“Not everyone likes it, but those who do REALLY like it.”

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“Not everyone likes it, but those who do REALLY like it.”

A Look At The Grateful Dead

They never had a #1 hit and they made the Top 10 only once, and even that was after being around for more than 2 decades. Jerry Garcia likened the Grateful Dead to licorice: “not everyone likes it, but those who do really like it.”  I am not a Deadhead, but I am married to one…who happens to look a bit like Jerry Garcia. With the 25th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death coming up this year, it seemed a good time to bring the Grateful Dead back into the spotlight.
 
Why the Grateful Dead Matter by Michael Benson
So, why should we care about the Grateful Dead? Michael Benson tells us why. First, they were an American band, born and bred, and they combined many American musical styles in their music – blues, folk, country, bluegrass and more. Their improvisational style, known as jamming, was a new thing in popular music, long associated with small jazz clubs. Even their rehearsals weren’t like other groups; they had “the bones” of songs in their minds at shows, but would flesh them out differently every night. They didn’t work out material because they didn’t want it to be easy, to play by rote. They were never a nostalgia band, living off of hit songs from their past, but continued to perform new material for years to an audience of all ages. Their music was free; they encouraged their fans to record live concerts. They had their own mail order system for selling tickets so their fans wouldn’t have to pay the huge fees charged by ticket services. Their many fans also became like a tribe, a large family that followed them around the country, setting a social precedent. And, if you know and like tie-dye, you can thank the Grateful Dead for its existence.
    
So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by David Browne
Browne’s narrative of the Grateful Dead is divided into 17 chapters, each focused around a significant day in their history, from October of 1962, when Jerry Garcia and then-girlfriend Barbara Meier waited for the world to end, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, from a hilltop in Menlo Park, to late March 2009, when the remaining four members, calling themselves the Dead, reunited for one last tour. Containing new interviews with the remaining members as well as associates, it sheds light on the inner workings and struggles of the band where not all was peace and love. One of the dates, May 9, 1987, had them agreeing to make a “commercial” music video for their song, “Touch of Grey.” Lip synching was not their thing – remember, they were a jam band known for their live performances – but they all had fun on the shoot, even joking about “pretending” to play their instruments.
 
No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson
Why did the Grateful Dead survive as one of the most durable institutions of the counterculture when so many of their contemporaries faded from the scene? Richardson attempts to explain their lasting appeal in No Simple Highway. He credits it to 3 utopian ideals. The first, ecstasy, doesn’t just refer to the drug culture of the band and its many followers, but to their desire to transcend the normal, the straight, with experimentation and improvisation. Garcia himself “regarded the Dead as the American experiment in action,” and that tied into their roles as artists as well; art, as a concept, should be transformative. The second ideal, mobility, reflects their 30 years as America’s most popular touring band, as well as their many songs about The Road, the most famous probably Truckin’. And of course, the fans, or Deadheads, who led a nomadic life as well, following the band from town to town, Garcia suggesting this might have been that generation’s version of joining the circus or riding the rails. Lastly, the ideal of community, the large group that became the Grateful Dead family – crew, managers, lyricists, friends and family, all making decisions rather democratically, and the Deadheads swelled the ranks even further. These ideals resonated with two generations of American youth and they continue to inspire others today.
 
Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip
For those of you who prefer your information visually, this is the Grateful Dead book for you! An encyclopedic source by year, it includes memorabilia, every tour date, and song lists from each album. A thorough index directs readers to articles on many individuals important to the life of the band, including anyone who performed with them and others who influenced the band or worked behind the scenes. It has rare photos and the first section gives a history of San Francisco, and how many of the events there influenced the early lives of the band members. The forward was written by Robert Hunter, the band’s longtime collaborator who died just last fall. An extensive timeline runs through the book, so any pertinent date can be located. The write-up for the RFK performance on June 20, 1992, mentions that Al and Tipper Gore were in attendance; this was less than a month before he was announced as Bill Clinton’s running mate in the 1992 election.
 
Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh
One of the original five members of the Grateful Dead, along with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil met Jerry in 1959, and it was Jerry who encouraged Phil to learn the electric bass, the instrument he became known for, due to his innovative style. His first instruments when young were violin and trumpet, but he fell in love with jazz and avant-garde classical music when older, which would help define this style. He talks about these influences in the book, as well as explaining the origin of many of the band’s songs, which he describes as only a band member and musician could. Phil includes an interesting section on how Jerry’s health episodes affected the large Grateful Dead machine: there were 3 plans to economize drawn up once, depending on how long the tour hiatus lasted! He wraps up with a mention of his post-Dead venture, Phil Lesh and Friends, when he toured with various well-known musicians such as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, as well as members of Phish and String Cheese Incident. Oh, and don’t miss the Hirschfeld illustration of the band on the endpapers.
 
Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews
Lastly, a list of books on the Grateful Dead would not be complete without a book on the man who defined the group, Jerry Garcia. Front man and founder, he was the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead. This book, as the subtitle indicates, includes unpublished interviews from the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz. The book is liberally illustrated with Jerry’s own art, many taken from spiral bound notebooks he created after his coma, when his art training helped his recovery, from 1985-1991, and with photos from private collections, many of them family photos. Jerry loved to talk to others, to exchange ideas and thoughts, and he was a fun person to talk to; he loved people. In these interviews, he talks about his early life, his thoughts on LSD, movies, the government, the song writing process, performing on the road, and many other topics. Although he’s been gone 25 years, he is still a musical icon, and still missed by many.