Has any American rock band ever been so simultaneously beloved and reviled as The Grateful Dead? To many outsiders, the band’s endless touring and the insular, smelly tribe of fans following them from town to town was a pathetic exercise in pointless nostalgia—Civil War re-enactments, only with amps, tie-dye, and hallucinogens. But while there have been plenty of Dead books aimed at the faithful, novelist and prose poet Peter Conners directs Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions Of A Teenage Deadhead—his examination of and adamant non-apology for his former lifestyle—at general readers.
Conners, a self-described “nice white suburban kid” from Pittsford, New York, first encountered the Dead as a 16-year-old stoner bored by ’80s pop music. He attended his first show (at Ontario’s Kingswood Music Theatre in June 1987) less than two months before “Touch Of Grey” became an unexpected MTV smash, and dropped out of college his freshman year to follow the band full-time. Though the continuing swell of newbies after “Touch” eventually took its toll (“By the early ’90s, even the best efforts of Heads to police each other were coming up short”), Conners dove in deep: living in a beat-up van, selling juggling sticks and marijuana, pursuing a peripatetic relationship with the woman he eventually married.
It’s no surprise that Conners can be fannish, especially describing the Dead’s music: “True to form, Bobby [Weir] went off on ‘Estimated [Prophet]’ in Kingswood with his amazing vocal contortions dancing the fine line between brilliance and madness.” What’s most valuable about Growing Up Dead is how easily Conners delineates the Deadhead mindset. He lays out the dancing ritual, from claiming the right spot—“You know there are hallway speakers at this venue… None of you needs to be inside the arena proper—as you say, you know what the band looks like, why bother?”—to minting the right vibe with fellow concertgoers. He’s also good on the many, sometimes subtle ways this seemingly formless scene forms its own definite hierarchies, as when one of his crew—Shasta, who owns the bus Conners tours in—eventually graduates to the ultra-inner circle of Rainbow Deadheads. Growing Up Dead is a mixed bag, but an admirable one, not unlike The Grateful Dead itself.