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Ratdog guitarist sheds light on shadow of drug culture
By: Conor Sullivan, Collegian Correspondent
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - The clouds quickly blotted out the sun after two of the most beautiful days this semester has offered. The drive to Springfield on March 15 was made through a dull haze with a depressing drizzle and the grit and grime of a dense urban environment. It was a strong contrast to the soothing and uplifting jams playing from the car stereo, and the images of pretty girls in flowery skirts they conveyed. The purpose of the voyage was to see Ratdog, a band fronted by Bob Weir, famous for his part in founding The Grateful Dead.
The militant guards at the front of the Hippodrome provided even further contract to the affable press handler at the security entrance, who was willing to make exceptions for a few diehard fans.
The guitarist of Ratdog was a sociable man, who looked younger than the facts of his biography made him. Mark Karan had been raised in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s, and although he had lived elsewhere for all intents and purposes, he'd "grown up" in the Haight.
The Haight, the districts of Haight-Ashbury and Haight-Filmore in California, had become the focal point of the psychedelic and counter culture movements of the '60s. This movement was due largely to the extensive use of psychedelics, stemming largely from the "Acid Tests" of author Ken Kesey and his group The Merry Pranksters. The band that performed at these events, showcasing their new style of music, was The Grateful Dead.
It was at this time, when he was just 11 years old, that Karan developed his intense love of music, and to a great extent, his musical style. He would see bands such as The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and Jefferson Airplane, for "next to no money" by attending Sunday shows at the Filmore which admitted kids under 12 for free, while charging all others $2. During these times, Karan experienced all the great Blues and Rock acts of the day for less than half his weekly allowance.
But the draw to the Haight was about much more than just the music. It was the power of a movement, a sense that the individuals there were a part of something and that it was "bigger than the bad guys." It was in Haight-Ashbury where Karan and others found the set of values they could live their lives by. Values Karan calls, "Not Red State, Blue State, family values type shit…real spiritual values, real loving values." Values of love, of peace and acceptance, of withholding judgment and prejudice against your fellow man.
It was through the use of psychedelics that many people found themselves truly able to connect. "When I started getting high it was as a kid in the Haight, and in that scene," said Karan. "And it was all about LSD and it was all about Marijuana, both of which I consider to be consciousness expanding drugs. Drugs I consider to make you more sensitive, more aware, more plugged in, more likely to be turned on to your brother, more likely to be exploration, to seek new things, and really want to fill yourself with the good stuff."
Karan said that by the time Ronald Reagan was in office, he had watched American culture grow "Angrier, more impatient, people want everything now... simply…without plot" to the point where now "they don't want to sit and listen to an entire movement of a symphony, they want a three-minute song." Along with these changes came a drastic shift away from LSD and other drugs, which lowered the ego and opened people up to each other and towards heroin, cocaine and alcohol, which Karan said: boosts the ego. "I don't think they inspire the same spiritual and emotional place that LSD inspires, so the focus away from LSD, it's sad and I don't like seeing it."
Despite the fall from prominence of the culture and philosophical ideas that was originally so intrinsical in their music, The Grateful Dead continued to tour and make music as a band until the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. A few years prior, Bob Weir had started a side project know as The Ratdog Review later shortened to simply Ratdog. Upon Jerry's death this became Weir's dominant touring gig.
Karan, who had been listening to The Dead for all of his formative years and most of his adult life, spent most of his career as a "starving musician," he said, "doing blues gigs and sessions and whatever else was available." Having met one of the members of The Other Ones, a band composed of the remaining Grateful Dead, in that environment he was flown up to San Francisco. With the honest belief that he would not get the gig, he just played as himself, happy at the chance to play with a band he had idolized as a child. Thus began Karan's involvement with The Other Ones and subsequently Ratdog, a band which he describes as not only allowing him a "comfy living," but also granting him an unsurpassable level of musical permission and freedom to be himself.
Much of the band's younger crowd now yearns for a connection to the drug culture which Karan spoke of; a culture which had been lost long before they had been born. However, from the stage Karan claimed that it didn't seem they were being true to the deeper philosophies of the culture; he said "what passes for hippie, in a lot of instances has become a fashion statement. If you've got the dreads and you've got the corduroy and you eat 'E' and you go to some sort of GD related shows then you're a hippie. But I see these people being really judgmental, being pretty close minded about their opinions about music and sometimes being harsh with one another on the lot and to me that's not hippie because to me at the basis of the whole hippie thing, beneath all of it is acceptance, non judgmental, love, peace. All of that stuff, then you start piling on paisley and dreadlocks and whatever the hell else you like."
The poor attitude of many fans was tangible at the show, where people that stood in front rows were subject to all manners of pushing and elbowing. The worst was that many mostly middle-aged members of the crowd harassed some of the young women present. Quite contrary to the peaceful messages proclaimed through the songs, numerous fights occurred which lead to security interventions and ejections.
But in the right sections the attitude was much warmer, people were very friendly, and more than happy to share whatever they had with those around them. Karan expressed his hope that by drawing people into the atmosphere of a Ratdog concert, perhaps they could be influential in opening some minds and turning people around. Even if it was through tangential experiences, he hoped to propagate some of the ideals which have fallen out of style since The Dead were formed, unfortunately only a few in the crowd seemed to accept this message on a more than superficial level.
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