We Are Everywhere: Deadhead Writings and the DNA of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon

DNA, Memoirs of the Messiah (Self-published, 2008),  6 x 9 in., 171 pp.

There has always been a strong literary bent to the Deadhead experience, most obviously in the lyrics penned for the band by Robert Hunter, John Perry Barlow, and Bobby Petersen, among others. A few of the scene’s deeper literary connections can be seen in their close association with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, whose group of friends included Beat icon Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel and Beat Generation manifesto On the Road. Cassady was part of Kesey’s group, dubbed  the Merry Pranksters, who recruited the fledgling Grateful Dead to perform at the Acid Tests in the fall of 1965.

That history was recounted in another seminal book, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a bellwether of what would be called the New Journalism and a foundational text in the Grateful Dead library. Wolfe’s remarkable narrative helped immortalize the origins of the Dead and made a strong case for treating the group and their project with seriousness—an important nod at a time when the counterculture and rock music were hotly contested topics in the first flush of the culture wars over the meaning of the sixties.

Over the years, Deadheads have contributed to the burgeoning literature on the band and phenomenon, from mystery novels to poetry to scholarship in a wide range of disciplines. Most of those publications are obvious, with titles that most readers, and certainly any Deadhead, would recognize. But fans, cultural critics and historians interested  in the broader dissemination of the Grateful Dead phenomenon need to look carefully to trace how widely the Deadhead worldview has spread in American culture.  “We are everywhere” is a familiar Deadhead mantra, but often that ubiquity is cloaked and difficult to ferret out.

One book recently donated to the Dead Archive is a perfect case study in that subterranean ubiquity. Memoirs of the Messiah, a literary mélange of meditations, anecdotes and reminiscences, is not a Deadhead memoir, but it is salted with references to the band and scene, and charts the way that the Dead phenomenon has continued to evolve and spread in the years since Garcia’s death to become a significant strand in American culture. Written as a series of “revelations,” by a reluctant self-proclaimed messiah, the book presents Santa Cruz stand-up comedian, sometime political candidate and writer DNA’s thoughts about a variety of topics.

The author officially changed his name to DNA—one of the great lines in the book is, “Appointing your own name is guaranteed to agitate the other monkeys in the zoo” (p. 157). That is emblematic of the charmingly subversive tone to the book, although DNA’s style is far from iconoclastic. Indeed, Deadheads will recognize hallmark traits of the scene at its best, even though DNA’s story largely unfolds in a post-Jerry world.

That world is still defined by the absence of that luminous musician and avatar, and Memoirs of the Messiah is noteworthy for its evocation of a cultural landscape forever altered by Garcia. References to the Grateful Dead  pepper the book, from lyrics scattered throughout to Deadhead scenes, such as waiting in line in front of the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland before a show.

DNA contributed a copy of the book to the Archive, but he has also been a friend in other ways, writing about the Archive for local newspapers. For more of his work, see his website. A fine article on his multifarious talents appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel here.

Fans of samizdat publications will find DNA’s book appealing and thought-provoking on its own merits, but for Deadheads and scholars the book is particularly interesting for the degree to which it limns the arc of the broader dissemination into mainstream culture of the Grateful Dead phenomenon. Memoirs of the Messiah is one of dozens of such works that will provide cultural historians and scholars of popular culture with a fascinating map of how the Deadhead experience continued in the years following the band’s formal dissolution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>