As I wrote in last week’s post, Peter Conners’ Growing up Dead: the Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead (Cambridge: Dacapo Press, 2009), brought back a lot of memories. But not all of them were good ones. If the bad memories are missing from the text, the rigors of life without indoor plumbing, a warm bed, clean sheets, and a hot meal show are omnipresent. Connors frequently describes his days on the road as not having bathed; wearing greasy dreadlocks, musty tie-dyed shirts, dirty-patched jeans, and old Converse tennis shoes. What sands out throughout the book is the constant reference to the sights and sounds, the sensorial experience of life on the road and the Grateful Dead show: musical virtuosity, experimentation, fusion of sound and environment, and the redolent scent of patchouli, marijuana, sage, acid-infused body odor, grilled cheese, stir fried vegetables, and sizzling skewers of meat, dirty clothes and mud.
From the first pages of the book, Conners makes the case for himself as an authentic Deadhead, distinguishing himself from the late comers and wanna-bes who brought consumerist anarchy and violence to the last Grateful Dead shows. Not only does he explain Deadhead culture to the uninitiated but he acts as historian as well, grounding their lifestyles in a tradition that stretches back to the post-World War II desire to explore the highways and byways of America. In effect, not all who wander are lost. The Deadheads, in this regard, are not attending a “concert” in a conventional sense, they come to commune with the music, to become one in dance and movement, sensing the energy and freeing themselves from the rigors of a quotidian existence. Like whirling dervishes, the deadheads dance as if they were possessed by animal spirits in a carnival atmosphere.
The book is exceptionally well written; it is hard to put down. Connors description of the LSD experience ranks with Tom Wolfe’s. He poetically describes the tripper’s full-moon pupils, the giddy non sequiturs, and the endless associations that the tripper makes. One should note, however, that Connors limits his descriptions of LSD to those that are pleasant. There are hilarious digressions about being stoned off of his nut, about having to remember to hang on to his concert ticket to be able to enter the concert venue, about how to manage anxiety, and about how dancing was a means to achieve a greater awareness of reality.
Although Connors doesn’t describe a bad trip, he does state that “LSD forces you to deal with your insecurities like a matador squaring off against a bull with its nuts and a noose. How you handle those insecurities can often mean the difference between a good trip that actually increases your awareness of the world, and a horrifying trip they can mentally scar you for life.” The sole bummer occurs during the show at the Oakland coliseum. He is momentarily overcome by the initial effects of the drug and falls to the floor. However, the point is to show that bad trips and bummers can be overcome with the support of fellow Deadheads, who reassure him and tell him to “dance it off.”
The key figure that appears is the Deadhead as the archetypical prankster or the trickster who uses jokes, insults, smart talk to unhinge another from his or her prefabricated notions of reality. These enlightening jabs grant them access to a new way to experience the self, and renovate their own sense of being. While it does paint a rainbow picture of what could have been a traumatic experience, the point of the book is to suggest that one needs to learn how to handle all of life’s experiences. The central theme of the Deadhead lifestyle was the notion of mysticism or primitive cosmic being that drove them to become seekers in the first place.
While the book is frank about his drug use, it states very little about why he delved into this lifestyle to begin with. Two of his friends have commit suicide and another died in a car accident. Beyond that, there is little that tells us why this lifestyle was so appealing. The later portions of the book discuss his on-again off-again relationships with his high school girlfriend and his college attendance. What is best about this book is the author’s style: Connors prose is notably poetic and smooth to read. Like the Dead’s penchant for fusion, the author mixes several different types of narration in the text. At times, he writes in an objective, historical tone, at others, he writes in the second person addressing his readers as “you,” giving a certain sense of the uncanny in his depiction of the effects of LSD. This stylistic contrast makes the text engaging, personal, and very entertaining.
If there is a sense of confession, it resides in the author’s self-criticism for living off of his girlfriend for a number of years while he sorted out what he really wanted or really could do with his life. The memoir begins its decent in 1995, the author-narrator’s wanderings have come to an end and he needs something solid, and bandleader Jerry Garcia had died. He has simply run out of options. At this point, his life begins to come together. While he was on the road, he kept a journal, and writing brings the diverse threads of his life together. Although his grades in college were never very good, he considered enrolling in graduate courses in creative writing and eventually settles down and becomes a full-time editor and writer. The text concludes with him in a bar, reminiscing with several friends. His wife and children are at home in bed in their home in upstate New York. He reflects on his newly found conventional life, and seems content. The book ends in typical prankster fashion: he states that it is difficult for him to relate his experiences as being a Deadhead to civilians, because they just don’t understand. But where does that leave the reader to whom he has just revealed all of his most cherished memories? Is the reader a new initiate, set free from the monotony of his or her life? Or, just some straight guy who listened to the meandering narrative of a long strange trip? The reader has to decide.