Show Me Something That’s Built to Last: A Brief and Biased Retrospective on the Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead
Shout! Factory

On December 31, 1978, a giant joint descended from the rafters of the Winterland Ballroom to ring in the New Year. As concert promoter Bill Graham (or Father Time, as he pretended on most New Years Eves) rode the burning embers towards the stage, a slow countdown led the way for the Grateful Dead to kick off their three set, nearly four-hour show. It was to be a long performance even by Grateful Dead standards, and it didn’t start until midnight.

Perhaps in no better way is the Dead’s spirit described than in those first few moments of the show as the band played “Sugar Magnolia” and celebratory balloons engulfed the beloved, decrepit ballroom on its closing night. For the Dead and their fans, every night was a cause for celebration, every concert a reason to travel thousands of miles, every chance you got was a reason to get high.

That show, dubbed The Closing of Winterland, was one of the first Grateful Dead performances caught on film and, in April, was re-released as part of a 14-DVD box set of Dead videos, All the Years Combine. The set is essentially a chronology of the Dead’s life in video, beginning with the 1974 Grateful Dead Movie and ending with the four View From The Vault videos, which showcase the Dead towards the end of the career — playing large, stadium-size venues in the late ’80s and early ’90s. For Deadheads who don’t already own these mostly previously-released discs — and even those who do — this is a must-own anthology complete not only with literally days worth of music, but also brief glimpses into the Grateful Dead’s life on the road and back stage, with bonus footage that has likely been long forgotten.

Video production quality when Closing of Winterland was made wasn’t great, and the graphics themselves are almost embarrassing — similar to those of Pong, released only six years earlier — but the energy of the band’s performance is captured as fully as it could be. Before this, the Dead were weary of appearing on screen, worried the medium would not fully encapsulate what they and their fans experienced in the moment of a concert. Granted, LSD cannot penetrate video, and the Grateful Dead’s music certainly is an enjoy-in-the-moment type of thing. But after they saw that the video was at least somewhat successful, the Dead — particularly Jerry Garcia — embraced the medium with open arms and even started using it as yet another art form to enhance the overall Grateful Dead experience. Over the remaining two decades of their career, the Dead would film many of their shows, adding psychedelic images in post-production. Many of those, along with plenty of bonus footage, are included in the new release.

The videos themselves range from straight ahead concert footage to psychedelic imagery. Though the first ten years of their career is mostly absent from the footage (aside from a few still photos sprinkled throughout certain sections), there is still representation of the band in nearly every reincarnation — which can be tracked most easily by a quick glance at Jerry Garcia, or by noting the person beyond the keyboard. The Grateful Dead Movie shows a young, thin, dark-haired Garcia invigorated and healthy. Keith Godchaux sat behind a piano, having taken over for Ron “Pigpen” McKernan when he was hospitalized in 1971 (he later passed away in 1973). The 1978 Closing of Winterland shows Garcia looking a bit haggard — his long hair graying and stringy. Not much had changed in the way of his guitar playing — he had even gotten better in those years and had written several tunes that would become staying Grateful Dead staples — but there is no denying that the constant touring and lifestyle had taken a physical toll on the front man. Godchaux was still on keyboard at the time, but would depart the band in 1979 to be replaced by Brent Mydland. Godchaux passed away one year later in 1980.

Grateful Dead – “One More Saturday Night”

The 1980 Radio City Music Hall performance, titled Dead Ahead was the first on video to feature Mydland, and also showed a much healthier Garcia than two years prior. It was also the first time the Dead would showcase an all acoustic set on video — providing a less raucous atmosphere in the famed theater (though that hardly stopped the freak-fest from freaking on the first Halloween of the decade). The disc also features comedians Al Franken and Tom Davis (both of Saturday Night Live at the time) who provide some stage banter and backstage interviews — proving both that the Grateful Dead had a sense for humor beyond music, as well as showing that their music had reached beyond the realm of the classic hippie.

For the next 11 years, Mydland would continue as the Grateful Dead keyboardist — the longest tenure of any keyboardist to play with the band. That decade is considered by many to have featured some of the best Grateful Dead songwriting and performances, though it was more widely believed that the mid-’70s were the apex. Nevertheless, it was during the ’80s that the Grateful Dead started to break out just a little bit: they moved into larger venues and garnered a more mainstream following, coming to a height in 1987 with the release of “Touch of Grey”. In each successive video of Mydland’s tenure, he is clearly more involved in the music than before — his distinctive vocals heard louder and more often, and his piano solos becoming longer. The band did not necessarily improvise less, but they certainly seemed to play with more focus and direction when Mydland was around.

It was also during that time that Garcia started to experience the beginning battles of what would eventually become a life-ending war with drug addiction. Though he had almost always used and advocated for the use of psychedelic drugs, he and his band mates turned to cocaine in the early ’70s to keep up with their constant on-the-road lifestyle. In the ’80s, Garcia found heroin. As his energy visibly slipped both on stage and off, he was forced into a rehabilitation facility by his band around 1985, only to fall back into the grasp of drugs and unhealthy living the next year – causing a brief, five-day coma. Though he would of course recover — relearning how to play guitar, and getting back on the road with the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band — this was obviously the beginning of the end.

But with the changes in Garcia’s health, and the keyboardist seemingly changing on a regular basis, just about everything else stayed largely consistent for the better part of the Dead’s nearly 30-year career. Guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir continued to play the role of the only true poster boy in the band, Phil Lesh experimented with his instrument more than any other bassist to that point, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman would continuously outperform each other night after night in their shared duties. And, perhaps most importantly, the audience that defined the Dead would continue to be just as weird as the day they were born.

Grateful Dead – “Touch of Grey”

It was that audience that was and still is one of the first things that come to mind when many people think of the Grateful Dead. The long hair and tie-dye are an iconic symbol of the scene created by and for a single band. In each and every one of the 14 discs in All the Years Combine, the clips of the audience are by far the most eye opening. No matter if it was a theater show early in the career or an early ’90s sea of people dancing throughout an entire football stadium, the freaks — as they warmly referred to themselves — were always out in full force. Perhaps at the beginning the freak show was a bit more pronounced, but the wild side is evident in literally every sunburned face in 1991 RFK Stadium, as shown on View From the Vault II. If anything, the average age of the audience had risen by a couple of years at that point — the faces just a bit more weathered, clothes a bit more torn.

From watching the videos, though, it’s clear that video could never have provided the full effect. From the band’s beginning in the mid ’60s when Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests served as their main stage, the Dead played their music as part of a community, a way to interact with their friends, and a way to push the trip just a little bit further than the chemicals could go on their own. When the band first started playing, there wasn’t much thought to the idea of recording, touring, or even doing anything beyond participating in the Acid Tests. A twenty-three-year-old Garcia was simply there to hang out with his friends. But, as the Acid Tests grew so did the popularity of the band. Soon, the Grateful Dead (originally known as the Warlocks) had to organize rehearsals, play gigs, and take the show on the road. It was the dedication of their friends and fans that proved they had something special.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – AUGUST 3: The Grateful Dead in concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday, August 3, 1994. Seen here is Bob Wier. (Image via Northfoto /

As their career progressed beyond the private party to playing at actual concert venues, allowing the band to make a living off their music, they still made sure that their shows felt like a community event — and both band and fans alike partook in the party together. Video, in its own way, was exactly the opposite: though it tried, it was still just a barrier between music connecting friends.

Though later the Grateful Dead would become the centerpiece and main driving force of an entire counterculture, when they first started playing they were simply a part of that larger movement. The Acid Tests were the impetus for everything. The parties were a boiling point of mind-altering drugs at a time when those drugs were both unknown and feared by a vast majority of Americans. The small group of San Franciscans who dared try LSD were a unique bunch to say the least. Picture your parents when they were kids, red-eyed, long-haired and dressed in bell-bottoms and tie-dye. The parties grew infamous quickly, rising in attendance but also garnering more attention from the police. Though LSD surely would have been criminalized anyway, Kesey’s grand parties may have sped the process up.

However, the eventual criminalization of the drug obviously did not stop its most ardent supporters from continuing to use it, and perhaps more importantly, advocate for it. As the Grateful Dead started to tour, the Merry Pranksters followed them (creating trips of their own along the way) in an effort to “freak out” any “normal” people they encountered. At the time the actions of the Pranksters — and the Dead themselves — were considered to be cutting edge cultural gold — at least by some. But today if you happened to see a tie-dyed school bus full of eccentrically dressed people going around trying to “freak people out”, even the most liberal of us would probably think, “what a bunch of fucking losers.” Their actions, as well as trippy paintings and wild swirling colors were then new and unique, as was the idea of challenging the establishment. Bob Dylan and the Beatles started to get more experimental around this time, and Andy Warhol was only beginning to show his work. Not until after the mid-’60s were anti-war protests considered an exercise in freedom of speech. Before that, it was just about as Anti-American as you could get. The late ’60s, as is common knowledge, were a time of national turmoil, change, and evolution, and though the Dead were not the only attraction their small circle in the Bay Area would prove to reach far beyond their geographical location.

Grateful Dead – “Uncle John”

The band’s growth in popularity over the next two decades was based both on the general need for change in the country as well as their driving motivation to do something different. If you’re talking about America together with progressive freedom, the Grateful Dead hold the ultimate comparison. Both musically and in their lifestyle, they allowed themselves to be free musically from anyone who came before them while also paying sincere homage to their predecessors.

Of all the people throughout America who were begging for change in the ’60s and ’70s, a certain number of them identified with the Dead’s message — rejoice in togetherness through music. And it was those people who followed in what is now considered to be a most drastic change in lifestyle. As is exemplified in The Grateful Dead Movie — discs one and two in this collection — against the advice (and the will) of parents, young people dropped everything to travel across the country seeing the same band play different shows in different venues in different cities, every night. It was similar to Jack Kerouac’s nomadic wanderings except with a different purpose: Kerouac’s exploration was based on the journey itself, Deadheads had a destination in mind. They spent their lives with a thumb out, just trying to get to the next show. When the Grateful Dead Movie was filmed in 1974, and originally released in 1977, the movement was in full swing. It was not yet the height of their popularity, but the Grateful Dead were already selling out theater shows and scaring parents around the country.

In their day, the Grateful Dead were starkly American — an amazing thought especially when you compare them to modern times. Today, a band that draws kids away from school, jobs, families and responsibilities is routinely shunned, censored, and laughed at. People actually suppress laughter, or try unsuccessfully to contain their shock when you tell them you’re taking a trip across the country to see a Phish show or two. But when the Dead were fresh, it was doing exactly that that was an exercise of the freedom you had as an American — whether or not your elders thought you were being ridiculous. And, just like it is today, the journey is a chance to see every inch of this beautiful country we live in — even if just for a night or two.

So, it makes you wonder: why wouldn’t the Grateful Dead capture this movement on film? Were they so wedded to the idea of being in the moment that they’d still refuse to preserve the moment for future generations? At first, they were. Thankfully, their stance changed. Even though they would still abstain from most television appearances, and only ever wrote a hit single by accident when “Touch of Grey” came out in 1987, the Grateful Dead adopted the use of film to preserve the memories they helped to create. Thankfully, these videos exist today to do exactly that.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – JUNE 20: The Grateful Dead in concert in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 20, 1992. From left, Phil Lesh, Bob Wier, Jerry Garcia, and Bruce Hornsby. (Image via Northfoto /