“There is nothing like a Grateful Dead Concert,” the old bumper stickers read. After attending my first 10 Dead shows, I soon realized this wasn’t true: Every Dead concert is pretty much is like every other Dead concert. Not in terms of the set lists, which famously varied, or the particular architecture of band leader Jerry Garcia’s frequently transcendent guitar work. No, it was that ineffable Dead “vibe” that always struck me as rote—it felt more habitual than blissful. What bugged me was the a priori assumption among Deadheads that Dead shows were always magic and that the magic could be routinely summoned on a nightly basis. It couldn’t, not by a long shot. And that’s coming from a fan.
A Long Strange Trip—the exhaustive authorized Dead bio written by Dennis McNally, a Ph.D. in American history and the band’s publicist for the past 18 years—debunks the few remaining preconceived notions about the band’s hippie benevolence that Deadheads have carried around. Even if one assumes that McNally has airbrushed some of the uglier episodes out of this official story (and other Dead bios might lead us to believe he has), he couldn’t leave it all out. Despite the book’s “Great Men” breathlessness, this is a sad, sorry tragedy—the chronicle of a personality cult so toxic it destroyed the very thing it venerated. Blame it on the Deadheads.
The band’s idea in the beginning was to bridge the gap between performer and audience. According to McNally, the Dead’s career was forged in a mid-’60s San Francisco culture where showbiz notions of hero worship were unwelcome. “The Grateful Dead certainly sought to entertain and move its audience,” McNally writes, “but the root basis of their relationship was that of a partnership of equals, of companions in an odyssey.”
From 1965 to roughly 1975, the Dead fed off of this symbiosis brilliantly, moving through Live/Dead’s lysergic-stoked free rock to the space-cowboy country of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty on to the baroque prog-jams of Wake of the Flood. Their venturesome efforts were rewarded with a fan base of Deadheads that had swelled to a mega-movement by the end of the ‘70s. Intensely loyal to the band, Deadhead-dom became its own sideshow, a traveling community of freaks and later, frat-boy geeks.
The Deadheads gave the Grateful Dead a steady revenue stream and a safe harbor. At first, it felt like a rear guard action—fighting for community in a socially fragmented era. But it curdled into the last refuge for musical conservatism and complacency, and it seemed to destroy the band’s work ethic. McNally glancingly makes reference to this dark side of the Deadhead phenomenon: “Like all fans … they could become tediously obsessed with the object of their joy,” he writes.
It wasn’t just the fanatics; every fan (myself included) bought into the “satori through space jam” myths, wore the same tie-dye, danced the same wiggle dance. What had begun as an inclusive rallying point for outcasts became a provincial closed society. Deadheads were supposed to represent enlightened musical inquiry, but instead, as McNally points out, they ignored adventurous opening acts and lifted lyrics out of context. In the early ‘90s, according to McNally, Jerry Garcia became annoyed with the fact that the line “when it seems like the night will last forever” from his bleak ballad “Black Muddy River” invariably was greeted with lusty cheering.
Thematic content hardly mattered to the loyalists any more; the band’s canon instead became a series of dramatic gestures, well-timed downshifts, and dance cues. Safe within the fuzzy bubble of Deadhead-land, the band coasted for years on end, but no matter how negligent or desultory the performance, they always had the Deadheads to fall back on. Of course the Dead loved the support—they never had to work hard to earn it.
With nothing to strive for and no musical goals to attain, the band lapsed into a creative torpor for the last 15 or so years of its career, even resurrecting itself this summer for another go-round without Garcia. If McNally’s book teaches us anything, it’s that, for a band with a prodigious drug and alcohol habit, the Deadheads’ unquestioning faith was perhaps its most dangerous narcotic.