I Know This Song it Ain’t Never Gonna End
By Courtney Preiss
Illustration by Jeremy Davis Smith
Here’s a unique phenomenon: Even if you’re not a Deadhead, you likely know something about the Grateful Dead. The prolific Bay Area band that defined America’s 1960s counterculture with unbridled vibrancy has enjoyed a resurgence among a generation so young, they likely weren’t even alive when the group’s leader, Jerry Garcia, died—effectively ending the band’s thirty-year run. It may surprise Baby Boomer parents to bear witness as their offspring covet overpriced indigo-dyed garments bearing the Stealie logos and lightning bolts that adorned ephemera of their youth. It may surprise younger Millennials or Gen Z kids that Jerry is more than an ice cream flavor namesake or the dancing bear on their $80 Online Ceramics sweatshirt is an homage to Owsley Stanley, the genre-defining audio engineer and LSD virtuoso.
I came into the Dead the way most people used to: someone a little older and a little cooler than me—in this case, my high school boyfriend—put me onto Jerry and the gang by way of a well-worn American Beauty cassette. I fell in technicolor flower-eyed love while “Box of Rain” played ad infinitum on the tape deck of a dying ‘95 Saturn SL1. For a new generation, becoming aware of the Dead happens seemingly through osmosis, as the band’s playful iconography and bootleg spirit has so thoroughly permeated pop culture and lends itself effortlessly to streetwear.
Spring was made for the Grateful Dead. Or, perhaps, just the inverse is true. It’s an association I’ve been making for half my life: the days boldly growing longer and warmer signals a tie-dye clad season of driving with the windows down and “Sugaree” blaring at 90% volume. Springtime means whatever post-mortem version of the Dead is touring this year will soon grace a nearby stage. Despite the fact that we will forfeit our psychedelic swaying on amphitheatre lawns to remain indoors for Spring 2020, I maintain this season still belongs to the Dead. In the time spent sequestered so far, I’ve only become increasingly convinced this moment in history is, in fact, the exact right time for everyone—Deadheads, casual fans, culture vultures, and hypebeasts alike—to embrace the Grateful Dead like never before.
You won’t soon tire of their body of work. Surely you’re familiar with the mild bereavement that follows a streaming series marathon or the last page of an unexpectedly engrossing novel. You want more of what you just consumed, but maybe the pursuit of a similar Netflix addiction or the rest of that author’s repertoire doesn’t quite scratch the itch. This will never be the case with the Grateful Dead. They possess such a prolific archive, you could exhaust yourself exploring a new piece of it every day and still have plenty left to discover at the end of Quarantine. In thirty years, the Dead played 2,314 concerts—amassing not only the most ubiquitous live music presence in modern history, but a seemingly endless well of material to revisit and revamp.
The band’s record label continues to retroactively release live albums of beloved shows every year, not to mention their thirteen studio albums, and hundreds of live selects meticulously curated by tape archivists. These albums are available to stream in all their glory on Spotify. Classic concerts are available to stream through a newly-minted weekly series on the band’s YouTube channel, too. The Scorcese-sanctioned Dead doc Long Strange Trip is an immersive and satisfying four-hour-long romp and free to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
They provide the essential sonic respite we need right now. For me, the Grateful Dead’s music is reliably charming, calming, fortifying, and enchanting. It’s become an essential part of my work from home routine to hook up to the JBL Charge (a personal homage to the Dead’s iconic Wall of Sound, the behemoth 1970s-era PA system comprised of nearly 600 JBL speakers) and let their music become the pulse in my day. Their seemingly infinite live archives were made for a period of being trapped indoors and working in solitude. The improvisations and warm sound of the crowd are humanizing, filling the apartment with the joy of a bygone era and assuring us there is still joy left to be had. Even in moments of great pandemic-induced despair, not in the mood for anyone or anything, I can still summon the gumption to put on the Grateful Dead and let the music melt over me. It’s a sonic smudge stick. It’s deep, serene, and hopeful—just what we need in a moment that has been governed by fear and uncertainty.
Their community is expansive, entrancing, and eclectic. Care to guess what Jonah Hill, George R. R. Martin, and Nancy Pelosi all have in common? The Dead’s fanbase is notoriously inclusive (perhaps even too inclusive—Ann Coulter is, sadly, among us) extolling Jerry’s “WE ARE EVERYWHERE” bumper sticker virtue on Cadillacs and VW Buses from Albany to Mountain View. There is a robust array of subcultures and communities among the Deadheads you may find refuge in. If you are both a friend of the devil and a Member of the Tribe, you are not alone. Far from it. If you work on Wall Street and like to sport tie-dyed undergarments beneath your suit, there’s a Deadhead sector for you.
Lest you think recreational drug use is a prerequisite to fandom (an easy assumption—the Dead’s origin story is inextricably linked to the Acid Tests immortalized by Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe), there’s a faction of sober Deadheads called The Wharf Rats—providing substance-free support to anyone who needs it at shows. In an era of solace and remote communication, we are redefining our concepts of community: how we build and maintain them, and how essential they are to the ecosystems of our lives. Joining the ranks of the Deadheads—albeit, digitally for now—is the antidote to this unique, extended isolation. We are literally everywhere, dreaming of the day we can reunite.
They are the ultimate balm for troubled times. I recently revisited the song “Touch of Grey”—the 1988 hit that famously galvanized a new generation of MTV-literate Deadheads—on my once-a-day state-sanctioned walk. While listening to the plucky track with its equal parts bleak and optimistic lyrics, I was struck not only by the music’s ability to pull me out of the tar pit of COVID-fueled anxiety I’d fallen into, but how familiar this all was. Even though we are in an era defined by a new and unknowable challenge, the Dead has soundtracked decades of troubled times on a global and intimate level. For the thirty years they were on the road between 1965 and 1995, the band played on through every collective atrocity from the Vietnam War to the AIDS crisis. I can handily recall the instances when the music ferried me from one side of personal grief—my parents’ decision to divorce, the death of a friend—and gently placed me on a distant shore of serenity and relief.
“Even though we are in an era defined by a new and unknowable challenge, the Dead has soundtracked decades of troubled times on a global and intimate level.”
In an unanticipated age of adversity that has inspired my peers to explore classic schools of thought—from stoicism to altruism—for guidance, I turn to the Grateful Dead. I rise to meet the anguish of the pandemic with the refrain that buoys their lone Billboard hit, insisting: WE WILL GET BY / WE WILL SURVIVE.
For Absolute Beginners:
6 episodes of Long Strange Trip is the cultural indoctrination you want and need.
Europe ‘72 is a quintessential distillation of the Dead’s live sound and a perfect sonic entry point (although you might want to skip “Morning Dew” until quarantine is over).
The 1970 studio album diptych, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, exemplify why the Grateful Dead is more than a band—it’s an American artform.
- The 7/7/89 show was the last in a long history of iconic rock concerts ever to happen at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia before its demolition. This piece of history was later released as the Crimson, White, & Indigo live album, making for great listening and compelling viewing (young Bobby Weir’s legs!) The show occupies a sentimental corner of my heart as it was recorded on the day I was born.
- For a little big sound at home (with a built-in light show), the JBL Pulse 4. For big, big sound at home (with another light show!), the JBL Party Box. If you’re working from home with a partner who isn’t yet into the Dead (or maybe they’re still fixated on Nassau 1980 when you’ve moved onto Cornell ‘77) JBL True Wireless headphones are an answered prayer.
- I love Online Ceramics’ wares just like anyone else whose natural reaction to Saturn Return is throwing money at dyed cotton, but I also never miss a drop from LOTMART, Jeremy Dean, East Coast Dead Shop, Dale Dreiling, Old City Dead, or Swamp Goods. ︎