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Academia goes on the road with Dead A HEAD TRIP


The Grateful Dead will set up shop in R.F.K. Stadium in Washington Saturday and Sunday. Jerry Garcia will be there to do his cosmic guitar noodling. The traveling sideshow of fans and hangers-on will be out in full force.

And Alan R. Lehman, Ph.D., will be sitting behind a card table in the parking lot trying to make sense of it all.

He will be doing extensive interviews with fans of the band, trying to find some correlation between their self-esteem and their interest in the Dead.

Sure, it's been a long, strange trip for the Dead, but which factors contribute to its length and strangeness? That is the question for Dr. Lehman and a growing army of academic researchers determined to analyze the phenomenon that is the Grateful Dead. It's hard to summarize the findings, except to say they're as eclectic as the band's rock-blues-country-psychedelic music:

* A professor at the University of Louisville compares "Dark Star," an obscure Dead song, to 15th-century masses in a discussion of Umberto Eco and aesthetic transcendence.

* A graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook makes the case for Grateful Dead concerts as secular ritual.

* And earlier this spring, Dr. Lehman made history by earning the first Ph.D. for research into the band.

His sociology dissertation at the University of Maryland College Park, "Music as Symbolic Communication: The Grateful Dead and Their Fans," attempts to identify which factors contribute to fans' devotion.

For Dr. Lehman, who has seen about 125 of the band's free-flowing shows in the last 14 years, the dissertation topic neatly tied his interest in the Dead with his expertise in computer-driven research.

"I just did it because it's something I wanted to do," says the 37-year-old Dr. Lehman.

Social scientists and other academics -- many of whom came of age listening to the band -- have latched onto the Grateful Dead and its 30-year tradition of unpredictable music and eclectic audiences.

"I think it's as legitimate a subject of study as a cultural phenomenon as any," says Dennis McNally, the band's spokesman, who himself earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation on writer Jack Kerouac. "It's a very rich subculture."

Members of the band, he adds, are only vaguely aware of the academic investigations.

Their concerts, heavy on improvisation, stretch out for three, four, sometimes five hours and are pure bliss to fans and a must-miss for the many others who don't quite get it.

The band encourages fans to tape shows, even providing an audio feed to guarantee good recordings. Tapes are copied and traded around the country.

No two Dead concerts have the same song list, so a database carefully compiled over almost 30 years lists every song the band has played and in which order. You want to know how many times the Dead played "China Cat Sunflower" followed by "I Know You Rider"? No problem.

Some hardcore fans trail after the band across the country. A small, mysterious group known as "spinners" -- after their dancing style -- have developed something of a religion out of the Dead experience. The Wharf Rats, a group of recovering alcoholics, hold support group meetings at concerts.

Then there are the band's talismans, ranging from slightly eerie skeletons to cuddly dancing bears, that identify fans to one another.

On the Internet, the band's fans trade in Dead trivia, tickets and philosophy -- speculating on the meaning of songs and assessing the health of Mr. Garcia, the Dead's spiritual guru. Phone lines update fans on Dead activities and at least two magazines are devoted to the band.

Now, Dead fans in academia are writing serious papers about their studies of the phenomenon.

"All of the people who originally became interested in the music now are my age," says Bill Gillespie, a 47-year-old communications professor at Georgetown College in Kentucky who wrote a paper on the Dead community and the code it uses to define itself. "These people are all in a position of responsibility."

Dr. Gillespie presented his paper at a panel of Grateful Dead scholars at a conference of the International Association for Semiotic Studies in Berkeley, Calif., last month.

That this music group inspires its own panel at a conference on signs and language is another testament to the band's distinctiveness.

A labor of love

Overall, academics are producing "tons and tons of these projects" on the band, says Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Dr. Adams holds a special place in the world of Grateful Dead academia. In 1989, she led 23 students to eight of the band's concerts to do for-credit field research into the Dead and its culture.

Now she is writing a book on the intense relationships Dead Heads form with each other following the band across the country. "I've totally immersed myself in the subculture," she says. "A day doesn't go by that I don't talk to somebody."

She's attended about 100 Dead concerts and deserves some sort of medal for reading through five years of electronic mail generated by Dead fans on computer talk-networks.

It is a labor of love. But she knows that the band carries heavy negative baggage after 30 years of press that often focuses on drugs and bizarre behavior. Being an expert in the Grateful Dead might not play well in academia, she says.

"When you go out in the job market, I think it could work against people," she says. "I was tenured when I started this. I tell people to wait until they're tenured to do the research they want to do."

Rob Sardiello, one of Dr. Adams' former students, suggests that a Dead concert is a secular ritual in a chapter he wrote recently for a book titled "Adolescents and Their Music: If It's Too Loud, You're Too Old."

"It does preserve a lot of those values of ritual, but not so much in a nostalgic way," says Mr. Sardiello, 31, a graduate student in sociology at the SUNY at Stony Brook. "It's more a contemporary adaptation of those values. To Dead Heads, it's rather a serious thing."

The Dead experience became a serious topic as well for Dr. Lehman, who set out to quantify fans' self- identification with the band and figure out which factors contribute most significantly to it.

Last summer he set up his folding table outside nine Grateful Dead concerts and asked fans to fill out a lengthy questionnaire. He quickly realized that nine pages was too long and made a "field modification" -- "I ripped out a couple pages."

The questions included: "How much do you feel in common with other fans of the Grateful Dead?" and "According to your own definition of the phrase, would you agree or disagree with the statement 'I am a Dead Head'?" Attracted by the free bags of nuts and fruits Dr. Lehman handed out, 588 concert-goers answered the 66 questions, the largest scientific survey of the band's fans ever done, he says.

Back home in Silver Spring, Dr. Lehman fed the results into a computer and analyzed them in hundreds of ways looking for salient connections.

The study produces some odd nuggets of Grateful Dead information. Asked, for example, to name their favorite Grateful Dead song, the 588 respondents listed 133 different No. 1 tunes, an astonishingly high number, ranging from familiar chestnuts such as "Uncle John's Band" to "King Bee," an old blues tune the band stopped playing when its original keyboardist died more than 20 years ago.

But the paper's main findings, wrapped in technical statistical jargon, were hardly startling. It found, for instance, that the more compact discs a fan owns the stronger his identification with the band. Also, the more education fans had the less likely they were to identify themselves as Dead Heads.

Middle-class taxpayers

Like many academics who have written about the Dead phenomenon, Dr. Lehman is careful to avoid stereotypes, something he says media groups use all too often when they focus on a strung-out, tie-dyed fan who hasn't seen a shower in weeks. After all, he says, most Dead fans are middle-class taxpayers who just like the music.

The bottom line, he says, is that "Being a fan of the Grateful Dead is what you define it as."

For him, being a fan means having vanity tags with the names of Dead songs "TRUCKIN" and "USBLUES" on his two cars. He has an extensive collection of Dead concert recordings and will hit four shows this summer.

While he's there, he'll do some more field research, interviewing fans about self-esteem and self-identification with the Dead, findings he hopes he can turn into another academic paper. But, he'll keep his expectations low.

"I'm not trying to get an understanding of the whole thing," he says. "Because I don't think that's possible."

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