Listening for the Secret: The Grateful Dead and the Politics of Improvisation
By Ulf Olsson, with Introduction by Nicholas G. Meriwether

by Ulf Olsson

Introduction by Series Editor Nicholas G. Meriwether

Although the Grateful Dead came of age during the countercultural zenith of the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, they have attracted academic interest for most of their career, with dozens of articles, chapters, and anthologies devoted to exploring their music, lyrics, fans, and cultural impact. The University of California Press series Studies in the Grateful Dead builds on that work, providing a forum for high-level scholarly inquiry from a range of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. With an editorial broad comprised of leading scholars and an advisory board that includes the band and longtime associates, Studies on the Grateful Dead represents a landmark achievement in popular music scholarship.


By Ulf Olsson 

One more book about the Grateful Dead!? Two years ago, the band’s fiftieth anniversary was marked by a flood of books and several farewell shows. This year, it is fifty years since the “Summer of Love,” meaning more books, more exhibits, more talks. Obviously, both the band and that summer were important cultural phenomena, still worthy of engagement today. The summer was short-lived, as summers are – but the Grateful Dead persevered to become the perhaps single most important aspect of the counter-culture.

Everyone who has written a book on the Grateful Dead has probably done so for personal reasons, and that is certainly true of me. I love this music – but I have never gone on tour following the band around America. I have never collected tapes of their shows. And I prefer to be sober when listening to the band’s music. But I wanted to find out what it was that so fascinated me; I have, after all, been a fan since at least 1970, and from faraway Sweden. To me, the Grateful Dead became a political phenomenon, even though band members stubbornly referred to the band as absolutely “apolitical.” In a sense, they were right; the band did not take political stands on anything and everything. But the Dead did perform a powerful political function, which we can understand if we think of politics not as red or blue states, not as Democrats and Republicans, not as ideologies. Politics as practiced by the Grateful Dead meant the forming of a community. A flexible, constantly changing and evolving community that offered a space for us Deadheads to form ourselves through resistance to the boring demands of disciplinary society.

So my book – Listening for the Secret: The Grateful Dead and the Politics of Improvisation – aims at understanding how this loose form of politics worked, and how self-organization related to the band’s music. “Improvisation” is a key word both musically and culturally.  Improvisation is a way to keep possibilities open, making music more interesting – and more fun. The Grateful Dead was about having fun – and writing this book, which strives to be both critical and a homage, I did have great fun!!

The Dead on Haight Street. Photo by Jim Marshall


Join Author Ulf Olsson and Series Editor Nicholas Meriwether for a lunchtime conversation about Olsson’s new book Listening for the Secret: The Grateful Dead and the Politics of Improvisation, now available from the University of California Press.

Listening for the Secret is a critical assessment of the Grateful Dead and the distinct culture that grew out of the group’s music, politics, and performance. With roots in popular music traditions, improvisation, and the avant-garde, the Grateful Dead provides a unique lens through which we can better understand the meaning and creation of the counterculture community. Marshaling the critical and aesthetic theories of Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault and others, Ulf Olsson places the music group within discourses of the political, specifically the band’s capacity to create a unique social environment. Analyzing the Grateful Dead’s music as well as the forms of subjectivity and practices that the band generated, Olsson examines the wider significance and impact of its politics of improvisation. Ultimately, Listening for the Secret is about how the Grateful Dead Phenomenon was possible in the first place, what its social and aesthetic conditions of possibility were, and its results.


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