Gratefully Dead:

Experiencing Through Community,  Communication, and Celebration

I want to travel back fifty years to the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show; sitting in my light blue lawn chair with flowers adorned in my hair, I would be enjoying the best years of my life, living on tye-dye, vitamin c, and community. With expectations for excitement, I began researching my topic with intent to support my predetermined ideas. I knew the Grateful Dead followers, the Dead Heads, exhibited innate positive characteristics, and I agreed that the search for peace was necessary, but I had no clue the depth of development that The Grateful Dead’s followers had on turning the 1960’s counterculture into a sustainable society. It became clear to me, as my mind exploded with knowledge, that the mundane routine of contemporary life that fuels the economy does not have to be so square. I am not the only Dead Head that remains alive, a whole mass of followers, young and old, praise the lessons held at Dead shows. It was experiencing community. Through a bunch of dropout, deadbeat hippies trying to escape the system of humans focused on jobs instead of joy, there was capitalism forming, ironically.


I will dive into the culture and community of Dead Heads. Dead Heads were impacted heavily by each word of every song; many would assume that Dead Heads are just too obsessed and over exaggerate the messages found as The Dead jammed, but the lyrics actually did have much meaning. It was more than just a sound. It was more than music. It created an attitude. The song explains the influence of peace and relaxation on the society present at the concerts, and how these attendees viewed life in general. The song reads, “I don’t care ‘cause/ it’s alright/ I will get by/ I will get by/ I will get by/ I will survive” (Touch of Grey, 1987).

The Dead Heads were not just fans, they were protesters for equality.The Dead Heads grooved on by the “materialistic ball and chain” of the corporate world, as described by Steven Gimbel and Brendan Cushing-Daniels in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy:Getting High Minded About Love and Haight; instead they sought out a place open to imagination. Despite this strife for a more simplified existence, humans still need basic necessities, and basic necessities need to be paid for, and buying necessities requires money, and to obtain money, a person must find a source of income. “The irony is that the [counterculture’s] attempt to opt out of the capitalist system led directly to the free and open marketplace of [another manifestation of] capitalism” (Philosophy, 4). Through the author’s breakdown of the politics and arrangement of money in the parking lot marketplace present at any Dead show, I finally had a long awaited insight into how a basic economy functions. To the Dead Heads, wealth was acquired by owning something that you could trade for something else, potentially, something better (Philosophy, 5). I found the selling and trading of creative goods fine and dandy, until the author turned the topic on its head through the thoughts of Karl Marx. Marx explains that capitalism causes “us to relinquish our humanity and remove it from one another” (Philosophy, 8). Surpassing even the most optimistic and idealistic inhabitant of the the 1960’s is the innate needs that each human being possesses, but Dead Heads made the glass half full again with their subculture’s own friendly version of an economic system, “caring capitalism” (Philosophy, 11).


This counterculture projected compassion and freedom while dancing through sun and moonlight; together the heads formed a whole organism, where each person sought to jive all together on compatible levels, good vibes, if you will. Rain or shine, bad day or good day, Dead Heads embodied a lust for living life each and every day, and this lust spread faster than the invention of the water bed. Perpetually, through the youth, the quest for ultimate happiness through Dead Head ideals has been passed down. The desire to understand the nature of a human and how their emotions are processed and expressed was what the dropout hippies were striving to discover. Although no one has and will ever actually understand the meaning of existence, Dead Heads decided to step out of the mundane box of general society’s day to day routine along with their favorite improvisational, jam band.


When I first began to consider myself a Dead Head around age fifteen, I was too young to understand the complexities of human interaction and the importance of communication between one person to another. I did not know why a person would ever want to intentionally be mean. I remain idealistic to this day. As an older human and, hopefully, a much more intelligent citizen of humanity, I still recognize and place heavy weight on promoting the search for simplified communication. I want world peace; it seems like common sense to me. Why would anyone want to cause unnecessary tension in their life? The Dead were about recognizing the entire universe as one being.


A current example describes the communal culture that is still relevant to fans today. The journalist  attempts to elaborate, about the bond felt between attendees of all ages after she attends her first Grateful Dead show. Her perspective is rather unique in the way that she is fresh to how the dynamics of The Dead work. Although The Dead now have several actual dead members, the Dead Heads still continue to listen and pay homage to the band, the culture, and the music. When Bargell, a writer for The Summit Daily, talks about youth, she is not only talking about the actual young attendees of the concert, she is also talking about the young at heart. The band continues to draw a large crowd together. The main revelation that Bargell, new to The Dead scene, stumbles upon is the intense sense of community that surrounded her. She explained that she felt like a long lost relative being reunited with family she had not seen in a long time. The other attendees welcomed her with open arms and open minds. Bargell concludes with the impact she saw on each individual surrounding her (Bargell). She realized no matter the age of an individual, any person has the ability to influence the world and societal views.


The ideal goal of Grateful Dead fans today is carrying on the movement towards recognizing the awareness of the connection between mind, body and soul. Dead Heads took every single aspect of a Grateful Dead show and analyzed it. Every lyric was impacting, and fans proceeded to try and execute their anecdotical messages in daily life.  Dead Heads around the world agree that The Grateful Dead’s shows constructed a subculture, even though that was the last goal intended (Foreword, ix). They were the counterculture, and this alternative view to approaching life and ideas created a snowball effect. They set up a philosophy that would be followed and carried through generations for years. They emphasized human freedom.


One of the lessons often found by listeners dissecting the song’s composition is the power of unity, and therefore, the power of love. “We must love one another or die” (W.H. Auden, 27). Auden sums up the mission of The Dead. To escape stereotypes is to escape the pressures that external society tries to place on those who are different from what is considered normal. Love is the bridge that can be a means of decreasing this gap. The importance of the Deadhead culture still rings true to the ears of young and the young at heart today (W.H. Auden, 29). The experience was key.  This culture has created an important emphasis on living for freedom. It challenges a person to step outside the barriers that separate us from connecting completely with one another (W.H. Auden, 33). By challenging the social norm of the time, Dead Heads had hope in the counterculture and sought a life with less interferences, less bias, and more open-mindedness. Dead Heads today live to execute these qualities as well.


The Grateful Dead shows allowed for fans and human beings in general to come a step closer to understanding the reality of human nature. This reality was found through many different avenues, but each revelation was revealed to the sounds of The Dead. Ultimately, the point is that being a Dead Head is almost like a known pact; one helps another, then the other helps that one. Both old and new Dead Heads can come together through songs, lyrics, and thoughts. The original fans and the contemporary fans carry the same ideas; both try to shed insight on the idea of creating a community that is based around similar interests and theories of free-will (Reason xvii). The Grateful Dead is a band created from the circumstances of experience and hope for finding truth. It raises questions about the nature of Deadheads and whether, as humans, we should actually be grateful for death.


According to Jerry Garcia, “The lame part of the Sixties was the political part, the social part. The real part was the spiritual part” (Rolling Stone interview, #566, 1989, p.73). A more simple approach with less emphasis on materialism is what the original fans of The Grateful Dead strived to reach. The idea that The Dead culture died out with the end of the 1960’s is mentioned,  but appears incorrect to anyone studying the effects the band continues to have on individuals today. Although I can agree that much of the Deadhead culture has died out, I do not agree that The Dead is now just marketed for nostalgia. Music festivals surrounding The Grateful Dead in the 1960’s were the spot that experience could convey message. It questions whether or not the fans and band tried to create a utopia. The Deadheads removed themselves from “acceptable” society in order to escape the social and critical thoughts of others, but by doing that, they created their own entire culture.


Jerry Garcia describes the spontaneous excitement of improvising musically. Therefore, putting The Dead in the musical genre, Jam Band. In-fact, The Dead was the original Jam Band. Garcia says, “The audience didn’t come to see us; they came to all together experience something different” (Garcia, 2012). He expands on the idea that it was about the atmosphere of their concerts, not the actual music being played. When talking about trying to record in studio, Garcia says, “We already knew [our music] had almost no commercial potential… apart from the community that we were in and that was fine. We were having a good time, and it was working out good, and the music we were making had some value to us and to the world we live in.” I will later expand on my ideas of ‘their world’.


The phenomenon that stemmed from the members, lyrics, and festivals of The Grateful Dead provides us with the multi-faceted viewpoints of the Dead Heads. Bringing all together and not worrying about the artificial aspects of life remains to be the main message pulsing through the actions of self-acclaimed Dead fanatics. Dead heads can provide such a positive impact on the culture outside that of their own through their fresh perspective on the enjoyment of life. From researching I found how crucial it is to take moments out of the daily routine of life, and live for the experience.

By experiencing the closeness and strength of the relationships formed at each show, a person takes one step closer in the direction of understanding what it is to be another person. Through this perspective of focusing on others before self, The Dead forms an ethical approach to treatment of friends, family, and strangers. The lessons learned by attendees during each show may differentiate in the way they shine through each individual, but the vibes form equality. Breaking the barriers of social class, The Dead led a generation into liberation from the ties of societal demands. It allowed one to experiment, and from these experiments, some pretty groovy ideas surfaced. It is the job of the Dead Heads of today to carry on the human freedom made by The Grateful Dead.

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