I just finished Peter Conners’ Growing up Dead: the Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead (Cambridge: Dacapo Press, 2009), it’s a good read that brings back a lot of memories. It is a coming of age story about a teenager in upstate New York who decides to “flip off” his white middle-class background, forego the Game of Life, and become a modern-day gypsy, traveling from campground to campground, attending the shows of the Grateful Dead. His narrative describes traveling from show to show, sleeping in a green VW microbus, smoking copious amounts of marijuana, dropping LSD, living without the luxury of a shower, and living hand to mouth for months on end. The text is not a hedonistic romp through America; it is a young person’s search for meaning that follows in the tradition of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, and other relentless wanderers. In effect, the book tells us that the “open road” is a space of experience in which one discovers that you can’t flee from your own mind, and the most difficult thing a person can do is come to terms with himself.
Although Jerry Garcia was immortalized by Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as Cherry Garcia, not everyone was a fan of his music. In all the three decades that the Grateful Dead toured, it only had one top-ten hit, a soft tune, entitled “A Touch of Grey” in 1987. Nonetheless, the band was at the center of the psychedelic movement, left an indelible mark on our music and culture, and acquired a cult-like following of fans that followed them from gig to gig. The Grateful Dead was at the center of the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. Although the term “acid rock” is usually associated with heavy metal or Jimi Hendrix-style guitar distortion, the term originally came from the music experimentation. The British invasion transformed the Dead’s music from its bluegrass origins, and the band blended rock and roll, folk and blues with the whimsical sounds coming from Great Britain.
This was a time of major musical innovation, experimentation, and mind expansion. Intellectuals like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert were suggesting that psychedelics drugs were quick tickets to mind-expansion. Later, Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would popularize the use of LSD as a means by which consciousness would be available to all who wanted it. To create this enlightening experience, Kesey sought the assistance of the Grateful Dead to produce a soundtrack for the so-called acid tests in which LSD was offered to large numbers of people at once (See Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Garcia would later comment that the band members were so high that, at times, they couldn’t play conventional music, but it gave the group members an opportunity to experiment with sound and environment, something that would eventually become important in their live shows.
Although LSD was declared illegal, the Grateful Dead was still touring the country, and their shows carried with them the spirit of the acid tests well into the 1990s. Connors is very much a grandchild of the psychedelic culture. He finds an affinity with the older Deadheads who become the older siblings and mentors that he lacked in his suburban life in upstate New York. The Deadheads become his surrogate family and he describes them as generous, caring and peace-loving. He admits that Deadheads may seem strange and even scary, but deep down they are harmless and peace loving people who believe in the laws of karma.
The text chronicles traveling across country from show to show in a Volkswagen camper, scrounging to eke out an existence by dealing drugs, and working temporary jobs for gas money. The title of the memoir evokes a confession, but if Conners is guilty of anything it is his unashamed frankness regarding his drug use and gallivanting across the country to see the shows and dance under the stars. The author presents himself as the father of three children, who looks back nostalgically on his adolescence, salvaging some of his endearing memories of being on the road with close friends.
This is not to say that there weren’t some difficult times; it is clear that there were. Nonetheless, Conners seems to write over the bad trips and bummers and paints an almost idyllic world of Deadhead communal existence. This isn’t a reproach of his narrative because the point is to describe how to overcome anxiety and adversity and retain your creativity. Friends and loved-ones move on, some die, and others take their own lives: the point is to keep on loving and living.
Although Connors states that several of his friends came from problematic backgrounds and turned to this lifestyle as an escape, he tells relatively little about his own family life before he became a Deadhead. He simply follows his desire, but doesn’t tell us why. His depiction of high school is reminiscent of the Breakfast Club with its rigidly defined cliques of jocks, goodie-goodies, brainiacs, motor heads, rockers and stoners, a veritable mix of students from all walks of life. Conners was a white middle class kid from an affluent background who simply turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Both of his parents and siblings were either professional or held graduate degrees, and his long-time girlfriend eventually earned a PhD in psychology. Perhaps his only explanation can be found in his description of himself as the youngest of four children who suddenly found himself alone after his brothers and sisters went off to college. His teenage restlessness becomes a complete rejection of conventional society. His rebellion comes in the form of smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, and ingesting psychedelics while listening to music.
To be continued…
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy, www.jimmygabacho.com