Deadheads Talking to Themselves?

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.


Never Let Me Go Has a Weak Grip

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Directed by Mark Romanek

Fox Searchlight, 103 mins. Rated R.

* * *

Never Let Me Go is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel. The setting is Hailsham, a seemingly tony and bucolic English country prep school for “special” students. They’re special all right. Thanks to a medical breakthrough in 1952, life spans have been extended dramatically. The problem is that lots of stuff wears out in the course of a hundred plus years, so how does one insure a steady supply of spare parts? Send in the clones. Hailsham and schools like it are literally breeding grounds for the clones who will provide the eyes, lungs, hearts, and other body parts needed by their English originals. Most of the young charges we meet will donate three or four times before they “complete” (expire) in their mid- to late-twenties.

Ishiguro--best known as the writer of The Remains of the Day--was shortlisted for Britain’s Book Prize for Never Let Me Go. He didn’t win, I suspect, because the novel is a bit like the film in that it’s moving but ultimately a tad empty feeling. The film’s central tension is whether clones have humanity. In this case we have a triad of friends, lovers, and donors--Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Kathy and Tommy are soul mates--that is, if they have souls, but Tommy and Ruth are lovers despite not connecting on an emotional level--again, if they have emotions. This isn’t exactly path- breaking territory. Think Startrek’s Data, Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the recent (and superior) film Moon.

This is not to say that Never Let Me Go is a bad film. It’s very hard to play characters whose future is scripted, but Mulligan, Knightley, and Garfield do a nice job with the ambiguity over self awareness and the potential for empowerment. Do they, or do they not have free will? Is there, or is there not a glimmer of hope that Tommy and Kathy will get a short reprieve? Can they be happy even if they do? Romanek also depicts alienation in intriguing ways. Only the Brits can make a seaside resort look bleak and soulless; Romanek’s shots of coastal Fife are so forlorn that they save him from the need to be didactic in raising the question of whether longevity’s cost is the erasure of humanity.

For all of this, however, Never Let Me Go doesn’t completely sink its hook into viewers. Partly it’s because we figure things out way before the characters do. In addition, the very nature of the subject material lends itself better in print than on film. Our characters can only explore the possibility of an inner spark, not actually display one. They are (by nature?) passive and although each actor does a credible job within the role, it’s just hard to pace a film featuring those who are acted upon. Oddly enough, a histrionic speech or two on the nature of life and unfairness might have enhanced the film, even if they were hokey. We keep waiting for a character to answer the question of whether clones have souls, but we come up as empty as a beach on Fife. As a result, our emotional response to film is equally distant and vacant.

This one is a classic mixed bag. It’s worth watching, but don’t get your hopes up. Enjoy its stark textures and competent performances, but you will probably derive more intellectual satisfaction from contemplating what’s not here rather than what is. And you’ll need to rent it--it left the theaters at a much faster pace than it unfolds.


Can America Be Saved From the Stupid?

In 2008 Barack Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes we can!” It’s a nice sound bite, but as the United States approaches its 235th birthday it’s acting like an arthritic old man who doesn’t even try to get out his chair. Remember when other nations used to comment upon the American can-do spirit and envy its eternal optimism? Probably not; no one has said this for decades. We now live in the land of “No,” where a million excuses are put forth as to why we can’t fill in the blank (rebuild the infrastructure, have national health care, reduce carbon emissions, give women equal rights, allow gay marriage, develop a national energy plan, fund NASA, reduce gun violence, tax the wealthy, eliminate poverty, pay our teachers….) “Yes we can!” threatens to give way to “imperial overstretch,” a phrase coined by Paul Kennedy in his distressingly prescient The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987).

When I opened my April 1 newspaper, the news was no joke. Among the grim storiess--raging U.S. battles in Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s denunciation of the judge who stayed his bill stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights; Ohio Governor John Kasich signing into law a bill akin to Wisconsin’s; Missouri’s bipartisan decision to end extended benefits for the state’s unemployed--“enough is enough” said the well-paid and employed lawmakers--the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s refusal to reconsider the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, a facility like those that failed in Japan; and House of Representative threats to shut down the government unless deep Social Security cuts are made. Maybe it’s already too late, but Neal Gabler and Joe Bageant gave me some ideas about what progressives need to do now if they hope to right the USS America.

Gabler recently penned “The Arrogance Divide,” which blames liberals for failing to capture the mainstream because they’ve been “condescending” and elitist toward the poorly educated, Tea Party supporters, and Bible-belters. In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant agrees that liberals don’t understand the group he dubs “rednecks” and their gun-totin’, bad-eatin’, Bible-praisin’, Fox news-watchin’, Walmart-shoppin’, government-hatin’ ways. To be fair, Bageant thinks the rednecks are self-deluded, but he too chastised liberals (such as himself).

The first thing progressives need to do is tell Gabler he’s out of his mind. Although I hate to speak ill of the dead--Bageant died on March 27--progressives need to be more arrogant and aggressive in their assault on stupidity, not embrace rednecks as the misguided-but-cuddly creatures Bageant thought them to be. Gabler suggested at the end of his article, “don’t call them stupid. They hate that.” My response? They are stupid. Pathetically stupid, imbecilic, moronic, and dumber than homemade sin. And after years of being insulted by them for having the temerity to rise from redneck roots and get myself educated, I don’t give a sqwanker’s farley if they resent me for saying that. I’m tired of bleeding my heart’s blood for them.

My heart sank when I read Gabler’s imploring ending because I thought to myself, “Yes, this is just what liberals will do. They’ll apologize in their limp-wristed, cojone-less, muddleheaded way.” Stop it! Here’s what has to be done with Walker, Kasich, Fox, Palin, and the Tea Party: Take ‘em down. Stop looking for bipartisanship; you’ve a far better chance of resurrecting Elvis. Crank out the recall campaigns, launch your own propaganda vehicles, and fight fire with fire. Stop being nice; stop being polite; and stop being na├»ve in the belief that reason always triumphs. Take a page out of how the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers broke unions: tie up the right-wingers in court. It’s time for progressive groups to switch from advocacy to litigation. Do to anti-choice groups, corporate lobbyists, textbook censors, tax dodgers, financial sector thieves, deregulators, and other enemies of the people what they did to ACORN--litigate them into bankruptcy. More to the point, understand what they Right has known since the days of Lee Atwater: the best defense is a good offense. Sue the bastards!

Speaking of the people, while progressives are giving up some old delusions, it’s high time to let Comrade Marx molder in his grave. Stop being romantic about the working class, which is unlikely to be the building block of a new society. Bageant wanted me to love his misguided lot from Winchester, Virginia. Sorry. I grew up near there and I find nothing charming about the people he describes. Blue-collar America is onboard with the Right; they have become Marx’s lumpenproletariat and are as likely to develop class-consciousness as they are to discover cold fusion and end our dependence on foreign oil. Have they been deceived, as Bageant claimed? Yes. But isn’t this the same crowd that preaches self-reliance and personal responsibility? Yes they are. I have great sympathy for their plight, but if you put sandwiches in front of hungry men and they refuse to eat, should we shed tears when they starve? Frankly it pisses me off to hear Gabler and Bageant blame people like me for their woes. I’ve supported labor unions, social welfare programs, job creation, and income redistribution my whole life only to be called a “socialist” and “an arrogant liberal.” (Guilty on the first charge, nolo contendere on the second.) Progressives need to go forth as if the ill-educated (and often non-voting) masses are content to sit on their deep-fried asses and let Glenn Beck think for them. Go ahead and be contemptuous. You have my permission. In like fashion, consider cutting ties to groups that used to be liberal but haven’t been since Bill Ayres was a terrorist--the U.A.W. for instance.

Fellow progressives may disagree with my prescription, but they’d better get on board with the idea that the future of America is a fight, not a discussion. The only other option is to take down the Stars and Stripes and run a white flag up the pole. Admit that the U.S. was a noble experiment that failed. Break it up and reestablish the C.S.A. somewhere along the line runs south of Winchester. (The C.S.A. can’t have Maryland, a very blue state.) Put up the border fences. Frankly, I’d be okay with that.