According to an essay published online by F+W Media Inc. on the Everything.com website, the 1960s were a decade of enormous social change. As a result of the post war baby boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, a large percentage of the American population was under 30 years of age in the mid-1960s. Many young Americans attended college. Many came from affluent families. They had money to spend on recreational activities including their interest in music. As a result, music was produced and directed toward them and toward their interests, concerns and beliefs.
In the mid-1960s, tensions developed in America that flowed along generational lines. These tensions involved a large number of issues including American involvement in the Vietnam War and the military draft, race relations, equal rights for women, sexual norms, the use of psychedelic drugs, the culture of consumerism, and respect for traditional authority. New counterculture forms emerged in America in the mid-1960s including the hippie movement. The hippie movement affected directly or indirectly the thoughts and actions of many young Americans. The musical group that personified this particular counterculture movement was the Grateful Dead. Members of this counterculture movement lived in a way that expressed their political and social beliefs. This counterculture lifestyle involved issues including peace, social acceptance, racial integration, sexual liberation, alternative music, and the use of psychedelic drugs. It also had its own norms or mores relating to work, family, marriage and child rearing (McGeehan).
According to the book “Grateful Dead, The Illustrated Trip,” the musical group called the Grateful Dead was a rock band formed in 1965 that remained active and touring until 1995. It formed in San Francisco, California at a time when the psychedelic movement was at its peak. The band members lived communally. The band played a number of free concerts in and around San Francisco before working their way up to concerts for which audience members were asked to pay admission. The genres of music performed by this band included blues rock, psychedelic rock and acid rock (McGeehan).
As a musical group, the Grateful Dead were well-known for their unique style of music which involved the ability to fuse various types of music including but not limited to: rock and roll, folk music, country music, reggae and improvisational jazz. The Grateful Dead was also known and admired for its on stage improvisations during live concerts. The subculture surrounding the group evolved as a result of the fact that the Grateful Dead challenged any number of societal norms including norms against consuming illegal drugs. For some fans, consumption of LSD or acid was part of their passage into an inner realm of understanding of the music of the Grateful Dead. The consumption of LSD at Grateful Dead concerts was seen by many fans as a shared and yet unique experience requiring an atmosphere of acceptance and of intimacy and trust.
According to Hunter, the subculture in which the Grateful Dead were most appreciated engaged in free love, a term coined to describe sexual liberation. This sexual liberation was in part due to the availability of effective forms of birth control for women. The sexual revolution of the 1960s involving casual sexual liaisons and involved sexual promiscuity. Sex without the fear of unwanted pregnancy changed the social dynamic in America. The sexual revolution allowed and even encouraged premarital sex and sexual experimentation.
The Grateful Dead did not make any attempt to be part of the musical mainstream. At the time, groups including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were performing and recording three to four minute pop hits. The Grateful Dead were performing or recording songs that lasted for ten minutes, twenty minutes or longer. The Grateful Dead also challenged the convention requiring musical groups to fit into a specific musical genre such as jazz, or country western, or rock by combining each of these genres into their music. Rather than being stifled by conventional thinking, the Grateful Dead considered it important to allow the audience to be a part of the concert experience. Group members described the audience as a source of creative energy during their concerts. During their performances at events called Acid Tests in the mid-1960s at a time when the manufacture and consumption of the drug LSD was not yet illegal, they used LSD in an effort to improve their performances and to enhance their musical creativity. More broadly, experimentation with LSD, peyote, marijuana and other psychedelic drugs became a major component of 1960s counterculture in which the Grateful Dead became known and loved.
The original members of the Grateful Dead were Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kruetzmann a.k.a. Bill Sommers. The Grateful Dead embraced and lived with the hippie subculture that began in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The hippie culture embraced the use of mind altering drugs. Although not as mainstream as other psychedelic bands, the Grateful Dead were the leaders of the Haight-Ashbury music scene. The band had an intensely loyal following that started in San Francisco and eventually spread worldwide. Hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s rebelled against the war in Vietnam and against a large number of societal norms including materialism and closed-mindedness. Hippies showed their distain for societal norms by living communally, by sexual exploration, by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, by dressing differently, by not working in traditional jobs, long hair for men, and by wearing colorful clothing (Hunter).
A logical extension of the hippie movement involved dropping out of mainstream society and living more simply on communal farms. Some hippies did so, but the hippie movement was primarily an urban phenomenon. As a result, the Grateful Dead found fans among hippies and young people influenced by the hippie movement and were able to attract large crowds in the cities they toured in American and elsewhere in the world.
According to Hunter, some of the hippies that became devoted fans of the Grateful Dead eventually came to believe that the music of the Grateful Dead had some kind of special, spiritual significance. Eventually, the most ardent of the band’s fans seemed to believe that the band could offer audience members what Buddhists might call enlightenment. This is a concept that the band members themselves rejected out of hand. The members of the Grateful Dead never claimed to have any special insights, or that they could offer anyone enlightenment. However, they were aware of that some Deadheads viewed the band and their music in this light and included lyrics in their songs that played with this notion of a hidden spiritual significance to their music. However, the Grateful Dead saw themselves as hard working and reasonably talented musical ensemble that were fortunate enough to have found a genre of music that was appreciated by a large number of loyal fans.
An interesting aspect of the subculture surrounding the Grateful Dead involves the bands most loyal fans known as “Deadheads.” Deadheads are best known for their dedication to the band’s music, for their excessive illegal drug use, for their rejection of the traditional values of the American middle class, and for their willingness to travel great distances in what has been described as a traveling carnival to attend live performances by the Grateful Dead. The touring schedule involving more than 2,300 live concerts performed over thirty years created a certain sense of community among the most dedicated of the band’s nomadic fans. By the late 1970s, some Deadheads began to sell tie-dye tee shirts, vegetarian burritos, or other items at Grateful Dead concerts which allowed them to finance their lifestyle. Some of the Deadheads followed the band in the Deadheads’ makeshift communities for months and in some instances for years. Part of this fan loyalty may result from the fact that this band probably gave more free performances than any other rock band in history. By the 1990s, at least some of the Deadheads that followed the group were the sons and daughters or younger brothers and sisters of the original Deadheads (Hunter).
Another aspect of the subculture surrounding the Grateful Dead involving the group’s live performances that created fan loyalty was the group’s decision to blur the line between performers and audience members. While The Beatles were playing to massive audiences at stadiums wearing matching suits and protected by rows of police with fans standing behind chain linked fences, the Grateful Dead made no such effort to limit interactions with their audience. The symbiotic relationship between the band and the Deadheads combined with the fact that the songs changed at every concert permitted the band to perform multiple shows in a single venue and be assured that the performances would be mostly sold out.
According to an essay published online on the Wikipedia website, Jerry Garcia is often seen by many people as the leader of the Grateful Dead. He is or was arguably the best known of the members of the band. Garcia served as lead guitarist as well as one of the principal vocalists and songwriters for the Grateful Dead. Garcia himself rejected the idea that he was in some way the leader of or the spokesperson for the group. Garcia viewed himself as one of five members of a band. Garcia and the other members of the Grateful Dead viewed their music as a collaborative effort, and saw each band member as an equal participant in the success or failure of a performance. On and offstage, Garcia was low key. He rejected any of the trappings of stardom. He was anything but flamboyant in dress and appearance. Garcia performed his guitar solo performances without any of the affectations of other star performers. Generally, the only thing that moved during a Garcia guitar solo was Garcia’s hands and fingers.
The band was famous for extended musical jam sessions on stage during live performance in which individual performers would improvise music as well as situation in which the entire group would improvise together and create surprisingly entertaining improvisations. These improvisations, combined with the fact that the band did not have a playlist, resulting the fact that the music changed each night, and that a concert might last for as little as two hours or as long as four hours or more. The Grateful Dead’s live performances were what truly separated this band from other touring groups. Much to the delight of the Deadheads, rather than performing a standard set of their greatest hits at each performance, the band did not have a playlist. Instead, the Grateful Dead decided on stage what songs to play from approximately 100 songs that were considered part of the Grateful Dead’s normal repertoire (“Wikipedia”).
According to McGeehan, much of the band’s fame results from the fact that they never played a song the same way twice. However, rather than being chaotic, live performances by the early 1970s evolved into a routine in which The Grateful Dead would perform two sets of music. The first set included some of their better known songs. These would be songs that most of the audience knew and could sing along to. The second set was more improvisational. The finale typically included one or more of the band’s hit songs. The Grateful Dead were well known for the fact that the band was regularly on tour for the thirty years that it existed. During this period, the Grateful Dead played more than 2,300 live concerts. It is said of the Grateful Dead that they are the only band that could perform a live concern without ever playing its most popular songs during the concert. None of these concerts were definitive as the best performance by the Grateful Dead because each of them included variations on a basic theme. Also, since every performance included both individual and group improvisations, no two concerts were identical or even similar. Unlike other well-known groups, the Grateful Dead did not strive to perfect a song and play it the same way every time. They viewed their music as alive and evolving. Each concert was considered to be a time for creation of new music. The Grateful Dead formed at a time when bands including The Beatles dominated the music scene. Far from being mainstream rock and roll, the music of the Grateful Dead in the 1960s could be described as psychedelic. Irrespective of how they might be viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the Grateful Dead did not fit into any specific or established style of music including pop rock, rock and roll, hard rock , blues or folk music. Rather than focusing on narrow themes such as love and loss, the songs written by the Grateful Dead included themes such as life, death, murder, beauty, horror, chaos, and religion.
One aspect of the Grateful Dead’s subculture involved the group’s attitude toward audience members taping their concerns. Jerry Garcia set the tone with his famous line “When we’ve played it, we’re done with it. So let them [tapers] do what they want with it.” Not only did the group allow their concerts to be recorded, they provided a separate area of the concert venue for anyone serious about taping the concert. Occasionally, the sound technicians would even allow tapers to plug directly into the sound system for the best possibly quality of “bootlegged” tapes. The unique aspect of the fact that taping was not only condoned but encouraged by the Grateful Dead involved the fact that the band did not receive any royalties from the tapes that were copied and distributed between and among fans. The only rule that the Grateful Dead placed on tapers was that they would not be permitted to sell the tapes. Instead, they could trade tapes or they could give tapes to friends, but they were not allowed to sell them. Of course, this injunction against the sale of bootlegged concert tapes was something that the Grateful Dead were never able to control. As a result, tapers were on the honor system. What made tapers and their tape libraries of concerts unique involved the fact that each concert was unique and therefore worth memorializing in the form of a high quality tape recording (McGeehan).
The Grateful Dead was like no other musical group. Unlike most bands, the Dead continued to focus on live performances rather than on studio recordings. They recorded a total of 26 albums between 1967 and 1990, but most of the band’s albums included music from their live performances, and most of those tracks include some improvisation. Their concerts and to some extent their lives symbolized a spirit of communal bliss. Their fan base grew for decades while other musical groups from the 1960s peaked and faded away. Their music style remained essentially unchanged. Their fans accepted this, and with new fans added each year their popularity grew over years and decades.
Summary: The Grateful Dead was the ultimate cult band. It created and existed in a self-styled universe populated with band members, Deadheads, and neophytes. For the thirty years that the band existed and performed, it remained well outside of the mainstream of popular music. Despite this, the Grateful Dead became one of the most important, best known and most influential musical groups in the late 20th century. Some have referred to the Grateful Dead as tie-dyed pied pipers of a lost generation of American youth. They describe their live concerts are rites of passage for the uninitiated, and as extended family gatherings for the band and its Deadheads. What created the phenomenon that spurred the subculture surrounding the Grateful Dead will probably never be fully understood.