SWEET CHAOS: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure by Carol Brightman

SWEET CHAOS: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Like an acid trip, this social history of the Grateful Dead cum meditation on the '60s has both moments of startling, epiphanic clarity and meanderings both maundering and meaningful. In fact, a large part is taken up with a history of and rumination on LSD and other psychedelics. The Grateful Dead--then called the Warlocks--got their first break as the house band for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests in the mid-'60s. The band valued acid for the visions and insights it afforded them. They also found that it helped them to play better together, providing a useful kind of group mind. But their music, with some exceptions, was not prototypically psychedelic. The Dead, guided by their informal leader, Jerry Garcia, embraced a pantheon of American musical styles from jazz to blues and bluegrass. The Dead were never radio favorites; most of their albums sold poorly. They were sustained, instead, by a fanatical, deliberately courted base of ""Dead Heads"" who often followed the band from city to city, trading tapes of wildly uneven concerts, and who, if really hardcore, also sold tie-in merchandise and drugs in stadium parking lots. Cannily, the Dead avoided many of the political strains of the '60s. Though they were broadly, even diffusely, counter-cultural, they also maintained ""an aversion to the radical movements of these years that would, in fact, pan into gold when the doors of change began to slam shut."" By the 1980s, the Dead had even achieved a degree of respectability. Like their performances, this book is masterfully erratic, veering from solipsistic digressions to profound analyses of the American counterculture. But it is never dull--even though the Dead are often relegated to the background. Brightman, NBCC Award-winning biographer of Mary McCarthy (and editor of Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1994) shows an extraordinary grasp of her generation's subtleties. She also suffers from its characteristic narcissism, layering on pages of autobiography that rarely make a relevant contribution. A protracted and strange trip, but with much to glimpse along the way.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0671011170
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Clarkson Potter