by Jesse Jarnow
Formed as a quintet in California in 1965, the Grateful Dead became as much a folktale as the story from which they drew their name. Fusing rock and roll, folk, and jazz with avant-garde, visual, and literary traditions--and virtually inventing a new way to play music in the process--they became one of the most popular, enduring, and influential bands in American history. Emerging as a vessel for a vibrant global counterculture, they would create an unparalleled original songbook through 30 years of recording and touring. Never playing the same setlist twice (except that once), the Dead’s musical legacy remains unfathomably rich, spread across a combined body of live and studio recordings. Creating an artistic ecosystem all their own, the Grateful Dead would transform American music and arguably even America itself.
After a comically disastrous stint in the Army and discharge in late 1960, Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals) had spent an intense four years immersed in traditional American music, turning himself into a virtuoso acoustic guitarist and banjoist. Assembling a jug band with his coworkers at the Menlo Park music store where he taught, the happily sloppy Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions plugged in and transformed into the Warlocks by 1965. Fronted by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (organ, vocals, harmonic, and later percussion), the blues enthusiast who’d urged them to go electric, the new band also included Garcia’s occasional substitute teacher Bob Weir (guitar, vocals) along with Bill Kreutzmann (drums, percussion). They debuted in May of 1965 and quickly drafted in Garcia’s friend, the lapsed experimental composer Phil Lesh (bass, vocals).
Discovering a single by another band called the Warlocks--most likely a Massachusetts garage rock quintet--the now-former California Warlocks resorted to stoned bibliomancy for their new name, picking “Grateful Dead” at random out of a dictionary. Appearing in many cultures, it is a folktale in which the protagonist resolves the debt of a deceased stranger, and later receives karmic repayment from their spirit incarnate: the Grateful Dead.
Debuting with their new name at the first public Acid Test thrown by author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in December 1965, the relationship cemented the band’s part in the multidisciplinary Bay Area arts scene starting to flourish around the use of still-legal LSD. The newly christened Grateful Dead found an unusual and appropriate patron in psychedelic chemist and sound engineer Augustus Owsley Stanley III, known as Bear, whose profits sustained them as they began to write their own songs and hone their conversational playing style in 1966. As the band settled in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, acid simultaneously became both illegal and a global trend, symbolically if not always literally. A collaborative tool for the Grateful Dead, psychedelics were an ingrained part of the band’s mythos, occasionally (but only occasionally) to their chagrin.
Signing to Warner Brothers in late 1966, they released their self-titled debut later that spring, consisting mostly of cover songs, with only one extended jam. Having already a set a course of constant musical change, it was in the next years that the Grateful Dead would begin to blossom both onstage and in the studio. Though they’d written (and abandoned) a number of ambitious songs, the band broadened their scopes in every way: building their live shows into jam-linked suites, using the recording studio as an instrument on the ambitious Anthem of the Sun (1968) and Aoxomoxoa (1969), and expanding their lineup.
Joining in autumn 1967 was full-time collaborator Robert Hunter (lyrics), an old friend of Garcia’s. Shortly thereafter, the band added Mickey Hart (drums, percussion), who helped the Dead realize their psychedelic musical vision with new rhythmic intensity and commitment to practice. Joining a year later was Tom Constanten (keyboards), Lesh’s former classmate at Mills College, where the two studied under composer Luciano Berio. Constanten would depart after barely 12 months, but the lineup would generate the indelible Live/Dead (1969), a live album drawn from shows at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West.
With Robert Hunter’s lyrics at the center, Garcia’s songs simplified from psychedelic prog-rock to folk and country-grounded music, and the Grateful Dead soon released Workingman’s Dead (1970) and American Beauty (1970) in rapid succession. Scoring hits for the Dead in the sense of the radio and pop charts, including “Truckin,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and “Casey Jones,” they also produced the deeper kinds of hit, songs that could be (and were) played around campfires, back porches, and college dorms. With Garcia and Hunter working in overdrive and building the core of the band’s classic songbook, Bob Weir upped his output with new songwriting partner John Perry Barlow. The next half-decade would be perhaps the band’s most creatively fertile.
The Grateful Dead’s constant change could be measured in their expanding repertoire and even the personnel on stage. Over the course of 1970, with the band performing acoustic sets, members of the New Riders of the Purple Sage would often wander on and off to add instruments and voices. In early 1971, Mickey Hart took an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons. Later that year, health issues surrounding Pigpen’s alcoholism would ground him, too. In a story as hard to believe as it is seemingly true, the band took on a new member when--without knowing of Pigpen’s illness--a woman approached Jerry Garcia and announced that her husband was the Dead’s new keyboardist. Within weeks, after blowing away the band in practice jams, Keith Godchaux (piano, keyboards) became a member of the Grateful Dead, adding acoustic piano to their stage sound. Keith’s wife, Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals), a former Muscle Shoals session singer who’d sung on hits by Elvis Presley and others, joined the band several months later.
The nimble one-drummer quintet learned to improvise with a new dexterity, and laidback Marin County swing, as much a product of the Acid Tests as Garcia’s love of Bakersfield country music. When Pigpen returned, the singular two-keyboard lineup produced Europe ’72, a studio-sweetened live album, from a tour so beloved for both its sterling song performances and vivid improvisations that it eventually yielded a box set featuring every show. It was also to be Pigpen’s last outing. Hoping to return to health and the band he loved, the band’s original singer died in the spring of 1973 at age 27, forever one of the Grateful Dead.
The band’s ambitions continued to expand, splitting from Warner Brothers to establish their own independent companies -- the band’s Grateful Dead Records, and the Garcia co-owned Round Records. From an unassuming block of houses in San Rafael, they built a small industry around themselves, including a publishing company, a travel agency, and (for a time) even a spin-off boutique. Since their earliest days with Owsley Stanley, the band experimented with sound systems and equipment and for several years they’d helped fund Alembic, the instrument and sound system workshop established with Stanley’s encouragement, originally located adjacent to the Dead’s rehearsal hall. Playing custom instruments through custom amplification, the band earned a deserved reputation for attention to non-metaphoric sonic detail. The band’s innovations, from monitor systems to literal guitar hacks, would transform the technology of rock and roll.
Channeling all of their progressive instincts into music to go along with their progressive businesses, the Grateful Dead tilted away from Americana on Wake of the Flood (1973) and From the Mars Hotel (1974), their first two releases on Grateful Dead Records. Playing in ever-larger venues, the era also included the 1973 Watkins Glen Summer Jam, featuring the Dead, the Allman Brothers, The Band, and an estimated 600,000 concertgoers; for many years standing as the largest concert crowd in world history. The band’s speaker array bloomed accordingly, and eventually into the configuration that later became known as the Wall of Sound. An achievement to match any in rock history, it encapsulated the band’s ethos perfectly, the opposite of a superficial stage prop but an oversized tool for an oversized mission. Perhaps too oversized.
By the end of 1974, the Grateful Dead were overwhelmed and exhausted, announcing their imminent retirement from the road. The first major epoch of the Grateful Dead concluded with five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland, featuring the enormous sound array, experimental collaborations with electronic composer and sometimes Dead contributor Ned Lagin, the first appearance of Mickey Hart on a Dead stage since 1971, and a camera crew filming it for what would become The Grateful Dead Movie (1977), directed by Jerry Garcia. They were at work again soon, though, writing the music that became Blues For Allah (1975) at Bob Weir’s new home studio, Ace’s. When the band returned to the road in 1976, Mickey Hart and his second drum kit returned, too, creating the 9th different touring lineup of the band’s 11 year career.
Signing to Clive Davis’s Arista Records in 1977 and dissolving their independent record companies, another new Grateful Dead era began. Working with Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, their first major outside collaborator since their debut 10 years earlier, the band created Terrapin Station (1977). It didn’t produce the hit Davis wanted, but the intense rehearsal with Olsen put the band into impeccably tight form, and the subsequent spring tour became one of legend to the growing legion of Dead Head tape traders. A summer-ending show in Englishtown, New Jersey show before an estimated 300,000 minted a new generation of fans. In the same way that Garcia and Hunter’s songbook made underground classics for guitar strummers, the tape-trading Dead Head network now had its own hit parade, helping to find new listeners. It was an alternative canon for the band’s very alternative fans, who could now be increasingly found camping out in parking lots and following the band on entire tours.
Following Shakedown Street (1978) and the band’s trip to Egypt (which found them performing at the foot of the Sphinx during an eclipse), Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux left the Grateful Dead. Replaced by Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals), formerly of the band Silver, the younger musician shifted the onstage energy, introduced new tonal colors, and filled out what became the band’s longest-running lineup. Though they would release Go To Heaven (1980), the Dead now had most of their adventures on the road, where they existed off the radar of mainstream music. With the country moving into a decade of increased conservatism, the parking lot scene surrounding Dead shows became an active meeting point for numerous countercultural networks.
While releasing the acoustic Reckoning (1981) and electric Dead Set (1981), it was mostly up to the Dead Heads to keep up with their favorite band. During these years, the band’s fans turned the band’s music into a beloved mythology, a vibrant and vibrating expanded universe manifesting in an unceasingly colorful explosion of t-shirts, bumper stickers, cover bands, and a creative energy that fed creators of all kinds. Resolving a sometimes tense relationship between concert tapers and the band’s crew, the band officially sanctioned a taping section in 1984, legitimizing a practice that had begun in the 1960s.
In the second half of the 1980s, the Grateful Dead’s expanded universe underwent its most dramatic changes yet. Nearly dying after falling into a diabetic coma, Jerry Garcia’s unexpectedly swift recovery brought the Grateful Dead back into the media spotlight in 1986. Finally completing their long-awaited 12th studio album, In the Dark (1987), the band scored the only top 10 hit of their career with “Touch of Grey,” following its unexpected MTV success. Already playing large venues, the band catapulted into stadiums.
After struggling with heroin addiction for nearly a decade, Jerry Garcia returned with a creative vigor after recovering from his coma, writing new songs with Robert Hunter, renewing old creative partnerships, diving into digital art (not to mention actual SCUBA diving), and expanding his musical palette. In 1989 and 1990, the band began to outfit their instruments with MIDI, allowing them access to an infinite variety of tones and colors. Resulting in some of the most experimental music of their later years, documented on the live album Infrared Roses (1991). It can also be heard throughout Built to Last (1989), what turned out to be the band’s final studio album.
Receiving more songwriting credits on Built to Last than his bandmates, Brent Mydland, too, had been suffering from addiction, dying of an overdose in the summer of 1990. For a year and change, the band returned to a double-keyboard lineup, featuring Vince Welnick (keyboards, vocals) and Bruce Hornsby (piano, accordion, vocals), before Hornsby’s departure in 1992, creating the 11th and 12th touring lineups of the band. Even in troubled times, the band’s commitment to musical change remained as constant as ever. By 1995--with the Dead’s popularity growing beyond manageable proportions, leading to a troubled summer tour--the band had introduced nearly an album’s worth of new material into their live repertoire. Like their first songs, they never made it to a proper album. Again fighting the sickness of addiction, Jerry Garcia died in a Marin County rehab clinic in August 1995. The Grateful Dead dissolved officially four months later.
Sometimes harsh critics of their own music, it was during this last period of the band, too, that they began to tap into their vast tape archive to release archival albums, including the multi-track releases One From the Vault (1991) and Two From the Vault (1992), and finally the longer-running more warts-and-all Dick’s Picks series, initiated in 1993 and named after their archivist, legendary Dead tape freak Dick Latvala. Beginning to make sense of the 30 years of music they made together, these ongoing releases have created a fuller and fuller picture of the Grateful Dead’s remarkable creative output.
Heard as influences in other musical acts, it is perhaps the Grateful Dead’s freethinking attitude, passionate discipline, and committed fanbase that have become their biggest legacies. Felt in the work of countless innovators from painting to programming, from chemistry to activism, it is almost unquestionable that the United States became an observably better place in the Grateful Dead’s wake -- more colorful, a lot hairier, definitely louder, and way more fun.
Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick) is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo Press).