The highly anticipated documentary on The Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, is now on Amazon Prime.  I have previously written about the effect that the music of The Grateful Dead has had on me for Mockingbird, and in light of the documentary I thought it would be a great time to revisit them in a Mockingbirdian context.  

The Grateful Dead have had a positive influence on American culture, and continue to do so. They could be the most important American band in our history. I realize that is a tall statement, but think about it: they were the first of many in the music industry to have their own record label, to invent their own sound system, to allow audience members to tape their shows, to hold Guinness World Records, to have a strategic marketing plan that allowed fans to buy tickets directly from them. They played 36,086 songs, 2,317 concerts, 298 cities, for 30 years with 11 members. They were Americana before Americana existed.  They are significant.

To understand their relevance–and how they connected with me–it helps to understand the meaning of their name.  Before they called themselves the Grateful Dead they were The Warlocks.  After bouncing around the San Francisco Bay Area, they found out that there was another group who shared the same name, and they had to change their name.  A dictionary was opened one day and their eyes serendipitously landed on Grateful Dead.

Grateful Dead publicist and official biographer Dennis McNally writes in his book A Long Strange Trip about the genesis of the name:

Innocent as babes, they had connected with a motif that had twined itself throughout human history. The definition in the dictionary referred specifically to the nineteenth-century musicologist Francis Child’s term for a type of ballad. The grateful dead ballad or folktale concerns a hero who comes upon a corpse being refused a proper burial because it owes a debt. The hero resolves the debt and thus the corpse’s destiny without expectation of reward, often with his last penny. Soon he meets a traveling companion who aids him in some impossible task, who, of course, turns out to be the spirit of the corpse he aided. The motif is found in almost every culture since the ancient Egyptians. Unknowingly, the Warlocks had plunked themselves into a universal cultural thread woven into the matrix of all human experience.

In McNally’s explanation we get a glimpse of who they were. This theme–of death, and of resolving the dead’s unresolved debts–is the same theme that comes up often for the Grateful Dead. They were (and continue to be) the heroes traveling from town to town paying the unresolved debts of the “deceased.” You can easily see the law/gospel elements in the meaning of their name, and how they are the Christ figure in the parable of many people’s lives. (I doubt that most fans have made that connection, but they’ve been that for me.)

The Dead’s fascination with death was prevalent simply because death surrounded the band throughout its history. It surrounds all of us. The documentary was wise to open with one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

At the young age of five guitarist Jerry Garcia’s father passed away tragically. Jerry had to confront the hard reality of death at an age a lot of us never had to. That event naturally marked him in such a way that he became an explorer of death. He became obsessed with horror movies and Frankenstein. The event caused Garcia to lose faith in the reality of this world, and made him reevaluate what life should be for him in light of death. He thus opted for fun, weird, and free.

Garcia, the de facto leader of the band, hated responsibility, making decisions, and authority. He was a rebel through and through. I relate to him in a lot of ways because I also loathe being told what to do. (My own sweet and loving mother has picked up on this and now only makes “suggestions.”)

Garcia wanted a spirit of adventure and felt like America had lost their ability to have adventure. He saw a lot of conformity in the world and wanted to go back to the days of hopping trains and being on the road. Because of Garcia’s dream to have an adventure, the Grateful Dead became a traveling circus and a vehicle in a lot of ways. They were a door of perception. They were in the transportation business.  Taking people out of the pain and constraint and death of their own lives and giving them something to dance to.

Throughout the film you get the notion that as you confront death you learn to live. Bassist Phil Lesh makes the comment in the film “we are grateful to be dead because now we can be born anew.” This sounds very familiar to the same conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus didn’t understand it. Lesh did, so did theologian Gerhard Forde and Martin Luther.  Forde quoting Luther in his book On Being a A Theologian of The Cross says, “To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the son of Man. To die, I want to emphasize, means to feel the very presence of death.”  

What the documentary does well is focus in on the ethos of the band. The Grateful Dead came as an alternative to life, and they also came for those who didn’t fit into modern standards of living we are given an alternative.  One Deadhead commented that he was “not much for listening to rules” and “society is not cutting it for me.” I can relate.

Jerry Garcia was very much a deliverer of bad news, but the news was packaged in a way that it was received by his congregation. The audience in large part identified with him lyrically because it was autobiographical for them as it was for Garcia. This is why I identify with it. I find my own story in the lyrics to their songs.

But this band is also, of course, liberation for people–relief from the bad news, from the societal expectations and norms. This is one of the big appeals to me; like everyone, I have a problem with my current state of being. Life is not easy. I remember Paul Zahl saying at a Mockingbird conference a few years ago: “the purpose of life is to try to find a way out of it.” This music is my way out. The band had a graceful acceptance that I’ve often not found in life. It doesn’t matter how weird and different you are…you are welcome at a dead show.

The Grateful Dead is the only community (other than the Mockingbird community) where I can open up and be myself. There is no judgement there. Some people are dancing, some are twirling, some are laying down, and some are crying. Something happens to you when you feel the very presence of death. You begin to experience a freedom you’ve never had. Why am I along with many others a part of this? In the words of their song Franklin’s Tower, “some come to laugh the past away, some come to make it just one more day.”

A Dead show is a celebration of the freedom that death brings. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “Death is the operative device that sets us free in Christ — that liberates us from the fear of loss that otherwise dogs our every step.” A Dead show is the best vaudeville funeral you could ever be a part of.

The documentary did well to point out that people were having experiences of renewal the same way you should in an established religion.  Phil Lesh said “every place we play is church.”  What I have discovered is the Grateful Dead is often better than church, at least the churches I’ve been in most of my life. One lyricist, John Barlow, points out that  “a holy thing is happening” at a show. As it says in their song “The Music Never Stopped,” “They’re a band beyond description like Jehovah’s favorite choir.”

One interviewee likened Jerry to a minister. Judging Jerry historically, I would have to say he is probably the best minister you could ever have. He would been an amazing priest because he hated telling people what to do and he was an amazing listener. One interviewer even accused Jerry of being too forgiving.

However, law in a sense won with the story of the Grateful Dead as the band’s popularity grew.  The band that was obsessed with freedom and being counter-cultural ended up falling.

Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir pointed out that Jerry Garcia became a messiah figure to people, and in an old interview Garcia said “I’ll put up with it until they come at me with the cross and nails.” In that statement I believe you can see the failure of the Grateful Dead. Jerry was so loving and accepting that he “put up with it.” He was something special to the world, to me, and to his fans, but there never was a good balance in his life to deal with the expectations of being an artist.

The man who hated responsibility and rules ended up being responsible for the organization of the Grateful Dead. It became more than music. It became an industry. It became too powerful. Jerry Garcia was the man lifting burdens off of people night after night, and that in turn became his burden that he could never lift himself. Which is true for all of us, no amount of unction or sweat can lift the monkey off our back. The demand to perform night at after night and meet expectations drove Jerry ultimately to his death. He ultimately lost his freedom and suffered under the weight of responsibility.

Surprisingly, though, the music has never stopped. People like me are still gathering to listen. We’ve heard these songs over and over, but the world hasn’t changed. What Americans were looking for 50 years ago during the summer of love we still want.  

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A a box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through