Just because you never traded bootleg tapes with strangers or dropped acid to experience that Timothy Leary whacked-out feeling, you can still appreciate the Grateful Dead.
When the Dead began their psychedelic trip back in the late 1960s, the media categorized their followers as lazy, counter-culture drop-outs. The reality: these devotees, known today as Deadheads, were just music-lovers that shared values and believed in the power of community, peace and love. Today, Deadhead culture and the band’s popularity is as relevant as ever. Even as the original fans age, new Gen Z disciples arrive each year to carry on the jams.
Flash back to San Francisco, 1965. The original lineup, calling themselves the Warlocks, formed from the remnants of Palo Alto band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and Bay Area folk group the Wildwood Boys. After learning of another group called the Warlocks, the band became the Grateful Dead overnight. The story goes that guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia picked the band’s name randomly from the dictionary.
The earliest gigs under this new moniker occurred at Ken Kesey’s infamous Acid Test parties. Founding members were: Garcia; Bob Weir (rhythm guitar/vocals); Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (harmonica, keyboards/vocals); Phil Lesh (bass) and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Robert Hunter and Mickey Hart joined the group in 1967.
The Grateful Dead were a free-flowing fusion of folk, rock, soul, blues and jazz, and their improvisational approach to the music created a new classification in the lexicon: a "jam band." A Dead concert was all about the songs, the feelings, and the interplay between musicians. The jams mattered, not perfection.
Playing live was where the Grateful Dead made their money (they were one of the top grossing touring acts for decades), playing some 2,200 plus concerts globally in its 30-year career. Deadheads recorded these shows, traded tapes, and followed the white line in VW vans from town to town to take communion with the group night after night. No two shows were the same. Songs meandered longer or shorter depending on where the music — and the Deadheads — led them on any given evening.
When Jerry Garcia died on Aug. 9, 1995, the remaining members said without their charismatic leader, the Grateful Dead (at least in name) was dead. However, the spirit of the band has carried on with the various solo projects, the Dead & Company (featuring some of the original band members) and countless jam bands.
The Dead defined an era. The band represented a subculture that influenced the mainstream for decades from lifestyle to fashion; from music to marketing. More than 50 years since the Grateful Dead started jamming, Deadheads are still grateful for the music.
How do you get into — but also get — the Grateful Dead? There is no one way. Like all music, to quote the prophet Robert "Nesta" Marley: "when it hits you feel no pain." The important thing with the Dead’s music is that you feel something.
With the release next month of a deluxe expanded and remastered version of Wake of the Flood (the band’s 1973 debut on Grateful Dead Records), here’s a primer on how to get into these merrymakers, who received a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Start that long strange trip with these five ways to appreciate — and get to know — the Grateful Dead.
Start With The Classics
Released just five months apart in 1970 Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are the touchstones. This pair of albums represented a shift for the band from its psychedelic roots to an Americana road of devotion; the influence of the Bakersfield sound is all over these songs. Do a deep listen of these records and hear some of the Dead’s best-loved classics and Dead show setlist staples for decades. Discover the beauty of the music, the complexity of the arrangements and the heartfelt harmony.
Workingman’s Dead, released in June 1970, opens with "Uncle John’s Band" — one of the band’s most well-known songs and most oft-covered — it was also the band’s first chart hit. Among the rest of the eight songs here, "Casey Jones," about a train engineer speeding down the tracks "high on cocaine," is another classic.
American Beauty, the band’s fifth studio record, showcased the Dead at their creative heights and has gone on to double-platinum certification Arriving Nov. 1, 1970, the album is an Americana masterpiece that features acoustically-inclined country-rock numbers mixed with toe-tapping, groovy psychedelic jams.
Put on your headphones to truly savor the 10 songs that include live regulars: "Friend of the Devil," "Truckin,’" "Box of Rain," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Ripple."
Jam On: Appreciate & Listen To The Followers
The Allman Brothers Band are a close cousin of the Grateful Dead; they also loved to jam and fuse genres. In the 1980s and 1990s many other bands became Dead disciples, among them Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, Government Mule and the String Cheese Incident.
These groups continue the jam band tradition for new generations. This in-the-moment, letting the music go where it was meant to go, is their guidepost. The jam band spirit is evident in this 11-minute live version of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" recorded at the Fillmore East in 1973.
And, let’s not forget those Vermont boys Phish, who showcased their ability to jam with the best of the best during a string of 13 concerts, from July 21 to August 6, 2017 at Madison Square Garden (MSG), dubbed The Baker’s Dozen. Each night of the residency — which has continued, with slightly fewer dates, for years — featured a different set list with no songs repeated throughout this residency at MSG. Night four included a 29-minute jam of their song "Lawn Boy."
Keep On Truckin’: Follow The Long & Winding Road To Uncover More Dead Songs
The Grateful Dead released 13 studio albums and 77 live records. Their archives are vast and deep, and new live recordings are being released every year. The joy of getting into the Grateful Dead is that there is no rulebook. Just as their shows had no set structure, becoming a Dead fan has no defined musts. That said, here are another trio of songs you must listen to to better understand and appreciate this band.
"Friend of the Devil"
The second song from American Beauty, this acoustic number is a quintessential Dead track.
First released in 1975 on Blues for Allah, this rollicking number with its repetitive chorus telling you to "roll away the dew," is one of the Dead’s most catchy numbers. Just listen to the live version on Dead Set and try to disagree.
"Touch of Grey"
The Grateful Dead got another mainstream bump in the late '80s thanks to MTV. The video (the first ever official one made by the Dead) for this single from the 1987 album In the Dark, featured the band turned into life-size marionette skeletons playing this song live. The memorable refrain: "I will get by/ I will survive," and heavy rotation on TV, helped this song become a Top 10 Billboard hit (the group’s only Top 40 charting song of its 30-year-career), bringing the Dead’s music to a new generation.
Get Turned On & Tune Out
After listening to some of the Dead’s best live records like Europe ‘72 and Dead Set (1981), subscribe to the Grateful Dead’s YouTube channel. Make sure you’ve got time on your side; for if you go down this rabbit hole, there is no telling when you might resurface.
That's not a bad thing. Get a taste of what it was like to attend a Dead show. Watch a Dead concert from different decades like this show at the famed San Francisco Winterland on New Year’s Eve in 1978, this one from California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre in 1987, or this one from 1990 at Three RIvers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Read On! The Dead Are Far From Dead
Thousands of scholarly theses have been written — and continue to be published — on the band; college courses have been created and even a journal is devoted to discussing the cultural significance of the Grateful Dead. Marketing gurus have shared business lessons learned from the band such as the innovative ways they sold and promoted their music. Head to your local library or independent bookstore and ask what books they have on the Grateful Dead.
A quick Google search reveals dozens upon dozens devoted to this American band: from memoirs written by Dead members Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh, to academic explorations and longform odes by Deadheads. Ready to dive deeper? This film offers an in-depth look at Deadheads’ devotion and gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the connection between a fanbase and a band. And learn more here than you ever thought you wanted — or needed — to know about the Grateful Dead. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner