I’m allergic to nostalgia. I don’t like getting trapped in memory lane melancholia or reminiscing about “the good old days.” But when that mercury rises and the sun shines longer in the sky, I crank up a band from my youth, the Grateful Dead. (Bertha, specifically. From the Veneta, Oregon show in 1972. IYKYK.)
My first Dead show was in July of 1987, the summer before my senior year in high school. It was at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, which has since been torn down but housed over 100,000 fans in its prime. These were the days of big outdoor stadium shows, and nobody did it better than the Dead.
It happened to be a Dylan and the Dead show, and my friend Owen and I knew we were in for something special. The Dead were enjoying a renaissance with their hit “Touch of Grey,” and I was always curious about them, and despite years of being a New Wave/punk show/art school dark horse who was anything but a Deadhead, I was ready to see the light. I will never forget looking out on that crowd in full technicolor tie-dye. Never much of a joiner, I rolled deep with the Dead from the get-go, changing my life forever. These happy hippies were my people.
Never much of a joiner, I rolled deep with the Dead from the get-go, changing my life forever
In the few years that followed, I saw a ton of shows. I grew my hair super long, smoked weed, and drank my weight in ice-cold Sierra Nevadas. I ate many a veggie burrito in the parking lot and even went to a Jerry Garcia Band show with whiplash I suffered after a car accident, because of some choice third-row center seats. My first night of college at the University of Maryland was spent in a car with strangers road-tripping to a Landover, MD show. I spun in the rain in East Rutherford with rings on my fingers and bells on my shoes. There was no such thing as micro-dosing; it was the best of times.
To this day, I can listen to a show and call the next song. I can nerd out on the Dead with the best of them, and with this current Dead & Co tour being their last, I’m on the fence about going. I went a few years back and didn’t like John Mayer. Respect his guitar playing, but his jam face is too hard to watch.
And as an avid culture watcher, the Dead and their ongoing resonance are fascinating.
To me and to many, they represent that rebellious, wild American, easy-riding twang that became the envy of the world and one of our greatest exports. As a disciple of Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Ken Kesey, their counterculture gestalt was 100% born in the Bay area and uniquely US of mother f’in A.
They were also social media stalwarts before “like” culture was a thing. It was a tight-knit community like none other, where people exchanged tickets and information in many ways like mail-order tickets and parking lot “miracles” in the form of extra tickets. They also were early adopters (and potentially the only adapters) of free music for the fans. An entire section of each show was dedicated to “tapers,” or those who taped the show for trade or sale later at places like the Englishtown, NJ flea market. Imagine that, and so long before Napster, Spotify, or anything else. It was never about their studio albums because it was all about sharing their music with their fans from their epic live concerts, making them a mythic (and very rich) band.
My social feeds are serving up new branded Dead collaborations daily
And just because they were all about peace and love didn’t mean they weren’t about money. The Dead had and continues to have some of the highest-grossing concerts ever. In fact, according to Reddit, the Dead and Company had the 3rd highest-grossing tour and 3rd highest ticket sales for any tour in 2021, selling 588,600 tickets and grossing $50.2 million. They always made their money through touring and endless merch and even played at the pyramids.
Their appeal is boundless and ageless. It’s been over 25 years since Jerry Garcia died but, at 75, Bob Weir, looking more and more like Yosemite Sam, is on TikTok with hardcore TRX workouts that speak to his resilience. My social feeds are serving up new branded Dead collaborations daily. From James Perse to Rowing Blazers to Nike, it’s everywhere. My fav is this Madeworn tee and this sweater from Schott. I’ve never been a tie-dye gal, but I am happy to salute Jerry Garcia in a black tee. On that note, the Grateful Dead may seem anti-fashion in an influencer age, but going to a show is a lesson in laid-back cool for those stylistically more aligned to a Marin County mama than Megan Thee Stallion.
But there has been backlash from seasoned fans with the new wave of Dead mania. According to Input, “In 2006, the Grateful Dead signed a licensing deal with Rhino Entertainment, allowing the Warner Music Group subsidiary to handle all the band’s merchandising and music releases.”
Incidentally, Rhino’s president Mark Pinkus has run the band’s business for the last ten years and attended his first of 73 Dead shows when he was 17.
If we look back, the Dead were always sellouts
The Dead have always represented something most brands are after, and that is authenticity. But if we look back, the Dead were always sellouts, a term most Gen Xers abhor. Whether they were selling out stadiums or selling merchandise, these guys were smart businessmen. Remember that infamous line from Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”? We all saw Deadhead stickers on Cadillacs. And now I have a Steal Your Face sticker on our Jeep Cherokee.
So, does LeBron James rocking the iconic Dead-owned dancing bears seem “off,” and does partnering with corporate America counter the whole Dead ecosystem? Some would say so, but I think it’s fantastic. I doubt my man could talk to you about THAT Cornell ‘77 show (an epically perfect one), but it doesn’t matter. The King is cool, no matter what. And so are the Grateful Dead, particularly at this time of life.
An Uproxx writer wrote, “Getting into the Dead replicates the feeling I had as a kid learning about music for the first time when all artists were new and classic albums I had never heard were blowing my mind every day. Once you reach a certain age, it’s impossible to feel that way again, so many people drift away from discovery in middle age and stick with the music they know. With the Grateful Dead, however, there’s always a new tape that includes an amazing ‘China>Rider’ you’ve never heard. Your mind never stops being blown. You put a Dead tape on, and time stops. Jerry is alive again, and the world seems exciting and fresh once more.”
And for many of us fans approaching our golden years, the Dead is the perfect soundtrack for what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Here’s some cool merch for the ‘heads in your life. And check out that iconic Cornell show here as you grill out this summer because, most of all, it’s about the music. Happy trails and sunshine daydreams. May the music never stop.