Dead Heads and Utopians

-- Lookin’ for a Miracle, Deercreek, Indiana 1995

Last days of the Dead

Just a box of rain –
wind and water – Believe it if you need it,
if you don’t just pass it on
Sun and shower –
Wind and rain –
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

I was never a hippie. Much too young for that. Some people tried to call my peers Generation X, whatever that means. However, I became interested in the culture of the Grateful Dead in the early 90s.

In high school, some friends of mine were talking about the band like it was the second coming. They took off one night for the great land of Northern California fueled by myths of sexually free hippie women, good dope, transcendental music and the leader of all this: Jerry Garcia. One of my friend’s last words before he got into someone’s subcompact and disappeared from our suburban prison were, “don’t worry, I’ll get a miracle ticket, you’ll see.”

A couple years later I ended up at a show. We ventured across the great Central Valley and into the hills of Shangri-La aka the San Francisco Bay Area. It was winter. I had a cold. But later that evening the dancing women at the New Year’s show made it all good.

What made these suburban children of hippies follow this band all over the world? I can’t say. There are more than a thousand reasons. But these were kids on the move, seeking freedom, perhaps love, and, towards the end of this trip, mostly drugs. Mind you, all this was taking place in the shadow of the 80s with the “Just Say No” campaign, an AIDS epidemic that was killing people and our sex lives, and the often conservative politics of our suburban cages commonly called tract homes.

But, like America in the 80s, the Grateful Dead parking lot scene of the 90s became symbolic. What I mean is that getting high, feeling good, and making a buck to get on with one’s self seemed much more important than peace, love, and community. In fact, at the last show I saw, there was a riot – hundreds of Deadhead kids jumped a fence and the police gassed, beat and sicced dogs on them. Very unmellow. And then a few weeks later Jerry Garcia was dead. The 60s were over.

I made these images with 35mm SLR and color negative film. Growing up I’d seen all the photos of the 1960s reprinted in the resurrected Life Magazine and I had a fascination with mythology of the decade. I wanted to make some images like that for myself. I think a lot of kids my age wanted a lifestyle like that for themselves. This is the essence of a Simulacra (a copy of history that is better than what really existed to begin with) and we manifested the radical ideas of the 60s into a reality we could live.

I don’t think anyone ever told me or anyone else in my generation what a social experiment the hippies and all the truly radical movements of the 60s had been. All the adults seemed to be trying to forget but kids my age were trying to live out these utopian ideas. I saw this in the life of punks, deadheads, rainbow family members and participants of other dropout subcultures.

The materialist philosopher Slavoj Zizek said in an interview the 1990s were the truly utopian decade in American history and ended with the terrorist attack of 2001. I can half agree with Zizek except my understanding is that utopia is an existence that can’t exist – it is also an existence with no flaws. The radical lifestyles of the 90s both existed and at the same time were as flawed and destined to fail as any movement of the 60s. Perhaps, in retrospect, the underground subcultures 90s were as close to Utopia as any American generation of kids is likely to see.