We were out of the country for much of July, coming back the day after the Country Fair ended. So for the first time in three years, I didn't go, and you, Gentle Readers, were spared a long navel-gazing post about hippies. Time for a break anyway, though.
But then I saw Sunshine Daydream a few days ago. This is a movie made about a Grateful Dead concert in 1972. The concert has been legendary among Dead fans ever since, in the sense that it has circulated widely and been widely hailed as one of their best shows ever (The Deadhead's Taping Compendium makes a serious case, over several pages, for it as a religious experience). The film has also been legendary, but in a different sense: it was never released, and most Heads have only known it as a rumor, or as a grainy multi-generational VHS dub, or youtube of same. More myth than reality. But the Dead's organization have finally cleaned it up, remastered it, and are releasing both the audio of the show and a DVD of the movie, and to plug it they did a satellite simulcast of the film to theaters around the country this past week on Jerry's birthday.
It so happens that this show took place in Veneta, at the site of what was then a Renaissance Fair, which later became the Oregon Country Fair. So seeing this film in Springfield (at the only local theater receiving it) meant that I was seeing it in the company, not just of a lot of Eugene's trademark hippies, but of people who had been there, and seeing it as close as you could get to where it happened. And of course I've been to the Fairgrounds, stood on that field, thought to myself, this is where it happened. Hell, when we moved here I was even excited to realize that Nancy's Yogurt is an actual ongoing thing (and it's pretty damn good yogurt, too).
So, you know, if I couldn't make it to the OCF this year, this was the next best thing, and maybe in some ways better, in terms of getting my annual dose of hippie wannabe nostalgia...
It turns out to be a pretty great film.
The actual filming is a little variable - the footage of "Sing Me Back Home," the last song, gets kind of unwatchable because it was getting dark and the filmmakers didn't have the right film or lighting equipment. The interspersal of 1966 performance footage, and Furthur bus film, is interesting but was utterly baffling to the uninitiated (such as Mrs. Sgt. T), because totally unexplained, just dropped in without warning. And the animation in the middle of "Dark Star" is interesting, but ultimately not quite as interesting as it would have been to just keep showing us the band.
On the other hand it captures the eventness of the event pretty well (I say, not having been there). It makes you feel the heat, and at the same time the lushness of the Veneta countryside, and the utter freedom of the scene. Which is maybe a euphemism for saying it has a lot of naked hippies dancing in a field under the sun near some trees. A lot. And when it comes right down to it, if that sounds fun to you, you'll probably like this film. And if not, not.
But as much as I liked that aspect of the film (and I did indeed, in spite/because of the fact that I wouldn't have had the courage to get naked and dance myself), it's the music, and the way the music is presented, that makes it worth seeing.
Here too there are limitations - only a couple of shots of Keith Godchaux, for example, which broke my heart because he's clearly audible on the soundtrack, playing brilliantly. The filmmakers caught the other members, though, and show them playing - long, nicely focused shots of players playing. Sometimes we get their fingers, and if I was a guitar player I'm sure that would please me; other times we just get their faces, which in some ways is more interesting, because I can't help but wonder what it would feel like to be able to play like that. But often we get several members at once, and that's where we get the magic of ensemble playing, right there on screen. You can see them nodding at each other, grimacing or smiling at what the others are doing, signalling each other.
Or, more tellingly, not signalling each other. The musical high point is, of course, the "Dark Star," a magnificent piece of ensemble playing. Utterly musical - if your image of the Dead is of aimless noodling, then, well, let's just say you're way wrong, and this "Dark Star" might show you why. It's jamming, mostly without vocals, but always with a purpose, always with a direction - they're not just drifting, they're moving through a succession of musical moods and settings with careful attention to what they're doing now, and a good sense of where they might go next. It's anything but stagnant.
And it's also, in true Dead fashion, anything but lead-and-comping. They're all soloing at once - Jerry's lines can sound like a lead guitar, but often only in the sense that he's providing the most obvious musical anchor, giving everybody else the freedom to embroider even more creatively. And when they move, they all move together, without missing a beat or a shade or a grace note. And that's where the film is so brilliant, because for long minutes of this "Dark Star" (when it's not weird animation), we're watching the band, and we realize that they're not really watching each other. No one of them is catching the others' eyes, giving directions, signalling. They're just listening to each other, and that's enough. It's really phenomenal. And of course it's something any Deadhead knows the band could do. But I've never seen it caught visually so well.
I doubt anybody who doesn't already get the Dead could make it through this film. Which is a shame, because more than any other, I think it shows why those of us who love them for their music (as opposed to What They Represented, or whatever) love them.
So I saw that Thursday night, and most of the day Friday I was still in this great glow, having seen my annual quota of naked dancing hippies, having remembered (after a few weeks of not really listening to them) why I love the Dead, and having come to a deeper appreciation of how very right it feels to me that I've come to live in this place.
And then I read this. Some background. That blog is one I read regularly. It's maybe my third or fourth morning read. And what sets it apart, for me, is that author's particular point of view - his subject position, to use a dated piece of academic parlance. He's a solid leftist with a particular interest in and sympathy for labor unions, an interest that manifests itself in his work as a historian of the labor movement in this country but that has its roots, as he frequently reminds us, in his upbringing in the very working-class town of Springfield, Oregon. To me that's all to the good: not only does he provide me food for thought from a congenial political point of view, not only does he educate me on aspects of the left that I'm not as familiar with as I should be, but he helps me better understand the community I live in (even though he doesn't live here anymore). Cool.
But God, what a dick he's being in that post, right? And more so in the comments. Now, I get it: there are cultural tensions between Eugene and Springfield that pretty neatly mirror the major cultural tensions in the American left as a whole. Intellectual vs. working class, environment vs. industry, college vs. factory (or sawmill), New Left vs. Old Left. Spotted owls vs. loggers. Hippies vs. blue-collars. And I'm entirely willing to allow that Loomis might have scars from his childhood here; we all carry that kind of baggage. So I can forgive him being a dick, a troll (it's his blog, right), and whatever.
I'm more saddened by how ready we on the Left are to break into warring tribes: it's the old circular firing squad, the Fractured Left meme, and it's exactly what They want us to be doing. Which we know - even Loomis knows it, or I should say especially him, because he's out there fighting the good fight, trying to remind the Left what it has spent the last few decades forgetting, that it doesn't win without labor, and in fact that labor rights are human rights.
United we stand, in other words. But all that goes by the board when there's a chance to point and laugh at hippies. I've never understood this. I've seen it for decades, from precisely the people who should know better. I spent part of my sophomore year in high school in an ongoing argument with a punk girl, trying to convince her that hippies weren't the enemy, that we were all on the same side, had more in common than not, that we'd be better off allying to fight the real enemy. Never worked. So we get people like Loomis, who, instead of welcoming people to the Left no matter what their motivation, or failing that, instead of, you know, live and let live, points and laughs. Like a dick.
Because that's all he's doing, is pointing and laughing. There's no reasoned argument in there that X political approach is ineffective, or that Y lifestyle is actually pernicious in some way; there can't be reasoned argument, because he's not bothering to address any actual thing. He just says "hippies," and the other bullies all know what he means.