Friday, February 16, 2007

Local Rock Stars

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at a wonderful conference – the annual meeting of Texas/Southwest Popular and American Culture Association – that for the last ten years has had a running session on academic interests around the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead caucus is a wonderful collection of very smart, very kind, very dedicated historians, sociologists, philosophers, literary critics, musicians, musicologists, and theologians who share their research and their passion for all things Dead.

At breakfast yesterday, David Gans, Bay area music fixture, author, and voice of the Grateful Dead Hour, was talking about the great passion (sometimes uncomfortably misplaced) of the dedicated fan. It reminded me of a story that Confused, Maybe Not told me before coming out about attending a philosophy conference, and spotting Cornel West across the room, commented on being in the same room with such a rock star to a friend. The friend, an analytic philosopher, indignantly pointed to Jerry Fodor in the room and said, “Now THAT’S a rock star.” Fame and adoration comes from a community and we have such a multitude of communities that there are many local rock stars, people held up and adored by these communities, adoration often not shared or understood by those outside the community.

To mark their 10th anniversary of coming together, the Grateful Dead Caucus pulled off a complete coup and arranged for John Perry Barlow, one of the Dead’s lyricists to speak. Having been a major part of the creative process since the band’s beginning, this man is both literally and figuratively a rock star in this community that seriously discusses, amongst many topics, issues of the sacred and profane in his writings and those of Robert Hunter, the band’s other primary lyricist. Not only was he kind enough to speak as the keynote of the entire conference, but he came to hang out in the hotel with the collected group of Dead scholars informally. There are two groups of people: those who at this point are thinking, “YOU got to hang out with BARLOW?!” and those who would say, “You hung out with who?” (There is a third group who would say “You hung out with whom?” but that includes my 9th grade grammar teacher Mrs. Frankel and so will remain undiscussed).

Who are some of the “local rock stars” you’ve had a chance to meet, but could never get the majority of those around you to show the proper degree of incredulity at your good fortune? Surely there are great figures in history, but why does each corner of a part of a piece of a sub-commuity create its own pantheon? Do we need celebrity? Is it an accidental function of the way we seem to always groups ourselves around some commonality for which there will usually be those who either exemplify a shared virtue to an unusually high degree or who figure prominently in the history of the social glue that binds the community together? Ever been the local celebrity, gotten your fifteen minutes?