A book for those who got in the bus in the '80s

My review of a memoir by poet Peter Conners called Growing Up Dead appeared in the Proceedings of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association conference in Albuquerque a week or so ago, reprinted here with permission from Dead Letters Press, the publisher of the Proceedings:
[cover image from the book 'Growing Up Dead']

Growing Up Dead:
The Hallucinated Confessions
of a Teenage Deadhead

by Peter Conners
da Capo Press, 2009

Pick up just about any history or memoir of the Grateful Dead and you’ll hear about bluegrass, the Acid Tests, Live/Dead, Europe in ’72, the hiatus, and the Pyramids in excruciating detail. Then the years start to fly by, punctuated by the occasional happening: hit song and tour with Dylan in ’87, return to Europe in ’90, and then all of a sudden Jerry is dead and we’re into that nebulous post-Grateful period that continues to this day. This is understandable, but for Dead fans like my self who got on the bus in the 1980s, this leaves out a big important part of the story.

During the long period between album releases, when perhaps various bandmembers’ rebellious proclivities were beginning to catch up with them, the Dead scene experienced something of a third wind. Perhaps it was the advent of the “just say no” years and the growing need for a refuge for the disaffected youth of that era. Garcia famously called the Dead tour the last remaining great American adventure. Certainly my own experience when I stumbled into the parking lot in 1984 was a stiff sense of incredulity: how was this through-the-looking-glass society existing in parallel with the malls and office parks of the Reagan 80s? How were we getting away with this? How could it possibly last?

As we know, it couldn’t last. It was a bubble of sorts, but its surface tension held for a crucial stretch of years, long enough to sustain this pocket of the counterculture until reinforcements could arrive, tune up, plug in, and rock out.

Peter Conners is a bit younger than I am, but he got on the bus just before the tidal wave of a “hit song on MTV” crashed into the parking lot scene of 1987 and his memoir, Growing Up Dead, represents the first holographic capture of exactly what it felt like at just that time. He limns the road, the buses, the parking lots, and most importantly the shows, the music, and lyrics of the Grateful Dead in the 1980s. He described growing up in a suburban middle class enclave and falling in with a stoner crowd and eventually finding himself in the world of the Deadheads.

Perhaps most importantly, he finds his muse and toward the end of the tale, when he comes off the road, he finds that he has become a poet. The language of the Dead spoke to him and brought something out of him that his teachers and his day-to-day life did not manage to reach. As Conners said in an interview conducted on the Well’s public Inkwell conference:

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any friends who connected to language on that same level. I still remember sharing my first poems with friends. To their credit, they were openly enthusiastic. No one in our group, myself included, knew anything about poetry or literature outside of what we were fed in school. We all bonded over lyrics, singing them, writing them on our notebooks, etc., but that was more about our love of the bands and reinforcing our bonds with each other.

His is not the tawdry tale of excess and destruction and repentance that we’ve been hearing since the opium eaters but one of enlightenment, joy, self-discovery and, ultimately, graduation into adulthood and self-possession.

Conners is a gifted storyteller and delivers his tale not as a series of banal or hyperbolic generalities but in a well-knit sequence of anecdotes and portraits. The book moves along swiftly and sweeps you up in the life path of this young person questing in search of fun and liberty and friendship and love.

The story of the Grateful Dead from the viewpoint of the musicians and the Peninsula milieu in which the coalesced has been told to death (and I’ve devoured with pleasure each telling and re-telling of those days) and to some extent the personal stories of the extended community rooted in those early days and into the 1970s has at least begun to be told, but Growing Up Dead crucially fills a gap in the story without which my own experience lacks a literary context, and for this I am, dare I say it? grateful.

Oh, and hey now, be sure to read Conners’ wonderful Dead Crazy Uncle, which was reprinted as well in the Proceedings.