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A new look at the Grateful Dead

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.

Information about courses and registration is available at sonoma.edu/exed/olli or from Chris Alexander at OLLI, 664-2691.

The Osher Life Long Learning Institute at SSU has long boasted classes about kings, queens and generals.

Now, that’s changing. The spring 2015 semester showcases the common folk in England, the pop voices of Dixie and the history of the Grateful Dead, the five-member Northern California band led by Jerry Garcia.

From 1965 to 1995, the Dead spawned millions of fans, known as Deadheads, as devoted to the music and the legend of Garcia and his cohorts as opera fans are devoted to Mozart.

Peter Richardson, 56, the instructor for the class about the Dead, was too young to hear them play live during their heyday.

“When I was a kid, my older brother, Rod, introduced me to their records, which led me many years later to research and write No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead,” says Richardson, an instructor at UC Berkeley

Now, Richardson will teach a six-week class about the band that toured the world, wowed hippies, made millions, and yet only had one hit single, “Touch of Grey.”

A masscult phenomenon, the Dead sustained what Richardson calls “the hip economy.” They also, he explains, “designed their own innovative high-tech sound system and created a tightly knit, mobile community that followed them from concert to concert, country to country.”

Richardson taught the Dead at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2014. This spring’s class won’t be a duplicate. Special guests this semester at Osher include members of the extended Grateful Dead family who live in Sonoma County: famed poster artist Stanley Mouse; local librarian David Dodd; girl Friday 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.

“I think of Northern California as ground zero for the Dead and for Deadheads,” Richardson says, and points to the fact that drummer Mickey Hart lives in Occidental, and singer, songwriter, guitarist, Bob Weir, runs the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

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 says.

His first book, American Prophet (2005), explores the work of investigative journalist, Carey McWilliams, the author of Factories in the Field. His second book, A Bomb in Every Issue (2009), describes the life and death of Ramparts, the radical Sixties magazine.

In No Simple Highway, Richardson argues that if a single band reflected the Bay Area’s counterculture it was the Dead, with their long, improvised guitar riffs that generate a sense of ecstasy and appeal to audiences who smoke marijuana and took LSD.

“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” Jerry Garcia sings on the Dead’s signature song, “Truckin’.” For decades, fans have echoed him. “What a long, strange trip it’s been” can mean almost everything and anything.

No Simple Highway makes for riveting reading when Richardson follows Garcia’s adventures on the road. It’s persuasive when he discusses Robert Hunter’s song “Casey Jones” that retells the tale of the mythical, death-driven railroad engineer who crashed his locomotive. In Robert Hunter’s druggy version of the traditional American ballad, Jones is “high on cocaine,” though it’s not clear whether he’s a hero, a mad man or both.

“By writing and teaching the Dead at SSU,” Richardson says, “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.”

Information about registration for Richardson’s class is available on line at http://www.sonoma.edu/exed/olli/registration.

Prospect students can also phone Chris Alexander, OLLI Program Assistant, at 707-664-2691.

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