The Grateful Dead won’t die, in part because their fans - some of whom now work in the White House - won’t let them.
The band broke up in 1995 when Jerry Garcia, one of the greatest guitarists of his generation and the Papa Bear of Dead-dom, succumbed to a lifetime of excess. Infighting among the survivors made future collaborations highly unlikely. “It’s hard to say goodbye, it’s hard to let go, but the page got turned for us,” drummer Mickey Hart told the Chicago Tribune a year after the guitarist’s death.
But the Dead never went away, sustained by hundreds of archival recordings and a community of fans that stretched into every sector of society - including the administration of President Barack Obama. Two of the president’s senior advisers, David Axelrod and Pete Rouse, as well as deputy chief of staff Jim Messina count themselves among the legion of Deadheads.
The Obama team was instrumental in the band’s latest comeback as the Dead (no longer “Grateful,” alas). The estranged band members were invited to play an Obama rally in Pennsylvania last October, and things went so well that the core surviving members - guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Hart and Bill Kreutzmann - decided to keep rolling. They returned to play the Inaugural Ball last Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., and this month embarked on a 23-date tour. The touring lineup also includes singer-guitarist Warren Haynes (of Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band) and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (of Weir’s band Rat Dog).
After Garcia died, the survivors feuded over everything from digital bootlegging of the band’s archives to - what else? - money. A couple of reunions over the last decade, first billed as the Other Ones and then as the Dead, were hits at the box office (a 2003-04 tour raked in $18 million), but did little to quell personal tensions. Now, thanks in part to Obama’s efforts, the band is once again hitting the road and tentatively talking about writing new songs.
It remains to be seen if the latest reunion will be about more than just another payday. But what is indisputable is that the Grateful Dead was a band which both embodied its time (the band is practically synonymous with the hippie culture and the psychedelic music that flourished around it in the ‘60s) and was ahead of it. Long before the Internet was a factor in the way music was made, distributed and marketed, the Dead presaged its impact, and became a model for how bands could thrive in a digital age.
In 1994, technology expert Esther Dyson suggested that the ease with which digital content could be copied and distributed would require a new economic model for copyright-holders. They would have to “distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships.”
No band was better at selling “services and relationships” to its fans than the Grateful Dead, and no band understood better that free distribution of its music could be a pathway to building a bigger, more loyal audience that would reward the band’s trust.
Here’s how the Dead anticipated the future we now live in during its 1965-1995 lifespan:
_Free music: The Dead was among the first bands to encourage its fans to tape its concerts and distribute tapes to their fellow Dead-heads worldwide. A specially designated “tapers section” was set up at each show near the sound board, and fans brought increasingly sophisticated gear to document nearly every one of the Dead’s 2,000-plus concerts.
_Make the product unique: Garcia expressed disdain for the recording studio countless times - heresy in an era where the studio album became the centerpiece of music culture. Garcia insisted that live performance was the lifeblood of his band’s music, and created a template for the jam-band culture. The Dead’s studio recordings slowed to a trickle as the decades passed. Instead, the band focused on turning its shows into epic, four-hour must-see events for its followers. The Dead turned touring into an art form, a combination of hi-tech ingenuity and grassroots communication. The shows were infamous for their ups and downs, the possibility that the band could fail, but the sense of improvisation and spontaneity became an increasingly alluring alternative, especially in the highly choreographed MTV era. Fans paid to see multiple shows on the same tour, knowing that each would be one-of-a-kind.
_Who needs record companies? Though the Dead worked with major labels throughout its career, the labels had very little to do with the band’s inner workings. The Dead’s operation was essentially self-contained, a network of friends and associates from the San Francisco area who assumed various jobs within what would become a highly successful corporation, Grateful Dead Productions. The band’s mail-order service and later Web site, deadnet.com, became a gathering place for the Dead’s worldwide fan base and sustained the band’s legacy long after Garcia’s death.
_Sell direct to fans: The Dead released dozens of recordings from a bottomless stash of archives direct to fans, presaging the marketplace experiments of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. The Dead released only 13 studio albums in its 30-year lifetime. That relatively paltry number is dwarfed by dozens of live releases, including 36 volumes of the “Dick’s Picks” archival series alone. The series was named after archivist Dick Latvala, who ascended from the ranks of the taper’s section in the ‘70s to become one of the band’s most trusted lieutenants. These releases, which were promoted only through the band’s mail-order service and (later) Internet site, in many cases exceeded the quality of the band’s major-label recordings.
_The band as brand: The Dead dealt not just in T-shirts and hats, but in flip-flops and golf gloves. Frisbees, mugs, bar stools and license-plate frames. Key chains, a board game and socks. Magnets, patches and pins. Baby-clothes “onesies,” hoodies and a miniature pyramid. The band also spawned a cottage industry of books, DVD’s and even a syndicated radio show (“The Grateful Dead Hour”). The Dead became synonymous not just with a style of a music or a certain era, but with a way of life that transcended generations.
_Remix, remake, reinvent: Were the Dead the first modern rock band? Like all artists, the Dead borrowed freely from the music and traditions that preceded them. But a strong case could be made that no band worked with a wider palette or blended the colors more audaciously. By constantly reinventing itself through its music, the band remained relevant across the decades. Under the rubric of “American music,” the Dead mixed blues, country, folk, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, experimental and even classical music into a fluid framework built not only on deep knowledge of the past but a mischievous desire to reshape it. The band improvised its way through thousands of shows, and suggested that songs were not immutable artifacts, but organic entities that could be bent, folded and occasionally mutilated to suit the needs of the moment. In this respect, they anticipated the mix-and-match styles that would surface and flourish in the last few decades, from the cut-and-paste approach of hip-hop and collage artists such as Girl Talk, to the recombinant rock of Beck and the Flaming Lips. John Oswald’s 1995 studio manipulation of multiple incarnations of the Dead’s epic song “Dark Star” on the album “Grayfolded” is among the first widely recognized mash-ups.
GRATEFUL DEAD’S BEST ALBUMS
With a couple of key exceptions, the Dead is best represented on live recordings. Here’s a quick overview of the band’s best work on album, arranged chronologically:
“Live Dead” (Warner, 1969): Dissatisfied with its early studio recordings, the Dead made its fourth release for Warner Brothers a live recording, notable primarily for the first appearance on record of the band’s signature track, the side-long “Dark Star.”
“Dick’s Picks Vo. 4, Feb. 13-14, 1970, Fillmore East, New York” (Grateful Dead Productions, 1996): The full range of the Dead at its early best, with Ron “Pigpen McKernan” as the wild-card keyboardist and nasty blues vocalist.
“Workingman’s Dead” (Warner, 1970): A rarity in Dead annals - a tightly focused collection of melodic acoustic songs, representing the apex of the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter collaboration.
“Dick’s Picks Vol. 8, May 2, 1970, Harpur College, Binghamton, N.Y.” (Grateful Dead Recordings, 1997): The band blows its reputation for mellowness out of the sky with a biting performance, split into acoustic and electric halves.
“American Beauty” (Warner, 1970): A rich extension of the “Workingman’s Dead” emphasis on tighter arrangements, with strong songwriting contributions from Bob Weir and Phil Lesh complementing Garcia’s efforts.
“Europe ‘72” (Warner, 1972): The band in transition, with McKernan in his final days and newcomers Keith and Donna Godchaux on board, but in extraordinary form, never more so than on pairing of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.”
“To Terrapin Station: Hartford ‘77” (Rhino, 2009): Though the “Terrapin Station” studio album is mediocre, the live performances from that era are among the band’s most energized.
“Nightfall of Diamonds” (Arista, 2001): One of the best of the later-period Dead concerts, chronicling a spectacular wind-up to a 1989 stadium tour.