On April 4 and 5, 1995, something happened to me that I have yet to forget. It was on that pair of otherwise normal days (Tuesday and Wednesday, to be exact) that something took place in my city that had not happened in 15 years: the Grateful Dead came to town. I wasn’t a Deadhead by any means, but I owned a few records and liked them enough to scrape together my meager teenage finances to go to the show and find out, firsthand, just what – if anything—I had been missing. I wanted to know why people would abandon the comforts of home to follow the band from town to town, living off the kindness of strangers for months at a time, just to catch the next show. I was not disappointed. There I got a glimpse into another culture, one similar to our own but at the same time wholly separate. Their world was so different from my own, so much more exciting, and though the fact that I was barely old enough to drive kept me from joining their world, I was thankful that they allowed an outsider to share it for a little while.
The tours came to an end four months later with the passing of Jerry Garcia but the culture survives to this day. Perhaps not as prevalent or as visible as they once were, tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads are still around and what they are doing these days may surprise you. Deadheads are now politicians, executives, musicians and even academics. Robert G. Weiner has been doing academic work on the Dead for more than a decade now as the founder and head of the Grateful Dead caucus of the Southwestern Pop Culture Association. Something Weiner has been working on during this time is collecting the myriad of writings inspired by the Dead and he’s finally done it with the help of Gary McKinney and Kearney Street Books in The Storyteller Speaks: Rare and Different Fictions of the Grateful Dead. Weiner and McKinney compiled the works of authors, fans, and associates of the Dead into a volume as unique as the band and culture that inspired it.
The challenge with a book like The Storyteller Speaks is that what makes it so enjoyable also makes it difficult to describe to someone else. Calling it an “eclectic work” is a massive understatement; every genre, style, tone, and length is represented. The book kicks off in the horror vein, with the Philip Baruth penned “American Zombie Beauty” being a standout and one of the better examples of the type of zombie fiction that is so in vogue these days. The book then continues in a manner not too far removed from a Dead show, taking detours through a variety of concepts – fantasy, crime fiction, sci-fi, drama – but often returning to familiar territory. One of the more interesting of these detours is Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s “Metaphor 101,” a cheeky but poignant look at politics, religion, and life itself.
Hunter’s inclusion ensures that any self-respecting fanatical Deadhead will pick this volume up, but it is worth noting that this book isn’t strictly for the Dead faithful. The Storyteller Speaks will appeal to anyone with a love of short fiction and the mix of authors and genres means that everyone should find something to like. As well written as the stories are, perhaps the biggest enticement for readers will be the chance to glimpse one of the longest lasting subcultures in American history. Some 15 years after Garcia’s death, Deadheads aren’t fading away, they’re thriving. This book gives an interesting and different type of insight into the Dead phenomenon – not a removed, clinical sociological analysis, but not one that’s strictly for initiates either. The Storyteller Speaks lets you have the full Grateful Dead experience minus the music. You might not trade in your car for a VW Bus and hit the road, but you will be thankful that you got to share the experience for a little while.