No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead

by Peter Richardson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250010629
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/20/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

PETER RICHARDSON is an author and lecturer in the humanities department at San Francisco State University and outgoing chair of the California Studies Association. Before that, he was an editor at the Public Policy Institute of California, a think-tank based in San Francisco; a tenured English professor at the University of North Texas; and an acquisitions editor at Harper & Row, Publishers. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in San Francisco. His previous book, A Bomb in Every Issue, recounts the rise and fall of Ramparts magazine.

Read an Excerpt

No Simple Highway

A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead

By Peter Richardson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Peter Richardson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02133-5




In the spring of 1965, they got their chance.

Jerry Garcia and his wife, Sara Ruppenthal, were eager to try psychedelic drugs. As teenagers in the suburbs south of San Francisco, each had smoked marijuana; in fact, one of Garcia's friends, Robert Hunter, had given Ruppenthal her first "funny cigarette." She thought marijuana brought out her husband's irresponsible side, but she was curious about LSD. "I had always wanted to do psychedelics," she recalled later. "I'd read Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception when I was a teenager and really wanted to expand my consciousness."

If hers was an unusually literary introduction to psychedelics, The Doors of Perception was an unusual book. Published in 1954, it recounted a single day in the life of the English intellectual tripping on mescaline in and around his Hollywood home. The book's title echoed a passage from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite," Blake wrote. "For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." Ingesting mescaline, which was legal, would put Huxley in direct contact with that insight. Intrigued by the links between drugs, consciousness, and art, Huxley knew that mescaline had been isolated from peyote in the late 1890s, that British physician Havelock Ellis had experimented with it in the 1920s, and that Ellis had supplied poet William Butler Yeats with peyote. Yeats reported that he had seen "the most delightful dragons, puffing out their breath straight in front of them, like rigid lines of steam."

At age fifty-nine, Huxley had already led a remarkable life. Born into a family of prominent writers, scientists, and physicians, he studied literature at Oxford and established himself as a successful novelist, poet, and journalist. His fifth novel, the dystopian Brave New World, appeared in 1932. It was both a jab at the earlier utopian works of H. G. Wells and a complex response to the fast-paced, unreflective, and technology-obsessed mass society that Huxley saw around him, especially in America. In that novel, an overweening state encourages its citizens to drink soma, a hallucinogen that pacifies its users and provides a measure of temporary transcendence and communion. Brave New World brought Huxley even more notoriety, but his outspoken pacifism in the 1930s alienated him from his British peers, and he decided to move to the United States.

In 1937, Huxley arrived in Hollywood and soon began mixing screenwriting assignments with fiction and nonfiction. After the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives in 1946, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed the Hollywood Ten, the so-called unfriendly witnesses who declined to answer questions about their alleged membership in the Communist Party. Four years later, Congress launched a second investigation of leftists in the film industry, and this time, Huxley was identified as a Communist fellow traveler. His film career collapsed after a cover story in Counterattack, a right-wing magazine, described him as a Communist dupe.

In 1953, Huxley persuaded Humphry Osmond, the British psychiatrist who invented the term psychedelic, to dose him with mescaline. On the morning of May 4, Osmond mixed less than half a gram of white crystals into a glass of water, which Huxley drank. After thirty minutes, Huxley noticed that the flowers in his study melted into wavy patterns. Osmond began to quiz him about spatial relationships. They were altered, but Huxley found that he could move around the room normally. The more interesting change, he thought, was that his books were glowing with living light. When the psychiatrist asked about time, Huxley replied, "There seems to be plenty of it." After ninety minutes, Huxley was asked if his experience was agreeable. "It just is," he said, laughing. As his daily concerns evaporated, Huxley looked around his home, and he noticed that "a sense of special significance began to invest everything in the room.... A plain wooden chair was invested with a 'chairliness' which no chair ever had for me before."

In the afternoon, Huxley wandered down to the local drugstore seven blocks from his Hollywood home. There he made his way through the aisles of toys, greeting cards, comic books, and cooking utensils. Nearly blind since his teenage years, Huxley was transfixed by the art books he discovered there. "This is how one ought to see," he told his companions repeatedly, but he also felt panic. "Suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad," he recalled. That sensation gave way to a more peaceful one that he called "contemplation at its height." Reflecting on his experience, Huxley didn't equate it with authentic enlightenment, but he stressed its intellectual benefits.

All I am suggesting is that the mescalin [sic] experience is what Catholic theologians call "a gratuitous grace," not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the rut of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world ... this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.

Reviewers panned The Doors of Perception and castigated Huxley, but he was unfazed. He continued to trip several times a year for the rest of his life, and his book spread the word about the virtues of psychedelic drugs.

Garcia's interest in psychedelics was less bookish than Ruppenthal's—not surprising, perhaps, given that she attended Stanford University, where her father taught, and he dropped out of high school. But Garcia and his friends were no dullards. Ruppenthal met them at Kepler's Books, the Menlo Park store where local intellectuals and activists gathered. Garcia, Hunter, and David Nelson spent their days playing music in the back room, and they impressed Ruppenthal with their energetic banter. At the time, Garcia and Hunter were living at a boardinghouse called the Chateau near the Stanford campus. Inhabited by bohemians and eccentrics, the Chateau was a step up from the East Palo Alto vacant lot where Garcia and Hunter had previously lived in their automobiles. But Garcia's room at the Chateau was primitive. "I think it had a dirt floor," Ruppenthal said. "He'd stuck a bed in there, and there was a box with a candle on it, and that was it. There was no electricity. There were spiders. It was really funky."

A few weeks after Ruppenthal and Garcia began dating, she was pregnant. They married, moved into a small apartment, and tried to manage on his meager earnings from the local music store, where he taught guitar and banjo. Their prospects weren't bright, but at twenty-three, Jerome John Garcia was just getting started.

* * *

Like many residents in and around Palo Alto, Jerry Garcia was a newcomer. He grew up thirty miles north in the famously freewheeling city of San Francisco. His father, Jose, emigrated from Spain with his family at sixteen. A clarinetist, Joe formed a small band that played on cruise ships shuttling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Joe later joined the Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville theaters based in San Francisco, and toured for several years before settling in Hollywood and playing clubs and occasionally for the movies. Returning to San Francisco to be near his family, he married Ruth Clifford, a registered nurse. They had two sons, Clifford (known as Tiff) and Jerry, who grew up to the sound of woodwinds. "The clarinet had that lovely wood quality, especially in the middle register. And that sound is very present in my ear," Jerry recalled. "Some people can recall smells. I can recall specific sounds—I can hear a sound and all of a sudden it will transport me to places."

Four years after the repeal of Prohibition, Joe and Ruth opened a bar called Garcia's at the corner of First Street and Harrison Street on Rincon Hill. It was close to the city's docks, skid row, and the recently completed Bay Bridge, which connected San Francisco to Oakland. Business was good, but family life soon took a turn for the worse. When Jerry was four, he lost half of his right middle finger while Tiff was chopping wood. The next year, his father drowned while fishing on the rugged Northern California coast. Ruth took over the bar, remarried, and eventually moved the family to the peninsula suburbs. By that time, the bar had exposed Jerry to professional music and life on the city's bustling waterfront. At Garcia's, Jerry found a community receptive to his outgoing nature and enthusiasms. "I've always wanted to be able to turn on people, and also I've taken it for granted that if I like something, that other people will like it, too," he said. "The bar world established that kind of feeling; it engulfed me like a little community."

The docks near Garcia's were also a key part of San Francisco's identity. Ever since the city's furious growth during the Gold Rush, the waterfront had been a busy node in the global economy. By the time Garcia's opened, San Francisco supported the nation's largest population of sailors, and 5 percent of the city's employed males worked as seafarers, longshoremen, or warehousemen. More than two-thirds of the district's population was male, half of them were foreign-born, and many lived in hotels. The neighborhood around Garcia's was known for its bars, gambling dens, and bordellos, and such vice districts had been integral parts of San Francisco's social fabric for generations. The same year Garcia's opened, an FBI agent told a San Francisco grand jury that the city's police force received at least $1 million in graft each year to keep the party going. Despite periodic calls for reform, especially from clergy, crackdowns were a low priority, as even the FBI agent acknowledged: "We were aware that the bulk of the people wanted a so-called open town, and that the history of San Francisco reflected a public attitude of broad-mindedness, liberality, and tolerance comparable to only two other American cities, namely New York and New Orleans."

The docks also shaped San Francisco's political culture. For decades, organized labor had been a key component in local politics. Garcia's maternal grandmother, who helped raise him after his father's death, organized the laundry workers' union in San Francisco and served as its secretary-treasurer. But the city's pro-labor disposition was tested in a series of dramatic showdowns less than a decade before Garcia's birth. In 1934, militant longshoremen led a general strike that shut down San Francisco for months. That lethal conflict, which played out around the site of Garcia's, transformed labor relations in and around the ports and established the longshoremen's union as a potent political force on the West Coast. Its leader, however, became a target of federal probes that dragged on for decades. The government claimed that Harry Bridges, a native of Australia, had lied about his Communist Party membership in his immigration documents. But prosecutors couldn't prove that claim, and Bridges's feisty lawyer, Vincent Hallinan, helped fend off the attacks. While doing so, Hallinan was convicted of contempt and spent six months in prison. Eventually federal prosecutors dropped the Bridges case, and though local authorities continued to pressure and prosecute dissidents of all stripes, San Francisco became known as a haven for radicals and free spirits.

* * *

The Second World War, which the United States entered shortly before Garcia was born, changed the Bay Area profoundly. Some 240,000 workers built and repaired ships at various Bay Area locations, and defense-related activities drew the first sizable black population to the region from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Another 1.6 million soldiers and sailors traveled through San Francisco on their way to and from the Pacific theater, and after the war, many settled in the Bay Area. Some veterans used their GI Bill benefits to earn college degrees and swelled the region's professional ranks. Others took a different path. A small but highly visible faction of veterans formed motorcycle gangs that maintained large chapters in and around San Francisco. Rogue bikers were at the center of a 1947 incident in Hollister, where four thousand motorcyclists attended a rally and overwhelmed the small town south of San Jose. Their brawling led to dozens of injuries and arrests, and the spectacle served as the basis for the 1953 film The Wild One with Marlon Brando.

In the 1960s, Hunter S. Thompson's bestselling book Hell's Angels focused national attention on the region's most notorious motorcycle gang, which derived its name and insignia from military units in previous wars. "Like the drifters who rode west after Appomattox," Thompson noted, "there were thousands of veterans in 1945 who flatly rejected the idea of going back to their prewar pattern." But well before Thompson's book appeared, the Hells Angels were famous in the Bay Area. According to Laird Grant, Garcia's boyhood friend, the motorcycle gang fired their young imaginations. "We knew about the beatniks, and we knew about Hells Angels and were fascinated by both of these cultures," Grant said. "We'd see the bikers, the Hells Angels, coming up from San Jose or read about the runs that would happen in Monterey. The movie The Wild One with Brando came out in '53, I think, and that was incredible. At that point, all of us wanted to wear leather jackets and ride Harleys." Law enforcement cast the motorcycle gang as a threat to public safety and order, but the Hells Angels saw themselves as pursuing the good life: a combustible admixture of heavy drinking, road trips, and a powerful if frequently extralegal form of fellowship.

As Grant's comment about beatniks suggests, the war also changed the local arts community. Although San Francisco was beautifully situated and commercially connected, it was culturally isolated. Perhaps for this reason, the avant-garde played a different role in the city than it did elsewhere. Poet Kenneth Rexroth, the éminence grise of midcentury San Francisco letters, described the city's underground arts scene as "dominant, almost all there is." This postwar scene was by no means the first bohemia. The French, who coined that term in the nineteenth century, based it on the Central European region through which the Romany people, or Gypsies, entered Western Europe. Greenwich Village had served as New York City's bohemia for generations, and in California, Bret Harte wrote as "The Bohemian" as early as the 1860s. When other local journalists, including Mark Twain, began to identify themselves that way, they founded the Bohemian Club in 1872. Its members had a clubhouse in downtown San Francisco and eventually acquired a camp in the redwood forests of Sonoma County for their summer revelries, which featured music, plays, and heavy drinking.

Living on the nation's geographical and artistic margin, and with no culturally important cities for thousands of miles in any direction, San Francisco artists were constantly in the position of making their own party. Though small, that party was lively. The earlier San Francisco literature created by Jack London and others was populist, bohemian, and rowdier than its Eastern counterparts. After the war, San Francisco artists built on that legacy in new and interesting ways. Politically radical, attracted to the Romantic and prophetic traditions, and drawing on esoteric spirituality, writers of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance dreamed of more connected and fulfilling communities.

After settling in San Francisco in 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti began attending the Friday-night soirées at Rexroth's apartment over Jack's Record Cellar in the predominantly black Fillmore district. "Local and itinerant poets and other flickering literary lights would show up," Ferlinghetti recalled, "usually loaded in more ways than one but mainly with the latest poetry." The poets were "passionate, erudite, disputative conversationalists," Ferlinghetti recalled, and he thought it best to keep his mouth shut, drink the dago red, and let the brilliant raps wash over him. When he opened City Lights Bookstore that year with Peter D. Martin, Ferlinghetti helped make the North Beach neighborhood the center of San Francisco's literary activity.

The underlying impulses of many San Francisco writers—elegiac, nostalgic, and utopian—responded to the violence and dislocation of the war, but much of their work also arose from a profound sense of insularity. "In the spiritual and political loneliness of America in the fifties, you'd hitch a thousand miles to meet a friend," poet Gary Snyder recalled. "West Coast of those days, San Francisco was the only city; and of San Francisco, North Beach." The coteries formed by local poets reflected the need for community that was otherwise lacking—not only among artists, but also in postwar American society generally. Stan Brakhage, whose experimental films would later influence Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, remembered the city's arts community as a welcoming place. "You sensed that everybody was very active and very creative and needed the support of others," Brakhage said.

Several San Francisco poets hosted programs on KPFA, the nation's first listener-supported radio station across the bay in Berkeley, but most had little or no financial support for their work. Meeting in bars or at informal dinner parties to talk politics, religion, and art, they presented their work not as literary artifacts but as dramatic performances intended for (and sometimes aimed at) close friends. Those encounters, which could include up to one hundred persons, were intellectually acute but also fully embodied. Sensuality and excess, as represented by the Greek god Dionysus, were regarded as artistically useful. "My view of the Dionysian," San Francisco poet William Everson wrote, "is that you gain more through a certain quality of imprecision ... a certain openness or vulnerability to sensation."


Excerpted from No Simple Highway by Peter Richardson. Copyright © 2014 Peter Richardson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Ecstasy 9

Part 2 Mobility 147

Part 3 Community 248

Epilogue 305

Acknowledgments 313

Notes 317

Sources 339

Index 355

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