The Grateful Dead
(Jerry Garcia illustration by Andy Friedman)
[Additional reporting by Laura Fedele]
"What a long, strange trip it's been." Who knew back in 1970, when the Grateful Dead recorded "Truckin'," that the band's remarkable history would become so defined by that line?
It all started in 1965 in Palo Alto, California, when former members of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions formed a new group called the Warlocks. The band, featuring Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums), would change their name to the Grateful Dead by the end of the year.
Over the course of the next year or two, the Grateful Dead established themselves as a major part of the Bay Area counterculture. Their extended-jam shows were central to the hippie-based drug culture that revolved around author Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster gatherings, and they flourished in a music scene that included Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
The full sensory experiences sought by the Dead and their fans inspired revolutionary advances in sound engineering and lighting effects (which are still used today), and these "Be-In" experiences starting drawing serious crowds.
An early indication that this burgeoning movement was beginning to burst into the mainstream came when Warner Brothers Records signed the band to a recording contract. Their debut album, Grateful Dead, was released in early 1967, with lyrical songwriting support from "non-performing band member" Robert Hunter. That year they expanded the lineup to include drummer Mickey Hart.
The commercial fortunes of the band were slow to improve, as releases of the eccentric Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa failed to achieve much more than cult status. The Grateful Dead's reputation continued to spread, however, thanks to late-'60s appearances at Monterey Pop and Woodstock—and in spite of the band's involvement in Altamont Speedway Free Festival disaster and their much-publicized drug busts.
Adding a second keyboard player, Tom Constanten, contributed to the live shows, and releasing their first live album, Live Dead, brought their first major growth phase to a close. Then everything would begin to change with the arrival of the new decade.
The band released two seminal albums in 1970 that displayed an evolving artistic maturity and expanding musical landscape. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, released less than five months apart, injected large doses of bluegrass, country, folk and blues into the Dead catalog. In the studio, the band downplayed their psychedelic experimentation in favor of American roots music. The near-constant touring continued through '74, with the newly-christened Deadheads following the band from place to place to hear every possible unique, exciting and varied performance.
As the years passed, band stalwarts Garcia, Weir, Lesh and Kreutzmann were faced with a revolving door of personnel changes. Hart would leave the band in early 1971, to return in the mid 1970s. To assist an ailing Pigpen, the band added keyboardist Keith Godchaux in the fall of 1971.
That year saw one of many successful spin-offs, Bob Weir's Ace album, which spun several songs right back in to the live Dead playlist. It also brought lyricist John Perry Barlow into the official family. Also in '71, Godchaux's wife Donna Jean joined as a backing vocalist. All these elements proved that nothing about this rambling family needed to stick to any particular structure to be embraced by Dead culture as a whole.
Tragedy struck the Dead family for the first time in March 1973, when Pigpen died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage after years of alcohol abuse. Without him the early blues focus of the band dropped a notch, and other band members had to shift around. Weir took on the lead vocals of stalwarts like "Turn On Your Lovelight" and "Smokestack Lightning," while Garcia found himself squarely at the center of Deadhead hero-worship, serving as spokesperson for the band, the community, and eventually the entire hippie movement.
The late '70s brought a live rebirth and growing acclaim. The release of Terrapin Station injected new material (and a new label relationship, with Arista), and the band's legendary three-night stand at the Great Pyramids of Giza further cemented their place in the rock-god pantheon.
Keith and Donna's exit made way for Brent Mydland on keyboards and vocals, who held the longest tenure in that spot. From that point on, the '80s were a relatively stable time for the band, and they hit a kind of stride—they knew who they were and what they did well. The deep Dead catalog meant that shows could weave from rock to bluegrass to blues to psychedelia and back, within the surprisingly set structure of Set One, Intermission, Half-Set-Two, Drums/Space, Half-Set-Two, Encore. They played their favorite venues in a loop each year, and fans awaited tour time like a seasonal thaw.
The first foreshadow of real trouble came with the 1986 announcement that Jerry Garcia, the bright-eyed heart and soul of the band, had fallen into a diabetic coma. Millions of fans held their breath as he recovered. The break gave the band some time to record, leading to an unexpected return to the charts in the late '80s with In the Dark, the Dead's last moment in the mainstream spotlight.
A big new wave of Deadheads were born in this phase, as "Touch of Grey" played on the radio, rock fans realized they'd better not Garcia for granted, and a tour and live compilation with Bob Dylan hit the streets.
Then, tragedy struck the Grateful Dead again when Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose in July 1990. Singer, songwriter and devoted Deadhead Bruce Hornsby, who had sat in previously, amped up appearances until former Tubes member Vince Welnick was chosen for the spot.
From that point on, the '90s were a rollercoaster of drug problems, health scares, and clashes between old and new fans. Of course, the crippling blow to the Grateful Dead came on August 9, 1995, when Garcia was found dead in his room while in rehab. The cause of death was a heart attack. Years of drug addiction and heavy smoking, as well as battles with diabetes, weight issues and sleep apnea, had all taken their toll. It was the official end of the original Grateful Dead.
However, the spirit born in San Francisco would in no way fade away. Members have united and reunited to create the Other Ones, the Dead, Furthur, the 2015 "Fare Thee Well" shows, and Dead & Company, not to mention individual projects including Weir's band Ratdog, Lesh's Phil Lesh and Friends, the Rhythm Devils featuring Hart and Kreutzmann, Hart's Mystery Box, Planet Drum, the Mickey Hart Band and numerous other projects fronted by Kreutzmann. The Donna Jean Godchaux Band and Tom Constanten remain active as well.
The impact that the Grateful Dead has had on music, art, culture, the record industry and society as a whole is immeasurable. Decades of live performances helped fashion a business model affecting everything from merchandising, the preservation of live performances, and the distribution of these historical recordings on album, for broadcast and even fan sharing.
The Grateful Dead single-handedly created the jam band music scene, a genre emphasizing live performances based on jamming and improvisation. Placing the importance on concert tours in favor of producing studio recordings revolutionized the way artists since have attained commercial success.
Finally, there's the unique relationship between a band and its fan base. Legions of Deadheads have embraced a lifestyle that began following the band on tour, and became a societal phenomenon that changed the fan/artist dynamic into one more resembling a large, interconnected family.
The Grateful Dead's impact has spanned more than six decades and has influenced countless artists. Despite the passage of time and the absence of Jerry Garcia, the long, strange trip continues on, making the Dead a wonder of the modern world, and one of our FUV Essentials.
- Random moments in the life of a Deadhead, by Laura Fedele & Friends
- "Behind Day of the Dead": The National's tribute to The Grateful Dead
- The Grateful Dead Hour with David Gans, Friday nights at midnight on FUV
- The National's Scott Devendorf: "Five Essential Grateful Dead Songs"
Grateful Dead Mixtape: