Over the Christmas break, my wife and I watched the 6-part documentary dedicated to the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, directed by Amir Bar-Lev. I was, initially, not very interested in watching it: I grew up in Spain, where I had barely heard of the Dead (sorry!), and no matter how many times my wife has tried to get me into their music, I can never really enjoy it: it’s too unstructured, too chaotic, and too rambling at times (she was more successful with Bob Dylan as the name of our son, Dylan, reflects!). This probably says more about me than about the Dead and their music, but I am just trying to be upfront here.
She really wanted me to watch it, so I did, and to my surprise, I loved it. Let me make something very clear, I still don’t like the Grateful Dead music, but the documentary was fantastic. It did a great job exploring the history of the band from its humble beginnings in 60’s (as a product of the counter-culture movement, the social and political upheaval of the era, and the influence of drugs and psychedelics in their music), and their subsequent journey to becoming a cult band that filled large stadiums and arenas in the 80’s and early 90’s. Most of all, though, I became fascinated by the constant religious references used by many of the people interviewed in the documentary to describe and explain the Grateful Dead phenomena: attending a Dead concert was a religious experience, Jerry Garcia was a prophet, a Messiah, a shaman, the audience at the shows were organized like a mandala (see the clip below for this particular description of Dead shows), etc.
The idea of Jerry as a Prophet, Messiah, and even as a Shaman was repeated multiple times, and the fact that many people wanted to see in Jerry Garcia some sort of secular/psychedelic high priest does reflect the changing cultural landscape of the 60’s in America. This is a period in which there is a crisis of the American Dream. Rampant capitalism is starting to show some cracks, the consequences of the Vietnam war began to ripple throughout American society, and drug and sexual experimentation entered the scene. The Grateful Dead, and Jerry Garcia in particular embraced the winds of change and created a band that reflected an utopian, egalitarian, decentered, unstructured way of making music. Their music, in many ways was not only an artistic statement, but also a reflection of their own social and political views. They played as they lived. And Jerry Garcia became the unofficial priest of a small but powerful movement that began to sweep America for almost three decades.
As the documentary makes clear, Jerry was always uncomfortable with this designation as the leader of the band, or as the leader of any social or even musical movement. But nonetheless, a leader he became. What makes Jerry’s figure a tragic one is the way he ended up being destroyed by the monster he created. Like his love for the movie Frankenstein (a recurring reference in the documentary), he created life in the form of an unusual band, only to have his creation destroy him.
In her recent book, Consuming Religion, Kathryn Lofton talks about the intersection of celebrity and religion in America, and discusses the rise and fall of Britney Spears as a form of ritual sacrifice, product of our veneration of fame and celebrity. I know that some people may be appalled at the comparison of Jerry Garcia with Britney Spears, but I do think that Lofton’s argument about how we worship celebrities in America applies equally to both figures. For Lofton, in American culture
“celebrity functions as a component of a pantheon that exists to dramatize social concerns, endorse certain forms of normative behavior, and fulfill narrative fantasies of an inchoate, disconnected, and ostensibly secular public.” (p. 108)
Britney Spears and Jerry Garcia may have fulfilled very different (in fact, quite opposite) needs in the pantheon of American celebrities, Britney reflecting more mainstream concerns, while Jerry tried to challenge them, but to me, Lofton’s analysis of celebrity is applicable to both, particularly in the way both were consumed and sacrificed by their fans. They were sacrificed in the altar of fame. Like many gods in a wide variety of cultures, we worship in the altar of the gods, but we also demand their sacrifice. Lofton’s ideas of the sacrifice of celebrities as new gods for a secular age became incredibly resonant in the last episode of the documentary, “It Becomes Everything,” dedicated to the death of Jerry Garcia. The slow but steady rise to success of the Dead was parallel to the deification of Jerry transformed, in the eyes of his followers (his consumers) into a prophet, a Messiah, a shaman. In a moment of the documentary he is asked about his divine status among Dead fans only to respond “as long as they don’t come with nails and a cross, I can’t do anything about it.” But come they did, and his followers, the Deadheads, crucified him by demanding his constant touring, so he could be eternally worshipped and consumed. And died he did.
But as Lofton points out, there is no need to worry, we will find “new lambs for ritual slaughter” (p. 120), and we will rationalize the recurrent sacrifice of celebrities by casting “the victim as a savior and the event of his or her death as a donation, a sacrifice to a cause greater than his or her material self,” (p. 115). And that is the contradiction at the heart of our devotion to celebrities, we need them but we also (literally and metaphorically) consume them. Ultimately, it is not about them, our secular deities, it is about us, secular consumers.