The Osher Life Long Learning Institute has long boasted classes about kings, queens and generals. Now, that’s changing.
Among the upcoming semester’s topics at Sonoma State University is the history of the Grateful Dead, the Northern California band led by Jerry Garcia, a class taught by Peter Richardson, a lecturer in humanities at San Francisco State University. The six-week class begins Tuesday.
The Dead spawned millions of fans devoted to the music and the legend of Garcia and his cohorts, but Richardson, 56, was too young to hear them during their heyday.
“My older brother, Rod, introduced me to their records,” he said, “which led me many years later to research and write ‘No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead,’” published in 2015.
Although the band had only one hit single, “Touch of Grey,” he said, it toured the world, wowed hippies and made millions between 1965 and 1995. The band sustained what Richardson calls “the hip economy,” designing their own innovative high-tech sound system and creating a tightly knit, mobile community that followed them from concert to concert, country to country.
He argues that if a single band reflected the Bay Area’s counterculture it was the Dead, with long, improvised guitar riffs that generated a sense of ecstasy and appealed to audiences who smoked marijuana and took LSD. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” Jerry Garcia sings on the Dead’s signature song, “Truckin’,” and for decades fans have echoed him.
“I think of Northern California as ground zero for the Dead and for Deadheads,” he said, pointing to drummer Mickey Hart, who lives in Occidental, and singer, songwriter, guitarist Bob Weir, who runs the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
Richardson draws heavily on “No Simple Highway” for his course curriculum, as he did for a similar Osher class taught in fall 2014 at UC Berkeley. It will follow Garcia’s adventures on the road and bringing in special guests who are members of the extended Grateful Dead family who live in Sonoma County. Among them are famed poster artist Stanley Mouse, Santa Rosa librarian David Dodd, photographer Rosie McGee and musicologist David Gans. Richardson will play the music of the Dead and feature images by renowned Petaluma photographer Ed Perlstein, who captured the Dead with his camera for decades.
As a scholar, Richardson has always focused has on California. “I like to feature parts of the culture that fly under the national radar,” he said.
His first book, “American Prophet” (2005), explores the work of investigative journalist Carey McWilliams, who wrote “Factories in the Field.” Richardson’s second book, “A Bomb in Every Issue” (2009), describes the life and death of Ramparts, the radical Sixties magazine.
“By writing and teaching the Dead at SSU,” he said, “I hope to persuade readers and students to appreciate the tribal energies and the creativity of the global counterculture that has deep roots right here.”
“No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead” will be taught 1-3 p.m. Tuesdays, March 24-April 3, at the Cooperage on the Sonoma State University campus, 1805 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. It’s open to students 50 and older. Cost is $95.
During the spring semester, Osher will offer eight more class titles at SSU, as well as three classes in Healdsburg and four at Oakmont.