Writer/ poet Peter Conners talks about Grateful Dead, Leary, Ginsberg, and his trips with the Deadheads

"The beauty of both poetry and music – and all art forms – is that once you tap into their power they never cease influencing you."

Peter Conners: Don't be afraid the Deads

Peter Conners is author of the memoir, Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead (Da Capo Press, 2009). Growing Up Dead is the story of Peter Conners's journey from straight-laced suburban kid to touring Deadhead. Peter discovered the Grateful Dead in 1985, at the age of 15, through friends who exchanged bootleg tapes of live Grateful Dead concerts.

Peter discovered the Grateful Dead in 1985, at the age of 15, through friends who exchanged bootleg tapes of live Grateful Dead concerts. A teenager living in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, he became exposed to an entirely new way of life, and friends who were enjoying more freedom and less parental guidance. At the age of 16, he attended his first Grateful Dead concert on June 30, 1987 - he was hooked. Between 1987 and 1995, Conners would attend Dead 'shows' all over the United States. He traveled with a makeshift 'family' of other Deadheads in a Volkswagen camper.

In short, he had progressed from suburban kid, to Grateful Dead fan, to full-blown Deadhead. Chronicling this progression, which culminates with the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia, Conners reveals the truth behind Deadhead culture and history.

His new book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen  Ginsberg, was published by City Lights in November 2010. He is currently at work on an oral history of jam and festival bands titled JAMerica to be published by Da Capo Press in fall 2013. His other books include the prose poetry collection Of Whiskey and Winter, the novella Emily Ate the Wind, and his newest poetry collection, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees (spring 2011). He is also editor of PP/FF: An Anthology which was published by Starcherone Books in April 2006. He lives in Rochester, New York where he works as Publisher of the not-for-profit literary press BOA Editions.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Peter Conners’ poetry and what characterize your poems?

The two poetry books I’ve published are all prose poems, so I’d describe my poetry as prose poems in the tradition of all the prose poets who came before me and have influenced me. Those influences really start with les poet maudits, especially Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but after 20+ years of writing prose poetry it’s all just a big stew at this point. My last poetry collection, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, was intended as my goodbye to prose poetry, and, at least for a while, writing poetry for publication. A few slips aside, that’s the way it’s stayed too. My goal with that book was to exhaust the form – for myself at least – and take it out to extremes of content, structure, plumbing the depths of my darker subconscious, and so forth. No one’s said much about the book since its publication, so I think I may’ve accomplished that.

"I still learn about myself through music and literature and visual art and strong personalities and any other art forms I encounter..” Peter in the City Lights office

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? What experiences in your life make you a good poet?

In literary terms, I’ve gotten a lot out of my teen years. It’s such a rich time of life: transitioning from childhood to adulthood, experiencing first freedoms, sexual awakening, finding one’s own interests and passions and factoring them into emerging identity. In writing, it’s an age that’s lets you tap into both childhood (that being left behind) and adulthood (moving toward), so there’s a lot of space to work from. Mainly because I’m not a narrative, lyric poet I haven’t found it as valuable with poetry, but I did get one poem called “A Girl” out of it that works quite well. 

What does Music and Poetry mean to you & what do you learn about yourself from the notes and words?

As long as I’ve been able to consider the issue of “who am I?” music and writing have been at the core of shaping my ever-changing opinions on the subject. The beauty of both poetry and music – and all art forms – is that once you tap into their power they never cease influencing you. I still learn about myself through music and literature and visual art and strong personalities and any other art forms I encounter; they still help shape that big amorphous blob known as “who I am.” I don’t know that I’ve learned anything specific about myself through them beyond realizing that I’m someone who intensely benefits from interacting with art on an on-going basis and that I should keep following it wherever it leads. It helps.   

Are there any memories from the road with Grateful Dead, which you’d like to share with us?

Way too many to get into here, so I’ll just refer you to my memoir Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. Anything I can say here, I’ve said better there. And what wasn’t said there is being addressed in a sequel to the book that I’m currently working on called Grown Up Dead. The weird thing is that all these years later, I’m still gaining new memories from my association with the music of the Grateful Dead. I meet more new Deadheads every year and, largely because of the work I’ve done on my book that’s coming out in August, JAMerica: An Oral History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene, I am seeing more shows now – including offshoot bands of the Grateful Dead – than I’ve seen in twenty years. So, at the moment, my memory is busy gathering artifacts from an active present (which is also the past) and storing them away for a book I’m writing for the future. It’s a multidimensional saga. 

Which memory from Jerry Garcia makes you smile?

A lot of Deadheads have a “Jerry was looking right at me” story, so I’ll share mine. It was in Greensboro, North Carolina on March 30, 1989. The show was general admission and I’d decided that – for once – I was going to get as close to the stage as I could. Normally I didn’t bother with seeing the band members onstage and was content to dance and listen wherever there was enough space and a good vibe inside the venue. But this time, I decided to get close. The 3rd song during the first set was “Row Jimmy” and there I was, an eighteen year old kid following the Grateful Dead across the country, standing in the front row and singing every word as they came out of Jerry’s mouth. At a certain point (the defendant claims) I locked eyes with Jerry and we sang the words together as he looked down on me with what I read as a warm, accepting, appreciative and approving gaze. Was he really looking at me? Regardless of any pessimistic realities, at that moment I felt a one-to-one connection with Jerry that has stuck with me all these years as an authentic incident. That memory makes me smile because – having never met him personally – it’s the only experience I have that is mine alone, and it was an overwhelmingly positive one. Thank you, Jerry.

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the psychedelic 60s era?

Because I wasn’t born until 1970, I don’t know what the feel of those times was. The information that I have about that era is gathered solely through first or second hand accounts in writing or told in person. I’ve sought a lot of information about those times out of personal interest and, now, professional, so I can tell you a great deal about them. But I can’t answer the question of “a feel” that I “miss” about those days, because I never lived them firsthand. I will say, however, that people tend to paint the 60s with a monochromatic brush. In America, the 60s are a bold-faced metaphor for Change: war (in Southeast Asia, or straight vs. hip culture), political upheaval, the Cuban missile crisis, drug epidemics, musical history, the pill’s impact on shifting attitudes toward sex … The truth is that the 60s contained as much mundanity as any other decade and for most people it wasn’t about day-to-day wrangling with the future of America. As with any other decade, people fell in love and needed groceries and got tired and thirsty and fell out of love and craved things beyond their reach and lamented or accepted that and figured out a way to continue with their lives regardless. As an American, I try to remember that we shouldn’t get too attached to any particular decade, because that attachment tends to be based on a biased storyline that was fed to us by books, television, movies, etc. over the years. It may be politically left, it may be politically right, but if someone starts talking to you about “the 60s” it’s a pretty sure bet they have an ironclad viewpoint already in place before you open your mouth to respond.

Personally, I’ve found it most valuable – as with my book White Hand Society about the relationship between Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg – to focus on intensely engaged individuals and use their reactions to the incidents of their times as a barometer for what it might’ve “felt” like to be there, then. If you can get inside someone’s skin enough to start to understand the motivations behind their smaller personal actions, then you can consider their reactions to larger public issues of the time and begin to extrapolate what it must’ve felt like for them to have made certain decisions. In other words, reverse engineering a “feel” by examining how an individual you’ve considered at length deals with large and small issues of their era.       

What was the relation between Beats and Psychedelic culture, Poetry and Music, Deads and Beats?

The Grateful Dead were a clear, defined link between the Beats and the hippies. Not only were they influenced by Beat writings, but they were profoundly influenced – as were Kerouac and Ginsberg in particular - by the time they spent with Neal Cassady. It’s also worth noting that Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were at the very first acid test on November 27, 1965 and hung out with the band as they all experienced that night. Of course, Ken Kesey was there too and is regarded as the literary link between the Beats and the hippies. The most overt reference to Cassady’s influence on the band appears in the song “The Other One” with the lines, “The bus came by and I got on that’s when it all began, there was Cowboy Neal at the wheel, the bus to never-ever land.” Lyrically though, that’s the tip of the ice berg regarding the connections with literature and the Grateful Dead. If you really want to get deep into all the allusions to poetry and literature found in Robert Hunter’s Grateful Dead lyrics, the best book is The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by David Dodd. It’s astounding how many literary allusions Dodd uncovers in that book – more than, I’d guess, Hunter even knew about! – and it certainly reinforces how literature, folk tales, bits from sea shanties, etc. found their way into the Grateful Dead’s songs. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mountain Girl for a while and the first question I asked her was about Neal Cassady. At the time, we were surrounded by Jerry’s friends and family (in fact, I got to speak at length with Jerry’s brother Tiff who shared some wonderful boyhood memories he had of playing games with Jerry in the streets of San Francisco), so I knew I’d get some Garcia stories. But it’s increasingly rare to meet anyone with firsthand Cassady stories. So that’s what we discussed. Remember, Cassady is the one who introduced Mountain Girl to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters which lead to her meeting Jerry and on and on. She told me a funny story about Cassady falling through the ceiling of the band’s house at 710 Ashbury Street while he was staying in their attic. I’m still working through that whole conversation – and the night as a whole – for a new book I’m working on; the sequel to Growing Up Dead that I mentioned earlier. But the bottom line is that if you’re looking for a single person who was a link between the Beats and the hippies (and the Grateful Dead in particular), Neal Cassady is your man.

"The Grateful Dead were a clear, defined link between the Beats and the hippies."

                                       Peter and Grateful Dead's drummer Bill Kreutzman

Some music styles can be fads but Grateful Dead’s music is always with us. Why do think that is?

There are so many ways of skinning this cat. If I add value to an understanding of the Grateful Dead’s pull on fans, it’s by being able to describe the emotions they evoked and the community they helped build in a way that paints an evocative picture. There are other writers and Dead experts who can break down the music, the structures, time signatures, band interplay, etc. with laser-like precision. I love those people, but I’m not one of them. The Dead’s music is simply too complex and my technical musical knowledge too limited to go down that road. I’m very excited about my friend David Gans’ upcoming book because he’s going to focus exclusively on the band’s music and, as I always do when David speaks, I plan on learning a lot. It really does take a musician or someone who speaks that technical language to be able to break down what the Dead were doing musically at any given time – and how those approaches changed over time. For now, I’ll answer the question with a quote by Jerry Garcia. During an interview in 1970 he was asked why the Dead had such a loyal following. Jerry answered, in perfect Jerry form: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” As long as there people who can only get what they need – musically, emotionally, spiritually – through the music of the Grateful Dead (let’s call them hardcore licorice lovers), the music will survive. Me? I do love that licorice.

How you would spend a day with Timothy Leary?  What would you say to the Crows? What would you like to ask Allen Ginsberg?

Well, I did meet and speak with Ginsberg, and I attended a lecture by Leary, and I am constantly surrounded by crows, so I’ve got a little head start here. First of all, we would need to address the presence of the crows; they are powerful birds, not to be ignored. So what I’d like to do is eat psilocybin with early-60s era Tim and Allen and take them to a small, unimpressive park near my house where there is an abundance of crows. I wrote a few poems in my book The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees about this place. In fact, this tiny little field and the stories attached to it (Indian massacres, buried bodies, restless ghosts) really set the tone – and much of the imagery – for that book. And it is often filled with vocal crows. So I would get some of those big pink Sandoz psilocybin pills from Leary (which Charles Olson called “circus peanuts”) and the three of us would head up to this field for a few hours with no agenda other than to eat them and see what may come. I choose this space in particular because it’s a place I can show them that’s near my house and it’s nothing special, so we’d all need to be on our best game to pull value from it. The odds are higher when the environment is lackluster. Plus, there would be no legal hassles. After a few hours in the field, we could walk down the road and go quietly into my house without waking my family. Then we could hang out and talk and listen to music in my basement until dawn. By morning light, we’d know each other in significant ways. 

"The truth is that the 60s contained as much mundanity as any other decade and for most people it wasn’t about day-to-day wrangling with the future of America."

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of memento mori portraiture, but, sadly, it cannot be appreciated by the photographed. I’ve heard there was an era (it must’ve been Victorian, right?) when it was not uncommon to have educated, moneyed people painted as they would appear in their coffins, dead, and to hang that portrait where the person worked (I’m thinking over a desk), so that it served as a constant reminder of their mortality. I would like to have one of those painted for myself: a portrait of me dead in a coffin. I don’t know if I would hide and/or burn it immediately or need to have it before me at all times. Done well, I have no doubt that seeing it would be a life changing experience for me. Done poorly, it’s hard to imagine an artwork presented in lesser taste.

 

Peter Conners - Official website

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