Academia goes on the road with Dead A HEAD TRIP

July 13, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

The Grateful Dead will set up shop in R.F.K. Stadium in Washington Saturday and Sunday. Jerry Garcia will be there to do his cosmic guitar noodling. The traveling sideshow of fans and hangers-on will be out in full force.

And Alan R. Lehman, Ph.D., will be sitting behind a card table in the parking lot trying to make sense of it all.

He will be doing extensive interviews with fans of the band, trying to find some correlation between their self-esteem and their interest in the Dead.

Sure, it's been a long, strange trip for the Dead, but which factors contribute to its length and strangeness? That is the question for Dr. Lehman and a growing army of academic researchers determined to analyze the phenomenon that is the Grateful Dead. It's hard to summarize the findings, except to say they're as eclectic as the band's rock-blues-country-psychedelic music:

* A professor at the University of Louisville compares "Dark Star," an obscure Dead song, to 15th-century masses in a discussion of Umberto Eco and aesthetic transcendence.

* A graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook makes the case for Grateful Dead concerts as secular ritual.

* And earlier this spring, Dr. Lehman made history by earning the first Ph.D. for research into the band.

His sociology dissertation at the University of Maryland College Park, "Music as Symbolic Communication: The Grateful Dead and Their Fans," attempts to identify which factors contribute to fans' devotion.

For Dr. Lehman, who has seen about 125 of the band's free-flowing shows in the last 14 years, the dissertation topic neatly tied his interest in the Dead with his expertise in computer-driven research.

"I just did it because it's something I wanted to do," says the 37-year-old Dr. Lehman.

Social scientists and other academics -- many of whom came of age listening to the band -- have latched onto the Grateful Dead and its 30-year tradition of unpredictable music and eclectic audiences.

"I think it's as legitimate a subject of study as a cultural phenomenon as any," says Dennis McNally, the band's spokesman, who himself earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation on writer Jack Kerouac. "It's a very rich subculture."

Members of the band, he adds, are only vaguely aware of the academic investigations.

Their concerts, heavy on improvisation, stretch out for three, four, sometimes five hours and are pure bliss to fans and a must-miss for the many others who don't quite get it.

The band encourages fans to tape shows, even providing an audio feed to guarantee good recordings. Tapes are copied and traded around the country.

No two Dead concerts have the same song list, so a database carefully compiled over almost 30 years lists every song the band has played and in which order. You want to know how many times the Dead played "China Cat Sunflower" followed by "I Know You Rider"? No problem.

Some hardcore fans trail after the band across the country. A small, mysterious group known as "spinners" -- after their dancing style -- have developed something of a religion out of the Dead experience. The Wharf Rats, a group of recovering alcoholics, hold support group meetings at concerts.

Then there are the band's talismans, ranging from slightly eerie skeletons to cuddly dancing bears, that identify fans to one another.

On the Internet, the band's fans trade in Dead trivia, tickets and philosophy -- speculating on the meaning of songs and assessing the health of Mr. Garcia, the Dead's spiritual guru. Phone lines update fans on Dead activities and at least two magazines are devoted to the band.

Now, Dead fans in academia are writing serious papers about their studies of the phenomenon.

"All of the people who originally became interested in the music now are my age," says Bill Gillespie, a 47-year-old communications professor at Georgetown College in Kentucky who wrote a paper on the Dead community and the code it uses to define itself. "These people are all in a position of responsibility."

Dr. Gillespie presented his paper at a panel of Grateful Dead scholars at a conference of the International Association for Semiotic Studies in Berkeley, Calif., last month.

That this music group inspires its own panel at a conference on signs and language is another testament to the band's distinctiveness.

A labor of love

Overall, academics are producing "tons and tons of these projects" on the band, says Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Dr. Adams holds a special place in the world of Grateful Dead academia. In 1989, she led 23 students to eight of the band's concerts to do for-credit field research into the Dead and its culture.

Now she is writing a book on the intense relationships Dead Heads form with each other following the band across the country. "I've totally immersed myself in the subculture," she says. "A day doesn't go by that I don't talk to somebody."

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