A beginner's guide to the Grateful Dead
Welcome, newbies, to Grateful Dead fandom
Words— Kathryn Jezer-Morton
The Grateful Dead put out two good albums* in their 50-year career, both of which were released the same year, 1970. They have recorded one “hit”** (if you’re using the term loosely). Their lead singer, genius guitarist, and emotional axis, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995 of complications from heroin addiction and diabetes. Their fan base of hippies and ageing dads is hard to take seriously.
And yet here they are, back on tour, selling out stadiums in their new incarnation as Dead and Company. John Mayer, who plays Jerry’s parts in the latest lineup, has launched a very shrewd apparel collaboration with Online Ceramics, capitalizing on the Dead’s long and fascinating tradition of fan-designed graphics and apparel. The kaleidoscopic Venn-diagram of Grateful Dead fans has thus come to include a new and very unlikely bubble: young streetwear aficionados.
To all the new fans, welcome! People will make fun of you if they find out you’re a fan of the Grateful Dead, but they’ll also wonder what you know that they don’t. Privately, they will ask themselves if you’ve tapped into a deeper, clearer well of coolness than they will ever be able to access. They’re right to wonder this, because you have.
The Dead are bootleg
There is a satisfying irony in the Dead’s new streetwear dimension, because the streetwear industry relies on the idea that authenticity and limited access is important, and the Dead’s popularity has always been based on the band’s support of bootlegging in all its forms. Streetwear believes that something is valuable if it’s hard to find. The Grateful Dead gave it away for free, constantly.
They did this by actively encouraging their fans to tape their live shows and trade them among themselves. This tape-trading practice became a vast and sophisticated informal economy, which some people argue formed a kind of ideological precursor to the internet. The band also encouraged fans to create their own T-shirt designs and sell them in the parking lots outside the shows. These “lot shirts” vary in quality, but the good ones are highly sought-after collector’s items.
The Dead placed no restrictions on recording their shows, and their live performances were where they made their best music. Most fans don’t listen to albums much (like I said, there are only a couple good ones) but rather identify themselves as fans of particular eras of live shows. To find live shows, search for “Dick’s Picks” on the streaming platform of your choice. No jokes, please. Dick was the band’s leading tape archivist, and in 1993 he began releasing his “picks” of the best show recordings. There are now 36 volumes of picks. Or, search for shows to stream directly from archive.org, a free file-sharing site pioneered by Deadheads. The band’s sound has a handful of identifiable eras, and although there’s no science to this, here’s a basic chronology:
1965-1969: Early old-time Americana-sounding Dead, pretty good but not what they’re famous for (Try this show: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, August 23 1968)
1970-1971: Early classic rock n’ roll Dead (Try Dick’s Picks Volume 4, from the Fillmore East in New York City, February 14-15, 1970)
1972: The year they toured Europe and released the great “Europe ‘72” show recordings
1972-1974: Epic Wall of Sound speaker system years; many people’s favourite shows. This one, from Veneta, Oregon in August of 1972, is sometimes known as “the Sunshine Daydream show” because of the insane jam at the end of “Sugar Magnolia.”
1975: The year they took a hiatus from touring and released their album Blues for Allah, which has cool album art but is not good.
1976-1978: The “Keith and Donna” years, referring to Keith and Donna Godchaux, a keyboard player and backup vocalist, respectively. Donna gets a lot of disrespect because some of her vocals were truly horrible, but these years are considered by many to represent the band’s peak. The “best show ever” (this is highly and insufferably disputed, obviously) was May 8, 1977 at Barton Hall at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This is a good show to start with if you don’t know where to start. Great set list, amazing solos by Jerry, but not too noodly. (This show is on Spotify under its own name, not as a Dick’s Pick.)
1979-Jerry’s coma (1986): This is the synthy, 80s-sounding Dead, which some people really like. In 1986, Jerry fell into a five-day-long diabetic coma that almost killed him, and after he woke up, he had to re-learn to play guitar. He returned to the stage five months later. Then they wrote their one and only radio hit, Touch of Gray. Try this show from June 30 1985.
Post-coma to 1990: This brings us to the passing of Brent Mydland, a great and longstanding keyboard player, who died in 1990. Try this show from July 1989.
1990-Jerry’s death (1995): The later years. They were all getting old at this point, and Jerry’s voice has gotten thinner, but the shows continued at full force, and you can’t equate the later years with a period of decline. Try this show from Philadelphia’s Spectrum, September 1993.
The Dead are the internet
Tape-trading was analog file-sharing, and sharing Dead shows was among the early tests of ARPANET, the network precursor to the internet. Deadheads at the ARPANET lab at Stanford University linked up with Deadheads at the MIT Media Lab in the early 1970s and began trading show recordings, and thus a connection was made that evolved into BBS and UseNet online bulletin boards, which evolved into today’s internet framework. John Perry Barlow, one of the Dead’s longtime lyricists, coined the term “cyberspace.” He wrote the highly influential “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996, arguing that cyberspace should have a sovereign governing body apart from any nation, based on the golden rule.
The Dead are country
Just like great improvisers like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, the Grateful Dead’s music is deeply rooted in traditional musical conventions. The Dead, and Jerry in particular, were avid scholars of early American folk, bluegrass, and country music, and their catalogue is packed with melodic and lyrical references to early American music. All of the members had side-projects throughout the band’s history, but no one played more music than Jerry Garcia, whose bluegrass recordings with David Grisman and the band Old and In the Way belong to the bluegrass canon, and whose genre-defying collaboration with keyboardist Merl Saunders are an incredible synthesis American musical traditions.
The Dead defied a brand identity
It’s hard not to think of bands as brands, and try to come up with taglines that sum up their entire sound and ideology. A lot of bands lend themselves easily to branding -- Drake does his own branding with lines like “I only love my bed and my momma, I’m sorry,” and Ariana Grande’s high ponytail should be trademarked if it isn’t already -- but the Dead do not. Their iconic skull and roses and dancing bears are trademarked, but they’re more symbols of their fanbase than of the band itself. If anything, the Grateful Dead’s brand is a commitment to shared open access, which is only becoming more radical as our culture’s obsession with authenticity and elite status signalling grows stronger.
Further reading and watching
Deadhead, by Nick Paumgarten (The New Yorker, November 2012)
Long Strange Trip (Documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev, 2017)
Festival Express (Documentary directed by Bob Smeaton and Frank Cvitanovich, 2004)
*Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, don’t @ me
**Touch of Gray, which was released in 1987 and peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts.