Ever walk into a Grateful Dead-related show, take a scan of the crowd before you, and think, “What the hell are these people searching for?” There’s that dude who looks like he’s been in a weed haze since ’67, the glow stick twirler and gypsy mom doing a ceremonial dance for nobody, or the drifting acid casualty who looks forever shell shocked. They only seem to exist within these ritualistic gatherings, appearing over and over again, getting lost to the music of the Grateful Dead.
This year marks 20 years since front man Jerry Garcia passed away and 50 years since the band began, but the Dead’s music lives on like no other. Beatles or Springsteen fans still exist, but they’ve all grown up, gotten real jobs, and only do this shit on the weekends. Being a Dead fan is a devoted lifestyle and full time job (Phish is a whole other animal I’m afraid to get into). People still trickle in from far away places just to see the Grateful Dead’s music played by other people, as if they are hoping to find their fearless leader somewhere in the crowd, alive and well.
I consider myself a Grateful Dead fan, but not a Dead Head. It took me years to get into the band’s music, my relentless friends presenting me certain songs at very specific moments in my life — both sober and under the influence — hoping that I would take Communion. But even impossible amounts of weed couldn’t persuade you to get religion. Then I saw members of the Dead play as Further on my birthday on February 26, 2010, and it clicked. They’re a live band meant to be experienced with others. Their songs unfurl like a flower, growing and changing. You never heard the same song played the same way twice. And, oh my God, just listen to Phil rip it up on the bass! These are the things I love about the Dead. They synthesized together so many types of music that I didn’t even know I liked.
From there, I got hold of “Europe ’72,” via “Brown-Eyed Women.” After that it was Barton Hall, then Winterland ’77, and any other shows that I combed through on Archive. I’d zone in and try to pinpoint the exact time “Estimated Prophet” melted into “Eyes of the World,” but I could never tell when one song ended and the other began. I went backwards, and started to appreciate their music through the lens of modern psychedelic bands like Animal Collective (They were the first band to be licensed a sample by the Dead).
It’s also music that brings all sorts of different people together. One day you find out that your undercover hippy uncle followed the Dead for a summer in ’85, or notice that co-worker you weren’t so sure about have on a pair of socks with the dancing bears on them — and boom — you have something to bond over. Dead fans are some of the nicest people I have come across in my life. They are also some of the weirdest.
There is a large contingent of Dead loyalists where I live. They all know each other, materialize at the same shows, take drugs together, and dance like no one is watching. Down the street from my apartment in the city is a local club that’s technically an “Austrian Singing & Dancing Benefit” club — a windowless bar for townies who like to drink away from their nosy wives — but it’s really a front for Dead Heads. One of the regular members, referred to as Psilly Willy, a mystical and welcoming Dead Head who lives in the club’s backyard, hosts shows played by a Dead cover band called Marks Brothers once a month. The place is like a secret, tucked away off a troubled street in the city and only known to the initiated. The band is good and plays until 2 in the morning some weekends. When “Shakedown Street” is played, my friends and I imagine the line “Don’t tell me this town ain’t go no heart” is about our city.
One person who passes through these shows often is someone called Spunion Steve, a person who’s eaten so many drugs that his mouth is permanently slung open. He’s seen wandering through the crowd at shows, and sometimes you’ll see a beer in his hands, having no idea how he acquired it, as he doesn’t really speak. He just kind of stands there in suspended orbit until the music starts to unfurl, causing him to bob up and down, bringing what little life is within him to a dance. For that moment, he seems alright. It’s as if his very survival depends on the Dead’s music.
There are those who have an outright aversion to the Dead, who may consider their music exhausting or just not “cool.” It’s because of these things that most listeners today shun the Dead’s music. But if you can push aside the stereotypes, they’re a rewarding band. To me, it’s more of a sad thing. Jerry Garcia died a drug addict. The hippies never won. But the Dead’s music captures a time, a warm feeling with friends, of when it was OK for life to be just one party that lasted all night long.