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An Academic Star Takes on 'Dark Star'

Assistant Professor of Music Graeme Boone

By Seth Mnookin

When one thinks of The Grateful Dead, the immediate image brought to mind is that of drugs, tie-dyes and Jerry Garcia, the silver-haired, overweight and unassuming leader of the group.

Yet today, the group is one of the most successful in pop history, precisely because it is able to attract more than just the hippie crowed that has been associated with the band. Indeed, among their audiences are often the most staid of listeners--even Harvard professors have been known to join the swaying, enthusiastic crowds at Dead shows.

Assistant Professor of Music Graeme Boone, however, took his interest in the group a little farther than the average Deadhead. Last October, Boone delivered a comprehensive address on The Dead and one of their songs, "Dark Star" at a conference given by the Society for Music Theory in Oakland, Calif.

Boone--who teaches the popular Literature and Arts B course, "Jazz: An American Music"--says he has had a lifelong interest in The Dead. His paper focused primarily on how The Dead's music plays an intimate role in the Grateful Dead experience of individuals.

The Grateful Dead have created a unique and very free style of their own, a style that allows them to play with originality and excitement, says Boone.

"This is an incredible achievement, to create a style where you have artistic freedom," he says.

"Dark Star"

Boone studied "Dark Star" because he said it raised many issues pertinent to both The Dead's musical style and their place in American popular culture.

"I wanted to show how 'Dark Star' raises some very interesting questions surrounding ambiguity and identity, as well as how it reflects the whole style of The Dead and how The Dead interact with their audience," Boone says.

"Dark Star," which is generally thought of as The Grateful Dead's signature song, originated in the 1960s, when it was often played during Ken Kesey's acid tests.

It begins with a well-situated, easily identifiable them carried out by a very simple chord progression. But then, "slowly, it starts to open up," says Boone. "So while it opens very comfortably, with a firm, definite identity, it soon begins to change, to transform and become very ambigious."

"It can turn very dramatic or romantic, or straight-forward, and then, while this ambiguity is taking place, the audience members at the same time are going different places, experiencing different things," and thus forming individual identifications, he continues.

The net effect of this experimentation, which takes place within a defined structure, is a sense of "being something and yet reaching for something else," Boone says.

"Otherness," Boone explains. "In a sense, all music is like this: reaching for something that doesn't quite exist, but could exist...The Dead's music is very much on the edge of existence," he says.

This sense of pushing the envelope, of breaking boundaries permeates many aspects of The Grateful Dead "experience," according to Boone. This is one reason drugs play such an important role. "Drugs reach through, beyond reality," says Boone.

"Also, the meta-politics of The Dead movement focus on this sense of creating what is not there, of making a better world. There is a feeling of the virtuality of nirvana that permeates many Dead concerts," Boone says.

Beyond their music, another aspect of the Dead's style that is so attractive is their down-to-earth attitude, says Boone. "They wear old jeans and T-shirts, they're overweight and their hair is dirty," he says. In this sense, he continues, "they seem to relate to their audience as equals, and the audience itself is made up of a lot of people who think of each other as equals."

"The Dead seem to be speaking to everybody--they play a lot for you, for the audience," continues Boone. "In this sense, they recall your local corner

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