The Appeal of the Grateful Dead

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In August of 1999, Dick Latvala, the longtime archivist for the Grateful Dead, died suddenly of a heart attack. Unknown to most, save some of the most devoted fans of the Dead and to the band themselves, it wasn’t a very significant day, yet it marked the passage of the title of archivist to another devoted Deadhead, David Lemieux, who would manage the band’s vast recording archive and set the stage for their transition to the age of the Internet. The archivist of the band became a coveted position in the mid 1980’s when collectors first began managing selections the Dead’s vast collection of tape recordings. The group was famous for allowing and encouraging bootlegging of their concerts, as long as they weren’t distributed for money, and sought to have someone manage their official collection (colloquially known as “The Vault”). Latvala took on this role and set out to collect and preserve as many shows as he could, ultimately editing and releasing bootlegs that were of high quality or best represented the spirit of the band. Throughout his tenure as archivist, he revealed the subtleties and unique properties of many concerts that fans had not had much access to before.

Just uttering the words “the Grateful Dead” invokes some pretty serious allegiances and/or allegations. To many, they conjure up a haze of smoke and an image of lethargic, stoned teenagers living out of a filth-encrusted van. To others, it reminds them of their younger days and the overwhelmingly free spirited attitudes of their youth that were openly crushed as they aged late into the 1970’s and 1980’s. Still to some, the band represents an overwhelming obsession  – a sort of nationalistic pride and intense passion that have earned these fans the label of “Deadheads.”

Regardless of any particular person’s knowledge of the group, the band’s name is almost synonymous with drugs. There is a common joke that overt listeners are likely to hear: “What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off? ‘This music sucks!’” Many Deadheads were (in)famous for following around the group for years as they toured the country, often accompanied by a hazy cloud of smoke and loose morals.

Yet despite all of their major associations, the legacy of the band lives on and they have been climbing in popularity over the years, especially in the age of the Internet. The Grateful Dead was founded in Palo Alto in 1965, in the heyday of the psychedelic craze that seemed to engulf most of the Bay Area. Since the era of counterculture uprisings, the band has made their mark as being especially loud, dirty, hairy, and troublesome.  Their first show under the name “Grateful Dead” was at one of Ken Kesey’s (famous as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)  “Acid Tests” – a series of parties he was known to throw where partygoers would ingest LSD and dance to live music.

Their early days were marked by an old-timey, jug band aura – a dramatic contrast to the sound for which they would later become famous. As the Bay Area scene grew, so did the band’s musical style. They became instantly recognizable for their hours long jams that would often force venues to switch them from being the opener to playing after the main band due to the length of time they spent on stage. Locally, they became very well known because of their distinctive sound and their unruly and gangly appearance on stage. Nationally, the band gained recognition as representing some of the more fringe elements within the hippie movement.

The band was not known for their studio work, and one of their first albums, Anthem of the Sun, took over six months to record due to their incompetence in various recording studios. They received fairly positive reviews of their later folk albums American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, but did not have a Top Ten hit until the song “Touch of Gray” in 1986, well after the band’s peak years.

Thus, they were – and remain to this day – notable for their live performances, many of which would stretch over several days at the same venue and were wildly unpredictable in terms of set list, duration, and sound. One of the central ironies of the group, known for their chaotic and improvisational style, is that they featured one of the most technologically sophisticated system of speakers and amplifiers – known to the band and engineers as “The Wall of Sound” – while also maintaining an extensive network of tape and audio recording devices.

From their beginnings in 1965 up to front man Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, they played 2,318 shows, over two thousand of which are available in some sort of bootleg or official recording. Many devoted fans can listen to just a few seconds of a recording from any one of their concerts and place the sound to a specific year or even an individual show.  This capacity for recognition is one of the hallmarks of their devoted fan base and the mark of a true Deadhead.

Because of this, getting into the Grateful Dead can be troublesome for even the most adventurous of music listeners; there are forums all over the internet, including the band’s site Dead.net, that are devoted to helping curate interest in the band. Upon first listen, they seem disharmonious, often out of tune, somewhat tone-deaf, repetitive (often jamming over a single chord for upwards of 10 minutes), troublingly prolific, and characteristic of an image that fell out of fashion by the mid 70’s. Yet, they easily retain the most enthusiastic fan base of any band in existence. Many of their more ardent listeners seem to view the band with an intensive passion that one would reserve for collecting cars or watching and documenting rare birds.

As someone who has lived almost his entire life in the postlapsarian years in the wake of Garcia’s death in 1995, it seems almost pointless to get into the band – they are upwards of 30 years past their prime, many of the most iconic members are dead, and there is no possibility attending a concert anything like one during the peak of their career. Yet, somehow I find myself with over 30 albums, upwards of 400 songs, and over 2.1 days of Grateful Dead recordings in my music library.

Having someone tell you that they are not into the Grateful Dead is like someone telling you that they don’t enjoy classical music – less than three percent of the population predominately enjoys and actively listens to classical music, so it is no surprise that most people you ask don’t have an interest in it. The most compelling aspect of the Grateful Dead is that they preserve a following that seems to be as large and enthusiastic as one would be for an entire genre of music, let alone a single band.

I got interested in the Grateful Dead because of this sense of a living cultural memory surrounding the band, something that most other groups don’t even seem to come close to. The mass of tape, the limitless amount of live material, and the amount of recordings that are freely available on the Internet allows each listener to construct a unique perception of what constitutes the band. At the same time, there is still a sense that there is a strict consensus among listeners regarding which shows were good, which were bad, and which we desperately wish we could have been present for.

The Grateful Dead have really succeeded because of a grand idea of the Dead that almost overshadows what the band actually was. They were the literal embodiment of freedom – endlessly touring, boozing, ingesting drugs as well as promoting the freedom to do as you wish at their concerts (which included taping and distributing them). They advocated peace and love and seemed to bring a little element of the 60’s wherever they went.  And, they were the only ones to do so successfully well into the 1990’s. With other large bands of the era, there is always an underlying sense of becoming commercial (something that seems to undue even the greatest groups) and there always seemed to be issues with royalties and distribution of money.  But well into the decline of the Dead, those problems did not seem to be as prominent. They simply loved playing music and they wanted to create an encompassing experience that other bands were not capable of doing.

As of today, the remnants of the band are still thriving. The Internet has opened up entirely new channels of distribution, and the bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Bob Weir, among others, are touring with tribute bands (one of which, Further, I was lucky enough to hear back in 2012. There is even a tribute band called the Dark Star Orchestra that sets out to recreate entire concerts, note for note, from specific nights that the Grateful Dead performed. Every year, there seems to be new official releases from the Vault that help show the depth of the band and make their recordings more palatable for fans that aren’t willing to sift through hours of tape in order to find great shows. When Dick Latvala died in 1999, he couldn’t have imagined this type of growth for the group in recent years.

https://play.spotify.com/user/1283844583/playlist/1jsRRwYzoblAnE0m0YHivj

So when people ask me about why I listen to the Grateful Dead, it’s pretty hard to explain. They don’t really make sense unless you understand the cultural history surrounding them and the mystical appeal of a bunch of bums sitting up on stage blasting away on their instruments. Knowing this doesn’t make their music sound any better, but it does sort of drift you away from everyday life into a sort of fantastical existence that is less cumbersome, less worrying, and is, most of all, more communal.

In countless ways, it is a shame that Dick Latvala died when he did. During the last two decades of his life, there seemed to be a marked decline in the band, first with the rampant drug abuse throughout the 1980’s, then with Jerry’s coma in 1986 and his subsequent death in 1995 after a few years of lackluster performances that many fans call the “post-coma years.” Yet, with the establishment of the Internet, the band found a new avenue to grow and develop, despite the absence of any way to physically experience these recordings live. The development of the Internet, and the culture that seemed to follow from it, brought the same sort of ideals the Dead cherished – a growing sense of community around a common interest, a fundamental desire for freedom (know in the tech community as open-source), and a strange addicting property that brought users/listeners back. I really believe that we are in an era of resurging interest in the band, and only with the continual growth of their presence online can fans that weren’t alive during their peak truly begin to comprehend the scope of the band throughout every part of the magnanimous career.

Tom BonanRock