The Grateful Dead on Haight Street in 1966.

Fifty years ago, the original members of the Grateful Dead stepped onstage for their first show at a Menlo Park pizza shop. It marked the birth of a band that would define the hippie culture of the 1960s and earn what many consider the most loyal fans of any rock band in history. In his new book, “No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead,” author Peter Richardson examines the band’s utopian ideals and lasting appeal.

Peter Richardson, author of "No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead" and teacher of humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University

  • Chris OConnell

    It’s nice to hear music on the radio, for a change.

    Stephen Malkmus on the Dead: :”Back then [mid-to late 80s], the Grateful Dead was a fratboy stand-in for alternative. If you were into the Dead, for a frat boy, that was like being into Faust or something. So the St. Elmo’s rich guys at UVA would play it on the
    lawn and throw some Frisbees.”

  • Robert Thomas

    Success?? What success?? The Grateful Dead was never any big success.

    Please! Criticism of The Grateful Dead was not limited to Mike Barnicle or William Buckley or Allan Bloom or Adolf Eichmann. You don’t have to look very far to find artistic dissatisfaction – or even complete artistic dismissal – of the band.

    How about, for example, anyone who ever appreciated a band with a SINGER?

    Personally, I did not loathe The Grateful Dead but this segment is hagiography.

    Great sound engineering, though.

    • Mitchell Wilson

      The quality of a Dead show could be extremely varied. At times they were undeniably brilliant. Consider many shows from 1969 through 1974. At other times they could be absolutely terrible.

      • Robert Thomas

        I guess you mean artistically variable. I agree, without further comment. I’ve never been to a bad Van Morrison show (eight shows, that I remember) but others claim much worse luck.

        My limited experience with the Dead technological machine, though, was that their personnel always took PA and every other part of their technical production very seriously, whether or not it was perfect.

    • Steve

      Robert, your statement “The Grateful Dead was never any big success.” is just flat out wrong. They were a big success in several dimensions. They sold over 35 million albums worldwide. For several years in the 80’s and 90’s they were the highest-grossing touring band in the world. For the 90’s as a whole they were second to the Rolling Stones, even though they stopped in 1995. They played to an estimated total audience of 25 million people, more than any other band. They successfully escaped the control of the record labels, creating a new business model in the music industry, and their organization continues to exist today. They innovated in both sound reproduction and concert lighting. And they fostered a community of millions, to whom they brought much joy. The fact that some critics disdain their artistic contributions does nothing to minimize their success.

      • Robert Thomas

        25 million doesn’t count the same when its the same 25 thousand over and over again.

        Lots of bands “successfully escape the control of the record labels”, only observers call it “getting dropped”.

        Whenever I expressed exasperation about the artistic value of Lawrence Welk or Liberace or Korla Pandit to my mother, she would snip, “Well he laughs back at you, all the way to the bank!” The Grateful Dead were more artistically successful than Lawrence Welk but Welk’s show is still regularly broadcast and watched, unaccountably, by many thousands every week (possibly because his viewers no longer know how to change the channel of their televisions).

        Welk’s TV show innovated in the shear number of nauseating, unnatural clothing colors that could be presented in a single camera shot. And according to WP,

        “[Welk’s] organization, The Welk Group, consists of: Welk Resorts (run his grandson Jon Fredricks), with communities in Escondido, Palm Springs, Branson MO, Lake Tahoe and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Welk Syndication, which broadcasts the show on public television; and the Welk Music Group, which operates record labels Sugar Hill, Vanguard and Ranwood.
        “The ‘Live Lawrence Welk Show’ makes annual concert tours across the United States and Canada, featuring stars from the television series, including Ralna English, Mary Lou Metzger, Jack Imel, Gail Farrell, Anacani and Big Tiny Little.”

        Chuck Berry: Success
        The Grateful Dead: Sect

        Well, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, I guess. Go be joyful.

        • Paul T

          Well this is unnecessarily bitter and cynical lol The Dead weren’t “dropped” from labels. They completely redefined what a label could be. They created a whole new model that had never existed before- both artistically, and business-wise.

        • Steve

          I just came across an audio interview of Jerry Garcia from 1967 at If you listen between 9:55 and 11:25, you can hear for yourself exactly what I was talking about regarding “escaping control”. It is quite the opposite of getting dropped.

          I appreciate the humor of your “same 25,000” comment. But we should acknowledge that the true number of unique concert-goers is probably in the low millions. The bottom line: if you sell more concert tickets than any group in history, you get to call yourself a success.

          • Robert Thomas

            I listened to the nostalgia-inducing interview you mention. I respect that Garcia represents that he had the upper hand with Mo Ostin or Lenny Waronker or whoever. On the other hand, friends and relatives of mine who were members of the Beau Brummels and Harpers Bizzare during the mid 1960s and who were present in those days will report that things weren’t exactly that way between the Dead Warner’s A&R.

            I don’t deny that there is value of musicianship and creativity in the Dead’s oeuvre. Barry Manilow has sold 80 million records and is a talented and perfectly serviceable pop performer. But I think “success”, in the milieu has to be evaluated in a slightly more complicated way.

            It’s tempting for instance, to ask, “Where are the hits?” “Truckin'”? #64. “Uncle John’s Band”? #69. “Touch of Grey” got to #9. Forty minutes into the interview, Garcia gets a little testy when the interviewer asks about such stuff and asks his opinion of The Monkees. He’s actually gracious, praising L.A. session players and arrangers but won’t acknowledge that hits have singers. If they’re not Dick Dale. The tedious, well trod and foolish appraisal of the Hell’s Angels spoils the interview, I’m afraid. Then Garcia descends into sophomoric, dumb-ass social philosophizing, perhaps in frustration with the questions… “Summarize your definition of existentialism…”

            It’s amusing to imagine The Grateful Dead appearing in The President’s Analyst, rather than Barry McGuire.

            “We got everything [prviously stolen?] back.” “Really?” “Yeah, Owsley and Aaron and… went down the back alley and started talking to kids and the kids took ’em right to where it was, it was some little street gang and now they got the kids guarding the place…” “Really? A street gang? Far out.” “So they got who took it… And he said that the cops got there and they confiscated and they’re fingerprinting it now…” “Goin’ through that sh__ now…” “So we can get it tomorrow.” “That’s good.” “But I think we can get the kids to guard the place.” “Yeah that’s good we can give ’em a little bread for it.” “Aaron and Owsley are a fighting team! Aaron and Owsley? What?” “You hear that [???] that Owsley was doing when he was over here?” “Yeah.” “Pretty amazing.” “Yeah, that’s exactly what he did.” “I’m amazed he went and did it.” “I’m not.” “I”m not, man… That’s… Owsley’s honestly getting pretty powerful… Big medicine…”

            Get along, Kid Charlemagne.

            You like Bloomfield?
            Yeah I like Bloomfield.
            You like his style? But you wouldn’t like to play his style…
            Boy I sure would! If I could do it I’m sure I would.

            Considering their admirers’ general claims for their artistic triumphs, it’s a little odd to consider a judgement of The Dead’s success using their record sales and concert gate.

            Van Halen (I’m not a fan) was a success. The Grateful Dead have ardent admirers.

          • Steve

            I’m impressed you listened to the whole interview. (I haven’t made it to the end yet.) Regarding Garcia’s philosophizing, etc., we have to remember he was 24 at the time. I think it’s fair to say the entire “scene” was somewhat naive at the time, although in my view, endearingly idealistic. If you listen to later interviews you’ll find Garcia’s views matured, as we all do.

          • Robert Thomas

            Of course I agree with this.

            The interview is a legitimate treasure.

  • Liz Maker

    Can the author talk about the role of women in the cultural movements surrounding the Grateful Dead? In the 1980’s, I liked the music of the Dead, but I was never a good Deadhead. As a woman, it seemed like my role was to look pretty, be quiet and bake bread.

    • dorn76

      Weed bread?

  • Steven Gayle

    I’ve long thought about how best to describe the influence the Dead had on my life (I first saw them play on a flatbed truck in Palo Alto). I think it comes down to how art, and specifically music, has the power to show you new ways of thinking about yourself and about your unlimited potential. As Charles Reich described it, “a signpost to new space”.

  • Robert Thomas

    The Dead certainly ARE responsible for me having obtained my beloved SONY TC-D5M.

    There’s a fascinating exploration of recent Dead “archivialityism” here:

    “Deadhead – The afterlife”
    By Nick Paumgarten
    Annals of Obsession
    The New Yorker
    November 26, 2012 Issue

  • Another Mike

    Re Hagiographic tone:
    Jerry Garcia was a pretty fair guitarist, not an Eric Clapton. The Dead were most notable for the community they formed.

    • Robert Thomas

      I absolutely agree. I got to watch him play pretty up-close, once. It was incongruous, how those ham-like fists – one of them short a finger – could play such intricate music. He was not a virtuoso but is underrated as a musician.

      I expected the same sort of muscularity from Mike Bloomfield, but after watching him play – incandescently – for about two hours, from about three feet away, at the old Eulipia Café in San Jose, I (very gingerly) shook his hand and was startled to feel each bone in a most gracile limb.

      How such people do what they do is a mystery to me.

    • Jesse

      Clapton played blues rock guitar. Garcia’s lines and dynamics had a much broader scope. Garcia brought the phrasing and listening that you might find when listening to someone like Coltrane.

      • dorn76

        No musician here, but Garcia was an artist with a guitar. Master of the old styles with creativity and drive to never play something the same way twice.

      • Another Mike

        OK, Jerry Garcia was a pretty fair guitarist, not a Jeff Beck. Or a Duane Allman, for that matter.

        • Paul T

          Please buy a copy of Live Dead, all recorded live in 1970, and you’ll change your mind. He was an absolute genius. When I first heard this record, I thought, “Now I have to learn how to play a guitar.” 20 years later, I still play on a professional level, but I can’t even come close to how good he was.

          Unfortunately, Garcia played well past his prime and the addictions got the best of him. So people don’t realize how extraordinary he was *before* the serious addictions took hold.

  • GiorgioOrwell2nd

    How did the Dead feel about the huge part of their fanbase that were essentially quite conservative white frat boys in the 80’s and 90’s?…really the opposite of their roots

    • Strandwolf

      That definitely was the case.

  • To nixon

    First heard them live on a flatbed truck on telegraph ave. They were best heard live outdoors. Just not the same when recorded.

  • Jesse

    “There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player. I don’t think eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great – much more than a superb musician with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He is the very spirit personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up into the spheres. He really had no equal.
    To me he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep.” -Bob Dylan on Jerry Garcia

    • Robert Thomas

      “Rock & roll ended with Little Anthony and the Imperials.”

      Bob Dylan

  • albert walker

    damn that Jesse from Oakland really crushed it

  • Strandwolf

    Garcia took on the burden of Captain Trips, guru to disowned and disaffected youth, like a trouper, though anyone not a sociopath would dread the responsibility. A booklet of his supposed aphorisms might not be as inspiring as it is, in the main, a bit of a hoot.

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