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The Dead Are Ahead

Grateful For 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. I would be mesmerized by the sense of compassion that echoed from the band’s audio-speakers directly into my soul and unto the colony of souls around me. The Grateful Dead’s members and music radiated passion as they jammed with their crowd full of kindred spirits whom were: present, dancing, and simply, existing. Avoiding labels, as per usual, the Grateful Dead members took on more than just the role of being musicians; they became a guide for those who wanted to join their long, strange trip towards discovery. Much like philosophers, the Grateful Dead, transcended ordinary contemplation in search of the ever-elusive ultimate truth of all existence, more commonly known as, the purpose of life. Those who journeyed alongside the band– the followers who took a risky decision to turn on, tune in, and dropout– became known as Dead Heads. Dead Heads held a crucial role in the development and transformation of the 1960’s counterculture into a sustainable society that would take mainstream culture into a higher-minded realm of perception. The Grateful Dead and their dedicated followers, the Dead Heads, contained positive, moral characteristics; through togetherness, these hippies sought to spread and inspire peace; while, incidentally, establishing a popular culture that embodied ideals of equality and acceptance.

Popular, or pop, culture is defined as the cultural activities or commercial products and productions reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses (Merriam Webster, 2012). Pop culture is what results from a new medium that communicates a greater message to a large amount of people, whether good or bad (Ucalgary, 2012).  The Grateful Dead’s positive view to approaching life set up a philosophy that would be followed and carried throughout generations to come. The phenomenon started in 1965, when the Grateful Dead formed a band in a tiny, communal apartment, located on 710 Asbury Street in San Francisco, California (Hippie Dictionary, 2004). The Grateful Dead “built a large following” through free concerts, and mainly, through their leadership of the growing hippie movement (Hippie Dictionary, 2004). Each member contributed to each other’s progress in the steady search for peace through unity.

Stemming from the members, lyrics, and festivals, The Grateful Dead, continues to have a lasting and multi-faceted impact on pop culture. Bringing all people together and not worrying about the artificial aspects of life remains to be the main message demonstrated through the actions of self-acclaimed Grateful Dead fanatics. By traveling throughout the United States with many followers in caravan, masses of people were merged together. Creating more than just a fan base, but a sense of friendly civility and shared meaning (Hippie Dictionary).  Due to their immense emphasis of using good, ethical character and acting with general kindness, Dead Heads can provide a positive influence on those who meet them. To recognize all the small benefits of life we are missing, it is crucial to take moments out of the daily routine of life, and live for the voyage, not the destination.

The band embodied the feeling of togetherness that was evident at each of their shows. The Grateful Dead practiced what they preached; they supported an open environment, drawing all types of people towards them, not away. The band’s members appealed to the audience through their friendliness and welcoming nature (Silberman, xi). The Grateful Dead mirrored their audience, by simply enjoying life while up on stage, rather than using their talents for the sake of fame and money. This reflected a major message that the Grateful Dead, nonchalantly, conveyed. The band just came to play, and the listeners came to play as well.

Although “the 1960’s was a decade of idealism, activism, and social upheaval,” it was, also, a time of important advancements in civil rights (Community, 13). In general terms, if one traces the lineage of a particular trend back throughout the whole spectrum of history; a single thread or common connection can be found. As seen through historical events and catastrophes, there is a continuous factor present, the human desire to be free and tolerated. The concept of freedom outweighs the power of a human’s authority; meaning, sometimes, it seems destiny is out of our hands. Destiny can seem like something that happens to us, not through us. However, as we can see in the social rights movement of 1960s, political action is within the reach of our human power; meaning, we have the capability to control policies such as: freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom from oppression.

We, as tiny beings within the vastness of this universe, cannot control nature, nor can we manage the responsibilities that come along with unrestrained free-will. The individuals who seek to understand and obtain both of these types of freedom are soul-seeking, spirit-searching individuals called hippies; the term hippie took flight during the early 1960’s and originates from the word “hip.” These people are described as, “In the know,’ or ‘aware” (Hippie Dictionary, 2004). The counterculture of the 1960’s was made up of hippies, who openly expressed “a moral rejection towards the established society”(Hippie Dictionary). Moreover, this brought additional attention to the Grateful Dead, since they were the soundtrack of the hippies’ expedition towards peace. This potential revolution: for peace, for freedom, for basic human rights; this is the message that brought life to the Grateful Dead, and it is what Dead Heads from all generations live to pass on.

This counterculture projected compassion and freedom while dancing through the day, sunrise till moonlight till sunrise again; together the heads formed a whole organism, where each person sought to jive altogether on compatible levels, good vibes, if you will. Rain or shine, bad day or good day, dead or alive, the Grateful Dead’s message that everything is going to be alright continues to speak to listeners. The Dead Heads embodied a lust for living life each and every day, and this lust spread faster than the fad of the water bed. Perpetually, through the youth of the 1960’s and the youth of today, the quest for ultimate happiness and non judgemental acceptance continues to be passed on.

The Dead Heads’ culture and community were impacted by the Grateful Dead’s conception of how life ought to be carried out. The Grateful Dead strived to reach a more simplistic approach to life with less emphasis on materialism. The Dead Heads removed themselves from the ‘acceptable’ society in order to bypass the social and critical thoughts of others; incidentally, they created their own entire culture that focused on bettering society by lessening hate and bringing people together. This is evident in the lyrics of each of the Grateful Dead’s songs. Each verse held an influential and optimistic meaning. These phrases were more than just words thrown together to a tune. The lyrics hung heavily on the ears of each listener, drawing them closer into understanding what it is to be alive.

It was more than just a sound. It was more than music; it was a guide to a less complicated life. The atmosphere of the Grateful Dead concerts created an attitude. Jerry Garcia supports this; he says, “The audience didn’t come to see us; they came to altogether experience something different” (Anthem, 1997). The songs explained the influence and strife for peace and universal relaxation that the concert attendees tried spreading unto any ear that would stop to listen, but there was no pressure on the listener to agreet. The lyrics became more than just stories being told through song. The lyrics  reflected how the Grateful Dead viewed life in general. In the song, “Cream Puff War”, performed at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on May 19, 1966, the Grateful Dead teaches about humanity’s self-destructiveness (Cream Puff War, 1966):

Wait a minute, watch what you’re doing with your time

All the endless ruins of the past must stay behind, yeah

Well, can’t you see that you’re killing each other’s soul

You’re both out in the streets and you got no place to go

Your constant battles are getting to be a bore

So go somewhere else and continue your cream puff war

This song expresses the Dead’s thoughts on how we, as humans, suppress each other’s true self and soul by telling one another who they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to live. The Grateful Dead’s message is clear; if you mindlessly follow the practices of systematic daily life without attempting to change the policies you disagree with, then you are disguising your own true nature and covering up who you are. A person who does not use their gift of knowledge to pursue a better and more researched viewpoint on life is someone who is passing up an opportunity to experience potential possibilities, and, ultimately, narrowing their global perspective.

Lying to one’s self is one of the biggest pitfalls of society. Through judgemental eyes, social hierarchies are formed. The Grateful Dead wants people to see the evilness that a person is enabling by taking part in the false idea that success is determined by authority, money, and power. By not speaking up for what you believe, you are furthering humanity’s ignorance and demise. This song, previously mentioned, Cream Puff War, speaks to tell of how unity is the answer to resolving conflict. Analyzing problematic actions is the route to ultimate success, because it leads a person and community at large to re-evaluate their past flaws. The Dead Heads made and supported a culture that sought to free themselves from the restraints of repetitive and unnecessary conflicts.

The Dead Heads were not just fans; they were protesters for equality.The Dead Heads grooved on past what society expected them to be. They blazed their own route, surpassing 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 (Gimbel, 4). Instead they sought out a place open to imagination. Despite this struggle for a more simplified existence, the Dead Heads were still functioning humans. This meant a need for basic necessities, and since basic necessities need to be bought and buying something requires money, there had to be a way of obtaining and maintaining a source of income.

The masses of people that followed the Grateful Dead had to have a way to buy tickets, food, shelter, transportation to follow the band, and most likely, a few illegal substances. “The irony [seen in the parking lot of any Grateful Dead show] 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” (Gimbel, 4). The parking lot became a marketplace and was present at every Dead show. They indirectly created a basic economy that functioned well enough to keep this new and developing subculture on its feet. To the Dead Heads, wealth was acquired by owning something that you could trade for something else, potentially, something better… like trading tie-dye socks for a veggie burrito (Gimbel, 5).

Through this extraneous research, I stepped back and saw a whole new appreciation for the Dead Head culture. I realized how intricate the makings of each relationship are, and 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” (Gimbel, 8). This can be a slippery slope that may lead to competition between vendors. Surpassing even the most optimistic and idealistic inhabitant of the the 1960’s is the natural needs that each human being possesses, but Dead Heads made the glass half full with their subculture’s own friendly version of an economic system, “caring capitalism” (Philosophy, 11). It was a small working economy that kept the goodwill of others in mind above all. This “caring capitalism” was not about earning more money than the tie-dyer next to you; it was about making enough money to maintain a lifestyle that kept you content.

The Dead Heads, past and contemporary, ideally wish for internal and external peace. In order to reach global peace and peace within one’s own life, people must seek to understand one another. This is only possible through communication. 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 true, intended meaning of existence, Dead Heads take the risks that go along with being original and different from others. This decision to step out of the mundane box of society’s day to day routine was highly controversial, but they continued to keep on trucking along with their favorite improvisational jam band.

When I first began to consider, me, myself a Dead Head around the rebellious age of  fifteen, I was too young to even try and comprehend the complexities of human interaction and the importance of communication between one another. I did not know why a person would ever want to intentionally inconsiderate of others; when middle school ended, I left with a head full of bullying, and all I wanted was to be accepted for the person I was. I remain idealistic to this day and still have hope in a humanity that can someday hold the ethics of justice above the need for personal gain; like Jimi Hendrix, another rock and roll idol of the time, says, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace” (Hendrix).

Now, as a more mature person and, hopefully, a much more intelligent citizen of the human race, I can see that life is a race, and this competitive nature is detrimental to social fairness. I place heavy weight on promoting the search for simplified communication. I want world peace; to me, it seems like common sense that a peaceful and balanced world leads to a more joyful life. I became a fan of the Grateful Dead, because the band, like me, recognizes that the entire universe is a whole, pulsating together as one being. When I hurt another person, it is also hurting me.

The power of unity is astounding, and therefore, the power of love. “We must love one another or die,” says one scholar (Drabinski, 27). Auden sums up the mission of The Dead. Dead Heads work to avoid the stereotypes that external society tries to place on them; dropout, hippie, aimless, stoner, smells bad, and so on (Drabinski, 27). Communication is the bridge that can be a means of closing this gap. In the song, “Scarlet Begonias,” by the Grateful Dead, this lack of communication is addressed simply and resolved: “Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hand” (Scarlet Begonias, 1974). It states that yes, you are meeting a random person that you do not know, but be happy, because we are all here to have a wonderful time.

The importance of actually attending a Grateful Dead concert still rings true to the ears of the followers today (Drabinski, 29). Being there and being a part of the whole is the most compelling theme that travels along with the band’s history.  This culture has created an important emphasis on living for freedom, and living because you get the chance to. Being an advocate for peaceful change challenges a person to step outside the barriers that separate us from connecting completely with one another (Drabinski, 33). By challenging the social norm of the time, Dead Heads exhibited hope that the following generations would carry on the legend of the Grateful Dead. Dead Heads sought a life with less interferences, less bias, and more open minds. Dedicated fans today live to execute these qualities and pass the tradition on.

The main goal of Grateful Dead fans today is carrying on the movement towards recognizing an awareness of the connection between mind, body and soul. Every lyric was impacting, and fans proceeded to try and execute these messages of goodness 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). Then, this developed into a self-sufficient subculture that grew into the popular culture that it is today. Essentially, the counterculture of the 1960’s took the teachings of the Dead to heart. The band and the audience were there for the same reasons.

I am not the only Dead Head that remains alive, a whole world of followers, young and old, praise the lessons and lifestyle of the Grateful Dead. Starting a sort of revolution, the Dead Heads worked to escape conventional routine life and experience the true joy that human freedom brings. They focused on experiencing moments as a community; they just wanted the act of experiencing an actual experience to reign supreme. Through their fresh perspective on the enjoyment of life, Dead Heads provide and support a positive ethical and philosophical impact on cultures outside of their own. Today, the meaning of being a Dead Head has become about the cultural lifestyle that still remains. Concerts surrounding the Grateful Dead in the 1960’s were where experiences could result in powerful realizations and bonding, and that is still true at music festivals today.

One of the best examples of an open-minded and welcoming musical event reflecting that of the Dead’s is The Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Coachella is an annual premier music festival held in Indio, California. Each year about 200,000 music adoring fans head to The Empire Polo Club for a three day long event; it has become so popular that this past year, 2012, the event had to add an additional round of performances, held two consecutive weekends in a row with the same musicians and artists at each (Palm Springs, 2012). Along with impacting many of its artistic attendees in a positive and creative way, the Coachella Festival also works to help improve the environment in a creative way.

The festival works to reduce their carbon footprint each year through programs, such as Carpoolchella; festival goers traveling from the same region are encouraged to carpool, and each year, one lucky carpool, containing at least four people, is awarded VIP tickets for life (Palm Springs, 2012). According to the official Coachella website, VIP tickets go for $799 dollars each (Coachella, 2012). Attending The Coachella Music and Arts Festival last year has made a long-lasting impression on how I view and comprehend the world we live in; surrounded by the amazing, aesthetically pleasing architecture, large ferris wheels, delicious food, independent clothing vendors, and the vastness of nature, I felt an overwhelming and compelling feeling to be happy and work to make other people around me happy as well.

The Grateful Dead shows allowed for fans and any human being interested to come a step closer towards understanding the reality of human nature’s existence. This reality was found through many different avenues, but two factors were always present at every concert. One, being the presence of the Grateful Dead, and two, being the presence of community. Ultimately, being a Dead Head is like a known pact; one helps another and vice versa. Both old and new Dead Heads can come together through songs, lyrics, and thoughts. The original fans and the contemporary fans continue to hold the same web of 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 that gathered many and concentrated on the circumstances of experience in hope of discovering truth. By experiencing the closeness and strength of the relationships formed at each show, a person comes closer to feeling what it is like to be another person, leading to a realization of how similar we actually all are. Through this perspective of focusing on others before self, the Dead formed a culture that approach to treatment of friends, family, and strangers is with the morality, goodness, and happiness. The lessons learned by attendees during each show may differentiate in the way they shine through each individual,but overall, the Grateful Dead’s most popular message is that equality is possible. Breaking the barriers of social class, the Grateful Dead led a generation into liberation from the ties of societal demands. It allowed a person to experiment, and from these experiences, many groovy ideals surfaced.

(Grateful Dead Books Online)




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Open Court Publishing Company, 2007. 27-36. Print.

Garcia, Jerry. “Cream Puff War.” The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Ed. David

Dodd. San Rafael, CA: Ice Nine Publishing Company, 2007. Print.

Silberman, Steve. “Foreword: Half Baseball Game, Half Church.” The Grateful Dead and

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Open Court Publishing Company, 2007. ix-xi. Print.

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Minded About Love and Haight. Ed. Steven Gimbel. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2007. xvii-xix. Print.

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Gimbel. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2007. 13-25. Print.

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