Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure

Carol Brightman, Author Clarkson N Potter Publishers $27.5 (356p) ISBN 978-0-517-59448-3
Though their music may have drawn mixed reviews, the Grateful Dead's ability to survive the musical and cultural tumult of most of the last three decades remains uncontested. The renegade rock band's creation of a uniquely tribal audience base; the band members' belief in the mystical possibilities of their music, especially when accompanied by hallucinogens; and the wry resignation of their lyrics may begin to explain the Dead's longevity. But in this ruminative, entertaining memoir/cultural history, Brightman, author of 1994's NBCC-winning Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, suggests that the philosophical, aesthetic and personal factors that allowed the band to outlive, at least in influence, even its most famous member, late guitarist Jerry Garcia, are far more complex. Locating the Dead within the historical crosscurrents of the period, she limns the grassroots American musician traditions that influenced the band, the idealized community of hangers-on and fellow travelers they encouraged, their Emersonian desire for spiritual transcendence, and the surprisingly middle-class sensibility of their adherents. Using her sister Candace's career as a lighting designer for the Dead and her own political activism and journalistic encounters with the band as reference points, Brightman weaves together the subterranean connections among the spiritual, drug-driven 'heads; the politically active, rapidly disillusioned radical ""New Left,"" and the larger society both subcultures reacted against. Brightman's argument occasionally grows as diffuse as one of the band's illustrious jam sessions. But she has produced a cogent, intelligent look at the Dead and the deep structure of American culture into which they so successfully tapped. 30 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/1998
Release date: 11/01/1998
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