The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Live Improvisation. By Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-4357-4
NOTE: This book was originally reviewed for the Northeast Popular Culture Association.
In Long Strange Trip, former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally tells the story of two 1990 concerts in which the band was breaking in its new keyboardist, Vince Welnick. The first concert was filled with brilliant moments and Welnick was jazzed. Yet just several nights later the Dead’s show was “abysmal.” McNally sought to comfort the disconsolate Welnick with these words: “Vince, you don’t understand. It’s not you. This is a band that really sucks sometimes, and tonight’s the night” (585).
I can think of no better metaphor to sum up the twenty essays in The Grateful Dead in Concert. There are moments of crystalline insight, such as Erin McCoy’s essay that plumbs the band’s Americana roots, Jay Williams’s look at the Dead’s bohemian nationalism, and Natalie Dollar’s effort at cracking the communication codes that built the Deadhead movement. Good stuff. But this is also a book that really sucks sometimes. The project has a clever hook in that the essays are assembled like a concert: a tune-up, three sets, and an encore. Had each of the authors stuck to dominant riff of building interpretive frameworks with the consideration topnotch musicians give to assembling a playlist, this might have been a very fine book indeed. Alas, two major problems disempower this book like a severed power cable: fandom and academic pretentiousness.
Several of the writers seem to have forgotten that the book’s purpose is to illumine the band. Few groups have ever approached the Dead in cultivating such an impassioned and loyal following. Fine, but a scholar’s main task should be objective and dispassionate. To place one’s one love of the band above analysis is only appropriate for a volume titled What the Grateful Dead Meant to Me. There are, alas, several entries in this volume that are so idiosyncratic and personal that outside readers will be hard pressed to find broader insight.
But these essays are easy on the reader compared with those in which the writer is simply showing off. Several essayists indulge in postmodernist excess at its absolute worst. Their prose is obtuse, jargon-ridden, and unreadable. Although I applaud the effort to apply intellectual rigor to the study of popular culture, must we do so by extracting all the joy? More to the point, of what good is any analysis when the writer has engaged in the intellectual equivalent of speaking in tongues? Who, exactly, is served by such an approach?
Put together, it’s hard to know what audience Tuedio and Spector hoped to reach. Deadheads? Most of them, rightly, will turn to their tapes, downloads, records, and memories rather than read this book. Undergraduates? No way. Most lack the tools or the patience to wade through this book’s dense prose. Other intellectuals? The collection’s lack of a consistent disciplinary focus renders them an unlikely collective target. The book was inspired by a small group of self-styled Grateful Dead scholars whose path-breaking efforts suggested new ways in which scholars could use music to illumine American society. In this book, however, some of them have lost their way and are speaking only to each other. Call it an off night.