There is nothing like a Grateful Dead symposium…
But then again‚ until Unbroken Chain‚ there's never been one. This November 2007 event was the largest conference conducted on the legacy of the Grateful Dead‚ and the first to be held by a major university.
A class covering the Dead is currently offered at this bastion of eastern liberalism. "How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window into American Culture‚" was launched this fall and is believed to be the only college course in the country dedicated to the group; as described in an article from The Boston Globe‚ "…it analyzes the popular band‚ the avatar of hippie counterculture‚ and its famously loyal fans as a springboard to a deeper look at American society and politics during the group's 30-year run…"
This three-day event was probably not something altogether different but somewhere in between. Organizers‚ official speakers and paying attendees plus press mirrored the demographics of an audience at a show‚ including the hedonist factor that skirted the periphery in the latter years of Grateful Dead roadwork.
Likewise‚ the flow of the symposium as it unfolded called to mind a show‚ as the high and low points ebbed and flowed with slow-growing impact. The structure was stretched often to the point of disappearing‚ deliberately and unconsciously: in that way it mirrored the Grateful Dead and the philosophy that grew out of their improvisational approach to their music. As such‚ the experience that was Unbroken Chain stands as the most accurate testament to the legitimacy of this sort of academic endeavor.
Emphasis should probably not be placed on the word 'academic' despite the trappings of PhDs offering dissections of Dead performance in both audio and visual formats. The mystique of scholarship got shredded despite itself and Rebecca Adams‚ an instructor who once took her class on Dead tour‚ may have undercut her own credibility with a rather glib assessment of the descendants of the Dead (as well as some comments on appropriate fashion‚ calling attention to the dearth of tie-dye).
More enlightening and less stuffy were discussions of the archive process‚ though it might've been preferable had David Lemieux' appearance not turned into a press conference where he was peppered with questions. His discerning ear and passion for his work was no more or less evident than that of the participants of panel discussing rock criticism vis-a-vis Grateful Dead culture chaired by David Gans (of "The Grateful Dead Hour" radio and "Conversations with the Dead" book). When this debate threatened to descend into an argument of who knew the inside story best‚ it was time to marvel at the photography of Herb Greene‚ whose splendid photo work also appeared among the galleries of camera and other artwork available throughout each day of Unbroken Chain).
Dennis McNally was the most appropriate choice for a keynote speaker on November 16th for a number of reasons. He helped organize the event‚ he worked both inside and outside the Dead organization as historian and publicist and he bridges those worlds of traditional scholarship and alternative thinking as posited by the symposium: he is a graduate of UMass at Amherst‚ a PhD himself and author of a biography of Jack Kerouac‚ one of Jerry Garcia's early inspirations.
Not to mention McNally's sense of whimsy is an essential component of the Grateful Dead mindset. McNally may in fact be the living embodiment of the synchronicity within the band's zeitgeist that drew in those who could contribute in a tangible sense‚ just one more practical element of community at work within Deadhead universe. Present at various discussions as well as the Friday night concert by The American Beauty Project‚ McNally wasn't just going through the motions any more than the Larry Campbell-led band was.
The performance of all the material on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty constituted a reminder of what great songs comprise those albums. Unfortunately‚ it also illustrated how the charm of the Dead's own performances gave the material character: many arrangements such as that of "Truckin'" and "Ripple" were just too smooth for their own good. In contrast‚ the four female voices intertwining through "Box of Rain" brought an exquisite majesty to the song. Likewise‚ a spare performance of "Attics of My Life‚" by Campbell (on electric guitar) and vocalists Theresa Williams (his wife) and Amy Helm (Levon's daughter) defined the beauty of bittersweet.
While it became increasingly evident the serendipitous spirit of the Grateful Dead informed Unbroken Chain‚ it might have been nowhere more evident than in the Saturday morning debates and dissertations. Cogent coherent statements on personal and cultural history rooted in the decade of the Sixties demonstrated how this symposium represented an active intellect rather than self-indulgence and dissipation the likes of which mainstream culture stereotypes the band and other inhabitants of its time. (In contrast‚ the stories of Egypt offered by Carolyn Adams "Mountain Girl" Garcia and former basketball star Bill Walton played to the preconceptions of the crowd in the ballroom).
Likewise‚ the colorful commentary of sound engineer Dan Healy‚ and to a slightly lesser extent his counterpart of latter day Dead technology‚ Bob Bralove‚ supplied the most provocative and enlightening insight into the Grateful Dead ethos. The meticulous scientific approach taken by these men‚ though not without its own sense of cosmic humor‚ sounded like nothing so much as a microcosm of the band's whole operation‚ such as it was‚ from its earliest days. And the multiple symbioses that existed within the inner circle of the band came to light as well: Healy commented how lyricist Robert Hunter's tacit understanding of the soundman's work supplied Garcia's songwriting collaborator with a greater sense of freedom in his own work‚ knowing it would be presented in the best possible way.
Little wonder then that the freewheeling discussion of lyrics had even more of a musical and rhythmic sense. Piquing the curiosity of attendees who admitted to not being born when some tunes such as "St Stephen" were originally composed was representative of the minor epiphanies that arose throughout the three-day event. The cumulative effect of the revelations generated much of its residual effect. Realizing the Grateful Dead's high standards for their music extend into their use of equipment‚ then on to business operations (that led to confrontations with Ticketmaster as their own mail order operation blossomed) could only leave both the confirmed fan and casually inquisitive to marvel at the extent to which the group's influence remains so strong.