Careening off Each Other: On the Bus with Peter Conners

In Growing up Dead: the Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead, Peter Conners tells the story of coming of age in the suburbs in the 1980s and discovering the music of the Grateful Dead.  Starting in high school, Conners followed the Dead, learned to dance without inhibition, and discovered the joys of living a creative life through making music and writing.  Those first Dead shows started a lifelong romance that has permeated every aspect of Conners’ life.

I love Growing up Dead.  Not just because Conners and I are the same age (we were born within two weeks of each other), and not because we went to some of the same Dead shows (most notably Silver Stadium June 30, 1988 which gets a chapter in the book).  I love Growing up Dead because it is beautifully written — Conners has a poet’s grace, a seeker’s heart, and a musician’s ear. 

Maybe, too, I’ve been carrying this book around with me so much lately because Conners answers the question a lot of Deadheads, myself included, have struggled to answer over the years – why the Grateful Dead?

As a writer, Conners moves around a lot, from project to project, genre to genre.  He is the author of Whiskey and Winter (poetry) and Emily Ate the Wind (novella).  His next book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, is due out from City Lights in November 2010. He’s got a collection of poems, The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees, on the way from White Pine Press in spring 2011.  There are rumors that he has two music-based novels hiding in his desk drawer.

“I hit fewer dead ends [these days] because I’ve tried just so many different approaches and found out what works best for me,” said Conners. “That doesn’t mean I don’t try new things, but it does mean that I can sniff out the fruitless ideas faster and move on to more fruited plains.

“Writing keeps me from looking at the world the same way every day.  I see things through the filter of my writing and as long as I’m working on different projects, I’m seeing the world in different ways. It’s a great way to get high and stay that way without being arrested.”

Below, Conners and I talk about creativity, dancing, and riding the bus.


How’d you come to write Growing up Dead?  What sparked it off after all these years?

Peter Conners:  I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and fiction since I was about 20, but other than book reviews and the occasional essay, I hadn’t tried nonfiction. So, in some ways, it was just time to try that genre and see how it worked, how it felt, etc. It also seemed like the right time to capture my touring years. Many of the experiences I wrote about in Growing up Dead are from the 1980s and, frankly, my memory isn’t getting any better. I’m also still in touch with a bunch of people from those days and, like memory, people don’t last forever. So I was artistically in the right place and also chronologically in the right place to write Growing up Dead.  Then I just had to do it.

You write poetry, fiction, non-fiction.  What is it about the memoir form that appealed to you?  That suits this material – the story of your days on tour – more so than, say, fiction or poetry?

Peter Conners:  I’ve touched on the Dead scene in some of my fiction, but nothing as in-depth as Growing up Dead. I certainly could’ve tried fictionalizing the story and it may have made certain things easier (i.e. “I didn’t really do all those illegal things… it was purely fiction!”). It was important to me to really own this story though. To tell it as I remembered it and as my friends and I lived it. The experiences I wrote about were so powerful for me, so formative, that fictionalizing it would’ve felt a bit like copping out… or selling the story short. If I was going to do it, I was determined to do it as true as possible. Ironically, for the screenplay of Growing up Dead, just the opposite was true. The best way to tell the story was to turn it into fiction.  

Surely, it was a challenge to bridge the gap between worlds, between the world of Deadheads and the uninitiated.  How’d you keep the book from being inaccessible or too cryptic for the non-Head?

Peter Conners:  A lot of the book relates to the general experiences of growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s. That might sound limiting, until you think about how many people in this country had that experience. Once you isolate those factors (teenager, suburbs, 1980’s) you can approach the material from a sociological standpoint – what was the culture, the clothing, the traditions, the underpinning of the relationships, and, of course, the music? In that way, the book can strive to illuminate a unique social experience with the potential to be just as fascinating as the study of a remote village, or an Amazonian tribe, or Paris in the 1920s. If an author finds his/her subject matter truly relevant and fascinating, then he/she will communicate that. As unhip as it may be, I grew up in the suburbs in the 1980s. That was my life. No apologies, no regrets. So for people who aren’t into the Dead, the book offers insights into a more familiar time and place – and those insights can, in turn, be a doorway into understanding what attracted many suburban kids to the Dead scene. 

Being “on the bus” grew out of the days of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.  In “That’s It for the Other One,” Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir write, “The bus came by and I got on/ that’s when it all began.”  What does it mean for you – as a writer, a father, a husband, a man, a human being – to be “on the bus”?

Peter Conners:  It’s an inextricable part of who I am. I’ve been on the bus for 20 years now and I’ve got a pretty good window seat. I’m on the bus as a Deadhead and I’m also on the bus as a writer and artist – and that combination keeps me grounded and also reaching for constant growth (as Bob Dylan says, “ He not busy being born is busy dying.”) To me, being on the bus is about movement and not settling for a mundane point of view. It’s a state of mind and I wouldn’t want to live any other way. 

How much of the prankster do you reveal in your writing?

Peter Conners:  All of my previous answers are lies.

Growing up Dead alternates between first person past tense and second person present tense, from “I was” to “you are.”  What prompted you to make this decision?  What were the limitations?  What did it allow you to do? 

Peter Conners:  The second person allowed me to do a few different things. First of all, it kept the structure of the book from getting too staid. It’s one thing to sit around telling “war stories” with your buddies, but on paper, that gets old pretty fast. You want to tell a good story in an interesting, fresh way. So the second person point of view helped me structure the book in way that kept the reader engaged, not lulled. Along those same lines, there’s an immediacy to the second person – it’s not “me” telling you about my experiences all the time. It’s “you” – the reader – getting put into the middle of the scene. I found that certain experiences – for example drug-infused ones that cause the mind to race and search for traction – can be better communicated by foisting that confusion upon the reader rather than telling them about your befuddlement. The second person also allowed me to bring more of my lyrical, poetic bent to the writing of the book. I’ve spent a lot time writing, reading, editing, and studying prose poetry and that’s a tough habit to break. So the second person allowed me to take off onto poetic flights without abandoning the heart of the story.  

You describe the freedom of dancing at Dead shows, the safety, the using of your hands to direct balls of light and energy… What did dancing at a Dead show teach you about writing?

Peter Conners:  Fluidity, experimentation, freedom, not worrying so much about what other people think, creating beauty even in ugly places (next to garbage cans in a coliseum hallway), valuing individual expression – my own and other people’s – and seeing what stifling that expression can do to people, how to find joy, the importance of release, the value of repetition (you become a better dancer by dancing… and so too with writing), and the importance of being simultaneously present and completely gone when creating.

Some of the most compelling sounds at a Dead show come when the band doesn’t stop between songs, during the fade into…  the gloriously improvisational exploration of possibility between recognizable songs.  Is there an equivalent in writing for you?

Peter Conners:  There is, but – for me anyway – those parts get edited out before the final piece of writing is published. Jack Kerouac is the best example of a writer who communicated at his best when leaving those parts in. I learned a lot and found a lot of joy by swimming through his “tuning” sections. But other writers have tried the same only to come off indulgent and tedious. For my own work, I’d say those sections can warm me up as I find the true subject, the true pulse, of a piece of writing. But then I’ll go through and trim them out before the work is published, so the reader can get right to the jams. 

At any point during the writing of the book or after its publication, did you worry about your kids reading this stuff?

Peter Conners:  Oh sure. All the time. I still do. But, you know, Daddy’s a writer, he’s an artist, and that means he’s walking a different path than some of the other Daddies. Eventually, we’ll have to have more in-depth talks about what that all means. But one good thing about coming clean like I did in Growing up Dead is that my ability to bullshit them just got slashed. And I choose to see that as a good thing. That said, my kids are eight, six, and three. Talk to me when they’re teenagers and I may be whistling a different dirge.

You mentioned that you’ve adapted Growing up Dead for the screen.  Was this your first go at a screenplay?  How’d the material adapt to the new form?

Peter Conners:  Yes, this was my first screenplay. It was a real challenge and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like with trying nonfiction for the first time – I was eager to tackle a new way of writing, and this offered that opportunity. Growing up Dead didn’t convert easily to screenplay because there isn’t a strong, distinct narrative arc to the book. So I had to pull out some key characters (Harry and Peter) and focus on a succinct period in time (their senior year of high school leading up to 1988 spring tour). The film will bring out those sociological aspects of 1980s suburban culture I talked about in the book while shaping a story that rings true, even though it’s 90% fictionalized. The screenplay is very much “based on the book” or “inspired by the book” as opposed to a pure adaptation. But the main thing is that – within this particular art form, the film form – the piece works. I think that it does. Now I stand back a little bit and learn about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. I’m working with some really sharp and passionate people who are as dedicated to bringing Growing up Dead to film as I am. It’s gonna be a good ride. 

What are you working on these days?

Peter Conners:  I’ve been swinging back and forth between working on the Growing Up Dead screenplay and finishing up my next nonfiction book which has been heavily research based. The book is called White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg and it will be published by City Lights in November 2010. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just paste in City Lights’ description of the book below. I’ve also recently finished my next poetry collection, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, which will be published by White Pine Press in spring 2011. As usual, I’m juggling projects and enjoying how they careen off of each other and what that does to my brain, my perspective, my life. That’s my window seat on the bus.

Here’s how City Lights describes my new book, White Hand Society:

In 1960 Timothy Leary was not yet famous — or infamous — and Allen Ginsberg was both. Leary, eager to expand his experiments at the Harvard Psilocybin Project to include accomplished artists and writers, knew that Ginsberg held the key to bohemia’s elite. Ginsberg, fresh from his first experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico, was eager to promote the spiritual possibilities of psychedelic use. Thus, “America’s most conspicuous beatnik” was recruited as Ambassador of Psilocybin under the auspices of an Ivy League professor, and together they launched the psychedelic revolution and turned on the hippie generation.

White Hand Society weaves a fascinating and entertaining tale of the life, times and friendship of these two larger-than-life figures and the incredible impact their relationship had on America. Peter Conners has gathered hundreds of pages of letters, documents, studies, FBI files, and other primary resources that shed new light on their relationship, and a veritable who’s who of artists and cultural figures appear along the way, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Thelonious Monk, Willem de Kooning, and Barney Rosset. The story of the “psychedelic partnership” of two of the most famous, charismatic and controversial members of America’s counterculture brings together a multitude of major figures from politics, the arts, and the intersection of intellectual life and outlaw culture in a way that sheds new light on the dawn of the 1960s.

Lastly, what’s some of the best writing advice you’ve received over the years and how did you use it?

Peter Conners:  It’s sort of bleak, but my favorite college professor told me not to be a writer. He told me I was too smart for it and it was road of misery. I used the advice by ignoring it but never forgetting it. It has evolved to this little gem: If you don’t need to write, don’t do it. It’s sort of a mini-MFA course in 9 words. Young writers will either heed it or they won’t. It doesn’t much matter. If you don’t need to write, then don’t. But if you do, then do. And good luck to you.

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