The Grateful Dead were decades ahead of their time

A Grateful Dead fan wears a shirt commemorating the band’s farewell tour. Stephen Lam/Reuters

Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Grateful Dead performed a farewell series of shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field, celebrating 50 years as a band.

Reading about these final sets brought me back to the 1970s, when I attended a New Hampshire summer camp as a boy.

During those summers, I’d noticed that my counselors were steeped in the culture of the band. It wasn’t just endless discussions of shows, songs, versions of songs and surprising set lists (Would they ever play Dark Star? Would Phil ever sing again?); it was also a dedication to the ethos of understated generosity, environmental stewardship and a nonjudgmental attitude to other people’s lifestyles.

That was the spirit of the band and their fans, known as Deadheads.

Even then, the band was an outlier in a music industry that has always enjoyed a fair dose of control over artists, imaging, marketing and ticket sales. And the almost stereotypical image of the money-grubbing music executive of the midcentury rock-and-roll era (exemplified by Tom Hanks’ character in the 1996 film That Thing You Do) seems, in retrospect, quite accurate.

It may be said that the Dead’s admitted inability to record clean, album-ready tracks caused major labels (and their marketing machines) to ignore the band. Either way, left to their own devices, they poured their efforts into their live shows, and into nearly nonstop touring. They also permitted fans to tape their shows and circulate the music freely.

While these practices seemed like the perfect embodiment of counterculture sensibilities, it was astoundingly prescient. By giving away their music, building a strong communication infrastructure for fans and supporting the rise of a unique fan culture, the Dead built something that weathered the internet-fueled music industry crisis, and the nearly uncontrollable circulation of songs and albums that accompanied it.

Fans – and sometimes entire families – would trail the band from city to city.

In the pre-internet days, Deadheads communicated by newsletters, which were either handed out at shows or delivered via snailmail. This growing community even attracted the attention of sociologists, such as UNC-Greensboro’s Rebecca Adams, who brought her students on tour with the band to study its fans and eventually published a book on the subject.

One of the enduring objects of fascination about the band was their ability to thrive without many album sales (relative to other highly successful bands of the time).

Today, all artists, I would venture to say, understand that the model for success in music is having people hear the music somewhere (anywhere) and attend live shows. The Grateful Dead employed this model years before artists like Moby and Sting licensed their songs for commercials and television shows in order for their music to be heard.

Indeed, The Atlantic published an article in 2010 that analyzed not only the band’s business acumen but also their ability to creatively cater to their fan base and reap the steady rewards.

And this is really the key. From the get-go, people were traveling to shows and trailing the group from city to city. Even the Grateful Dead’s approach to live performance was attuned to the fan’s experience: because the band changed its set constantly, because they improvised and worked as a unit of individual musicians, the results were unpredictable, full of tense drama and anticipation.

The audience responded with astounding loyalty and devotion. There was a reason my Deadhead friends’ music collections were piled high: each show was so different. No one collected tapes of live Rolling Stones shows in the same way. Nor did hordes of people tour with other bands in quite the same way.

Every Grateful Dead show had an element of intrigue: what would the band pull off? 'Jerry' via www.shutterstock.com

As many Grateful Dead fans and historians point out, a shift occurred in the 1980s, when the Dead released one of their only mainstream hits, the song Touch of Grey.

Soon, new fans started attending the shows – fans who didn’t seem terribly concerned about the overall culture the band’s older followers had cultivated. These “touchheads” (as they were sometimes called) were often disruptive and rowdy, markedly out of step with the basic “vibe” of the older fans. Venues got larger and audiences more diverse as the Grateful Dead’s popularity grew.

But I would argue that this popularity was not simply related to the song Touch of Grey. The arrival of the touchheads marked an important change, not only in the life of the band and its fan base, but in the fate of the counterculture that emerged in the mid- to late 1960s.

The early 1980s were marked by the arrival of a new genre – classic rock – which canonized the sounds and bands that had terrified the parents of the baby boomers on FM radio. This even included some of the more accessible Dead songs like the aforementioned Touch of Grey, along with Casey Jones and Uncle John’s Band.

There was no longer the feeling that ‘60s-era groups like the Grateful Dead were creating revolutionary music catering to a group of outsiders. A place had been found in the American cultural landscape that seemed to declaw the movement through what political philosopher Herbert Marcuse has evocatively called repressive tolerance – the idea that the best way to defuse oppositional activity is not to ban it, but to suppress its subversive characteristics and integrate its tamer aspects into the mainstream.

Furthermore, what may have been a radical democratization of the music industry by the Dead had become emblematic of (ironically and certainly not by design) the Reagan-era championing of entrepreneurship, exemplified by the notion of DIY “bootstrap-pulling” that precludes any need for a social safety net.

If this sounds dangerously like someone claiming the Dead or their fans “sold out,” it should not. In fact, it should give pause to the very idea of “selling out” in the first place.

In the end, the Grateful Dead was often confused with a nostalgic yearning for the 1960s era and its ubiquitous costumes: tie-dye t-shirts, peasant blouses, patchouli oil.

But the Dead were actually pioneers of modern sound technology, early adopters of communication technology and innovators in the marketing business. And the crucial difference from their contemporaries (and many artists today) is that they never controlled the imaginations of their fans.

That a Deadhead culture organically developed was mostly due to the community of fans themselves. There is, really, nothing comparable within the music industry today.

One could cite something like Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” fan base as a direct descendant of the the Deadheads, but any attempt to anoint a fan base with a name simply strikes one as a top-down manipulation.

Instead, the ritualized behavior of Rocky Horror Picture Show fans probably most closely compares, in that they completely took charge. As Jerry Garcia once said to Hugh Hefner on Playboy After Dark, “Haight-Ashbury is just a street. It never was the thing that was going on.”

Just a street. 'Haight-Ashbury' via www.shutterstock.com

In July 1989, I attended a Dead show at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. It would be the last concert ever held at JFK, and the band ended up performing in a half-demolished shell of a stadium, which gave the whole show the feeling of being played in the Colosseum.

Beforehand, on a whim, my older brother and I bought a long string of multicolored lollipops at a candy store. They were called “Strip Pops” because they were individually wrapped, but connected to each other. I had the idea that we should black out the “S” and hand them out in the parking lot of JFK Stadium.

They were a hit. (After all, who wouldn’t want a “trip pop”?) My brother also carried a portable stove with him and made free cheeseburgers for anyone who wanted them.

If you tuned into any Dead show, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that whether it was giving away “trip pops” or trading cheeseburgers for lemonade, the same communal acts (often tinged with inside jokes) took place in various forms at Dead shows across the country.

You knew where you were, and for many fans, you knew you were at home on the road. And that’s what the Dead always seemed to be about.

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