Babies born the year of The Grateful Dead’s last show are going to turn 25 soon. The original lineup hasn’t graced a stage in decades but the world’s first “jam band” continues to engage us. All of the biggest groups had fans — but what is it about the Dead that’s inspired an entire counter-culture that’s still kicking?
The Grateful Dead’s influence can be felt in so many different facets of life. Their logos and imagery are still proudly displayed at many of the country’s biggest events, from Burning Man to Bonnaroo. Covers of their tunes are played from stadiums to backyard jam sessions. The Dead are synonymous with the Hippie movement and American counter-culture in a way that no other band has been. The Grateful Dead became more than just a band, they became an ideal.
For better or worse, Jerry Garcia is an American folk-hero, his mythos as far-reaching as any tall-tale ever told. So, while he and his running buddies Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and the rest of the band were flawed individuals, what they came to represent was a world just a little bit more beautiful than the one they were living in. They weren’t playing music and partying to save the world, they were just trying to make the burden a little less heavy. Judging by how many lives they have enlightened over more than five decades it’s safe to say they succeeded.
They were a “working person’s” band that was never too good for their fanbase and because of how genuine they were, a community sprung up around them and their music. It’s the real kinship between Deadheads that has allowed the band to become more than entertainment. Parents pass the music down to their children like an heirloom and the children continue the tradition. How many bands have generations of fans following them around the country? None too many.
The Grateful Dead may have completed their last run more than two decades ago but their spirit lives on. While Bob Weir does his best to keep the spirit alive with the new iteration “Dead and Company,” frequently featuring John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge, it’s the Deadheads who keep the counter-culture spirit alive.
The reason why The Dead has been able to maintain their relevance is that at their core they represent everything America could have been — and can still be. They took American iconography and flipped it on its ear. They created an alternative for their audience where red, white, and blue didn’t have to mean wars, money, and greed. It made those colors mean peace, love, and beautiful music. Through music, color, movement, and imagery The Grateful Dead made clear the fact that there are options in the world beyond generally accepted conventions.
The Grateful Dead have been so apt at maintaining prominence because they have never gone the conventional route. They dipped their toes into the popular genres of the decades. But they never changed their sound or aesthetic to fit in with what was popular; they adapted what was popular to fit in with the Grateful Dead. They dabbled in disco during the late ’70s and they incorporated puppets in the 1990s to spruce up their video for “Touch of Grey,” but they never did anything for the sake of popularity, or anything that went against what they were about as a band.
As time rolls on, Bob Weir has made it pretty clear he intends to let the traditions of the Grateful Dead live on long past its original members. As most of the original members prepare to shuffle off this mortal coil, new blood like Mayer and Burbridge are preparing to carry the torch for the icons of the Hippie movement. But, while taking nothing away from those two talented musicians, every Deadhead knows that its the fans and the culture that has made the band what it is — and not the other way around.
Public domain image of The Grateful Dead. Photo by Chris Stone.