VINE VOICEon 8 August 2010
This is a surprisingly brilliant series of essays. At least it surprised me. I expected it to be fanszine airhead material, but it's very much better than that. The Grateful Dead have become iconic in a new dimension: as management gurus, and from these essays you can understand why. Inevitably, many leading business figures became fans of the Grateful Dead, or Deadheads, when they were younger. The band that is said to be "beyond description" has also become the ultimate inspiration for Apple, Yahoo!, Google and others in the territory where digital technology crosses over with creativity (a number of books on this subject is scheduled for publication in 2011).
The Grateful Dead created an extraordinary mythology but more importantly an entirely different business model to go with their unique music, a compote blended from rock, jazz, Indian Raga, bluegrass, blues, country, skittle and more. They are noted for extemporisation, with everyone playing together (and not as soloists one by one as so frequently in jazz), often playing the more than 10 or 20 minutes on one track and indeed morphing from one song into another. They achieved an extraordinary degree of community in their playing, a creative team phenomenon that is an inspiration to modern corporations. "Dynamic synchronicity" is how Barry Barnes, professor of leadership at the Wayne Huizenga School of business and entrepreneurship in Florida, describes the band's energy. At the same time, this pattern rarely fitted commercial record publication but a huge fan base followed them from their early days in the 1960s as they toured, often performing 50 gigs a year. Whereas most other bands used performances to promote records, for the Dead performances and merchandise were the primary financial source.
Their approach to this was also different, stemming from their early experiences in the hippie world of the Acid Tests, where they were the resident band. Since they "were not in it for the money" they made arrangements for their fans to record and video their concerts and also to be able to sell their own merchandise as a means to fund a lifestyle as a Deadhead. This is clearly a counterintuitive move, but then so much of the recent business models have been equally counterintuitive and following similar patterns.
They also resisted having any leader. Jerry Garcia was widely credited as the spiritual genius of the band (and brilliant guitarist) but he never took charge and indeed at a certain level no one did. What developed was an entire community in which the band was just one member. Members of the crew had leading positions in the Grateful Dead Corporation and the creative and operational during community included almost 100 people including its own resident lyricist. The fans -- the customers -- became part of this extended community, many travelling with their own commercial operations along with the band.
So much for the background, these are some very exciting essays, which while you would benefit from knowing the music and the songs, still I think work well without. There's a section on the culture of the Dead, describing the world of the parking lot -- where the business took place -- and it beautifully elucidates the thinking that is inspiring leaders today, from the nature of creativity to property ownership to community development.
But the essays go much broader. One by Johannes Bulhof is the most elegant and enjoyable refutation of philosopher Thomas Hobbes that I've come across, simply by exploring the meaning of the narrative song Me and My Uncle. Others from this same section on ethical questions consider Buddhism from the perspective of the Dead, and not surprisingly death, and hope. Other themes in the book include epistemology, metaphysics, the nature of tragedy, love, the Dionysian and Nietzsche.
I enjoyed a moving and insightful essay on wildness connecting the philosophy of the Dead with that of Henry David Thoreau and the poetry of Snyder. As in many of the essays, a particular song is taken as the departure for the commentary, in this case "Throwing Stones". The line by line exegesis not only deepens the appreciation of the poetry of the song ("Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free,/Dizzy with eternity./Paint it with a skin of sky, brush in some clouds and sea,/Call it home for you and me.") that also provides a brilliant perspective on deep ecology and the nature and value of wildness. Again, it is wildness that belongs not only in the woods but also the wildness that belongs to the healthy heart of civilisation and individuals, which corporations and communities need. Thomas Watson Jr, the leader of the button-down brigade that was IBM talked about the necessity for wild ducks in the organisation. For without what the Dead stood for we all become dead.