My Long, Strange Trip Through the Pandemic with the Grateful Dead

by Critical Thanos Theory

Last summer I lost my job, like many others amid the COVID-19 pandemic. From a young age, I’ve worked around live music and concerts, but like many other young people, I was designated to be laid off when the shows stopped. It was in this moment that I was faced with a life defining choice: finally watch The Sopranos, or try to get into the Grateful Dead. I told a friend about my choice, and when they gave me a rather large bag of mushrooms, I took it as a sign.

Before this seemingly never-ending global pandemic, the Grateful Dead began a second cultural resurgence. An unlikely moment for the zeitgeist, steeped in hauntology (don’t worry, our author is being tongue in cheek – Ed.), tempered by a global pandemic, and facilitated by easier than ever access to psychedelic drugs.

I’ll admit that I’ve always been Dead-curious. I’ve known a few cool people who were into the Grateful Dead, but the sheer size of their body of work was daunting to me. This was a hugely popular, genre-pioneering band that toured for 30 years and played thousands of rambling, multiple-hour long shows, many of which have been recorded by devoted fans. That’s a lot of music.

So what’s the deal with the Dead, man?

In 1965, the Grateful Dead was formed by Jerry Garcia and several of his jam partners -Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann- in San Francisco’s Mission District. The Dead were the house band at the infamous Acid Tests, a seminal countercultural event of the 1960s that laid the foundations for the psychedelic movement in North America.

I’m not a Dead historian by any means, but I would definitely recommend digging further into their fascinating history. The band was often followed on tour by hoards of fans, many of whom would sell food, drugs, bootleg merchandise, and – notably – personal tape recordings of concerts outside the venue, in a sprawling segmented-off piece of parking lot or open field that would come to be known as Shakedown Street.

Home taping of Dead shows has been a crucial element in the continued success of the band. Tape trades allowed the Dead’s fans to exchange experiences, and with a band that was as heavily influenced by long jams as the Dead, it has since allowed fans the opportunity to select their favorite Dead tracks like jam band sommeliers. “Oh, I fancy a Dark Star from the Europe 72 tour, but I really do love the cuts from Cornell, 1977.” From the outside, this sort of chatter is just words, but once you’ve listened to a few shows, these sorts of conversations are easily translated.

It was once remarked that the crowds at Dead shows would often feature “a sea of microphones” from home tapers and Dead enthusiasts. In an attempt to control, but still encourage the practice, the Grateful Dead began to offer tickets in a separate section of the venue- an official ‘Taper’s Section’- at their shows from October 27th, 1984 onwards. This section was situated behind the soundboard at their concerts, and offered fans with personal tape recorders the opportunity to record concerts at the best physical position in the venue for sound recording. Prior to this, the section had been largely informal, and fans would capture recordings from wherever they could, often obscuring the views of other fans.

Early tapes were duplicated, shared by mail, bought and sold on Shakedown Street. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, and legions of Deadheads, many of them are now available on sites like Archive.org, Dead.net, JerryGarcia.com, and what feels like a million other websites. All in high quality formats, with information – down to the pre-amps used by the taper- about the equipment the recording was made on. These days, fans still record entire concerts from wherever they can, but with pocket audio recorders, and the ever obtrusive cell phone camera.

The Dead themselves recognized that a significant segment of their audience came aboard by way of home taping, and in 1993 the Dead released the first Dick’s Picks compilation, named after their archivist Dick Latvala. These releases would feature remastered live performances from the archive of a series of shows in a particular market, or on a stretch of tour. Following the death of Dick in 2005, a new archivist, Dave Lemieux took up the torch, and archival releases have been subsequently titled as Dave’s Picks. Many of these compilations have become fan favorites because of the multi-track flowing jams that are highlighted on some releases.

The resurgence of the Dead has been a long, strange trip. Many of the band’s fans argue that, although the band stopped touring as The Grateful Dead in 1995 following the death of Jerry Garcia, the spirit of the Dead never truly died. Following the successful ‘Fare Thee Well’ reunion shows in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of the Dead, some of the surviving members expressed interest in continuing to play shows.

This brings us to John Mayer. Grammy award winning pop star and guitarist, cult streetwear icon, and Grateful Dead fan.

The rebirth of the Grateful Dead began in 2015, when John Mayer asks Dead guitarist Bob Weir to join him on the Irish late-night “Late Late Show.” Weir and the remaining members of the Dead were rehearsing for ‘Fare Thee Well.’ Allegedly, Mayer had been going through a huge Dead kick at the time, and played with the band at their rehearsal space. The surviving members, minus Phil Lesh, would form Dead & Company, with plans to play one show at Madison Square Garden in December 2015, after the Fare Thee Well shows.

Following the success of the initial Dead & Company show, plans were hatched for a proper tour, and the band has toured North America every summer since.

Enter, Complex Networks, and their YouTube series “Hot Ones.”

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the YouTube show “Hot Ones” was working its way through the media machine, and gaining a steady following of hot sauce enthused fans. The show bills itself as featuring “hot questions and hotter wings,” and guests are challenged to eat 10 hot wings tossed in hot sauces of increasing Scoville-rated intensity. By the time the guests have eaten their 7th or 8th wing, they’re in a sort of spice-drunk state because of a physical reaction to the sauces. I first became aware of Hot Ones as a result of a Vince Staples interview in 2017, and watched it periodically going forward.

In Spring 2018 John Mayer appeared on the program as promo for the upcoming Dead & Co. tour. You can watch his appearance on YouTube. During the interview, Mayer promoted the tour as a way for un-initiated fans to “register” their vintage Grateful Dead shirts by seeing a show; simultaneously taking aim at the popularity of Dead shirts as fashion items by unknowing hipsters and drumming up excitement for his own musical endeavor. It’s impossible to say for sure, and while the Hot Ones appearance may not have been the catalyst to the Grateful Dead’s resurgence among younger listeners who know more about Patagonia than patchouli oil. Hot Ones saw a large spike in viewership amid the pandemic, and while it is not likely that everyone who’s gotten into the Dead recently owes their new obsession to John Mayer and his chicken-based YouTube video; we can’t deny the influence he has had over the continued success of the band.

The John Mayer connection grows deeper when taking into consideration his status as a streetwear icon. In the current moment of endless brand collaborations between a seemingly infinite number of graphic t-shirt brands, The Grateful Dead have grown their own new consumer cult of personality. Brands like Online Ceramics, From the Lot, and other online-only shops have popped up to sell merchandise celebrating and aping the aesthetic of the Dead, oftentimes selling on Shakedown Street and following the group on tour much like Deadheads following the band’s original lineup 20 years prior.

With the rise of these neu-Deadhead brands, the mainstream fashion world, always keen to crib ideas from the nascent trends of Instagram, has taken notice. The Grateful Dead brand has been the subject of a number of fashion collaborations as a way to reach possible fans’ hearts and wallets. LA’s Pleasures collaborated in 2017 with the band, and what pieces you can still find from the collab regularly retail for double their original value. More recently, we’ve seen Nike and Chinatown Market launch their own collabs with the Dead. Last summer featured the fuzzy Nike SB – Grateful Dead joint effort sneaker which sold out in seconds, as well as the Lebron James’ Grateful Dead jumpsuit from the NBA finals; complete with rainbow crocs featuring the marching bears as jibbitz. Imagine reading that sentence to someone ten years ago.

While I don’t think that everyone at Chinatown Market HQ is a Deadhead, the fortnightly collaborative drops adorned with Smiley, and a Stealie skull without any reference to the Dead’s actual music makes me -someone who has been listening to the Dead for less than a year- feel like another hipster asshole complaining about how “you guys don’t even care about the music.” A stronger case for authenticity can be made for other brands like Nike and Pleasures. Nike, with roots in the granola-heavy Pacific Northwest, has been known to hire the occasional undercover Deadhead, and Pleasures, with its roots in vintage rock style, were probably coming at these collaborations a bit more holistically.

Perhaps there’s something sinister and corporate fuelling the resurgence of the Grateful Dead, not just a chicken-fueled PR stunt to sell tickets to a summer tour, or a celebrity culture obsessed with one of the most popular guitar musicians of the modern day.

Or perhaps, the main reasons why other artists haven’t been able to have a second rise like the Dead is simple: The Grateful Dead understood the magical nature of the media that they were producing, that recordings of their concerts, with their roaring crowds, ever-changing setlists, and multi-song psychedelic jams, simply sounded better than their studio work.

In a year with no other live music, I’ve been able to find the same magic as many before me in the constantly shifting setlists of the Dead. Sure, the sheer size of their catalogue is daunting, but you can’t say that Deadheads haven’t tried to make it accessible in whatever ways they can. Perhaps the biggest reason for the rebirth of the Grateful Dead, is what drew so many to them in the first place; home recorded shows and kind vibes.

With a continually uncertain future amid this pandemic, as new releases continue to be shelved and concert tours are perpetually postponed, it might be time to take a step into the shaggy archives of the greatest jam band of all time and get lost in the subtle differences between two forty-minute renditions of “Dark Star.”

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to crack into the thousands of hours of Grateful Dead music that is freely available via the internet, I’d certainly check out their studio albums to wet your toes. American Beauty, and Workingman’s Dead feature many fan favorite tracks that would become staples in Dead sets for decades to come. Take a stroll through some of the more popular official releases on Spotify, or RYM. Then, ask the community. I found a great list on RYM that goes into great detail about recording quality and jams, as well as archive.org’s Grateful Dead archive of live shows.

The Thanos Collective is a group of new media artists and collaborators who produce limited run meta-referential hand-printed shirts inspired by the internet. You can find their store here, and follow them on Instagram here.

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