I’m 48, so I’m old enough to know all about the Grateful Dead, and although I’ve liked them well enough for many years, I can’t count myself as a real fan, hence my question.
What was it about them that made the hippies/potheads/insert label such devoted fans that they (many/some) saw hundreds of their shows per year? There are other bands that inspire loyalty, with fans who travel hours and hundreds of miles to see multiple concerts, but few in such an almost mythic dose (Phish seems to come closest since the Dead). What separated them from the pack along this particular point?
Their songs (so far as I know) didn’t explicity pander to the drug set (in terms of lyrics, at least not any more than other bands – they weren’t the folk-rock version of Cheech and Chong, in other words), and although they were a jam style band, they weren’t the only ones. A lot of jazz consists of jamming (as well as rock during the 60s and 70s), and while it can be argued the jazz musicians were notorious drug users, you never hear about Birdheads (in reference to Charlie Parker-I know he died in the mid-50s, but he’s just an example).
So was it mainly a relaxed, intimate style, a festival with "5 or 30,000 of our closest friends, a jam session sort of atmosphere at their concerts? A kind of, “hey man, chill out, smoke a doobie, and get into the music and let it flow” sort of thing? I know they allowed (encouraged?) fans to record their concerts, but was there a particular reason they inspired an almost fanatical devotion (no “almost” about it, but otherwise, the reference wouldn’t work)?
I’ve been to maybe a dozen or so Dead shows. I’m not sure if you’d call me a Deadhead; I didn’t follow them around the country but I always tried to go see them when they were in the area. Your description isn’t that far off from many people’s experiences…except that there are in fact many people there NOT taking any drugs or even drinking. I loved the live shows because it was never the same show twice, unlike a lot of other bands who play the same damn set list ever show. There was always a lot of dancing, too, which doesn’t happen at a lot of other concerts. It was usually like one really big party, at which many people are drinking or getting high, but a lot of other people were just listening to the music or dancing. If I were going to follow a band around the country, it would have been them. I can’t imagiine doing that with any other band, but the experience at each show was always unique, which can’t be said for many other bands.
I’m gonna go with this, too. I went mostly in the '80s. I never toured but maybe went to 20 or so shows total. It was the biggest party in town, a nice place to be, generally nice folks, cute girls, lots of dancing around and letting go, and the band could rip it up like no other. They played stuff I didn’t like much, too, but I accepted it as the price of the golden moments. Then the golden moments grew less…
Every player has their dedicated fans. I used to be sort of a Pat Metheny fan and would see him whenever he was in the area. I don’t see anybody anymore, though. The thing that turns me off to live jazz are the venues. A lot of jazz clubs have drink minumums, multiple shows per night, you’re kind of packed uncomfortably into tables, so it’s in-and-out thank you very much. Bigger acts in concert halls are nice.
Another thing is that the Dead were unique in that they were constantly touring so one could conceivably build a lifestyle off of it. Not so with most other acts, rock, jazz or otherwise.
The Dead were playing near where I worked and I parked my car in the lot that was also used for the venue. I got onto the elevator with a bunch of deadheads and immediately understood the answer:
It’s the same thing as a science fiction convention. Which means, as one anthropologist called it, a post-industrial tribal gathering.
Once you get into the Dead, you meet friends. It’s pretty easy, since you all have a common interest. After awhile, the point of the concerts is to meet people you know. You may see someone you saw six months ago and can start up the friendship just where it left off (I have some science fiction friends who I see every year or so, but it never seems that long). After awhile, you look forward partially because of the music, but partially because you can meet up with others.
The Dead’s continual touring created this phenomenon, but it’s no different than the Philcon, Boskone, Lunacon, Worldcon circuit.
I’m going to agree with batsto regarding the set list, never seeing the same show twice, even while they played, what, 200 shows a year, every year for 30 + years. What’s also sort of interesting is that the scene was there first - Ken Kesey, who was throwing the acid test parties, invited a guy that he used to work with as a security guard in a mental hospital, Jerry Garcia, to sort of provide ambient music for one of his parties.
The question has been answered really well already although different people hit on different facets. I saw over 70 shows before Jerry died and have been to almost as many shows of the member’s other bands since then,
Each show is different. Not only are the set lists different but the way they play the songs can be different too. Their jams are improvisational. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When they were on, they were the best rock band ever.
The community. I made a number of good friends and tons of acquaintances. It was fun to run into them at different shows over the years. Some people are more into it for the community than the music. I don’t happen to be one of them. A lot of times I consider the scene to be shit I have to put up with to get to hear the music.
I always liked rock, blues, Americana and folk music so the Grateful Dead was natural for me. Their music is definitely not “psychedelic” which is a specific and different genre. I would classify them and improv rock/country/blues.
Where’s AugustWest? I know there are other Deadheads on the boards too, but just can’t remember their names.
I caught well over 200 shows, plus countless others I tried but didn’t make it inside.
There was really only one consistent aspect–the music.
Drugs? Plentiful and fun, sure, but there were vast numbers of non-users. There was even a large AA-like group (the Wharf Rats) that you could count on finding at every show. Not that for many folks the allure of drugs wasn’t there, but to say that was a prime motivator in going to shows is hopelessly naive. Pot could be easily found outside of shows, and usually cheaper too. Saying it was about the drugs is the same as saying that people like NASCAR or baseball for the beer. Yeah, it’s an element to many, but not the driving (heh) factor.
Tribe? Yeah, sure. Hitting a show and not making it inside (Cash for your extras! Need a miracle!) was a letdown, but there was (almost) always a great time to be had nonetheless. Did I enjoy seeing familiar faces on the road? Sure. Icons that are sorely missed (anyone remember the Ryder disco truck?), but that’s an element that made going to shows a lot of fun and comfort, not what going to shows was all about. Do fanatical Packer-Backers go to their games every week because they love tailgating and get to know other season ticket holders? Or do they love watching football and game-day festivities are part of the fun?
It’s the music. Underneath it all, for most Heads I’ve know, it’s the music. Outside of shows, back before the net opened easy access, people went out of their way to trade and collect (legal) concert recordings. Collections with hundreds of hours weren’t uncommon–the music was legally and free for the trade, all it really cost was a blank cassette and time. And they weren’t collecting for the sake of collecting – they were collecting to listen. Hearing the elegant flight from one song to another, dissecting the musical conversation during a jam that landed in a song, debating whether or not Donna was a good addition, whether '72 or '77 was the better era, what this or that song meant, and so on. Conversations and interactions outside of shows was all about the music. Yeah, there were exceptions, and yeah, there were a lot of great non-musical things (veggie burritos and grilled cheeses just aren’t the same), but the dominant factor is the music.
A.) They toured all the time, and varied their set list constantly.
B.) They didn’t condone people recording their show, they actively encouraged it.
C.) They were a pretty decent band. Very creative with a great sense of American musical history, trippy lyrics about low-lifes and drifters, and pretty competent musicianship. They had a unique sound which doesn’t appeal to everybody, but which struck a chord with a lot of people.
ETA: In other words, what the guy right above me said.
I’ve never been a fan of the Dead’s music, but I am a fan of their relationship with their fans.
A friend of mine was the accountant for the big ticket agency in a large Midwestern city (that got bought by Ticketbastard). She said the Dead’s people were the most professional group she ever dealt with. The Dead were such in institution that they could have booked their own tours and hired their own venues, but as Pearl Jam discovered, someone always had an exclusive contract with the prime venues.
So they would actually buy every seat in the venue to make sure their fans would get first pick. They would do this for every venue on the tour and package books of tickets for the fans who wanted to see the whole tour. Once the Deadheads bought their seats, they would sell the remainder back to the ticketing agency for re-sale.
The funny thing about a Dead show is that so many of their songs are about people down on their luck, death, loss, hard times, stay-away-from-me-I’m-no-good, etc. but the way the Dead served them up was so uplifting.
I think there’s a big difference between condoning something and actively encouraging it, though I suppose I could have thrown a “merely” in there.
Anyway, like Rythmdvl said, people who think the scene was the primary reason people listened to the Dead are simply wrong. For one thing, if that were true, why would they listen to the music at home?
Hell, even with science-fiction, very few people go to conventions if they don’t like the stuff in the first place.