Want to know about the Grateful Dead? Go back to school

Peter Richardson shows off an advanced copy of his book "No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead." He's teaching a course with the same name beginning Oct. 1. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Peter Richardson shows off an advanced copy of his book No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. He will teach a course with the same name beginning Oct. 1 at UC Berkeley’s OLLI. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

References to the Grateful Dead are everywhere — on pints of Cherry Garcia ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s, or at the San Francisco Giants’ Jerry Garcia Night.

The late lead singer has “become this sort of cross between Santa Claus and Smokey the Bear, this kind of patron saint in many ways,” said Peter Richardson, a lecturer in humanities at San Francisco State University.

But behind these watered-down homages and caricatures is a complicated and unlikely story — one that Richardson explores both in a book due out in January, and at a new course beginning October 1 at UC Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Grateful Dead play Greek Theatre Berkeley. Photo- Ken Friedman
The Grateful Dead playing the Greek Theatre Berkeley in 1982. Photo: Ken Friedman 

OLLI classes are open to students over the age of 50, so No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead is likely to attract some who who belonged to the clan of “Dead Heads” that followed the band religiously. But Richardson believes the questions the class raises will be fascinating even to those unfamiliar with the music.


Teaching a course struck Richardson as an appropriate culmination of his book project. And this is the right place to teach it.

“One thing we’re going to try to do is place the Dead’s story in this local, political, social milieu of the Bay Area,” Richardson said. “What was gong on in the Bay Area that prepared the soil for the Dead’s project?”

The band began in Palo Alto in 1965 but quickly moved on to figure prominently in the San Francisco counterculture scene. The mid-century San Francisco arts scene, as well as the literary legacy of the Beats, had a palpable influence on Jerry Garcia and his bandmates, Richardson said. Later they relocated to Marin County.

Berkeley also plays a role in the band’s origin story, Richardson said. Berkeley-based Harry Smith, “a classic Professor Weird Beard,” compiled an anthology of American folk music in the 1950s that served as a muse for both the Dead and Bob Dylan.

The class will examine the sociopolitical landscape that prompted the Dead’s unparalleled durability.


“In the late 70s, people were moving on musically,” Richardson said. “What’s incredible about the Dead is they actually bounced back from that in the 80s and recruited a whole new generation of fans. So a big part of the class and the book is trying to understand: How did they do it?”

Ronald Reagan can take some of the credit, he said.

“He’s the governor when they first emerge on the national scene,” Richardson said. “He made a lot of pointed comments about hippies and radicals. He ran on that — on the pledge to clean up the mess in Berkeley.”

And during Reagan’s presidency, in 1987, the Dead had their only chart-topping hit, “Touch of Gray.” The song is about survival — both Garcia’s, from a life-threatening coma; and the counterculture’s, from political conservatism, Richardson said. In 1991, over 25 years after the band formed, the Grateful Dead became the highest grossing touring act in the country.

OLLI students will be treated to an impressive roster of guest speakers: Nicholas Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist; David Gans, host of the Dead-themed show on KPFA; Rosie McGee, Dead photographer and former girlfriend of bassist Phil Lesh; and Blair Jackson, Garcia’s biographer.


Richardson met all of the speakers while writing the book, and they were all “super helpful,” which was unsurprising, he said. The community that the Dead cultivated also figures prominently in the success story.

“From the beginning, this project was tribal,” Richardson said. “They tapped into the American romance for the open road, which they got from the Beats. They were really good at making their fans feel part of this traveling bohemian project. They really wanted to break down the barrier between the talent and the spectators.”

In the classroom, Richardson hopes to channel the Dead’s spirit of improvisation and inclusivity. And the Dead’s emphasis on community resonates with OLLI members, said Director Susan Hoffman.

“People need to continue to learn in a social context,” she said. “They’re there for the joy of continuing to learn, with each other.”

OLLI, funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, has offered sessions of six-week classes to the 50-plus crowd through UC Berkeley since 2007. Students come from all over the Bay Area and are typically well-educated.

“Our older adults are so insightful, which makes an OLLI classroom pretty electric as a place to try out” soon-to-be published texts, or new ideas, Hoffman said.

Richardson taught an OLLI course on investigative reporting a few years ago, and the curriculum committee was immediately receptive to this latest pitch, Hoffman said. Richardson’s approach to the subject — his focus on community and culture, and the curriculum aimed at a wide audience — meshed with OLLI’s mission.

“We’re not interested in nostalgia, period,” Hoffman said. “This isn’t going to be people reliving Dead Head days. It’s saying: In our own Bay Area, this emerged. How did that happen and how can we do that again?”

So far 60 people have registered for the course, which is “appalling,” Hoffman said, given the hundreds that the venue can accommodate.

Richardson will teach the course again at Sonoma State University’s OLLI in the spring, and can imagine adapting it for his SF State undergraduates. 

Despite the ubiquity of Dead imagery in contemporary culture, Richardson thinks many people, young and old, are unaware of what makes the band so special. The course will bring to light their wide range of influences, significant musical evolution, and the slew of obstacles they encountered and responded to along the way.

“It’s such a unique story inside of rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “There were a lot of different moving parts, and we want to make sure we cover them all.”

The course will be held on Wednesdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Freight & Salvage at 2020 Addison St. between October 1 and November 5, 2014. OLLI members can register for the course for $145. 

Looking for something beyond going to the movies or dinner out? Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 24-25. Read all about it and buy your tickets at www.berkeleyideas.com.