Grateful Dead – They’re (Likely) Not Who You Thought They Were

(Disclaimer: To any real Deadheads out there, this article has some shameless references to song lyrics and other Grateful Dead items by an admitted non-member of your club.  But, in the spirit of inclusiveness, I’m writing about your favorite band in a way that hopefully sheds light on why you’ve been such loyal followers for five decades – so that others may understand.)

 

The past two weeks in Chicago (where I happen to live) have been eventful as always.  In the span of the past 14 days, the city held its annual premier food fest, the Taste of Chicago (in which the R&B legend Frankie Beverly performed with his group Maze) at Grant Park.  Other musical performers there included soul songstress Erykah Badu, the rock band Weezer, and the alternative rock band, Spoon.

The city also played host to several neighborhood music festivals (as it does every summer) including the Square Roots Festival in Lincoln Square.  That five-stage marathon music-and-beer event took place from July 10 – 12 and included about 30 different performers (a mix of local indie bands and faux world artists), none of whose names you’d likely be familiar with, but – as with many of Chicago’s music fests – artists worth checking out, especially when the price of admission is just $10 (which goes to a charity) plus the cost of the Divvy bike-ride or CTA fee to get you there.

And this weekend, July 17-19, practically in my back yard (if I actually had one), the “Taste of River North” food, music and arts festival is happening (I found this out the hard way on Friday when I had to spend an extra $4 on taxi fare as the driver navigated around the many blocked streets in my neighborhood upon my return from O’hare after a weeklong business trip).  Had I been quicker on my feet, I would have exited the cab when he met his first roadblock, paid the fare then, and walked the three or four blocks home with bags in tow.

But I digress.

Preceding all those events was the granddaddy festival of them all.  And there were probably more granddaddies (per capita) in attendance than at any of the other events I mentioned.  Indeed, it was the “last” concert performances of the venerable jam band, the Grateful Dead, whose 50-year anniversary “Fare Thee Well” tour made its last stop at Soldier Field for three nights July 3-5.  The concert set and broke attendance records for the Chicago Bears’ stadium with numbers topping 70,000 each night.  In all, this farewell tour, with earlier stops in Santa Clara, CA, for two nights, garnered about 360K in total attendance, and about $50M in box-office gross.

One of the Grateful Dead’s performances at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 2015.

But all that’s been well documented by now.  I didn’t attend any of the shows, and I’m admittedly not a “deadhead” (for the unenlightened, that’s their legion of dedicated fans that – for much of the band’s existence – traveled from near and far to follow the band as it traversed the country), but I saw some of the frenzy as thousands of deadheads dotted the streets of downtown Chicago as well as various stores, restaurants and other local venues I visited during the week.  In an admitted display of typecasting, they were noticeable for their multi-colored tie-dyed shirts among other telling features (there was nary a black man or woman among them – although, I’m sure some were at their shows).

Now, I’ve always known of the Grateful Dead and many of my regular readers have at least heard of them, even if you’ve never heard their music (which I’m listening to now and I’ll get to in a minute).  Their place in rock music history is undeniably legendary.

But a lot of people may not really “know” the Dead (admittedly, I fall in that group).  However, I’ve always been intrigued by the band and its following, and with the benefit of research, including talking to self-proclaimed deadheads, reading personal accounts of concert attendances or life-altering experiences involving one of their shows or their music, and reading professional journalists’ accounts of their history (and, of course, Wikipedia), I’ve been enlightened further.

 

So allow me to introduce some of my regular readers to them…and maybe dispel some longstanding myths along the way.

The Grateful Dead, which actually disbanded in 1995 after the death of its lead guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia, were not a band whose music celebrated the occult, despite their name and popular logos, which contained variations of skeletal images, including those used on many of their album covers (to counter this, they did have a logo featuring five “dancing bears,” although the group’s late sound man, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, claimed the bears are clearly marching in step, not dancing).  The band actually celebrated life and living, and in fact embraced diversity of cultures.  Even their music reflected it, with the band merging several genres into its repertoire, including (primarily) blues, rock, bluegrass, folk, reggae, jazz and country.  Even disco crept into their repertoire (1978’s “Shakedown Street”), although their most ardent fans likely won’t acknowledge that the song is clearly disco.

The “Dancing Bears” logo was used on the back cover of the Dead’s History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice) album. It was inspired by the late Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who was a sound man for the group.

They were the original “jam band,” often performing long, extended takes (like 20 minutes long) on their songs in seemingly impromptu fashion.  They also rarely performed the same song set from one night to the next at the same venue.  This likely contributed to the deadhead following that included fans following them from city to city to see them perform multiple times.  This no-repeat song policy prompted criticism of the Chicago shows this month, where they were apparently forced to rely on a weaker part of their repertoire (i.e., songs from the 1980s and ’90s) by the second night (Saturday, July 4th) because they had performed the “better” material the previous night.

Back to the diversity thing for a moment, not only was this complex, yet simple American band hard to pigeonhole into any particular musical category, they might also surprise you with what and whom they aligned themselves.  For instance, original band member Bill Kreutzmann, according to one person who was in attendance (and much to that person’s chagrin), made statements at one of the concerts in support of the recent Supreme Court decision involving marriage equality.  Indeed there were several deadhead subcultures, including “Gay Deadheads,” “Jews for Jerry” (honoring deceased founder and former leader Jerry Garcia), “Wharf Rats” (a support group for those needing to remain sober or drug-free while enjoying the Dead) and “Tapers,” or those who would famously record the Dead’s live shows for later enjoyment or for selling on the black market.

 

The Grateful Dead supported President Obama’s first campaign for the White House in 2008.

The Grateful Dead also found a powerful ally in President Barack Obama (or maybe he found one in them).  The surviving four core members (founders Kreutzmann along with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh; second drummer Mickey Hart joined the original members in 1967) famously campaigned for his presidency in 2008 then performed at one of the president’s Inaugural Balls in 2009.  In turn, the president (or a staffer) penned a farewell to the band that was included in the program for at least one of its last Chicago concerts.  You’ll likely not be surprised about what other former U.S. president and first lady (who is now a 2nd-time presidential candidate) are also deadheads.  And, yes there are Republican deadheads, too…staunch ones.  (Look up “deadhead” on Wikipedia to get a list of famous self-proclaimed members of the club.)

The Grateful Dead’s roots trace back to Palo Alto, California where they were formed in 1965.  They were immediately associated with the psychedelic, anti-establishment counterculture (i.e., the hippie movement) of the time.  And although that movement helped accelerate the social changes that brought about civil rights for blacks and certain women’s rights, it also carried with it experimentation with mind-altering drugs.  Hence, one myth I won’t be able to dispel about the group’s members (or many of its followers) is their association with those illicit drugs.  Several of the band’s members succumbed to their alcohol and drug addictions, including founders Garcia (in 1995) and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (in 1973).  Their live shows were well-known for the smoke that “filled the air” and had everyone ready for a “long, strange trip” as the performances would ensue. (Yes, those were two shameless lyric usages.)

Despite their cult-following beginnings which later saw the Dead grow to iconic status, the band’s shows were actually more legendary than their record sales, unless you consider low record sales legendary, which one might for a band as popular as this one was.  According to one unconfirmed source (Wikipedia), the Dead have only sold 35 million records worldwide over the past 50 years.  There are artists who’ve outsold that amount with a single album (Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits albums have each nearly sold that many copies in this country alone).

And the Dead only had one top-40 single, 1987’s “Touch of Grey,” which debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart 28 years ago this week and ultimately reached #9 that September.  It was ironically their last of five Hot 100 singles (none of the other four peaked higher than #64).  Likewise, its parent album, In The Dark, was their only top ten and their biggest seller, peaking at #6 and going double-platinum.

And from a critical standpoint, there was nothing groundbreaking about what they did musically.  Many of the genres they performed preceded them.  As one writer put it, they weren’t the best at what they did, they were the only ones who did what they did…a reference to their non-genre-specific brand of music.

But the Dead, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, were never really about the commercialism aspect of rock and roll.  Hence they never really focused on singles, which in the music industry are typically used as markers to generate radio play and promote record sales.  I found this anti-commercialized stance to be a bit ironic as I watched the DIRECTV blimp circle repeatedly overhead Soldier Field as it flashed advertisements on its marquee while the Dead’s concerts played out below.  (DIRECTV simulcasted the concerts in pay-per-view fashion and the concerts are still available for paid streaming.)

The Chicago shows drew the ire of some longstanding deadheads who felt the “Fare Thee Well” thing was not what the original band would have envisioned with all its politicized endorsements, mainstream commercialism and lack of cohesiveness (some claimed the show lacked chemistry since the band rarely practiced together and had brought in floating members Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio of the band Phish to help them perform).  Others complained online about the city and venue that was chosen for this farewell reunion tour.

Indeed, the Dead, which stood for peace and for bringing people together, played its shows while the host city of Chicago recorded dozens of shootings and related deaths as has become the annual July 4th “custom” here.

However, despite those unfortunate circumstances and mixed reactions from loyal ‘Heads, the shows successfully brought to an apparent “end” a second final chapter of one of the most venerable American rock and blues and country and folk bands that ever existed.  And it happened in the city where Jerry Garcia had his last live performance before passing away 20 years ago this August.

So maybe now you know the Grateful Dead a little better.  I know I do.  But unfortunately, I won’t have the traveling and live experience that so many deadheads have had for close to 50 years.

That’s alright, because “I will get by.”  I can still go see one of the many offshoot bands that various members have formed over the years.  Or I can check out their music, as I have done for the past several hours that I’ve typed this.

To hear some of those Grateful Dead’s “songs to fill the air,” particularly those I consider my faves, please check out my special playlist by clicking here.  By the way, my three faves are “Ripple” and “Truckin'” (both from the 1970 American Beauty album) and, of course, the top-ten pop hit, “Touch of Grey.”

An advertisement for the Grateful Dead’s reunion “Fare Thee Well” concerts at Chicago’s Soldier Field, July 3-5, 2015.

DJRob

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