Listen to The Dead

A Clash of Counter and Cancel Cultures?

A bronze of Jerry Garcia's hand at the Santa Barbara Bowl | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara.
The Grateful Dead.
Cancel Culture.
Robert E. Lee.
What could these things possibly have in common?
The statue of a hero.

Santa Barbarians are finally returning to our Santa Barbara Bowl to attend music concerts. As we walk up the path to our beloved Bowl, we’ll see a bronze statue of a right hand missing its middle finger. It’s Jerry Garcia’s hand. The statue’s been in the “Jerry Garcia Glen” since 2009. The reason the middle finger is missing is not because Jerry gave it to somebody, it’s because he lost it in an accident when he was four. That’s right — he did all his famous guitar playing with only three fingers. The guy was practically born a legendary guitar hero.

Popular culture celebrates its heroes and their behaviors in its social media, especially in music and lyrics; from Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” to Frozen’s “Let It Go,” our music has reflected the actions and attitudes of its time. Some songs inspire us forever — anyone want to cue up “We Are the Champions”? But some music fades when we realize its messages are reprehensible — there are not a lot of people singing Al Jolson’s “Mammy” anymore, unless you’re a Prime Minister of Canada or the Governor of Virginia. So what happens when our attitudes towards acceptable heroic behavior changes? That’s where Cancel Culture comes in: current society determines that past heroes didn’t act so … heroically, and consequently our endorsement of them needs to be amended.

Robert E. Lee was such a hero. Here’s a man who endorsed slavery, ordered Black women to be whipped for trying to escape his plantation, and then became the military leader of a confederacy determined to destroy the United States — talk about a hero embodying arrogant, misogynistic white male privilege! Yet this guy was honored with a gigantic statue which stood in downtown Richmond for 131 years. Which means they erected it 30 years after the Civil War. They knew exactly what kind of man they were celebrating.

Recently the statue was pulled down as a result of the effect of Cancel Culture. A lot of people did not agree with that decision, but most of them also don’t call it the Civil War. But they do remind us how subjective and changeable these cultural decisions can be. I mean, at one point, a lot of people thought the singing crows in Dumbo were funny.

Now — what if enough Santa Barbarians became convinced that the music of the Grateful Dead was socially unacceptable? Would we get out our ropes and pull down our Jerry Garcia statue? Of course not. Because this is Santa Barbara. We’d pay overtime to five city workers to cordon off the entire Glen area with yellow tape and then watch a sixth guy knock the statue over with a hammer. Because the statue is only 18 inches tall and weighs about 75 pounds.

Why is the statue there anyway? What’s Jerry Garcia’s connection to Santa Barbara? It goes all the way back to 1967 when The Dead played the Earl Warren Showgrounds with The Doors. That’s right. For $2.50 you could have seen Jerry and Jim. Jim was the iconoclast. Everyone knew that. Jerry was the icon. Everyone knew that too. He was as beloved as ice cream — in fact, Ben and Jerry named a flavor after him. Our town soon became a second home for his band — they played here eight more times in the next 10 years.

Courtesy Rick Doehring

People loved his band and followed The Dead on tour for years at a time creating a Dead Head culture which could be described as being laid-back, drug-using, and anti-authority — attitudes and actions which were inspired and re-enforced by their favorite band’s music and lyrics. Some historians see this as the beginning of what has become known as the Counter Culture.

In 1969, and for another $2.50, Santa Barbarians could have heard another iconic band whose music influenced generations of counterculturists when Santana co-headlined with The Dead. In his review in UCSB’s El Gaucho, Jack Evans wrote, “Whereas Santana’s music was like a rushing torrent cutting deep into the earth, [The] Grateful Dead’s sound created visions of the pool of eternal calm, high above the native earth. Their graceful flowing music permeated every object, letting everyone who was receptive experience an emotional ecstasy that cannot be forgotten.” Jack’s last line also cannot be forgotten — but he certainly describes how much a band can affect its audience.

Again — what if ideas expressed in their music — attitudes that would influence the thinking of millions of followers — seem reprehensible to a modern audience? Would Cancel Culture dare cancel Counter Culture? And what songs are we talking about here anyway?

Let’s take one of The Dead’s most iconic songs, “Friend of the Devil,” a song even the band thought was special — Robert Hunter, who co-wrote the song with John Dawson and Jerry Garcia, said that Friend of the Devil “ … was the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.” Define classic any way you want, but it’s certainly one of the most celebrated songs of all time, having been covered by over 50 artists including Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, Tom Petty, Lyle Lovett, and, as recently as 2016 by Mumford and Sons.

This song conveys such a distinct attitude and is such a product of its time, I wondered if anyone who had ever sung the song had actually listened to the lyrics, or questioned the hero’s behavior. What does the hero think? How does he act? Who does he inspire? Let’s find out. Let’s… Listen to The Dead.

Our hero sings:

“Got a wife in Chino and one in Cherokee.”

Okay – our hero admits he’s got two wives. So he’s an unapologetic bigamist. “First one says she’s got my child but it don’t look like me.”

“First one” – this guy doesn’t name his wives, he numbers them. And he refers to the child as “It”? Doesn’t even give the child a gender. And he mockingly dismisses the mother’s claim that the child is his, implying that she’s lying because the kid “don’t look like me” – behavior typical of a misogynist in denial.

But wait: he may have a sensitive side because he sings:

“Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night.”

Hold on. What kind of hero cries every night? Okay, maybe he’s just a really sensitive environmentalist. I mean, the world is going to hell and he does spend the night in a cave. So what are the two reasons he’s crying?

“The first one’s named sweet Anne-Marie, and she’s my heart’s delight.”

He just said he had two wives! Now he’s got another woman whom he describes as his “heart’s delight”? So he’s also an adulterer. AND he’s singing to someone he calls “Babe” – so he’s cheating on his cheating! Our hero has got to be better than this. Maybe we’ll get another clue about him from the other reason he cries away each lonely night. Let’s hope he’s crying for world peace.

“The second one is prison, Babe, the Sheriff’s on my trail; and if he catches up with me, I’ll spend my life in jail.”

Okay. So it’s not about world peace. He’s crying about spending his life in jail. So whatever he did was pretty serious. You don’t spend your life in prison for a misdemeanor. How serious? Well, the song started with this guy being chased by “twenty hounds”. I’m surprised any sheriff would even have 20 hounds. He must have borrowed some hounds from neighboring sheriffs. Which means this must be a very big deal – our guy is a serious felon. At the very least, he’s a bank robber. You don’t send 20 hounds after a pickpocket.

So our hero’s a bigamist, a misogynist, an adulterer, probably a bank robber, and  certainly a cry-baby. He needs some character references. So who’s he got?

“I ran into the Devil, Babe, he loaned me 20 bills.”

The Devil doesn’t just give you 20 bucks! You have to corrupt yourself by making a deal with him – usually by trading away your soul. So not only does our hero meet and greet an epically evil creature, he knows him well enough to get a loan from him. And he reiterates his infatuation with this immoral beast by endlessly repeating the phrase, “A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine”. He and the Devil are more than mere friends – they’re extended family. So much for our hero’s character references.

Maybe our guy’s smart – maybe that’s what redeems him. We have a very intelligent hero. So what are his escape plans? Where’s his destination?

“If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”

He’s going home? Wow – that should fool the Sheriff. Who would ever think to look for someone at their home? With or without 20 hounds. And arresting him shouldn’t be too difficult – this genius is planning on being asleep.

So that’s the hero of one of our culture’s most popular songs by one of our most beloved bands: he’s a morally corrupt, misogynistic, whining witless adulterous felon. In other words:

The song celebrates men who exploit white male privilege.

No wonder it’s still a hit.

And still being listened to. But should it be?

That’s the question we should ask ourselves as we walk by Jerry’s hand going up the hill on our way to the Bowl for our concert.

And maybe we should also ask:

What are we listening to tonight?


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