Remembering the Grateful Dead

Aryeh Gelfand


In 1965, Jerry Garcia, a Californian native, formed the band that would later become known as the Grateful Dead. He, along with a group of eccentric misfits, would go on to enjoy one of the most enduring, tumultuous, and unlikely reigns of any rock band in modern musical history. What is it about their music that has captured the attention of young people from the 1960s to the present? The answer lies in the unique live shows for which they are known and the community they created through these shared experiences.


The band was forged in the crucible of the Acid Tests. These were parties, held in and around the San Francisco area in the mid 1960s, thrown by noted American novelist Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters. The band had the unique opportunity to play to an audience more open to experimentation than perhaps any other up until that point in time. Kesey and the Pranksters served LSD from a large punch bowl to all comers. The lights and sensations from those parties were forever immortalized in the movie Across the Universe with Bono of U2 fame playing Ken Kesey. These parties gave the band the creative license to experiment with psychedelia and all it had to offer. The result has been a 50-year psychic roller coaster spanning many band variations and millions in profits.


Rock critic Greil Marcus  likened Grateful Dead concerts to the pace of life itself: brief periods of excitement separated by long stretches of boredom. That's fine with the band and fine with the fans, because aside from surface similarities a Grateful Dead gig has very little in common with a typical rock concert, said American songwriter, musician, and music journalist, David Gans in his essay Dawn of the DeadHeads.


Marcus is hitting on the secret sauce of the whole Grateful Dead movement. He is talking about the uniqueness of the experience that goes along with the Grateful Dead's music. The music has its own ebbs and flows just like life itself. It is not uncommon for a concert to feature a 20-minute drums solo punctuated with Garcia’s psychedelic noodling on the guitar.


 Something about this experience was powerful enough to  convince countless members of the upper- and middle-class stratums of our society to drop out of traditional life paths and blindly follow the Grateful Dead, as they toured the country throughout the 1970s and ‘80s until Garcia’s untimely death on August 9, 1995. These young kids found something in the community of the band that they couldn't find elsewhere. They found a sense of community and belonging that didn't exist elsewhere. The communal feeling present at the live shows was the secret element that had people coming back again and again until their devotion to the band and music took on a religious quality.



I get the chance to listen to the Grateful Dead all day long I get paid to do what other people pay to do, said Andy, a bartender at Quixotes: True Blue: a Grateful Dead-themed bar and music venue in downtown Denver.


Andy’s story is a common one among those devoted to the band. From the age of 2, his parents brought him on tour. It is the community that keeps him going back for more.


“I have friends all over the country, people I might not see for six or eight months and then I go to a show and it's a big hug. A giant cocktail party. The music itself is ever changing; you never hear a song the same way twice. It’s constantly evolving. The community is just as important as the music itself, traveling with your friends, running around the country, and visiting new places having that music right behind me was something I always loved.”


The singular devotion to the Grateful Dead led to economic success, as fans became repeat customers eager for their products. The sense of belonging that fans felt grew to include lawyers, stock brokers, and medical doctors, people from all walks of life.

"There is deep ego satisfaction and pleasure in belonging," said Benson P. Shapiro, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School in Strategy and Business magazines  article titled “How to Truck: Lessons from the Grateful Dead.”


According to Shapiro, the key to creating a brand is the good feeling a buyer gets in acquiring and owning a product. Much of that feeling is tied to joining a group.

The band’s philosophy of eschewing the consumer society in favor of lofty ideals such as love, community, and art for art’s sake in fact lead to economic success of gargantuan proportions. The band grossed as much $95 million a year in its heyday.



In 2015, in honor of the band's 50th anniversary, the remaining band members enlisted the help of Phish’s lead guitarist Trey Anastasio for one last reunion tour. The original 210,000 tickets for the three shows over July 4th weekend sold out in minutes. In response to the growing demand, the band added 130,000 tickets for three more shows in Santa Cruz, California.


The five-date tour grossed $50 million in ticket sales along with $8-$10 million in merchandising revenue. Interest in the band is higher than ever. Bands covering the Grateful Dead’s music dot the country and are present in every major city. Denver Colorado,a city some consider to be the country's jam scene mecca, features four music venue/bars devoted to the Grateful Dead and the musical genre it’s spawned: Jam Rock.


The Jam Rock movement began to truly blossom in the waning years of the Grateful Dead hegemony. Bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, Umphrey's Mcgee, among other notable names in this now expansive music scene, now sell out concert and music festival tickets by the hundreds of thousands.


Phish, a band originating in the dorms and surrounding music scene of the University of Vermont-Burlington, currently wears the crown of Jam kings. Their bi-yearly tours regularly gross up to $18 million each putting them in second place in touring revenue behind the Dave Matthews Band. DMB, as it is known, is a band some would also consider an offspring of the improvisational style of the Grateful Dead, albeit a more pop-oriented version. Obviously, the successful business model of community-creating live shows with unique performances nightly is not an anomaly, but rather a formula -- one that continues to bring economic success to all those who try their hand at it.


Author Bio:


Aryeh Gelfand is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.         


For Highbrow Magazine

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