Grateful Dead, the

Grateful Dead, the

▪ American rock group

      American rock band that was the incarnation of the improvisational, psychedelic (psychedelic rock) music that flowered in and around San Francisco in the mid-1960s. The Grateful Dead was one of the most successful touring bands in rock history despite virtually no radio hits. The original members were Jerry Garcia (b. Aug. 1, 1942, San Francisco, Calif., U.S.—d. Aug. 9, 1995, Forest Knolls, Calif.), Bob Weir (b. Oct. 16, 1947, San Francisco), Ron (“Pigpen”) McKernan (b. Sept. 8, 1945, San Bruno, Calif.—d. March 8, 1973, San Francisco), Phil Lesh (b. March 15, 1940, Berkeley, Calif., U.S.), and Bill Kreutzmann (also known as Bill Sommers; b. May 7, 1946, Palo Alto, Calif., U.S.). Later members included Mickey Hart (b. c. 1950, Long Island, N.Y., U.S.), Tom Constanten (b. March 19, 1944, Longbranch, N.J., U.S.), Keith Godchaux (b. July 19, 1948, San Francisco—d. July 21, 1980, Marin county, Calif., U.S.), Donna Godchaux (b. Aug. 22, 1947, San Francisco), and Brent Mydland (b. 1953, Munich, W.Ger.—d. July 26, 1990, Lafayette, Calif., U.S.).

      Settling on their name in late 1965, the Grateful Dead coalesced from jug bands and musicians in the San Francisco area in the early 1960s. As the Warlocks, they had performed at novelist Ken Kesey's Acid Tests— sound-and-light celebrations of the psychedelic experience produced by the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, “acid”). Remarkably eclectic—their backgrounds ranging from electronic experiments and jazz to bluegrass and folk—the Dead provided a key part of the free live music filling San Francisco during 1967's Summer of Love, when the city became a magnet for hippie baby boomers.

      Even before they recorded their first album, the Dead were building an underground network of diehard fans. By the late 1960s the fans were legion and followed the band on the road. The Deadheads, as they were known, were the epitome of the counterculture. Draped in flowing scarves and granny dresses, they danced arrhythmically while the band onstage jammed for hours and hours. Thanks to them, the Dead eventually triumphed over standard music business wisdom, which assumed that an act had to have hit records to be a popular concert attraction. The unparalleled loyalty of the Deadheads made the band millionaires and endured until the Dead split up following the 1995 death of the group's leader and guitarist, Jerry Garcia.

      Although their studio sessions ranged from the amphetamine blues of The Grateful Dead (1967) to the jaggedly exploratory Aoxomoxoa (1969) to the lilting folk of American Beauty (1970), the Dead's strengths—and weaknesses—came most to the fore onstage. Their most artistically successful albums, Live/Dead (1969) and Grateful Dead Live (1971), were live recordings. A popular bumper sticker read, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” For better or worse, that was true. Pooling their eclectic talents, the Dead pioneered an energizing blend of rock instrumentation and jazzy improvisation; thanks to their laissez-faire and often drug-fueled stage attitudes, they often fell apart.

      Few bands of any genre, however, could match the Dead at their best—fluid, open-eared interchanges, ecstatic mood swings, visceral impact. The Dead created a new form of American music. Like Jimi Hendrix (Hendrix, Jimi), though they had imitators, they remained sui generis. The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Gene Santoro

Representative Works

The Grateful Dead (1967)
Anthem of the Sun (1968)
Aoxomoxoa (1969)
Live/Dead (1969)
American Beauty (1970)
Workingman's Dead (1970)
Grateful Dead Live (1971)

Additional Reading
John Rocco and Brian Rocco (eds.), Dead Reckonings: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (1999), compiles the usual and offbeat tales, reviews, and interviews, including a bit from Miles Davis's autobiography. Rock Scully and David Dalton, Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead (1996), presents the memories and insights of the band's longtime road manager, Scully. David Gans, Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book (1991, reissued 1995), gathers the most pertinent interview material. Robert Hunter, A Box of Rain (1990, reissued 1993), augments Hunter's collected lyrics with illustrations and memories. Jerry Garcia, Harrington Street (1995), collects guitarist-leader Garcia's writings and art. Oliver Trager, The American Book of the Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia (1997), is the most comprehensive reference work on the Dead, with some 800 entries and many photos. David Shenk and Steve Silberman, Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads (1994), is a smaller but useful compendium.

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Universalium. 2010.

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