The Grateful Dead, admittedly, are an acquired taste. Even though they are bigger and more culturally accepted than ever before, there was a certain hesitancy from those who hadn’t fully gotten “on the bus” to reveal themselves as Deadheads.
I was one of those individuals once upon a time. Until only recently, if you tried to call me a Deadhead, I would have fervently argued against any attempts to put that label on me. Sure, I loved their music, and sure, I’ve been to about eight Dead & Co. shows, some of which I’ve travelled hours by car to get to, and sure, I may play in a band whose setlist is about 70 percent Dead covers (it used to be 100 percent, to be fair), but that doesn’t make me a Deadhead.
Of course, that argument looks ridiculous when spelt out, largely because it is. I was too caught up in the notion that being a Deadhead made you a dirty hippie, or a wook, with no life ambitions, spacey quasi-philosophical drivel pouring out of your mouth while reaching for another bong hit. It wasn’t until I saw people of all backgrounds and lifestyles at the concerts that I realised that being a Deadhead is more than just the most cliched of interpretations.
The entire phenomenon of Deadhead-dom, and the ability for it to completely overpower the actual music itself, has created a sort of “love it or hate it” element to The Dead. It’s not like the band was ignorant of this either: in the documentary Long Strange Trip, publicist and band biographer Dennis McNally advises sceptics to ignore Deadheads completely when trying to get into the band. Jerry Garcia had his own interpretation of the Dead experience, and how their specific culture can convert as many as it alienates.
“Well, that seems pretty cut and dry (laughs),” Garcia told Relix back in 1980. “I’m aware of that phenomenon, I guess. What happens is that someone turns their friends on to us in the same spirit or sense that they would turn their friends on to pot. They turn them on because they have a good experience and they have a good time.”
Garcia believes that some of the band’s more wayward and drug-induced performances were to blame for a lot of the initial negative reception towards the band “It used to be real frustrating. I’ve talked to fans about this who have said, ‘Jesus, I invited 20 of my friends to this and you guys played awful!’ (laughs). That stuff used to happen to us all the time. We’ve gotten to be a lot more consistent. So now, those people can bring their friends and at the very worst, they’ll get a nice, professional show.”
1980 was an interesting turning point for the Dead: still years away from their commercial breakthrough with In the Dark, the band had recently acquired keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland and began their transition into a large scale stadium rock spectacle. But according to Garcia, the band’s anti-authoritarian ethos was what continued to endear the band to younger generations.
“But I’m aware of that mechanism. The thing is that it’s an ongoing process. Our audience now has a very large number of 15, 16 and 17 year-olds. They’re kids who are obviously not from our generation. But are every bit as enthusiastic about what we did as any of our audiences have ever been. Our audience is larger now than it’s ever been. It’s more vital now than it’s ever been, and we’re happenin’.”