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Book Review: ‘They Know Everything About You’

Shortly after this review appears, Robert Scheer will celebrate his 79th birthday. In 2008, he told a large audience he was born the same year as John McCain, the GOP’s presidential candidate that year. “I’m not saying McCain is too old to be president,” he added. “But I lost my car keys three times this morning.”

Not that you’re likely to catch Scheer doddering around the house. In 2005, while many of his peers were composing their memoirs, Scheer helped create Truthdig, the award-winning news website he continues to direct. Since then, he has also written two astute books: The Pornography of Power (2008), about Pentagon budget excesses in the post 9/11 period; and The Great American Stickup (2010), which recounts the Wall Street meltdown, the effects of which continue to hamper the global economy.

Since his early years at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker, Scheer has worked the left side of the American political spectrum. He ran for office as a Democrat in 1966, but his recent books grind no partisan axes. To the contrary; they dramatize the bipartisan nature of those entirely preventable fiascos. Although many pundits have decried the failure of Democrats and Republicans to work together, Scheer has shown that when it comes to under-regulating Wall Street and overfunding the Pentagon, the major parties have cooperated all too well.

As a journalist and candidate in the mid-1960s, Scheer made a similar point about the bipartisan consensus on anticommunism and Vietnam. As a result, White House press secretary Bill Moyers anxiously monitored the vote tallies when Scheer almost unseated the congressional incumbent, an LBJ ally, in Oakland’s Democratic primary. We now know that the FBI and CIA investigated Scheer and his Ramparts colleagues despite rules against domestic espionage by the latter agency. In fact, much of what we know about CIA overreach during that period can be traced to whistleblower stories in Ramparts.

Now, a half-century later, Scheer has turned his attention to the digital world and its discontents. His new book probes data-collecting corporations, massive government surveillance, and the challenges they pose to our freedoms. Once again, Scheer finds that the two major parties are scarcely distinguishable; both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked with high-tech companies to create what the book calls “a brave new world of wired tyranny.”

Since 2001, we’ve known that the NSA was scooping up our telephone calls and digital communications. What we didn’t know was the extent to which high-tech companies were partners in that effort. That sector, of course, has always been part of the national security state; the Internet itself was the product of military-funded research. But until recently, most media coverage cast these firms as unwitting collaborators in the NSA’s project. Scheer counters that they were the trailblazers in amassing and analyzing private information. “Google is a mind-boggling financial success precisely because it breaches privacy more effectively than any enterprise before it in history,” he claims. “The NSA is piggybacking on Google rather than the other way around.”

Not all the corporate players in Scheer’s book are household names. He charts the fortunes of In-Q-Tel, the CIA-created venture capital firm designed to “identify, adapt, and deliver innovative technology solutions” for the intelligence community. He also reviews the history of Palantir, a Silicon Valley company formed to analyze the mountains of personal data collected by the CIA. Former CIA director George Tenet, who founded In-Q-Tel, and Condoleezza Rice have served as Palantir advisors, and Tenet received at least $2.3 million in stock and other compensation for his work with Palantir and three other firms. Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that U.S. intelligence agencies spent $52.6 billion in 2013 on what The Washington Post called “a bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny.” Given this lack of scrutiny, one wonders whether these companies are also identifying, adapting, and delivering innovative conflicts of interest.

When it comes to protecting customer privacy, the big Silicon Valley firms haven’t covered themselves in glory. In a 2013 court filing, Google claimed “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to a third party.” (In this case, the third party was Google.) Scheer also quotes the company’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, on the topic of privacy. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” he told an audience in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Taken together, these self-serving remarks suggest that expectations of customer privacy, which Google is breaching for profit, are illegitimate and misplaced.

Schmidt’s advice is also misleading. The desire to keep information private isn’t itself furtive; as the Fourth Amendment implies, the burden is always on those who wish to violate our privacy without sufficient cause — not on us to justify our conduct, even to ourselves. Finally, Schmidt’s comment overlooks a serious danger. For what if it’s a government agency, and not the customer, that’s doing something unseemly? Unfortunately, that scenario isn’t hypothetical. The government certainly didn’t want anyone to know about its indiscriminate snooping, but when a whistleblower exposed it in 2001, the NSA didn’t stop that activity as per Schmidt’s advice. Rather, it struggled to justify its mission, and Obama’s director of national intelligence eventually lied under oath to Congress about it.

Scheer is having none of it. “For democracy,” he claims in the book’s first sentence, “privacy is the ball game.” Without the liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments, both of which assume the importance of personal sovereignty, the American experiment is a hollow exercise. In contrast, the new surveillance state assumes that citizens “are all potential enemies of the government.” That assumption, in turn, has produced a bipartisan crusade “to turn the war on terror into a war on the public’s right to know.” To support his claim, Scheer devotes three chapters to the importance of whistleblowers — and to the rough treatment they typically endure. He also notes that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, which fails to distinguish them from genuine spies, than all previous administrations combined. Along the way, Scheer identifies several unlikely heroes, including Chief Justice John Roberts, whose “defense of privacy in the age of the Internet set as clear a standard on the subject as the nation has ever enjoyed through its judicial system.”

Although the underlying issues in Scheer’s book are far from new, technology has supercharged their significance. “No government has been more far-reaching and effective in invading the private space of the individual than our own,” Scheer concludes. Moreover, everything we have learned about that invasion “resulted not from the ordinary checks and balances of our political system but, rather, from the all-too-rare example set by a few brave truth tellers risking imprisonment or worse.” Though Scheer doesn’t say so, his point also reflects the limits of traditional journalism. Many Americans assume that news organizations will detect and report government misconduct. But even in its glory days, The Washington Post needed a whistleblower to uncover the Watergate story, and today’s news organizations are shedding jobs at an alarming rate, in part because the digital revolution has decimated their business model.

Scheer directs his argument to general readers, not to constitutional scholars or policymakers. A portion of this audience may regard privacy as obsolete, and some notable liberals consider Edward Snowden a cowardly traitor. Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor and columnist at The Nation, taunted Snowden on MSNBC in 2013, presumably in an effort to defend the Obama administration from its critics. Under such conditions, one wonders how we will address, much less solve, the systemic problems Scheer identifies. But by raising them so forcefully, he continues to perform the important work he began five decades ago.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: ‘The Utopia Of Rules’

What intense pleasure this book gave me, despite the dull topic: bureaucracy. My reading experience almost certainly reflected my surroundings. Book in hand, I spent seven hours next to a luggage carousel at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. My flights had been canceled, and my only goal was to reclaim my bag and return home. A battery of airline employees, bristling with devices, could tell me nothing about my bag’s location, though we all knew it was lying only yards away from us. The airline’s technology was surprisingly effective in other ways. For example, it automatically rebooked me on a flight I never wanted. As a result, my luggage arrived safely in Syracuse a few hours before I touched down in San Francisco. Only a cultural anthropologist could explain this system’s deep logic.

David Graeber is perhaps best known for Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), which became required reading for the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that book, Graeber showed that the standard explanation for the origins of money, rehearsed in dozens of economics textbooks, was a fairy tale. In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber similarly claims that the conventional wisdom about bureaucracy is misleading; although strongly associated with the public sector, today’s bureaucracies can’t be understood apart from the rise of the modern corporation. Noting that the right’s critique of bureaucracy has been extraordinarily successful, Graeber maintains that the left needs to develop a new way of talking about it. This set of loosely connected essays is an attempt to begin that conversation.

The book’s title is keyed to a major claim: that all bureaucracies are in some sense utopian insofar as they “propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.” To function, these schemes must ignore 98 percent of the social experience they’re designed to order. (In my case, a robot concluded that I should travel to Syracuse the day after my scheduled meeting.) This split between the map and the territory points to another one between the rational, technical means a bureaucracy employs and the irrational ends to which they are often put. The parade example might be U.S. policy in Vietnam, especially under the direction of uber-bureaucrats Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk; according to Norman Mailer, Rusk was “always a model of sanity on every detail but one: He had a delusion that the war was not bottomless in its lunacy.” But one can easily identify similar patterns in today’s private sector; for example, the countless efficiencies built into our industrial food system, whose overall rationality is questionable.

Graeber argues that we have entered the era of total (or predatory) bureaucratization. Characterized by advanced technology, a fusion of public and private power, and the state violence to maintain it, this new system is exceedingly wasteful, at least for the ordinary citizen. If you’ve ever retyped your entire résumé into a potential employer’s database, you have some inkling of its extravagance. But total bureaucratization, Graeber argues, is remarkably efficient at one thing — extracting profit. Based on the notion that paperwork creates value, it begins with “the irritating case worker determining whether you are really poor enough to merit a fee waiver for your children’s medicine,” and it ends with “men in suits engaged in high-speed trading of bets over how long it will take you to default on your mortgage.”

To support his analysis, Graeber returns to familiar turf: banking. Governments regulate banks in part because they determine the size of the money supply. Banks try to shape those regulations, and sometimes they capture the regulatory institutions themselves. But total bureaucratization goes beyond regulatory capture. Now when the government catches banks defrauding customers, it issues fines that represent only a fraction of the swag. No one goes to prison, even when the fraud is massive. Matt Taibbi (The Divide) and Brandon Garrett (Too Big to Jail) have documented this point and its obvious injustice. But Graeber argues that what appears to be a bug in the justice system is actually a feature. Noting that the government is essentially accepting a percentage of the corporation’s haul, he concludes that the relationship between the two organizations is symbiotic.

It was not always thus. Graeber shows how past bureaucracies have served important civic purposes. The post office, which began as an expansion of the military courier system, was once regarded as a marvel. Both in Europe and America, it accounted for half the government budget and more than half the civil service. Mark Twain celebrated the efficiency of the German post office, and Lenin wanted to organize the entire Soviet economy in its image. Now the object of right-wing attacks, the U.S. Postal Service is ceding ground to the Internet, but Graeber notes that the two have a great deal in common. Like the post office, the Internet was originally developed by the military, is rapidly reshaping everyday life, has a reputation for dazzling efficiency, and inspires utopian ideas about cooperative economies. Also like the post office, the Internet became a medium for unwanted communications and government surveillance.

Graeber concludes with a counterintuitive argument: that we secretly love bureaucracies. Like games, they are a utopia of rules: “Who hasn’t dreamed of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and — even more — where people who play by the rules can actually still win?” He contrasts games with play, which is more open ended and less rule governed; its appeal is complete, if sometimes frightening, freedom. Games and play in their pure forms are utopian fantasies, but the tension between the two is inevitable and potentially productive. As a kind of conceptual parallel, Graeber offers language, the quintessential human faculty, which is both rule governed and endlessly playful.

The upshot of Graeber’s analysis could be clearer. The body of the book ends on a decidedly pessimistic note:

[I]n this particular case, and in this larger political-economic context, where bureaucracy has been the primary means by which a tiny percentage of the population extracts wealth from the rest of us, they have created a situation where the pursuit of freedom from arbitrary power ends up producing more arbitrary power, and as a result, regulations choke existence, armed guards and surveillance cameras appear everywhere, science and creativity are smothered, and all of us end up finding increasing percentages of our day taken up in the filling out of forms.

For his suggestions on how to proceed, readers must return to the introduction, where he offers the Global Justice Movement — which was perhaps most visible at the 1999 World Trade Meeting in Seattle — as a starting point.

A senior colleague once observed that professors came in two types: field mice and parachutists. The former works a small patch of ground intensively, while the latter lands in a different place with each jump. Graeber is a first-class parachutist. His discussion floats freely between social theory and science fiction, state formation and superheroes, modern anthropology and blockbuster films. Field mice will no doubt object that he has misconstrued some feature of the terrain; such objections come with the territory, as it were. But when you’re chained to a luggage carousel, there’s nothing quite like a fresh vista, and The Utopia of Rules is brimming with those.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.

Photo: Christian Schnettelker via Flickr

Book Review: ‘Becoming Richard Pryor’

In the 1970s, my politically conservative father kept a small collection of comedy albums in our suburban home near Berkeley. I’m not sure how — my oldest brother may know better — but a Richard Pryor album appeared and went into heavy rotation. Craps (After Hours) was raucous and exhilarating. I still recall several outrageous bits, but Pryor’s sensibility also made a powerful impression on me. Profound irreverence, I gathered at the ripe old age of 12, was an acceptable social posture, even for adults. When reinforced by that period’s iconoclastic literature and film, Pryor’s influence almost unfit me for life in America — or most of it, anyway — during the Age of Reagan that would soon follow.

The geography in this case turns out to be important. As I learned from Scott Saul’s adroit biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, Pryor repaired to Berkeley for most of 1971 to find (or rather, to reinvent) himself. Pryor had already learned standup comedy in Greenwich Village, migrated to Los Angeles, and flopped in Las Vegas. His model was Bill Cosby, but he finished shedding that influence in Berkeley. His home base was Alan Farley’s one-bedroom apartment near campus, not far from where police scattered tear gas one week before.

Farley worked at KPFA, the nation’s first listener-sponsored radio station, and he scheduled standup gigs and a radio program for his guest. Pryor caught the eye of Ralph J. Gleason, the Berkeley resident and San Francisco Chronicle critic who also wrote for Ramparts magazine and co-founded Rolling Stone. Gleason praised Pryor as “the very best satirist on the night club circuit.” Much later, Pryor would reject comparisons to Lenny Bruce, whose comedy albums featured Gleason’s liner notes. But much like Bruce, Pryor’s post-Berkeley persona was profane, scathingly honest, and deeply political. That was the Richard Pryor I heard on Craps (After Hours), and he was amazing.

An English professor at the University of California, Saul shares the Berkeley connection. His previous book documents the efforts of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and others to navigate cultural crosscurrents and create new musical possibilities in the 1960s. Becoming Richard Pryor nudges Saul’s readers closer to the present, but it doesn’t try to depict Pryor’s entire life; in fact, the epilogue treats everything from June 1980, when Pryor lit himself on fire after five days of cocaine and alcohol abuse, to his death in 2005. Saul focuses instead on Pryor’s artistic formation. Thus the book’s title, which echoes Bob Newhart’s comment that after the debacle in Las Vegas, “Richard Pryor decided to become Richard Pryor.”

Who was Richard Pryor before that? A damaged child, mostly. His paternal grandmother, who raised him, also ran a brothel in the thriving vice district of Peoria, Illinois. His mother lived elsewhere, his father was a violent pimp, and his stepmother turned tricks. It wasn’t the sort of childhood that Bill Cosby had turned into comedy gold, but Saul shows how Pryor’s Peoria experience shaped his outlook, art, and turbulent personal life.

After his Berkeley sojourn, Pryor returned to Los Angeles and landed a tiny role in Lady Sings the Blues, the Billie Holiday biopic. During the shoot, his part expanded steadily until he was billed as a supporting actor. That pattern, which hinged on Pryor’s knack for stealing scenes with improvised dialog, was repeated in several other pictures. After that film wrapped, Mel Brooks recruited him to work on Blazing Saddles. Pryor, a lifelong Lash LaRue fan, wanted the role of Black Bart that eventually went to Cleavon Little. The stumbling block was Pryor’s reputation as a drug fiend. He worked on the screenplay, but many of his best lines were cut from the film. After Bart bunks with Lily von Shtupp (played by Madeline Kahn), he is asked how his evening went. “I don’t know,” Pryor had Bart reply, “but I think I invented pornography.”

Pryor didn’t appear with Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles, but the two worked together on Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. In the former, Pryor’s limited role again grew into a substantial one. His improvisations sparked the film’s signature scene, in which Pryor applies blackface to Wilder, coaches him on his African-American disguise, and manages to skewer Hollywood’s minstrel tradition. Stir Crazy, the unofficial sequel, was the third-highest grossing film of 1981.

In the early 1980s, Saul maintains, “the future of Hollywood itself was bound up with the riddle of [Pryor’s] appeal.” The studios would solve that riddle by favoring blockbusters over what Saul calls “a certain sort of ‘1970s movie’ that sat uneasily within its supposed genre.” Pryor’s work after his self-ignition was unremarkable, and even his best roles couldn’t showcase the range and insight he displayed in his standup work. Even so, Saul makes a strong case that Pryor’s screen and television work created the necessary room for Eddie Murphy, In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show, and Key and Peele to flourish.

Pryor’s severe burn and recovery calmed his spirit, but his health deteriorated steadily after his 1986 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Seven years later, he launched a farewell tour that focused on his life with the disease. A boxed set of his standup work appeared in 2000, and he died of a heart attack five years later. He was only 65, but much of his best work was already three decades old. In the epilogue, Saul marshals the expected tributes. Bob Newhart said Pryor was “the single most seminal comedic influence in the past 50 years,” Chris Rock named him “the Rosa Parks of comedy,” and Mel Brooks called him “the funniest comedian of all time.”

To measure Pryor’s achievement, Saul considers him as a comic, social critic, and crossover artist. Longtime friend and colleague Paul Mooney summarized Pryor’s social criticism with a single epithet: Dark Twain. But it was Pryor’s work as a crossover artist, Saul argues, that is “probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated aspect of his career.” If his television and film work couldn’t accommodate his range and depth, it was nevertheless true that his success changed an industry that largely kept black talent in a media ghetto. In his life as well as his work, Saul argues, Pryor was “crossing over” from the time he emerged, twisted but not broken, from Peoria’s red-light district. In this superb biography, Saul expertly traces those transgressions and makes the strongest possible case for Pryor’s cultural centrality.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His new book, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, was an Amazon Best Book of the Month in history and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Richardson’s history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism.

Weekend Reader: ‘No Simple Highway: A Cultural History Of The Grateful Dead’

Released on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Grateful Dead, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead is a comprehensive history of the California rock band. Author (and National Memo contributor) Peter Richardson’s new book is a passionate and canny exploration of the group’s impact and an assessment of their legacy as “one of the counterculture’s most distinctive and durable institutions.”

As the following passage makes clear, Richardson places the Grateful Dead in a larger social context, treating the band — and its fervently loyal fans — not as curiosities on the fringes of American culture, but inextricably linked with it, as an influence on and reflection of the strange, turbulent decades in which they reigned.

You can purchase the book here.

Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia turned out to be an unwilling conscript in President Ronald Reagan’s drug war. By January 1985, Garcia’s drug use was so disabling that band manager Jon McIntire arranged an intervention. Garcia agreed to receive treatment, but while driving to the rehabilitation center in Oakland, he stopped in Golden Gate Park to finish off his drug supply. A police officer noticed the car was unregistered, approached Garcia’s parked BMW, and found Garcia trying to hide his stash of heroin and cocaine. Garcia’s lawyer argued that he should be sent to counseling sessions, which he attended with Grace Slick. Garcia continued to use drugs, and his health declined alarmingly. His weight ballooned to 300 pounds, and edema swelled his ankles to the point that his trousers needed to be cut. He began to diet and exercise, but the real wakeup call arrived with his 1986 coma.

Garcia’s arrest was a trifle in the drug war, but Reagan’s vision was, among other things, a repudiation of the Dead’s larger project. This much was clear to Ken Kesey. “The war is not on drugs, the war is on consciousness,” he told Paul Krassner. “Nobody has the right to come in and mess with your inside. They don’t have any right tell me what to do inside my head, any more than they have any right to tell women what to do inside their bodies. What’s inside is ours, and we’ve got a right to fight for it.” But the war on drugs was only part of the tension between Reagan’s vision and the Dead’s. What Dennis McNally called the Dead Head culture’s “hedonistic poverty” was also a rejection of Reagan’s cultural politics, just as Jack Kerouac’s “barbaric yawp” (a phrase Time magazine borrowed from Walt Whitman) and Allen Ginsberg’s howl responded to the age of Eisenhower.

In some ways, too, the Dead community’s response to Reagan was a skirmish over who would control the symbols of the American frontier. The Dead had moved on from their High Cowboy period, but their image was linked firmly to their western provenance and repertoire. Meanwhile, the Reagan team skillfully presented him as a man of the American West: riding horses, clearing brush on his ranch, and appearing on the cover of Time magazine in a cowboy hat. As an actor, Reagan had appeared in many westerns and television’s Death Valley Days. But even in private, Reagan adopted a distinctly western register. One Secret Service agent noted that Reagan sunbathed at his pool with a reflector every day at 2 p.m., no matter how busy his staff was. “That might seem like a vain, sissy thing to do,” the agent said, “but Reagan had this cowboy way of describing it. He said he was getting ‘a coat of tan.’”

Even President Reagan’s grooming habits contrasted sharply with the Dead’s. Although Reagan was three decades older than the grizzled Garcia, he had no touches of grey at all. According to Nancy Reagan’s unofficial biographer, the Clairol company paid a celebrity hairdresser $20,000 per week to fly to Washington and color her hair; while he was there, he also touched up President Reagan’s grey roots. To the end, however, the Reagan team denied the charge. “He never dyed his hair,” White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver claimed. “He had that wet look, and when I finally got the Brylcreem away from him, people stopped writing about him dying his hair.”

The Dead didn’t orchestrate a response to Reagan, but in the summer 1984 issue of The Golden Road, a Grateful Dead fanzine, Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon exhorted Dead Heads to register and vote against the incumbent. “Dead Heads have a reputation of being apolitical,” the couple wrote, “and there’s no question that many of you have taken your cue on the issue from members of the band, who have professed their utter contempt for the political process through the years.” Even so, the couple maintained, it was important to note that Reagan was dangerous, and that his policies would have “two great superpowers clawing at each as they never have before.” After noting Walter Mondale’s commitments to a nuclear freeze, the environment, and the Equal Rights Amendment, they directly addressed the Dead community’s resistance to electoral politics. “Voting doesn’t make you any less cool, nor does it mean you’re endorsing a political system you think is completely out of touch with the people,” they wrote. “Think for a second how Reagan has changed America already. This could well be the most important election of your lifetime.” They closed with an apology if their “political rap” offended anyone’s sensibilities and offered to publish other viewpoints in the subsequent issue.

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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 lyricist Robert Hunter’s first verse of “Touch of Grey” 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.

Garcia contributed the second line, which echoed Adlai Stevenson’s 1962 comment about Eleanor Roosevelt, who would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.” But for Hunter’s world-weary speaker, who resembles Garcia during the darkest days of his addiction, the harsh morning light is as bothersome as the unnamed critic.

I see you’ve got your list out
Say your piece and get out
Yes, I get the gist of it
But it’s all right.

The speaker then refracts another bit of sunny optimism through the prism of jaded middle age.

Sorry that you feel that way
The only thing there is to say
Every silver lining’s got a
Touch of grey.

The utopian exuberance of the 1960s is nowhere in sight; instead, the speaker embraces the more modest goal of trying “to keep a little grace.” But even that is a challenge, as the next 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 assurances that all is well only highlight the problems. But instead of surrendering to this dystopian scene, he promises to endure: “I will get by/I will survive.” That vaunt was a far cry from the Dead’s utopian ideals, but a simple pronoun change in the final chorus (“We will get by/We will survive”) transformed the song into an anthem. Every Dead Head knew there was a world of difference between I and we, especially during hard times. After Garcia recovered, the Dead performed in Oakland, and that message resonated powerfully with the crowd. As Garcia swung into the final chorus, Joel Selvin wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle review, “the ecstatic convocation of Dead Heads assembled Monday at the Oakland Coliseum Arena went wild with cheers.” The most cherished ideal of all, community, would survive Ronald Reagan, scourge of the hippies.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Excerpt from No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson. Copyright © 2014 Peter Richardson and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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