Grateful Dead and the Deadheads constituted a modern mobile tribe, then Garcia would have to be considered the principal shaman of the tribe – magician, conjurer, healer, and holy man. Of course he would say he was just a guy who played the guitar and sang, but everyone who loved his music and every musician who played with him knows better. (Jackson, Garcia 475).

But while the spiritual devotees may have written most of the books, sociological studies, and media pieces, within the community of Deadheads were plenty of fans who, in the spirit of the Pranksters, did not so much get religion as get the joke. This was a community not of spiritual communion but of socialized and good-humored commiseration. The Romantically inclined fan dances ecstatically when the magic happens (and also when it does not); the comedically inclined fan smiles knowingly when disaster strikes. Both come back the next night. Garcia said that "Deadheads are very kind," and Hart described them as "very patient and very forgiving" (Brown and Novick; Jackson, "Dead Heads" 155). Garcia's humorous self-consciousness helps explain the bond his fans feel toward him, especially those whose bond is not based in the attribution of spiritual qualities to him or in the belief that he is singing directly to them (Pearson 425). In "Grateful Dead I Have Known," Ed McClanahan quotes an enthusing Deadhead as follows: "Jerry saw me lookin' at him, saw me smiling, and he smiled at me!...I mean, before that I could never have smiled at a rock musician: they were all guys who were just showin' off...But this dude – I mean, you could relate to him directly" (57). Admittedly, there is a mystical gleam in this description of Garcia, but it aligns with his humble, comedic self-image: "I'm kind of like a good-old-celebrity. People think they know me. It's not like, 'Oh gosh! look who it is!' It's more like, 'Hi, how ya doin'?' I'm a comfortable celebrity. It's very hard to take the fame seriously and I don't think anybody wants me to" (Brown and Novick). I am not claiming that the comic frame reveals some essence, or that the self-deprecatory Garcia is entirely free of artifice or performance. But Garcia and the Grateful Dead at least appeared to take their audience into a confidence of congenial and informal address, within which the band's frequent miscues did not break the frame of performance as would happen if Frank Sinatra forgot the lyrics to "My Way." To appreciate the Dead from a comic perspective is not to deny or explain away the band's liabilities and failures but to share in them, to not try to argue that a poor performance was actually great but to accept a bad performance as characteristic, as the price of improvisation, and as the type of socialized loss borne by the steadfast and charitable fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Grateful Dead.
           
As for the use of consciousness-altering drugs, the members of the Grateful Dead and their fans are strongly – and correctly – associated with drug use. Since psychedelics get the most attention in writings about the Dead, and since many users of these drugs like to connect their use to ancient spiritual traditions, the Romantic frame sees heavy use. But as stated previously, Garcia was far more likely to associate drug use with fun than with enlightenment. Garcia recalled his switch from playing bluegrass to playing rock and roll in the Grateful Dead as follows:

Kennedy had just been assassinated. And things were looking pretty down. And then all of a sudden here was the Beatles movie [A Hard Day's Night]. Which was like the first time there was something funny going on. It was very high and very up, you know. And high and up looked better than down and out, really. So high and up was the place to go, I guess. (qtd. in Gleason 33)

Every history of the Dead notes the band's origin in the Acid Tests, but too often this period is described as a mystical foundation story rather than a comic one. The Acid Tests and the Merry Pranksters represent the non-spiritual, comedic motives of many in the Dead scene – including Garcia – for taking LSD: uninhibited spontaneity and unrestrained hilarity. The band's exuberant early performances were characterized by LSD consumption and an attitude of "irreverence": an observer recalls them "playing the Rolling Stones song 'Get Off of My Cloud,' except they reworded that line to 'Hey, you, get the f--- off of my cow'" (Richardson 43).

Peter Richardson recounts the Pranksters' pilgrimage to Timothy Leary's mansion in New York, an encounter which exemplifies the distinction between comic motives and spiritual motives. Despite everyone's shared enthusiasm for LSD, "The East Coast spiritual scientists wanted nothing to do with the West Coast revelers, who set off a smoke bomb in the driveway upon their arrival. Disappointed by the subdued tone of the encounter, Kesey and the Pranksters loaded up the bus and returned to the Bay Area" (51). What the Dead retained from these earliest concerts and from the Acid Tests was not something spiritual but rather the "wild energy" of psychedelic irreverence (43).
           
As for LSD itself, the symmetry between descriptions of the mental states associated with humor and of those associated with LSD endorse understanding the LSD experience not as – or at least not exclusively as – a mystical reframing of reality but as a comic reframing of reality. Freud describes the experience of humor in terms that resemble descriptions of psychedelic experiences: "the contrast of ideas, sense in nonsense, confusion and clearness" (7); through the humor of word play, "new and unexpected identities are here formed which show themselves in relations of ideas to one another" (90). Burke transforms word play into a methodology and an epistemology as "perspective by incongruity"; the act of taking LSD is just such an exercise in experiencing "planned incongruity." From Herbert Spencer's claim that laughter arises "when consciousness is unawares transferred from great things to small – only when there is what we call a descending incongruity" (Freud 225), to the standard joke format of set-up and punch-line, to Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin's Script Theory, there has long been a recognition in humor studies that the pleasure of humor involves a cognitive shift. The Merry Pranksters recognized the comedy in the incongruous perspectival shift produced by LSD; so while some users believed they saw God in everything, others – like the Pranksters and Jerry Garcia – saw the humor in everything, which is not to say that the comic frame cannot account for expanded consciousness. On the contrary, the comic frame – as an attitude toward experience – requires a heightened state of consciousness and self-consciousness. As a terministic screen which irreverently (but charitably) critiques terministic screens, including its own, the comic frame

Ultimately in making a man the student of himself, makes it possible for him to "transcend" occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his "assets" column, under the head of "experience."...In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would "transcend" himself by noting his own foibles. (Burke, Attitudes 171)

"The Grateful Dead is not for cranking out rock and roll...I think it's to get high," mused Garcia in 1972. "I'm not talking about unconscious or zonked-out, I'm talking about being fully conscious" (Richardson 3-4). "Humor," he explained in a later interview, "characterizes consciousness" (Brown and Novick). This seemingly incongruous alliance of comedy and transcendence is the terministic screen that best identifies what Garcia aspired to on stage: transcending his humble limitations in shared moments of spontaneous and unexpected excellence. Spontaneous experiences, the ability to stand outside one's self and observe one's self while acting, the recognition of one's imperfections and failures, and the humility which results are the lasting imprint of the comic perspective that LSD leaves on those who, like Garcia, experience it without mystical motives.

Pianist Bruce Hornsby recalls a show from the summer of 1994, a year before Garcia's death, in terms that "complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy" (Burke Attitudes 41):

[It] was one of those nights where [Garcia] was staring straight down the whole time. I had a very intense sense that night that "There's nothing happening up here and here are all these people out there," and I'd see these Deadheads with looks of rapture on their faces and I just didn't understand it. I thought it was a surreal, dark joke. (Jackson, "Outtakes" Ch. 22)

The comic frame serves as a corrective to the Romantic frame and a supplement to the tragic frame. Yet all three have their place in illuminating the Grateful Dead phenomenon, and the rapture, tragedy, and comedy in the final notes of the band's career. Although it remains risky to take too literally the things celebrities and artists say about themselves – "I can bullshit you guys real easy," Garcia told one interviewer (Garcia, "The Rolling Stone Interview" 1972) – Garcia's comic characterization of himself and his band is consistent across thirty years of interviews. "For me," he states, "life would be so empty without humor it would be unbearable, it would be like life without music" (Brown and Novick). His use and mention of humor were far more frequent than his periodic vague spiritualisms, and come across as more genuine, in such remarks as, "the Grateful Dead is funny and I can't really describe that. But if you're around for a little while you can see right away that it is funny, it's more funny than not" (Garcia, "The Rolling Stone Interview" 1972). A comic frame of analysis reveals the truth in this remark, and the centrality of comedy in the Grateful Dead phenomenon. It is within the comic frame that Garcia's last words to Bob Weir, spoken after their final performance on July 9, 1995, seem most fitting: "Always a hoot," Garcia said. "Always a hoot" (Wiegand).

 

Notes

1. Alongside Romantic notions of production, Romantic constructions of audience reception are also common among Deadheads and Dead scholars. In "The Grateful Dead Phenomenon: An Ethnomethodological Approach," Anthony Pearson says of the former, "Members of the subculture will often feel a particular song was included just for their benefit or because of the way it relates to a specific problem or situation in their lives" (426). Blair Jackson does not explicitly endorse these beliefs, but certainly endorses the Romantic characterization of reception which underlies them: "[A]s with all poetry, the way [Grateful Dead] lyrics resonate with someone depends on that person's sensitivity, openness, and the particulars of his or her own life and a thousand other undefinable factors that sometimes magically allow insight to bloom where before there was only opacity and confusion" (Garcia 154).

2. See Bryan; Grife; Kaler, "Music and the Divine"; Pearson; Robinson and Zwerling.

3. See Kahn, "Back from the Dead"; Haas; Gleason; Garcia, "Jerry Garcia: The Complete 1985 Interview."

4. For more such quotes from Hart and Lesh, see Kaler, "Music and the Divine," and Kaler, "How the Grateful Dead Learned to Jam."

5. This is not the first analysis of the Grateful Dead phenomenon to employ Burkean terminology. In "The Answer to the Atom Bomb: Rhetoric, Identification, and the Grateful Dead," Elizabeth Carroll uses Burke's assertion of "the role of rhetoric in the formation of individual and collective subjects" to analyze "Deadhead identity" as "a rhetorical construction, a product of language and symbolic activity."

6.  For an overview of Grateful Dead studies, and its relation to controversies concerning interdisciplinarity, see Meriwether, "Together, More or Less in Line."

 

Works Cited

Alvarez, Al. "Good Use." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 229-32.

Attardo, Salvatore, and Victor Raskin. "Script Theory Revis(it)ed: Joke Similarity and Joke Representation Model." Humor, vol. 4, no. 3-4, 1991, pp. 293-347.

Brown, David Jay, and Rebecca McClen Novick. "Tales of the Living Dead." Magical Blend, vol. 41, Jan. 1994,
http:// www.davidjaybrown.com/jerry-garcia.

Bryan, David. "The Grateful Dead Religious Experience." Reading the GratefulDead, edited by Nicholas G. Meriwether, Scarecrow, pp. 126-39.

Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Harper & Row, 1977.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. U of California P, 1959.

---. A Grammar of Motives. U of California P, 1945.

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. U of California P, 1954.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. U of California P, 1950.

---. "Terministic Screens." Language as Symbolic Action, U of California P, 1966, pp. 44-61.

Carroll, Elizabeth. "The Answer to the Atom Bomb: Rhetoric, Identification, and the Grateful Dead." Americana, vol. 6, no. 1, 2007, http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2007/contents. htm.

Cicero. De Oratore, Books I and II. Translated by E. W. Sutton and H. Rackman, Heinemann, 1960.

Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. U of Chicago P, 1999.

Connors, Peter. Cornell '77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall. Cornell UP, 2017.

Dickinson, Peter et al. "Introduction: Dorothy Parker's Headache." Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2013, pp. xix-xxxvii.

Dodd, David G., and Diana Spaulding, editors. The Grateful Dead Reader. Oxford UP, 2002.

Dollar, Natalie J. "Sometimes You Get Shown the Light." Studying the Dead, edited by Nicholas G. Meriwether, pp. 85-92.

Franken, Al, and Tom Davis. "Grateful Dead – Franken and Davis Skit – 10/31/80 – Radio City Music Hall." YouTube, uploaded by Music Vault, 28 April 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0WtC_vm9e8.

Freud, Sigmund. Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. 1916. Translated by A. A. Brill, Dover, 1993.

Gans, David. "The Burden of Being Jerry." San Francisco Focus, Nov. 1996, http://levity.com/gans/SFFocus.html.

Garbarini, Vic. "In Search of the Grateful Dead." Musician, vol. 36, Oct. 1981.

Garcia, Jerry. "Jerry Garcia: The Complete 1985 Interview." Interview by Jas Obrecht. Jas Obrecht Music Blog, 1 Sept. 2010, http://jasobrecht.blogspot.com/2010/09/jerry-garcia-complete-1985-interview.html.

---. "Jerry Garcia Interview Fall 1984." Interview by Alice Kahn. YouTube,
4 August 2019,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GC-ZRAAQG84.

---. "Jerry Garcia Opens Up About Life on Long Lost 1988 Interview Tapes." Interview. CBS SF Bay Area, 17 May 2015,
http://www.sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2015/05/17/jerry-garcia-opens-up-
about-life-in-long-lost-1988-interview-tapes.

---. "Jerry Garcia: The Rolling Stone Interview." Interview by James Henke. Rolling Stone, 31 Oct. 1991,
http:// www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/jerry-garcia-the-rolling-stone-
interview-3-99993.

---. "Jerry Garcia: The Rolling Stone Interview." Interview by Jann S. Wenner and Charles Reich. Rolling Stone, 20 Jan. 1972, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/jerry-garcia-1972-interview-charles-reich-jann-wenner-849548.

Gleason, Ralph J. "Jerry Garcia, the Guru." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 20-38.

Goodman, Fred. "The Dead Again...and Again...and Again." M Magazine, Feb. 1992.

Grife, Saul. "Searching for Shalom: Judaism and the Grateful Dead." Relix,
Dec. 2014,
http://relix.com/articles/detail/searching_for_shalom_judaism_the_grateful_dead.

Gundersen, Edna. "'No Way to Measure Garcia's Greatness or Magnitude': Bob Dylan." USA Today, 11 Aug. 1995,
http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Fenario/Jerry/News2.

Haas, Charlie. "Still Grateful After All These Years: In Which the Grateful Dead, Pinup Uglies of the Haight Ashbury, Become the House Band of the Age of Certain Doom." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 120-38.

Holt, Joseph. "Crowned Anarchy: Songs, Segues, and the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 121-25.

Jackson, Blair. "American Beauty." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 290-99.

---. "Dead Heads: A Strange Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 150-64.

---. Garcia: An American Life. Penguin, 1999.

---. "Garcia: An American Life: Outtakes, Afterthoughts and Other Cool Stuff."
blairjackson.com, http://www.blairjackson.com/The%20Cutting%20Room%20Floor%20Intro.html.

Kahn, Alice. "Back from the Dead: Alice Kahn on the Day She Interviewed Jerry Garcia." San Francisco Chronicle, 4 Aug. 2019, http://datebook.sfchronicle.com/music/back-from-the-dead-alice-
kahn-on-the-day-she-interviewed-jerry-garcia.

---. "Jerry Garcia and the Call of the Weird." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 196-203.

Kaler, Michael. "How the Grateful Dead Learned to Jam." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 66-80.

---. "Music and the Divine: The Acid Tests and Their Role in the Grateful Dead's
Foundation Story." Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, vol. 44, no. 1, 2015, pp. 3-15.

Kreutzmann, Bill. Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. St. Martin's, 2015.

Kuklenski, Valerie. "Garcia Death Sparks Memories." United Press International, 10 Aug. 1995,
http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Fenario/Jerry/News2. Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.

Latvala, Dick. "Dick Latvala Interview 2/26/97." Interview by David Gans. Grateful Dead Hour 444, March 1997, http:www.well.com/conf/gdhour/latvala.970226.html.

Lesh, Phil. Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead. Back Bay Books, 2005.

Liberatore, Paul. "Death of Garcia Leaves Fate of Grateful Dead in Question." Marin Independent Journal, 10 Aug. 10, 1995, http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Fenario/Jerry/News2.

Malvinni, David. Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation. Scarecrow, 2013.

Markoff, John. "Sadness from the Streets to High Offices." New York Times, 10 Aug. 1995,
http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Fenario/Jerry/News2.

McClanahan, Ed. "Grateful Dead I Have Known." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 53-85.

McNally, Dennis. "Meditations on the Grateful Dead." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 165-74.

Mencken, H. L. Prejudices, First Series. Knopf, 1919.

Meriwether, Nicholas G., editor. Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey. Scarecrow, 2012.

---. "'The Thousand Stories Have Come 'Round to One': Studying the Grateful Dead Phenomenon." Reading the Grateful Dead, pp. 35-52.

---. "Together, More or Less in Line: Improvising Interdisciplinarity in Grateful Dead
Studies." Studying the Dead: The Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus, an Informal History, Scarecrow, 2013, pp. 233-50.

Pareles, Jon. "Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead, Icon of 60's Spirit, Dies at 53." New York Times, 10 Aug. 1995,
http:// www.nytimes.com/1995/08/10/obituaries/jerry-garcia-of-grateful-dead-icon-
of-60-s-spirit-dies-at-53.html.

Parrish, Steve. Home Before Daylight: My Life on the Road with the Grateful Dead. St. Martin's, 2003.

Paumgarten, Nick. "Deadhead: The Afterlife." New Yorker, 19 Nov. 2012,
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/11/26/deadhead.

Pearson, Anthony. "The Grateful Dead Phenomenon: An Ethnomethodological Approach." Youth and Society, vol. 18, no. 4, 1987, pp. 418-32.

Raskin, Victor. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984.

Reist, Nancy. "Counting Stars by Candlelight: an Analysis of the Mythic Appeal of the Grateful Dead." Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 30, no. 4, 1997, pp. 183-209.

Richardson, Peter. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. St. Martin's, 2014.

Robinson, Richard, and Andy Zwerling. The Rock Scene. Pyramid, 1971.

Searle, John. Minds, Brains and Science. Harvard UP, 1984.

Silberman, Steve. "Introduction: Gathering the Sparks." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. xix-xxi.

---. "Primal Dead at the Fillmore East: February 1970." Dodd and Spaulding, pp. 40-49.

Slatalla, Michelle. "Fans of Jerry Garcia Comfort Each Other Online." Newsday, August 1995,
http://www.hoboes.com/pub/Fenario/Jerry/News2.

Slesinger, Ryan. "'And Closed My Eyes to See': Buddhist Resonances in the Lyrics of the Grateful Dead." Reading the Grateful Dead, edited by Nicholas G. Meriwether, Scarecrow, pp. 99-108.

Spector, Stanley. "'Bound to Cover Just a Little More Ground': A Heideggerian Reflection on the Grateful Dead." Reading the Grateful Dead,edited by Nicholas G. Meriwether, Scarecrow, pp. 226-33.

Trudeau, Robert H. "A Super-Metacantric Analysis of 'Playing in the Band.'" Reading the Grateful Dead, edited by Nicholas G. Meriwether, Scarecrow, pp. 86-98.

Tursi, Mark. "Deconstructing Deadheads." Reading the Grateful Dead, edited by Nicholas G. Meriweather, Scarecrow, pp. 209-16.

Weir, Bob. "Q&A: Bob Weir on Life with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead." Interview by Benjy Eisen. Rolling Stone, 6 Aug. 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/qa-bob-weir-on-life-with-jerry-garcia-and-the-grateful-dead-110306.

Weir, Rob. "Tye-Dye and Flannel Shirts: The Grateful Dead and the Battle over the Long Sixties." Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 137-61.

Weitzman, Steve. "The Grateful Dead Revisited: A 1976 Interview with Jerry Garcia." Relix, 1 Aug. 2013,
http://relix.com/articles/detail/the_grateful_dead_ revisited_a_1976_ interview_ with_jerry_garcia.

Wiegand, David. "The 'Unusual Life' of a Palo Alto Kid Named Bob Weir." SFGate.com, 19 May 2015,
http://www.sfgate.com/tv/article/TV-The-unusual-life-of-a-Palo-Alto-kid-6270975.php.

Wood, Brent. The Tragic Odes of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead: Mystery Dances in the Magic Theatre. Routledge, 2020.

Zwagerman, Sean. Wit's End: Women's Humor as Rhetorical and Performative Strategy. U of Pittsburgh P, 2010.

 
Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2020 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com