Redefining America through Rock Music after Woodstock and Altamont: Texts and Contexts of Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty

While Europeans have tended to underestimate or overlook the role of the Grateful Dead in the development of rock music, Mikal Gilmore, representative of the opinion prevalent in the U.S., called the band "one of popular culture’s most extraordinary epic adventures." That is not an exaggeration. The Grateful Dead emerged as the leading representatives of the West Coast music scene when San Francisco became, temporarily at least, the capital of rock music in 1966/67, and they easily maintained that position for almost thirty years. In popular culture, which is characteristically short-lived—yesterday’s heroes are often forgotten today—such a longevity is unusual; but the Grateful Dead are also unusual because of the astonishing continuity that is a hallmark of their career. They did largely without the fluctuation of personnel that marks the life span of many a rock band; in fact, four of the five founding members of the Grateful Dead were still there in early 1995, besides the second drummer, who joined the band in 1967. And though the sound and style of play of the Dead changed over the decades, it was largely immune to fads and fashions. They never obeyed anybody else’s musical standards but remained what they were in the beginning and what they did best. They were predominantly a live band, averaging some eighty concerts a year—concerts that were attended mostly by Deadheads, a special kind of dedicated followers who trailed the band on their tours. There are Deadheads who can boast of having seen fifty or more Grateful Dead concerts, and those people are not just moronic dopeheads but respectable business executives or college professors. Deadicated, the title chosen for the tribute album published in 1991, says it all (Deadicated features, among others, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Dr John, Suzanne Vega, Cowboy Junkies, Burning Spear, and Lyle Lovett).

By the early 1990s, the Grateful Dead had broken just about every record rock buffs would take note of—except one: they never had a singles Nr. 1 hit in the U.S.—and that in itself may well be the most phenomenal record the band can boast of, if one just considers their overall standing. The Dead had only one Top Ten singles hit and one Top Ten album in their entire career ("A Touch of Gray" and In the Dark, both dating from 1987). But in the early autumn of 1988, they played a nine-night stand at the Madison Square Garden, each night before a sell-out crowd of 21,000—the biggest series of concerts ever played in New York history up to that point, and, as it turned out, also the biggest American pop event (and money grosser) of that year. (In their 30-year history, the Grateful Dead appeared in the Garden a record breaking 52 times.)

The Grateful Dead emerged in the Southern Bay area in the early sixties. The place is significant; there, around Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the remnants of the San Francisco Beat Scene met with young people who were attracted by the cultural possibilities offered by the Bay Area. Palo Alto and neighboring Menlo Park were the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture. From today’s perspective, one man stands out in this development, Ken Kesey. In 1962, at age 27, Kesey had published his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which till today has sold well over 12 million copies. The book drew on the author’s rather diverse personal experiences. Kesey had worked as a night warden in a psychiatric hospital and had volunteered in government-sponsored experiments with LSD and other hallucinogenics. While working on his second novel, Kesey founded a group called the Merry Pranksters, who, combining the liberal use of hallucinogenics with experiments with new recording techniques for sounds and images, tried to achieve a new spontaneity, a new way of turning life into art of the moment, a break-through to a higher consciousness—it was all not so far, albeit fundamentally different, from President Kennedy’s call for a break-through to a new frontier. Most notoriously, this higher consciousness was attempted in what was called Acid Tests, events which celebrated a communal high (LSD was not outlawed in California until August 1966), with Ken Kesey as master of ceremony presiding over the event as Captain America and the guitar player Jerry Garcia serving as Captain Trips.

The musicians called to function as house band for the Merry Pranksters’ happenings would eventually become the Grateful Dead. In early 1965, they formed the Warlocks, who by the summer of that year had consolidated their line-up, consisting of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzman—the core of the Grateful Dead, the name they would use for their band with increasing frequency from now on. The name was coined, allegedly, when Jerry Garcia leafed through a dictionary and chanced upon the entry denoting a character from folk mythology. The name and the figure it alluded to proved remarkably adaptable to iconic representations, and the band and their following—the Dead Heads—were adept in making use of those iconic representations.