James Parker, a contributing editor to The Atlantic magazine, is one of the best writers of cultural criticism working today. I subscribe to The Atlantic partly because I know I’ll get a scatter shot of weird imagery, little known facts, untwisted spin, and, usually, surprising empathy and insight from him. In the past year he’s written intelligent and entertaining criticism on everyone and everything from Glenn Beck, “Game of Thrones,” the band R.E.M., and the Goosebumps books. His R.E.M. piece in particular demonstrates his sophisticated drive to get at the deep meaning always embedded in popular culture.
The new Atlantic just arrived at my house yesterday and once again Parker’s talent is presented as he gives us his essay, “A Long, Strange Trip: How a new 14-DVD box set turned me on to the Dead.” It’s my favorite James Parker yet. He admits from the outset that he could care less for The Dead. “I had an aural impression of the Dead sound, of course — a thin, rootsy flutter, rather anemic vocals and strangely at odds (it seemed to me) with the band’s reputation for freak-out and mind-blow.”
But Parker’s assignment was to do a piece on the new 14-DVD set called All the Years Combine. He is game. Working his way from the 1974 footage that became The Grateful Dead Movie, he dives in and comes up with a lot of interesting observations about the band and their legion of followers. Most profound, I think, is his new understanding of the sadness and pain that guitarist Jerry Garcia exhibits beginning around 1980. Parker dissects the lyrics (and how Garcia sings them) of one of the group’s most beloved jam songs, “Fire on the Mountain,” pointing to “not just a study in but an enactment of complete artistic burnout.” Almost ablaze still you don’t feel the heat/It takes all you got just to stay on the beat.
“I knew there had to be a low in there somewhere. Drug-tingles and swoopy dancing will only get you so far,” he writes.
I have to say, personally, “Far out, man. That’s a new one. I never, ever thought of anything the bozos did as sad.”
Parker’s writing is astounding in this article. I highly recommend the read just to watch a master at work turning words into a kind of pop poetry that makes you feel like he’s slapping your back and writing slogans on your sternum at the same time.
One last thing before I give you the link: Near the end of the article Parker seems to get it. He talks about The Dead’s sound as “availability to the thing, whatever the thing might be.” I like the wording. Using the word availability is a subtle but sophisticated acknowledgement of the magic of being part of Grateful Dead culture. What he doesn’t know, though, is that actually participating in a Grateful Dead concert always meant becoming available to the thing — and getting it. Dead Heads know what I’m talking about. Parker probably does, too, even if he doesn’t know it.
You can read James Parker’s essay, “A Long, Strange Trip,” HERE. Find a list of his Atlantic articles HERE.
The box set “All the Years Combine,” costs $99.99 and can be found at the Dead.net store HERE.