Books have been written on this topic, but since many will never read a whole book about the Grateful Dead, here’s my short article for the uninitiated.
The Grateful Dead (hereinafter referred to simply as ‘the Dead”) is a band that formed in 1965 and is associated with the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s. The great and recently deceased author Tom Wolfe wrote about that connection in his 1968 work, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
The band was originally called The Warlocks, but after discovering that another band also used that name, they had to find another one. According to the great book “Skeleton Key” by Blair Jackson, the band was together at the house of their bass player, Phil Lesh, when they randomly opened a dictionary and the first thing that stood out were the words: “Grateful Dead,” which refers to a story in which a traveler comes upon a crowd of people abusing a corpse because the deceased could not pay for his own funeral. The traveler gives the last money he has so that the crowd will stop abusing the corpse, and subsequently meets another traveler who turns out to be deceased, who then helps the traveler perform a monumental task.
Later, the band discovered this reference in the Egyptian Book of the Dead:
We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void,
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night,
the ship of the sun,
is drawn by the grateful dead.
Pretty cool/creepy, huh? There’s a mysticism about the Dead that has always been part of their appeal.
I saw the Dead play live in concert dozens of times prior to the death of their leader, Jerry Garcia, in 1995. The first Dead show I attended was on July 17, 1982 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, in Ventura, CA. I know the date because there is a reference book called DeadBase that not only lists all of the Dead’s shows, but also the songs they played at each show. DeadBase also has statistical information, such as the number of times they played particular songs, the number of shows between the performance of particular songs, etc. Unlike most bands, the Dead would alter the song list each time they played, which explains why someone (like me) would go to see them so many times. The Dead were also notoriously uneven in their live performances, in part due to the different set lists, but primarily due to their reliance on ensemble improvisation. So, you could go see them a dozen times and maybe two or three of those shows would be mediocre, one or two would be flat-out disappointing, but the remainder would showcase not just the best live band at that moment, but arguably the best live band ever. If you happened to see one of those great shows, chances are you were hooked and would see them again and again in hopes of seeing another great show.
I had almost zero familiarity with the Dead’s material when I went to that first show, which I attended at the urging of my roommate at the time. My perception was that they played country music, of which I am not a big fan. What I discovered is that the Dead’s material spans every genre of American music, including rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, funk, reggae, orchestral, you name it. The stylistic breadth of their original material exceeds any other band I am aware of. They were also famous for playing covers of other people’s material, but whatever covers they played ended up sounding like the Dead. At that first show in Ventura, they played the following covers: 1) Big River (Johnny Cash), 2) Little Red Rooster (Rolling Stones), 3) Around and Around (Rolling Stones), and 4), It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan). It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in retrospect the covers made the whole show more accessible to a neophyte like me, because there were at least a few songs they played with which I was already familiar. The good news is that I liked all of the original songs they played, even though I was hearing most of them for the first time.
Part of the reason I am writing this for the uninitiated is that the Dead tend to be somewhat polarizing in the sense that most people either love them or have no use for them at all. But there is another category of people who may have never considered whether they could be a fan or not, simply because they’ve never heard their original material except for the few songs that get played on FM radio (and those infrequently). In other words, there’s a good chance you could be a fan of the Grateful Dead (or, in Dead parlance, a “Deadhead”) without knowing it because you’ve never been exposed. So, as part of this post I’m going to make it easier for those who might like to find out if they’re a Deadhead by curating a list of seven original songs by the Dead, including the song title, genre, songwriter, lyricist (most of the Dead’s lyrics were not written by the band, but by their long-time lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow), including a snippet of the lyrics for each particular song.
- Scarlet Begonias; loping hippy rock; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; As I picked up my matches, and was closing the door; I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before
- Estimated Prophet; weird anthem about California in 7/4 time signature; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; California, a prophet on the burning shore; California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door; Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light; Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.
- Dupree’s Diamond Blues; Blues/Honky Tonk; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; And down to this jewelry store packin’ a gun; Says, “Wrap it up. I think I’ll take this one.”; “A thousand dollars, please,” the jewelry man said; Dupree said, “I’ll pay this one off to you in lead.”
- The Music Never Stopped; Funky Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; There’s a band out on the highway, they’re high-steppin’ into town; It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
- Black Peter; Bluesy Dirge; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Fever roll up, to a, hundred and five; Roll on up, gonna roll back down; One more day, I find myself alive; Tomorrow, maybe go, beneath the ground.
- I Need a Miracle; Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; I need a woman ’bout twice my height; Statuesque, raven-dressed, a goddess of the night; Her secret incantations, a candle burning blue; We’ll consult the spirits, maybe they’ll know what to do.
- Crazy Fingers; Reggae; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Gone are the days, we stopped to decide; where we should go, we just ride.
All Deadheads have their favorite Dead songs, and others they like less. If you listen to these seven and find three or four that you like, it would be worth your while to explore their catalogue further. Because their material is so diverse, chances are there are many songs you’ll discover that will quickly become favorites.
Many people reading this who are not familiar with the Dead may wonder why I’m writing this so many years after Garcia’s death. Two reasons: 1) the Dead subculture is still there and, in many ways, has only become more vibrant since Garcia’s death. There are many people who were not old enough to ever see the Dead in concert, but have become Deadheads; 2) About two years ago I discovered the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band, which I go to see on a regular basis. This post was the predicate for a post I’m going to write about that band, which I’ll publish tomorrow.