[27 April 2009]
If you’ve ever loved a band, memorizing all the lyrics to all the songs, and waited on pins and needles for the first notes of the first song in concert, then you have tasted a bit of magic that Peter Conners hopes to capture in Growing Up Dead, his memoir of several years spent as a dedicated fan of the Grateful Dead.
But, honestly, you’ve only tasted the tiniest bit of what it meant to be a Deadhead.
From his introduction, Conners is defensive about his story. He recognizes that Deadheads are perceived as “middle class white kids who want to ‘act poor’”—a form of “phoniness”. His book aims to explain the Deadhead culture, demonstrating its redemptive qualities generally and its critical role in leading Conners himself to a life of creativity and self-actualization.
Being a Deadhead, Conners argues, is not just about doing tons of drugs, selling drugs to finance a life following the band on the road, and “freak dancing” to the endless jams of his durable San Francisco rock icons. The vast majority of the story, however, is about ... dosing, selling, and dancing. But, Conners argues frequently, it’s really deeeeeep dosing, selling and dancing. Man.
To be fair, Growing Up Dead is a quick read precisely because Conners does not skimp on the riveting, less-than-flattering details. He describes his own lost adolescence in a suburb of Rochester, NY, during the mid-‘80s: terrible acne, tripping on acid starting in 10th grade, bad grades, and FM radio dominated by the likes of Oingo Boingo and Stryper. He then describes his first Dead show in 1987—being greeted by the Rainbow Family of the Living Light, funneling “a couple cases of Budweiser”, and “tripping my balls off” on “pink dove LSD”. Something about this experience opens a door for Conners. He will return to see the Dead many times in the future, barely graduating from high school, then dropping out of college to take up a life on the road nearly full-time.
The narrative is exciting partly for its train-wreck quality, but also because it promises to explain the Grateful Dead phenomenon. Why did this band, a trippy rock outfit with a pair of questionable lead vocalists and an affection for old folk tunes, inspire a tribe of intense fans? Surely there is more to it all than the carnival-esque suspension of rules around a Dead show. Right?
Conners argues gamely, but in very short stretches, that the Dead phenomenon is intellectual and literary. The Dead themselves, he argues, are “pranksters”, each a Jungian “archetypal trickster” with a “primitive cosmic being of divine-animal nature”. Falling in line with Kerouac and Ginsberg, they became the updated Beats, and the Deadheads were “the final manifestation of a certain alternative culture ..., the last bastions of the old-guard American resistance to consumer culture and all that it entails.”
Or, you know, maybe Deadheads just really liked doping up at shows.
It’s hard to say whether Peter Conners is aware of the degree to which his own text continually undermines his claims about the transcendence that the Dead and its psychedelic scene made possible. At times, he is realistic and traces the decay of the band (such as keyboard player Brent Mydland’s drug overdose and death) or the toll of life on the road for certain Deadheads. The most moving passage in the book explains Conners’ feelings of pity for a child he meets who had grown up “on tour” and plainly had no education or grounding outside the fantasy world of the Dead. But at other times—and at great, indulgent length—he celebrates the “Good Dead Karma” that scores him some weed or allows him to get into a show without his own ticket.
In fact, much too much of Growing Up Dead has a peculiarly nostalgic vibe that creeps into hypocrisy. So, when Conners gets into a show for free in the ‘80s, it’s good karma, but when ill-mannered fans who come to the scene too late (in the ‘90s), their gate-crashing is ruining the vibe. When a crazy old Deadhead named “Red” asks passing women to “put your tit in my tambourine”, he’s not a sexist asshole but rather a “drunken Buddha of the perfectly-placed insult”. In these moments, all of Conners’ blather about Ken Kesey and the Beats and “Taoist tenets” seems like little more than rationalization.
Peter Conners’ personal story emerges in several places, usually for the better. Whatever the pitfalls of Life with the Dead, Conners manages to get back to college, and he even learns to play some guitar and write some songs. He ends up marrying his high school sweetheart and, hey, he’s a writer! (Not everyone winds up a heroin addict like Jerry.) But, as fine as much of the writing is, there are some mighty tiresome passages. There are a half-dozen chapters narrated in second person italics (“You learned at Dead shows how to dance with your hands”) for no apparent reason. And one chapter ends with the reproduction of a three-paragraph essay written for a college class titled, “The Dead Trip”, which is effectively a first draft of this book—“This carnival atmosphere is what attracts many people to start with but it’s the music that keeps them there.”
But Growing Up Dead spends precious few words on the music. There is some interesting material about the band’s history and mythology. But Conners is either uninterested in or incapable of writing about Jerry Garcia’s guitar solos or the band’s approach to folk harmonies. The book is not about the band or the music but, with the exception of a couple references to lyrics or some set lists, it fails to explain why this music should matter so much to the people who fetishized it. And toward the end of the book when Conners and his friends discover the music of Phish and Widespread Panic, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the Grateful Dead, the band as opposed ot the scene, was never the point at all.
As a personal memoir, Peter Conners’ Growing Up Dead is readable and honest, revealing but defensive. By design or unwittingly, it demonstrates that adolescence requires it own unique mythology, and one that scarcely thrives on consistency or clarity. It’s charming and informative to read Conners’ musings on his youth, even as he tries and ultimately fails to demonstrate that it was not misspent.
In the end, it’s not about the Dead but about a kid’s attempt to construct a family out of a VW camper-van, plenteous pot and LSD, and a deep, deep desire to belong. A pretty good story, even if—maybe because—Conners never gets it to make much sense.