The Grateful Dead Are Dead, Long Live the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead didn’t seem to give a damn about the American dream and yet seems to have lived it—well, parts of it, anyway.

If you’re alive and breathing, you probably know about the Grateful Dead. You know about the formative years in the San Francisco Bay Area, the struggle to become more than a modestly successful act, the struggle to stay together as the group’s commercial success threatened to topple everything just as surely as drugs and internal bickering did. But that hasn’t kept the story from selling and this summer—as the collective reunites for its final gigs, ever—there’s a proliferation of Dead talk to go around.

No fewer than three books that chronicle the rise and aftermath of those Dead who were ever-so-Grateful have emerged this year and one documentary film, The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir, has become popular on Netflix. No one can count the newspaper and magazine ink spilled over the years, though The New Yorker profiled the band (Alec Wilkinson’s “Fare Thee Well“, by Alex Wilkinson, 8 June 2015), and stalwart supporter Rolling Stone delivered a passable cover story as the group prepared to take to the road (“Inside David Browne’s cover story” – link not available). The familiar part of the story remains intact.

The Grateful Dead came to an end in 1995 with the passing of Jerry Garcia. It was wasn’t that the band hadn’t endured tragedy before: taking a seat at the keyboardist bench with the San Francisco group almost guaranteed a trip to the morgue. But Garcia’s passing marked the spiritual death of the Dead and a movement that was in its final rattles during 1995’s so-called Tour From Hell. In subsequent decades there would be various permutations of the collective, tours that rolled around the land promising a vibe similar to Dead shows from days of yore, though the repertoire wasn’t always the same. From time to time ugly lawsuits reared their heads among the ranks of the remaining soldiers—including bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Weir—and suggested that among the things Garcia had been to the band were avuncular bandmate, focal point and, in the end, peacemaker.

When Garcia drew his last breath in a California rehab center at the end of a summer of discontent, the world was changing. The Internet was coming into its own, the American economy was gliding toward one of its absolute peaks, and the embers of grunge were dying down, marking the last time a regional musical style—real or pretend—would capture the imagination of the country and the world. The Dead could no longer rely on fans to keep their cool and had, since the late ’80s, attracted an increasing number of concert goers who came to shows to party and not necessarily to listen. This was a band that had survived Altamont, Reaganism (Twice! Once while he governed California and the second time when he took charge of the Oval Office.), in-fighting, rip-offs, addiction and the usual run of rock ‘n’ roll plagues, but it was being slowly driven into the ground by gatecrashers and, for lack of a better terms, nutjobs.

There was a growing tide of bands that worked a similar terrain as Garcia, Weir, Lesh and their company. Phish had recently emerged as a major force, Blues Traveler’s John Popper had brought together the H.O.R.D.E. Festival that was a pot-lover’s answer to Lollapalooza (and eclectic but not so eclectic as to lose the thread); Gov’t Mule was forming and soon a horde of bands, including String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic and others would dot the map of America each summer with high-energy shows and offshoot projects that, if not always modeled after The Dead, certainly benefited from the elder group’s legacy.

Garcia’s bandmates never seemed to know exactly what to do with their legacy: Weir largely avoided it, preferring to perform covers and other, deeper material in the musical settings he chose after the band came to an end. There was the 1998 configuration of the group, The Other Ones which featured Weir, Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart and, at other times, existed without Lesh but with drummer Bill Kreutzmann and most of the time without keyboardist Bruce Hornsby, though he was there at the start. In 2003, The Others Ones became The Dead and by that point it was fairly easy to discern which members weren’t getting along based on who happened to be in the band.

Interest in the band remained high, though, and the group sought to preserve its legacy. Although an impressive body of shows had been exchanged among a network of fans over the decades, and had inspired other acts to allow taping of their shows (Metallica, believe it or not, was one) without a constant grind of touring to support the band, this enterprise of free trading was amended as the band sought to benefit from its labors by issuing archival (soundboard) releases of its live shows. In the decades following the initial demise, short runs of live albums culled from various gigs made their way onto the market in various guises and allowed casual fans to more easily navigate the well-populated Dead waters, while guaranteeing an income stream for the members who made the music.

This last would come in the form of a deal the band signed with Rhino, allowing a steady stream of income for the core Dead members. Although certainly not the only deal of its kind among legacy bands it’s perhaps the only of its kind that is as expansive as the one the Dead holds, with archival audio and video recordings rolling out from the vaults on a basis that sates the appetites of hardcore Deadheads and provides enough ground for novices to graze upon. Some fans and armchair critics have argued that it’s peculiar that a band that once allowed fans to trade shows among themselves for free is now monetizing those shows. Others recognize it as a real gift, replete with gorgeous packaging and context-illuminating notes. Still others realize that for everyone in the band it’s a matter of survival.

Though the band’s studio albums were reissued in a few impressive boxed sets amended with various outtakes and such, there wasn’t a huge amount of material to cull from the vaults. The band was famously unsure of itself in the studio, and the records it recorded in that setting almost never sold well and rarely elicited strong critical praise. The two best studio albums, Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty (1970 and 1971, respectively) weren’t necessarily typical of where the Dead went or where they had been. In fact, these Americana-laden releases were almost thoroughly atypical. The group, heavily influenced by Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young), made valiant attempts at vocal harmonies, wrote (more or less) from the heart, and reverted to jug band and folk roots for songs such as “Ripple”, “Friend of the Devil”, and “Box of Rain”, all of which became songs that you would know even if you weren’t a Grateful Dead fan.

It was as if the band was opening up its DNA, giving its audience a glimpse of the very stuff they were made of, before moving on to headier passages on subsequent releases. In the coming years, listeners would be treated to Garcia’s forays into the acoustic world with Old and In The Way, New Riders of the Purple Sage (Lesh and Hart were there, too) and in its collaborations with David Grisman. But Garcia was a restless musician and he held vast appetites that ranged from folk and Americana to jazz and, of course, the avant garde (the world from which Lesh actually came).

Although the group continued to take chances on the live stage and, all the way through 1990 at least, they continued to have many nights of high musical ecstasy, and the studio albums had stagnated by the time that 1975’s brilliant Blues for Allah came along. Sure, there were fine moments on subsequent releases, but one could be fairly certain that they knew exactly what they were going to get from those recordings by the time they’d peeled off the shrink wrap.

In Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann chronicles his early years in the Bay Area and his eventual merging with Garcia and the others. Like the other band members, Kreutzmann seems to have been drawn to Garcia as if by magic. The guitarist’s unlikely charisma is the stuff of legend and in this regard, Kreutzmann doesn’t disappoint. Nor does he disappoint in letting us in on the outlaw spirit of the band.

Amid drug busts, shoot-outs (of sorts), break-ups, relocations, divorces, children, major tours, interventions, estrangements, and the lot, Kreutzmann learned how to cope with being a member of an iconic American band. Details about the band’s early years race by but never lack for specifics, and the casual tone of the narrative (thanks to help from writer Benjy Eisen) make Deal an easy read that never flags in energy even when dark clouds gather overhead.

And there are dark clouds: Garcia’s addiction wasn’t the only active one in the band. Kreutzmann recounts his own trips to rehab for alcoholism and other substance abuse problems as well as the untimely death of his mother and several of his peers, thanks to problems with drugs and drink. He doesn’t layer the narrative with hints of guilt over his past problems, but he doesn’t pretend that there weren’t bills to be paid for all the physical and psychic damage done. The pages that unfold in the days and years after Garcia’s death are especially difficult to work through as the gifted drummer seemed to have lost touch with his greatest musical impulse.

Those somber moments are offset with tales from the band’s trip to Europe in 1972 (arguably the greatest moment in Grateful Dead lore) and Kreutzmann’s renegade charm, which dances off the pages time and again. So great is that charm in fact that his admonishments toward his mates often seem softer than maybe they really are. He reveals that he’s never been much for either Lesh’s or Weir’s songwriting, that he didn’t really want latecomer Vince Welnick in the band, and that he wasn’t all that keen on Hart rejoining the band in the ’70s after Hart threw himself into a self-imposed exile after his father—for lack of a more elegant term—ripped the band off royally.

A recent Rolling Stone profile suggested that Kreutzmann’s book was seen as a potential roadblock in the band finding harmony in 2015, but Weir admitted that he hadn’t read it and one suspects that after all these years there aren’t too many things that these men haven’t said to each other. Whereas Kreutzmann’s book in many ways adds to the myth surrounding him the documentary examining Weir, The Other One, does the opposite.

For some, Weir may have seemed the strangest, most remote member of the group—the youngest and best-looking Dead, he was apparently the subject of endless ribbing (some of it apparently continuing to this day) and capable of charming virtually every woman who attended a Dead show. But there was always something a little strange about him as a younger man, a kind of quietness and formidableness that suggested there was real danger lurking within. And maybe there was. By his own admission he was a little bit of a juvenile delinquent. Raised in a tony area by the Bay, Weir was adopted shortly after birth and struggled with dyslexia and authority for most of his formative years.

What’s evident throughout the film is the special bond he felt with Garcia. It’s mentioned more than once in the film that the band became the young guitarist’s real family, and it’s easy to see that Garcia was more than just a bit of father figure to Weir. His friend’s death clearly haunts him and, interviewed amid Dead memorabilia, including photos and artifacts related to Garcia, it’s easy to think that it was perhaps the greatest and most significant relationship he would ever know. With hair turned white, his glance seems less probing, more inquisitive and more good-natured. You get the sense that he’s comfortable living a somewhat quieter existence and that his days as a rock ‘n’ roll wild man have been well-tempered by marriage and children.

Moreover, his remarkable wit comes to fore in these frames and our appreciation for him deepens. The film lacks the overly-celebratory tone found in too many rock docs and instead seeks to portray the man as he is. Weir may surprise some with his modest attitudes (he notes that he has “limited sympathy” for drug dealers and tells his daughters that there are stories he will reveal to them only when they are older), but it’s worth noting that he has probably also seen the downside of an overly-permissive culture one too many times. In the end, The Other One is a balanced and touching portrait of a man who will perhaps remain forever everyone’s kid brother.

Weir’s position as Kid Eternal is evident throughout David Browne’s excellent So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. Browne, one of the more skilled biographers of our time, tells the story of the Dead through the prism of significant dates in the group’s history, ranging from the early years in the Bay Area to a post-Garcia moment in New York City in 2009. If the details are by now familiar, the prose in which these stories are rendered isn’t.

Browne has a fiction writer’s knack for continuous revelation such that the pacing and details allow us to see the significance of related events for the first time—there’s a humanness to the reporting that immerses us deep into the land of Garcia and Co. and keeps us clamped to the edge our seats as though we have no idea that 1995 will spell The End. Moreover, Browne never fails to appreciate the reader’s intelligence and eschews a contemporary tendency to repeat key details across chapters as though the reader has skipped through previous pages or taken a long, strange trip since two chapters back. Browne knows whom he’s writing for—the diehard and the novice alike, sure, but smart novices and fickle diehards who will have to believe that the author was a molecule on the wall for the whole ride.

He manages to capture the joy and insanity of the 1972 tour, the sadness that befalls the band with the passing of Pigpen, and the darkness that surrounded the group in its final hours, without ever dwelling too long on any one detail. He’s aware of Garcia’s drug addiction but refuses to moralize or sensationalize and he’s very much in tune with the band’s idiosyncratic humor. Moreover, his words seem to fully capture the tone and timbre of each decade chronicled here, so much so that we almost feel as though we are living through those times once again. And although Dead archivist Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead will probably remain the definitive statement on the band for some time to come, Browne’s work surely breathes fire at its heels and is far and away the best of the volumes published this year on the matter.

Which leads us to Peter Richardson’s promising but ultimately under-developed No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. Richardson manages to tell this story almost as well as anyone, though he dwells for what seems like far too long on the group’s glacial rise. His chronicles of the group’s early days Up North are painstaking, to the point where one wonders why he didn’t do a day-by-day analysis of the band from, say, 1965-1975. But details don’t always make for revelation and neither do titles.

What we might have hoped for was a glimpse at the context of what made the Dead the Dead back then and then what allowed the group to continue to rise through the decades. Sure, it’s hinted at, and Ronald Reagan may be common connection in the group’s history, but it’s underplayed here. In fact, one wonders if we might not have been held in more rapt attention if there had been an attempt to look for the parallels between California in the late ’60s and America in the ’80s.

Richardson hints at some of those lurking shadows and, somewhere in the second or third part of the book, he becomes almost uncomfortably fascinated with details that, by that time, seem only tangentially related. In the book’s third act the chronology becomes muddled and we’re tossed about like Billy Pilgrim as the narrative moves toward its close. Richardson’s take on the band is far from out-and-out bad: There’s plenty to be learned from in these pages, even if the structure isn’t always as sound as it could be and the plot gets a little tangled along the way.

What each of these three books begs for is for someone to do a closer analysis of the band’s life in the ’70s, in the years when it was rising but not yet at its peak, when America was undergoing transformations and revealing revelations, when it was not yet forced to reconcile its tumultuous acid-tinted past, when Vietnam was something that was not yet talked about in polite company, when there was no wall with the names of the (other) dead, when it still seemed like love and drugs could be somewhat carefree, even in the aftermath of Manson.

Surely these aren’t the final words to be written about the Grateful Dead—especially since, as of this writing, the group isn’t out of its 50th year. But these are fine artifacts of the story so far, and serve as great reminders of an act that didn’t seem to give a damn about the American dream and yet seems to have lived it—well, parts of it, anyway.