The Continuous Trip: An Essay on Deadheads

BY HENRIK DAHL

Subcultures within music often tend to be associated with a specific genre. Examples include Punk, Rockabilly and Black Metal. But it also happens that a subculture evolves around a single band. One is the culture associated with Deadheads, which were particularly dedicated fans of the Grateful Dead who followed the band from gig to gig, year after year, sometimes for several decades.

The band started playing together in 1965 and was active for 30 years. When frontman Jerry Garcia died in 1995, a whole subculture that was an integral part of American popular history ceased to exist. Grateful Dead, or “The Dead” as the fans called them, are often associated with the use of LSD. Not so surprising, perhaps, since the earliest gigs took place at “Acid Tests,” a kind of multimedia events organized by a group of people connected to the Beat generation that called themselves The Merry Pranksters. The group’s central figure was author Ken Kesey who some years earlier had been praised for his debut novel One Flew Over the Kuckoo’s Nest. The Grateful Dead acted as house band at the parties, where people took LSD together and danced to the band’s long blues jams and flashing strobe lights. It should be added that the drug was still legal at this time, which meant that the parties could continue relatively undisturbed. But the Grateful Dead’s connection to the use of LSD didn’t end with the Acid Tests. The band attracted an audience who continued to take the drug long after the Sixties were over.

The media version of Deadheads culture didn’t appear until well into the 1970s. By then thousands of people had begun to follow the Grateful Dead, and for many the band had become a lifestyle. In a YouTube clip from an American TV spot about Deadheads, a young woman is saying that after her 50th Grateful Dead show she stopped counting them. In other words, it wasn’t just the band that went on tour. Much of the audience also hit the road, and whole families travelled together. Like most subcultures that are linked to music, Deadheads used several typical attributes. The skull with roses from an early concert poster was a recurring symbol printed on stickers, t-shirts and the like. Another recognisable feature that came later was the use of tie-dye clothing.

The previously despised carnival was recreated during the hippie movement.

Going to a Grateful Dead concert was for many people like taking a collective trip, a trip that, if the magic was there, took the audience far into space. The band’s sound engineer was also the legendary LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, and sometimes the members were under the influence while on stage. According to Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, who was married to Jerry Garcia and lived with him for many years, the band did several gigs on LSD. What may seem a little strange is that the Grateful Dead’s records never sounded particularly psychedelic. The recordings didn’t include the same studio manipulation that became common in psychedelic music from 1966 and onwards. Compared with bands and artists from the same generation, the Grateful Dead sound surprisingly conventional with their blues and country influenced rock music. Their record sleeves may have been psychedelic but the band never recorded an equivalent to, say, The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. But if one listens carefully, there’s no doubt that the Grateful Dead were a psychedelic band. They were just a bit more subtle. Anyone looking for an example should listen to one of the long and largely instrumental live versions of Dark Star that were captured on tape, by many considered as the band’s magnum opus. This is music with an understanding of the mysteries of the universe. Only a band with experience from altered states of consciousness can sound that way.

The Picador edition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2006 book Dancing in the Streets.

In her book Dancing in the Streets, American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the task of describing the history of collective joy. The 1960s with its revolutionary changes are dealt with in a chapter of its own, and Ehrenreich uses concerts by the Grateful Dead as examples of the then new culture that had emerged in the West. A new approach to drug use and sexuality paved the way for what could be described as the return of ecstasy – Dionysus, the god of wine, was back. Neither the U.S. nor England was especially likely places for the rise of rock music in the mid-twentieth century. According to Ehrenreich, both countries were characterized by the puritanical legacy of the sixteenth century, and they did their best to suppress the ecstatic traditions among the people who they had enslaved or colonized. It was therefore not surprising that the early rock music was considered obscene, or even criminal. But the music was, of course, impossible to stop. In the late Sixties bands moved out from concert halls and festivals such as Monterey and Woodstock were held. In particular, the latter became a symbol of the great changes that had taken place. The previously despised carnival was recreated during the hippie movement.

For those who want to get a glimpse of Deadheads culture, The Grateful Dead Movie is an excellent starting point. The film was shot in October 1974 when the band did five shows at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. At the time, Grateful Dead had played together for ten years and built up a devoted fan base. The shows featured their “wall of sound”, a sound system which included a huge wall of speakers stacked on each other. A man wearing a cowboy hat, probably around 30, is at Winterland Ballroom with some friends. In the film he talks about the community that has arisen since he began to follow the Grateful Dead: “It’s always a group of the same faces basically, you know. There’s new people keep coming in over the years and then older people phase off, you know, advance on to different trips and you don’t see their faces as much, but it’s like a continuous trip.” An interesting aspect of the film is that many in the audience are dancing to the music – and we’re not talking about swaying gently to the beat, but real dancing where you dance with your whole body. Arms in the air. Eyes closed. Faces that burst into smiles. There’s obviously joy in the audience.

A new approach to drug use and sexuality paved the way for what could be described as the return of ecstasy.

In 1974 when the concert film was shot, the hippie culture around the Grateful Dead was already a relic of the Sixties. Popular culture had long since moved away from psychedelic elements, and the same year the film was made Abba had their breakthrough. But The Grateful Dead Movie clearly shows that a vital subculture had emerged. The concertgoers had created their own universe with a special spiritual community based on the love for a band. There are no doubt many similarities between the culture of the Deadheads and the rave culture that emerged primarily in Britain in the late 1980s, and became known as Acid House. Just like the Deadheads, the Acid House movement revolved around a strong emphasis on community and the pursuit of collective ecstasy.

Like many other subcultures, there was a dark side to the Deadheads and their culture. At the end of the Eighties it seemed that the DEA had had enough of the extensive and relatively open use of drugs in connection with the Grateful Dead concerts. More people than before were arrested for drug possession at gigs, and many had to pay a high price for their alternative lifestyle. In the mid-1990s, when the Grateful Dead split up, about 2000 Deadheads were in U.S. prisons for selling LSD or marijuana. In the Eighties, Jerry Garcia, the band’s frontman, also saw the downside of drugs when he was caught in a severe opiate addiction, a habit he never kicked. The band continued to play for a number of years, but the party was definitely over.

Canadian author Douglas Coupland has written about the darker sides of the Deadheads. In Polaroids From the Dead, the reader gets to meet a number of Deadheads on the “festivals” that took place in parking lots before the actual concerts. Coupland’s contempt for hippies is lacking in nuances, and the tone of the book is cynical. But whether one shares the author’s idea of Deadheads or not, the book gives an insight into how the subculture around the Grateful Dead could look like.

During the late 2000s, there was a newly awakened interest in psychedelic rock and the hippie aesthetics. Fashion companies started selling clothes that previously only hippies would be wearing. Women were suddenly seen in ponchos and headbands – according to the then new boho-chic trend – and fashionable men grew beards. Psychedelic pop bands like Animal Collective caught the attention of the media. The band was the first ever allowed to sample the Grateful Dead. But the recent interest in all things psychedelic is probably a passing trend that seems to have very little in common with the Deadheads or the Sixties hippie movement. Fleet Foxes are one of the most acclaimed pop bands over the last few years. But despite their clothes and beards they are careful to distance themselves from the hippie culture: “I might look like a hippie, but I actually have much disdain for hippies”, said band member Robin Pecknold in an interview for the newspaper The Stranger a few years ago. If one wants to find a contemporary example of an equivalent to the Deadheads, one shouldn’t look at popular culture. Instead, similarities are found in subcultures such as the annual Burning Man Festival that takes place in the Nevada desert, which appears like a Dionysian mix of a giant rave party and a pre-party at a Grateful Dead concert.

By Henrik Dahl

Featured image: Deadheads at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colorado, 1987 (photo: Mark L. Knowles).