[26 January 2010]
When talk turns to who deserves the title of Great American Rock Band, the cross-pond equivalent of the Beatles or the Stones, a few names crop up again and again, like a loop of feedback from a Marshall stack. The usual suspects include The Beach Boys, the Beastie Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, the Pixies, R.E.M., the Replacements, and Sly and The Family Stone. To be sure, all are worthy contenders. But when it comes to which band has made the most lasting impact on today’s musical landscape, the proto-psychedelic pioneers from the Bay Area known to their fans as the Dead are in a class of their own.
And most of that illustrious 30-year history — the long, strange trip, if you will — is detailed in all its day-glo glory in Chronicle Books’ project, the Grateful Dead Scrapbook. With text by former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (made famous in the movie, Almost Famous), this scrapbook more than lives up to its name with its jam-packed treasure trove of memorabilia that you can actually hold in your hands. Reproductions of everything from backstage passes and bumper stickers to set lists and newsletters are tucked into pockets at the end of each chapter, documenting the evolution of this uniquely American band. The rare artifacts alone make this book a must for every tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead, as the band’s fans were known.
And for those with only a passing knowledge of the band, or whose knowledge begins and ends with the hit songs “Truckin’” or “Touch of Grey”, this scrapbook serves as a Grateful Dead primer, albeit one that paints that history in broad strokes. Fong-Torres knows this material well. After all, he witnessed first-hand the evolution of the Dead from jug band, to merry acid pranksters, to kings of the road, to tragic dissolution. And he got to interview Jerry Garcia, the legendary axeman and leader of the band who died in 1995, on more than one occasion for Rolling Stone. Those interviews, along with others that feature Garcia and the band, are included on a CD that comes with the book.
And for those who take this rag-tag band of brothers lightly, think again. Not only did they write a songbook-and-a-half worth of great songs covering a wide spectrum of American music, but they also made a huge impact on the culture of music. Take any modern phenomenon that we associate with the digital age, and, in all likelihood, the Dead was doing it long before all those zeroes and ones started clogging our hard drives.
File-sharing? The Dead opened that Pandora’s box way back in 1984 when it created a special section at concerts to allow fans to freely record its shows and eventually trade them, although doing so through the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t nearly as efficient as broadband. Still, the Dead was one of the first bands to realize the value of “free”, especially as it relates to fan loyalty and interest which that leap of faith can foster.
Touring as a primary source of income? The Dead was the first to milk that cash cow, too, and the band’s model of making every show an event unto itself — a spectacle, complete with state-of-the-art sound and lighting — is one that continues to sustain many a modern band in the wake of the CD’s demise. Just ask a band like Wilco.
In fact, the Dead was one of the first groups to completely turn its back on the recording industry — first with the launch of its own short-lived label in the early-’70s, and then by going years at a time without releasing any albums of new material, or even having a big-label contract. And much to the dismay of the recording industry, this lack of output did little to dampen enthusiasm for the Dead. As it turned out, it was one of the top-grossing touring acts, year after year, throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
Fong-Torres does an admirable job of balancing both the musical and cultural elements of the Grateful Dead story. There’s not a lot of original research, but Fong-Torres effectively culls the pertinent information from a wide array of source materials. One of the book’s better features are the sidebars in each chapter that dissect a different Dead song that’s emblematic of a period in the band’s history, and trace the genesis of the tune with quotes from the creators, themselves. These sidebars give readers an idea of how many different, sometimes disparate, influences the Dead drew on to create music that was truly unique and utterly American.
Like the pioneers who opened up the West and fulfilled America’s Manifest Destiny, the Grateful Dead blazed trails that created new possibilities and opportunities — ones that bands before them never even contemplated, and which those who followed were able to use to their advantage. At the heart of this approach were an appetite for and a willingness to take risks, musically and otherwise, as well as a deep connection with fans who were open to that experience, and eager to go along for the ride.
The late, great concert promoter Bill Graham put it best when he said that the Dead “are not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” And that’s what makes the Grateful Dead the Great American Rock Band, and the Grateful Dead Scrapbook such a compelling read.