If paradox is your pleasure, the Grateful Dead will never let you down. Born of the millennial yearnings of Haight Ashbury in the 1960s and founded on the principles of innovation and fierce independence, the Dead became the longest-running show in American history and the centerpiece of a vast underground community whose loyalty appears undiminished.
How the Dead, alone among the avatars of the rebellious '60s, survived to speak to successive generations is the subject of this intensely provocative and personal narrative. Social critic and biographer Carol Brightman, who was active in the political struggles of the era, presents a Whitmanesque tableau of America's colliding countercultures.
Here the Dead--with their original fancy for the Beats and fondness for folk, bluegrass, and blues; their immersion in psychedelics; and their longing for a separate reality--appear alongside those they shunned: the radicals across the Bay in Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement, antiwar rallies, and trips to Vietnam and Cuba are re-created alongside Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, San Francisco be-ins, LSD trips, large and small, and rock festivals across the country. And gradually we see that while the zenith of the Grateful Dead experience was the moment of abandon to music, drugs, and dance, it was as a safe haven from the turmoil beyond the gates that the music and the culture won their place in the hearts of fans.
No stranger paradox emerges in these pages than the role the CIA played as Johnny Appleseed to an infant drug culture. With its LSD-testing programs in college towns, such as the one where Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter, later Garcia's lyricist, first tasted the forbidden fruit, the CIA sowed the seeds of the chemical manipulations of consciousness that remain a leitmotiv of the Dead's culture of enchantment.
Meanwhile, a new portrait of the nonleader leader emerges, as those closest to Jerry Garcia, particularly his second wife, Mountain Girl, speak of his passions and his demons. We see Garcia as a musical existentialist enamored of tradition, a man possessed of a strange, all-encompassing influence who held to a vision of the Grateful Dead's destiny even as he recoiled from the juggernaut it became.
An absorbing and exhilarating exploration of a major chapter in America's cultural history, Sweet Chaos gives us, at last, an understanding of why the Dead means so much to so many.