All the way from Portland, Oregon to Santa Clara, California a question drummed in my head: What has the 50-year Grateful Dead phenomenon given the world?
Turns out the answer is incalculable, the impact too vast. Tens of thousand of hours of unique sonic art ingested by millions of followers and replayed daily by millions more, inspiring everything from fashion to activism to visual art to social architecture… who can explain that? The music has been fired into every nook and cranny of eternity, and there’s no telling who will hear it, what they will do with it, and what it will do with them.
The phenomenon I’m pondering, with its wide and high creative repercussions, started improbably way back in ’65, at a time when a few people were jumping off the materialistic bus to look for a new way of moving through life. Into this promising space wandered a group of friends from the Bay Area enjoying their youth and playing music together. Though they had no ambition other than to plug in and play, they eventually congealed into the world’s most far-out and best-loved rock and roll band. Along the way they would discover rhythms and structures which reverberate today through music festivals and country stations and bluegrass jams, and even pop up in Pop from time to time. Entire generations of musicians have been inspired to take their love of this music and give it a new coat of paint, or discard the form and steal the experimental attitude. Music has been irreversibly changed by The Dead, who were as much archeologists as they were astronomers. For all the star-studded psychedelic wonders they brought to earth, their songs were more often made of the reconstituted bones of Old English poems or folk ballads or hard luck blues.
But there is more to their legacy than the sublime music they delivered. I put my question to some of the guests at the Residence Inn in Santa Clara, most of whom are here to see The Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows at Levi Stadium. Lee from Louisiana says they helped create a lifestyle. “It’s about freedom and treating each other well and helping each other out.” Jen from Seattle says she sees dancing tie-dyed bears in her head when she closes her eyes, then goes on to describe the delight she feels when she paints pictures to music. Rich from New Jersey wears a shirt that says “Wall Street Dead Head.” He says the Dead and their crew goosed technology with innovations in the amplification, recording, and translation of sound. He adds a profound irony: “Those adventurous tinkerers in that 60’s scene invented technologies that gave us surveillance and information storage. They helped create the Big Brother society, and they were the last people who would ever have wanted it.”
“This will never be replicated,” says Dan, 70. He recounts the significance of The Dead for him. “I stepped off the plane from Vietnam on Monday.” He wanted to avoid the bile of the anti-war protestors and the boredom of his hometown, so he joined some friends who had invited him to a free concert in Santa Cruz with a band he had never heard of. “Friday evening I walked into that concert. Everybody was so nice to me, they made me feel so welcome. Then I heard the music. You know when you’re fishing and you’ve got one on the line? I was hooked!”
Even economics has been affected by the give-it-away philosophy of Dead and Family. One guy wrote a book called Everything I Know About Business I Learned From The Grateful Dead. An East Coast Deadhead named Ron, who saw his first Dead show in college in 1970, notes that our hotel is brimming over with Deadheads from all over the country, most of whom have cash and appetites.
And Dave, a farmer from Oregon, takes the question to an even wider ripple this day after marriage has been declared legal for all. He realizes that the Dead community always embraced that most American ideal of Freedom, along with a positive approach to things unknown. “Think about those folks celebrating across the bay in San Francisco tonight. Without the society that evolved here in the Sixties, they would not be celebrating there and all over the country.”
For a while the house band for that “society that evolved here in the Sixties” was The Dead. They started with loosey-goosey multi-media experiments called the Acid Tests, free happenings with colored lights and amplified noises and unpredictable appearances by the band. There was chemical catalyst available to transform consciousness, or at least eradicate normality. That was where they first cranked up the improvisational transformation machine to see what it could do. Tonight, fifty years later, it’s electric arteries and mammal appendages will prove as well-oiled as ever, even as it begins to lay itself to rest.
So try this for an answer: Love.
Throughout the toddlerhood, prolonged adolescence, and adulthood of this band, The Dead were driven by one thing. It was never money or fame or power or comfort or pride. It was simply a head-over-heels LOVE of music. It was in each player from the get-go, and it brought together far-flung perspectives and influences. They created an improvisational machine into which they could collectively pour their passion and obsession, and it would churn out brand new auditory jewelry each time, like the jazz they admired but with an even more rambunctious bent for collage and even less loyalty to consensus reality.
Whenever people try to tell you that the Grateful Dead was about drugs or tie-dyed irresponsibility or Never Growing Up, just remember that that is all peripheral wallpaper. The thing was and is THE MUSIC! This group birthed so many exquisite tendrils of organized noise, so many delectably tuneful doodles, so many slurpingly sensual sunshine rhythms that even Jehovah must be grinning.
And so, within all their sociological and artistic gifts to the world, I think that love is what they gave us, love of music. We have been the benefactors of their heartfelt drive toward sonic discovery. It was love that tossed the pebble in still water, and continues to send ripples outward–ripples of song, ripples of color and form, ripples of friendship, ripples of peace.
The Dead’s most unique contribution to the world of creativity may be their attitude about the act of creation. There was never ownership, no egotistical ambitions. The music was made and given simply because they wanted to hear it. And they understood a creative secret: don’t have too many goals. Here’s what Jerry Garcia said about the process, learned first at the Acid Tests:
“That experience gave us glimpses into the form that follows chaos. If you throw out everything and lose all rules and stop trying to make anything happen on any level, other stuff starts to happen.”
That “other stuff” was the glorious psychedelic sound banquet that we have been blessed to dance to since 1965. They modeled the creative attitude that invited it in, that idea that you sharpen your chops and learn your history and practice your craft, but then at some point you abandon all preconceptions and trust in something beyond yourself.
This was an important way-showing for people engaged in all forms of endeavor. Garcia again: “I believe that if you open the door to the process it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.”
Finally it came down to the heart of the matter, the inexplicable in-duplicable live show, of which tonight’s would be their next-to-last at home. As the ecstatic crowd at Levi Stadium swirled and swayed to that same improvisational transformation machine, all philosophical concerns went up in smoke. There was left only the pure love of music, by the players and the hearers, and the joy in sharing it. Like a giant Sunflower of Sound, the band wove explosion and whisper, exactitude and asymmetry, refreshment and refrain into thrilling new numbers wrung from their oldest compositions. Yes, there were space-age sound systems and hyper-hued light feasts and enormous screens with wheeling fractals, but the music was the main thing.
No big significance beyond that, save for a couple minutes at the close of the first set during a jam that sounded like “Turn On Your Love Light,” when brilliant orange sunset light climbed a billowing brainscape of clouds and crawled across the dome of Heaven to touch the top of a double rainbow that had appeared in the eastern sky. Maybe something about the small wheels and the Big Wheel, and once-in-awhile and The Light.