The Grateful Dead in the Age of Reagan

Posted on January 7, 2015
by Peter Richardson

Much to my surprise, one of the key characters in my cultural history of the Grateful Dead turned out to be Ronald Reagan. Both as California governor and as president, Reagan was an ideal foil for the Dead and their project.

As Reagan campaigned for governor in the summer of 1966, the Grateful Dead were making music, partying, skinny-dipping, and ignoring politics to death at Rancho Olompali, their bucolic retreat in Marin County. But if the revelers weren’t interested in politics, the opposite wasn’t true; in fact, youth culture played a significant role in California’s elections that year. “Their signs say, ‘Make love, not war,’” Reagan said about campus activists, “but it didn’t look like they could do either.” Hippies were another favorite target. “We have some hippies in California,” he told out-of-state audiences. “For those of you who don’t know what a hippie is, he’s a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”

Despite the conservative backlash that powered Reagan’s 1966 victory, the Grateful Dead thrived during his two terms as governor. They released their first commercially and critically successful albums, and except for a brief hiatus in the mid-1970s, they toured relentlessly and became one of the nation’s most popular touring bands. Meanwhile, Reagan left Sacramento in 1974 and began his own march to the White House. After an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 1976, he prevailed over Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Some Grateful Dead fans, including Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson, welcomed Reagan’s presidency, and there was some conservative sentiment in the band’s inner circle. Lyricist John Perry Barlow, for example, helped coordinate Dick Cheney’s 1978 Congressional campaign in Wyoming. But Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist, was no Reagan fan. “Oh! Give me a break!” he exclaimed later. “I was shocked when Reagan was elected governor of California! And then, as President, we were embarrassed by the guy. I mean, he wasn’t even a good actor.” The Grateful Dead didn’t orchestrate a response to Reagan, but his decision to militarize the drug war in 1982 was deeply unpopular in Dead circles, and The Golden Road, the band’s key fanzine uncharacteristically exhorted Dead Heads to register and vote against Reagan in 1984.

By the time that piece appeared, President Reagan’s reelection campaign was in high gear. One of its television advertisements declared that it was “morning again in America.” But the first verse of “Touch of Grey,” which the Dead first performed in 1982, found little to celebrate in that daybreak.

Dawn is breaking everywhere
Light a candle, curse the glare
Draw the curtain, I don’t care ‘cause
It’s all right.

The song’s political subtext is signaled in the second line, which Garcia contributed. It echoes Adlai Stevenson’s 1962 comment that Eleanor Roosevelt would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Although the music for “Touch of Grey” was upbeat, the lyric lacked the utopian exuberance of the 1960s. Instead, the world-weary speaker embraces the more modest goal of trying “to keep a little grace.” In the Age of Reagan, even that goal seemed ambitious, as later verses make clear.

I know the rent is in arrears
The dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears
But it’s all right.

The cow is giving kerosene
Kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene
But it’s all right.

In the face of economic hardship, environmental catastrophe, and educational failure, the speaker’s repeated assurances (“But it’s all right”) only highlight the challenges.

Yet the speaker promises to endure: “I will get by/I will survive.” A simple pronoun change in the final chorus (“We will get by/ We will survive”) transformed the song into an anthem. When the band opened a 1986 concert in Oakland with “Touch of Grey,” the audience went wild. There were at least two reasons for their glee. Garcia had survived a serious health scare earlier that year, and Dead Heads could reasonably believe that their most cherished ideal, community, would survive Ronald Reagan, scourge of the hippies. More than two decades after the Dead’s formation, “Touch of Grey” became their first top-ten single.

When asked about Reagan, Garcia claimed that history was on the Grateful Dead’s side. But the tension between their project and Reagan’s was even clearer in the immediate aftermath of Garcia’s death in 1995. “The band has prospered as the emblem of an era and is complicit in the continuing consequences of the era,” conservative pundit George Will wrote in Newsweek. “Around it has hung an aroma of disdain for inhibitions on recreational uses of drugs and sex. During the band’s nearly 30-year life the costs of ‘liberation’ from such inhibitions have been made manifest in millions of shattered lives and miles of devastated cities.”

Will’s former employer at National Review, William F. Buckley, also seized on Garcia’s death to scold the counterculture. In one of his columns, he noted that a National Review intern attended and enjoyed a Grateful Dead show; later, his work fell off, and he moved to South America to teach English. “Jerry Garcia didn’t help this young man,” Buckley wrote. “We did not hear again from him, except after an interval of five years or so, when we learned he had married again, this time a native, and gone off to live in the hills. Question before the house: Is Jerry Garcia in some way responsible for this?” According to Buckley, the answer was yes. He asserted that Garcia had “killed, if that’s the right word for such as our intern, a lot of people.”

It was an extraordinary claim, but it wasn’t clear that it would prevail even at National Review. Deroy Murdock, who wrote for the magazine’s online edition, saw it otherwise. “Jerry Garcia’s abuse of his bear-like body should teach all of us a lesson on the value of moderation,” Murdock maintained. “But the rest of his life—from the music to which he remained true for over 30 years to the spirit of freedom that still permeates the community he led—amiably embodied an all-American ideal: the pursuit of happiness.” Murdock’s conclusion was also consistent with Garcia’s views. “We’re basically Americans, and we like America,” he said. “We like the things about being able to express outrageous amounts of freedom.”

That remark highlights a major claim in my book. Although the Dead offered a fully formed alternative to Reagan’s vision, a large part of their appeal arose not from their resistance to American culture, but rather from their uncanny ability to tap its inexhaustible utopian energies. Despite the flak they took from some Reagan supporters, the Dead were as American as apple pie.

PETER RICHARDSON is an author and lecturer in the humanities department at San Francisco State University and outgoing chair of the California Studies Association. Before that, he was an editor at the Public Policy Institute of California, a think-tank based in San Francisco; a tenured English professor at the University of North Texas; and an acquisitions editor at Harper & Row, Pubishers. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently lives in San Francisco. His latest book is No Simple Highway.

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