No Simple Highway – A Cultural History of The Grateful Dead

I would never have considered myself the ideal critic to review Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway – or any book about The Grateful Dead, for that matter. Growing up, it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t interested in The Dead (I listened to lots of different kinds of music), it’s just that the band wasn’t in my sphere. I knew they existed but none of my friends listened to them and so no one tried to get me started on them. In addition, they simply weren’t the stuff I ever reached for on my own because I simply wasn’t into hippie culture. My first exposure to the band came from the music video which got made for “Touch Of Grey,” and I then learned that Jerry Garcia’s guitar was milled out of the headboard from the bed in an opium den somewhere (thanks to a blurb affixed to a poster of the instrument in Guitar World). I did get interested in the band’s music for a minute when Jane’s Addiction recorded a cover of “Ripple,” but that’s about it – I tread no deeper than that perfectly superficial introduction.

As it turns out though, no fantastic amount of knowledge about The Grateful Dead is required to appreciate/enjoy No Simple Highway because, in fact, the band itself is only a stone in the cultural mosaic that the book seeks to present. The cast of characters included in this dialogue is enormous. It includes appearances from Ronald Reagan (who really lives up to every punk’s disdain for the puritanical persona he’d embody in the Eighties), Richard Nixon, the members of Jefferson Airplane, Jann Wenner, Elvis Presley, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Charles Manson, CSNY, members of the Hell’s Angels, a lengthy list of journalists, promoters and others known for their ability to make myths tangible and many (many) more beyond that as well. Each of the stories of those characters gets included with respect (read: no one is left looking two-dimensional) and, at least in the book’s earliest reading, it’s difficult to understand how this cultural examination is supposed to be focused on The Grateful Dead in any way. The scope of the story seems so diffuse that it’s hard to understand how anyone could be seen as the focal point of attention here. It’s only on page 5 or 6 when the importance of The Grateful Dead – to culture, the music industry, to how music is consumed and how the business of it was changed in The Dead’s wake – snaps into focus: as every event in American arts history unfolded, and was then revised a few times, The Grateful Dead were there, supplying a soundtrack which remained a work in progress from 1965 to 1995.

Looking at it that way, it suddenly becomes evident just how ambitious No Simple Highway is, but also gratifying it is because the book presents it all too smoothly and fluidly. From page to page, readers (particularly history buffs like this writer) are quickly shuttled through the early years of the band’s development (through the San Francisco folk renaissance of the early Sixties) with care and respect right into the meat of the matter: where the acid wave began to touch San Francisco (when the drug was still legal) and music began to change in reflection of it. There, The Dead get legs under them and the party starts but, rather than also implying an inevitable dark side to the time, the going remains light and festive and The Dead are shown to flourish creatively in that climate as they grow through the recording and release of their first few albums, peak a bit, and then discover new creative avenues and energy in the making of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

That time period (between 1970 and 1973) features palpable excitement in these pages and, even when the going does languish a bit and The Dead find they need to make a few lineup changes (shortly after the release of their second live album), Richardson manages to keep his prose from stumbling too hard without glossing over a few years noticeably. That does eventually happen (with the passing of keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973 – he was another “27 Club” member) and the book’s tone does become painfully solemn, but the book does manage to bounce back.

After the death of Pigpen, No Simple Highway shifts to the innovations that The Grateful Dead made in their business practices (the foundation of Grateful Dead Records in 1973 and the decision to begin embarking on progressively longer tours, most notably) and keeps the energy up, utilizing the growth of the band’s business for fuel. It’s here that readers will find that there is more happening than the book tells; there is brightness in every corner of this monologue, but it’s hard not to feel as though there’s an undertone of moments left untold here. Mention of Jerry Garcia’s heroin addiction is made, but never really delved into, nor are the foibles of the other band members. This lighter touch is a little frustrating and does promise to lose a few readers early, but those who remain in for the whole journey will find that the text does recover.

Part Three of No Simple Highway remains weaker as it opens with mention of the Jonestown Massacre (for the sake of establishing time). Nothing good really happens early in Part Three – not until The Dead follow in the footsteps of Buffalo Bill Cody and “give the public a show.” It’s here that Richardson illustrates that the greatest gift The Grateful Dead gave to the world after being regarded/written off as a bunch of hippies was to remain a band of hippies until such time as that style was considered ‘retro’ and people became nostalgic for The Sixties in The Eighties. That was smooth, as illustrated by the book, but better still was the fact that The Dead were still producing new music and at least occasionally “living in the now” by following new practices (like making a music video for “Touch Of Grey” in the MTV-excited Eighties)

(St. Martin’s Press)

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.