Is there anything a man don’t stand to lose, when he lets a woman hold him in her hands?
I was first exposed to bigotry at the age of five when my family unwittingly became the only Jewish residents of what proved to be a virulently anti-Semitic neighborhood in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. The year was 1960, and the hateful echoes of the Holocaust were still plainly audible, particularly among the already settled Scandinavian and Protestant Anglo-Saxon population, which made no effort to conceal their displeasure at the significant influx of Jewish families to the Twin Cities.
Carey McWilliams, an investigative journalist and author well-known for his writings about the condition of migrant farm workers and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, referred to mid-20th Century Minneapolis as “the anti-Semitic capital of the United States.”
Consequently, I was introduced to systemic hate as a small boy in a very personal way, ranging from simple name calling – such as “Jew Boy” and “Kike” – to having rocks and eggs thrown at our house and passing car, to being chased and assaulted. On one occasion I risked my own personal safety to interrupt my “Jewish” dog, Missy, being beaten with a metal rod.
Anyone who has felt the sting of bigotry in any form will confirm that the feeling persists. The injustice of being hated purely for who you are at the most essential level cuts deep, and this form of abuse leaves a permanent scar. But sometimes scars have the effect of adding something unique to one’s character. The anti-Semitic experiences of my childhood instilled within me a sensitivity to bigotry in all forms, and the commitment to oppose it in any way possible.
One aspect of the Grateful Dead culture that I find most attractive is a dedication to kindness (“Woah-oh, what I want to know is: Are you kind?”) and a corresponding intolerance of hate (“Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait.”). But while riding alongside one of my favorite mountain streams and listening to my choice for T.W.I.G.D.H. – 4/12/78 – I couldn’t help but notice there was an elephant in the middle of the venue, Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. In fact, there was a herd of four such elephants in just the first set of the best of the four shows the Dead played over the years at this storied venue, home of the Blue Devils basketball team.
When we think of bigotry in the current era, our focus typically turns to the systemic racism that continues to exist in connection with people of color – Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. But the term “bigot” carries a much broader definition that describes an individual who is prejudiced against or antagonistic towards others on the basis of their perceived membership in a certain group. By this definition, bigotry would extend from race and religion to political affiliation, sexuality, age, disability, ethnicity, social class, height and other physical characteristics, and even musical tastes. Indeed, Deadheads have been the subject of considerable bigotry over the last 50-plus years, having been portrayed by the media and the mainstream community as aimless vagabonds contributing nothing to society. And this continues to be the case.
But among the many groups who have been the subjects of prejudice, discrimination and injustice, there is one that clearly occupies the top rung, simply by being more numerous and vulnerable than any other: Women. And as much as the Grateful Dead were champions of a long “set list” of important social causes, there was an inconvenient male chauvinist truth in the band’s “boys club” culture. One might even go so far as to label it misogynistic.
Speaking of set lists, our first “elephant” tramples in ever so un-gently in the very first song of our concert of the week:
We can share the women, we can share the wine.
Is it even necessary to unpack the transparent objectification in this statement of women being as shareable as a bottle of wine? But then, just five song deeper into the set we encounter a pair of elephants in Mexicali Blues:
So, instead I’ve got a bottle and a girl who’s just fourteen, and a damn good case of the Mexicali Blues.
She took me up into her room and whispered in my ear, “Go on, my friend, do anything you choose.”
Where do we even start with this pair of doozies? From the creepy, underage theme to the notion that a woman (girl) is consensually available purely for a man’s pleasure – with the flimsy alibi that such things commonly take place against a Mexican backdrop of child poverty (“flies and children on the street,” “black-eyed girls who giggle when I smile,” and “a little boy who wants to shine my feet”) – Mexicali Blues is, shall we say, not the pinnacle of politically correct storytelling in the Grateful Dead repertoire.
Which brings us to the fourth elephant: New Minglewood Blues, a feminist’s nightmare if there ever was one. This is a tune that glorifies criminality (“busted jail and I’m gone for good”), stereotypes the repressed sexuality of a clergyman’s daughter (“preacherman call me a sinner, but his little girl called me a saint”), objectifies and insults women (“couple of shots of whiskey, women round here start lookin’ good”), and portrays them as property that can be shoplifted (“my number one occupation is stealing women from their men”).
Is there an alibi in the fact that these are merely stories, and that artists have license to create scenes not meant to be taken literally? One could more successfully make that argument if some of these disturbing depictions of women had not been played out in real life by the band itself.
Enter Donna Jean Godchaux. Donna joined the band of brothers, along with her husband, Keith Godchaux, in ’72 after seeing a Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders show at Berkeley’s Keystone Korner in September of the previous year. As the story goes, Donna approached Garcia after the show with the objective of getting her husband an audition to become a member of the Grateful Dead. In a 2014 interview in Rolling Stone, Donna recalls the pivotal moment: “I told Jerry that Keith needed to be in the band and I needed his home phone number, and I got his number!”
If the rest is history, there are some important details about the “Keith and Donna years” that have been, shall we say, underreported. We all know that Donna was a backup (and occasionally lead) singer for the Grateful Dead from ’72 to ’79. But what flew largely under the radar is the auxiliary part she apparently played in the band, as revealed by drummer Bill Kreutzmann in his 2015 book, “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.”
“Offstage, of course, we all enjoyed having her around. She brought a feminine energy to the band and sometimes even a feminine kind of love. That is to say, we all loved her and some of us got to express that love with her. It was the 1970s, and a special time in American history.”
Well, holy Jack Straw from Wichita, Batman! Talk about “we can share the women,” or woman, as the case may be.
But, of course, as Bill the Drummer added, this was the era of free love, so this particular revelation may not fit as neatly into our prosecution of the Grateful Dead as a misogynistic organization as the present tense culture of Donna Hate within the Deadhead community. Despite coming to the band after an impressive career as a session singer for such notable musical artists as Percy Sledge (When a Man Loves a Woman) and Elvis Presley (Suspicious Minds), as well as on various recordings by Boz Scaggs, Duane Allman, Cher, and Neil Diamond, Deadheads have levied harsh and disproportionate criticism in Donna’s direction.
Let’s face it: The Grateful Dead were always a vocally challenged band, both in terms of the quality of their singing and the ubiquitous “how does the song go?” flubbing of lyrics. Frequently during the pre-Keith and Donna years, the lead and background singing caused a grimace for anyone with reasonable musical standards. Quite often, verses were forgotten, mouthed inaudibly, omitted entirely, or sung out of order. In many of those cases, the crowd would often erupt in appreciation, as if to say, “We heard that mistake, but we love you so much it doesn’t matter.”
Donna wasn’t afforded the same latitude. When she occasionally sang out of key (often because she couldn’t hear herself clearly in the vocal monitors) or wailed excessively in Janis Joplin style on songs like Scarlet Begonias or Playin’ in the Band, the haters would come out in full force. There’s even a video on YouTube entitled, “Donna Ruins Every Playin’ in the Band.”
The fact is that Donna Jean Godchaux brought an imperfect but professional voice to a band that had long been given a pass for subpar vocals, and was held to a different standard than the boys in the band. What other conclusion can one come to but that she was unfairly judged because of a sexist culture? And the smokestack on top of the Donna Hate Train was her omission from the 2015 “Fare Thee Well” shows, while other, less deserving musicians (not naming any names, but the initials T.A. come to mind) played a central role.
The Grateful Dead were an American band, and led the countercultural movement with respect to issues of peace and war, the environment, economic inequality, and a host of others. Their love of country was never diminished by virtue of their criticism. In fact, one could argue that the “America: Change It or Lose It” sentiment that arose during the Dead’s formative years is a more sincere patriotic expression than the contradictory motto, “America: Love It or Leave It.” Similarly, our love of the Grateful Dead is not lessened but, in fact, strengthened when we hold the band and its community accountable for its failure to include gender equality in its catalog of admirable causes.
The members of the Grateful Dead let a woman hold their fate “in her hands,” and the result was a significant upgrade in the band’s vocals. What followed was a pivotal period in the Dead’s history that led them to being arguably the most beloved band in history. “A man don’t stand to lose” when he “lets a woman hold him in her hands.” On the contrary, he should be grateful for her powerful voice.
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