Rock Blog: 50 Years of Grateful Dead

September 26, 2016

I was a teenage Dead Head. I was familiar with 'Casey Jones' and 'Truckin' from hearing them on the radio, but I remember one day after a bunch of bong hits, a friend turned me on to 'American Beauty'. I was hooked. On the Dead…but probably the bong hits, too. From 1975 to 1982, I saw about 100 Dead shows up and down the East Coast. Also saw all the Dead offshoot bands at the time, like Kingfish, The Jerry Garcia Band, Bobby and the Midnights, etc.

To a kid in the 70s, it wasn’t just the music - it was the whole counterculture approach of the band, and the bands from San Francisco who drafted in their wake, like the Airplane, Hot Tuna, Quicksilver, Janis and Canned Heat. The Dead carried the torch for The American Psychedelic Dream, but they were also traditionalists, having grown out of a bluegrass and jug-band background. They mashed up Delta Blues Old School Country and good Ol' American Rock and Roll standards. Their entire studio catalog before 1972 was a document in original creativity, some tremendous musicianship and two pillars of great songwriting – Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

Bob Weir was the pretty boy of the band, the youngest member, rhythm guitarist and singer. He was the power voice of the Dead – Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. He had a unique rhythm guitar style, which could follow Jerrys meandering, flowing lead. It was a magical codependence. A great peek into Bob’s life is a documentary that came out last year titled The Other One.

Jerry Garcia is who most people identify the Dead with, and for good reason. After the first couple of albums, and certainly after Pigpen died (Ron Mckernan, original organist and singer), Jerry became the face of the band. He wrote great lullabies and had a honey-sweet voice. He covered a lot of Dylan, Beatles and Motown tunes. Jerry was also a great guitar, slide and banjo player.

The Grateful Dead were kind of like the Lennon and McCartney of hippie music. Garcia and Weir balanced the songwriting and singing (save a few Pigpen, Phil Lesh, Donna Godchaux, Brent Mydland tunes) between the two of them. Most shows alternated Bob song, Jerry song, etc. And then it would end up with 3 songs daisy-chained together into 20 minutes of drums and feedback. Depending on the level of your personal intake, this was either the best, worst, or most frightening part of the show  - or the trip.

Sadly, Jerry died about 21 years ago, one week after his 53rd birthday. It was August 9th, 1995 in Chicago, the very last Grateful Dead concert. I was at that show. Hadn’t seen the band play in a long time, and unfortunately it was not a good show. Sloppy and off key, you could tell something wasn’t quite right.

2016 has been the 50th Anniversary of The Grateful Dead. Bittersweet, as there were but a couple of shows with all remaining members, and a tour with John Mayer and Dead members.  Some Deadheads are a little too pure to want to see any form of The Dead, Dead and Friends, Further, etc. I’m one of those people, for better or worse.

This year will also produce 4 very cool documents of the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir’s “The Other One” documentary mentioned above is a really great look into the life of The Deads “Other Lead”. The National released a 5 CD tribute compilation called “Day of the Dead”.   It might take you a whole weekend to get through. Bob Weir releases “Blue Mountain”, his first album in 10 years on September 30th. And finally “Dear Jerry”, and all start tribute show /film /CD launches on October 14th.

 

You either get The Grateful Dead, or you don’t. There’s really nothing in between. They were, and will always be the American Psychedelic success story, and a truly great Rock and Roll tale. Here’s a lyrical taste that sums it up…

 

“They're a band beyond description, Like Jehovah's favorite choir

People joining hand in hand while the music played the band, Lord They're setting us on fire.

Well the cool breeze came on Tuesday, and the corn's a bumper crop

And the fields are full of dancin' Full of singin' and romancin'

The music never stopped”.

 

- Dave Richards AKA Sergeant Hairclub