The band never put much weight into fanbase-building outside of playing shows. So how did Deadheads multiply to reach a number so overwhelming that we threatened the band’s existence? Well, giving folk that we are, the answer to the equation is us and our unconditional love of the band. Deadheads made more Deadheads and as we all know now, that ultimately wasn’t for the better. How did the best fans a band could have at the same time be the worst?
For a quick examination of just how enigmatic Deadheads are, let’s quickly take a trip back to October 1989. The Grateful Dead have just finished the fall tour in Miami with their remarkable 2,000th show. Their latest album, Built To Last, is just days away from its Halloween release. For a Deadhead, this is merely an interesting moment. Perhaps word spread of the stunning Dark Star the band played but the new album news is probably more of a shoulder-shrug or a curiousity. Eyes in Dead Heads may have been more focused on the run of California shows leading up to New Year’s Eve at Oakland Coliseum than this new release. There wasn’t going to be a song on the album that fans hadn’t yet heard so there was nothing brand new to Deadheads about this album. Sure, they’ll still buy it, but begrudgingly. That makes us confusingly remarkable. What diehard fan sorta doesn’t care about their favourite band’s new album?
But maybe the Columbia House-subscribing civilians would like it. Maybe there would be another hit like the band had with the last studio album. And in the Deadhead world at this time, the band growing an even greater audience was likely the next worse thing to the band breaking up. It wasn’t all about wanting to keep the band our little secret. Perhaps not wanting to share a finite allotment of tickets with newbies was a common reason. What many saw then was that it was a volume issue and not one like Dan Healy fading Bobby’s guitar out of the mix. It was understanding where the scene was being directed by the ticketless hordes, many of whom were either those parasitically grafting themselves onto the band for reasons of lucre or their preyed-upon partying punters with zero intention of even trying to get into a show. In my opinion, a real Deadhead is in it for the celebration of the songs, FIRST. Any other reason creates warranted mistrust. The dealers were in question, but the lot partiers were Deadheads. What we all realized too late was that the proverbial five-pound bag was bursting at the seams. You could say it was the band’s fault, but the only blame that sticks on them is being too good at what they do. So, that leaves us. Our eagerness to prove we weren’t crazy for driving 12 hours to see a single show did the trick. But what exactly made these new Heads? What made us Heads?
To an outside observer with a passing interest in the Dead, perhaps they buy a ‘best-of’ like Skeletons From The Closet or the extended What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been. A borrowed copy of the latter was my first widespread foray into the band’s music. I only learned later that as good as this compilation is, it’s a mere toe-dip and hardly indicative of the scope of their output. To dispute what Jerry Garcia said comparing Deadheads to lovers of licorice, there must’ve been big fans of the music who didn’t want to muck around at a Dead show. Perhaps, more sober fans were a bit afraid of the circus around the shows and made due with just listening. But a listener’s first introduction was vital to many factors and degrees of Deadheadism.
To explain from my story, as a kid becoming a big music fan in the early 80s, I heard music on rock radio stations. Or from my older brother hearing music on rock radio stations. My embryonic awareness of the Dead was likely hearing Truckin‘ on FM radio like everyone else in the era. I wasn’t dazzled. I wasn’t seeking out the creators of this song. It was ‘hippie crap’. The closest I got to seeing the band was a Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ad in Rolling Stone and thinking that Cohen and Greenfield were members of the Grateful Dead. The band wasn’t on enough rock mag covers to have recognizable faces to the disinterested. Geographically, there were long gaps in the band playing in Toronto for obvious border-related reasons, so I never heard ROCK RADIO DJ-VOICED CONCERT ANNOUNCMENTS! For one that sold out 10-20,000 seat venues, the band was underground in those pre-Touch of Grey days. Deadheads weren’t anointed by the standard sources, especially before MTV (or in my case, the Canadian equivalent, MuchMusic) came on the scene. Evangelizing fans rose the band to this level by forcing them on their friends. Some became licorice lovers. Likely many more said no thanks to the hippie crap’, not realizing the Dead may never have been and certainly in the 80s were far from being a band of hippies. To turn a civilian into a Deadhead, one had to know WHAT to use. Thinking back to 1981, when I was a massive Rush fan, had someone played me Slipknot first, I would’ve been much more likely to want to hear more. If someone followed that up with the right jam, maybe Stronger Than Dirt from the SNACK Benefit, my brains would’ve been better tenderized to accept Mexicali Blues. However, if someone said I had to listen to a Bobby-slidin’ 80s Little Red Rooster, I may have sealed my ears with molten lead. And this was actually closer to my history.
As I’ve mentioned my exposure in previous posts, the first Deadhead in my life seemed to listen to nothing earlier than 1984 Dead. And most were audience tapes, which I routinely dismissed for sound quality reasons. And to top it off, the only songs that stuck in my mind were Samson and Delilah and Bobby Blues. Though I once saw a gaggle of preppy-Heads plod through Fire On The Mountain at a high school battle of the bands. Try to bundle up these factors and put yourself in this situation. I had to jackhammer my way through these rock-hard memories to find the gems. I mean, leaked Betty Boards of Cornell ’77 EXISTED at this time. It may not have been ‘the hook’ but it certainly would’ve changed the associations I held. When that fateful night I’ve written about here occurred, it wasn’t long until I found my perfect niche of Dead. The guitarist in the Dead cover band I played in laid a half dozen shows on me, from scraps of the gritty 12/28 Hollywood, Florida show to 1975’s Great American Music Hall show that got an official release as One From The Vault. That latter tape rarely left my Walkman. I found the Dead era that would be ‘my shit’. But unfairly, it also became a model for comparison with every other era I heard, present (at the time) included. That resolved itself with the kind of broader appreciation that only comes with age and experience.
To close with a swerve, this topic also speaks to the diversity of tastes among Deadheads. That Deadhead who listened to my poor introductions to the band, that was the stuff he LOVED. In my recollection, he listened to this era all the time. For all I know, Starlight Theater 1985 for him (and many others) was my Great American Music Hall. So, I firmly believe it’s the era of the Dead that grabs you even more than the song, whether you realize it or not. And it’s why we love this music so much. It’s why some of us listen to almost nothing else. Few artists reinvent their music like the Dead did. Though circumstance seemed to be the catalyst more than intent. With the sad passing of each keyboardist, the sounds changed for obvious reasons. But the personality of the new members also brought the fresh air that came through their own skills and influences.
Clearly, the question asked of the Deadhead more succinctly is when do you like the Dead than do you like the Dead. That answer is obvious. Standing from the current high point here in 2022, not even the death of its figurehead almost 27 years ago could slow the zombie virus spread of the Deadhead. There’s no doubt that year after year, since 1965 – FIFTY-SEVEN FUCKING YEARS AFTER THE START OF IT ALL, there are more Deadheads today than ever before! The thought is astounding. There are thousands and thousands of Deadheads who never saw a Grateful Dead concert or were even alive while they were active. It’s entirely bizarre if viewed without context. Yet, knowing what we know (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), it makes perfect sense and validates the statement I made way up this page, a couple of thousand words ago.
A real Deadhead is in it for the celebration of the songs, FIRST.
Header photo by Mark l. Knowles used under Creative Commons.
ADDENDUM: I thank David Gans and Gary Lambert for the conversation that helped not only fill out some facts in this post but through it came some phrases and ideas in this post. You can have a listen to this conversation from SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel show Tales from the Golden Road.