Why the Grateful Dead Stands the Test of Time
The Grateful Dead is quite possibly one of the most unique bands I have ever listened to. From the non-stop touring, the dedicated and fun loving fan base, and of course the endless amounts of live shows and recordings available online. Formed by 5 young inspiring musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s, to playing over 2,300 shows throughout a 30 year period and 8 other musicians coming in and out of the band; these guys were the most dedicated musicians in the game.
Sure there were some breaks from touring during that period but it didn't stop guys like Jerry Garcia (RIP). Instead of taking a break he would just work on his own side projects with other musicians he knew and formed bands like Legion of Mary, and Jerry Garcia Band where he not only wrote and played his own songs but covered legendary blues, bluegrass, folk, and rock artists. He has perfected The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Band, and many others. Plain and simple Garcia knew good music when he heard it, and played it as much as he possibly could. He knew so many tricks and had so much knowledge about the guitar that Garcia was able to take a song anywhere he wanted to. As an aspiring musician myself, that's something I can appreciate and that's why I always find myself listening to the Dead and Jerry Garcia. When people talk about great guitarists, the usual names said first are Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton; and with all due respect to those four legendary guitarists, Jerry often gets overlooked and not many people realize just how God damn good he is. Jerry has earned every right to have his name up there. I would give anything to be able to play like Jerry or even Bob Weir, Grateful Dead's rhythm guitarist, because they knew how to improvise and would go where no one else would think to go.
"It wasn't telekinesis because there was more than that.. People say that blood is thicker than water, what we had was thicker than blood" - Bob Weir in the documentary The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir.
It's true, no one has ever reached where the dead have reached because of Jerry and Bob's masterminds on guitar. They would extend their songs making stuff up and improvising during solos, turning songs into jams lasting more than 15 minutes. You can be sitting there listening to the band pan out a song for so long that you sometimes won't even realize that they transitioned into the next song. Seriously, it gets deeper, my friend. When you start digging into the archives, you'll discover that the jam component makes collecting and listening to old shows addictive. You'll find yourself wishing that traffic would be a little bit worse so you can listen to more of the show. You'll also discover that no other band as a sound that can match the Grateful Dead
As great as the Dead are musically, they've also put out some of the best lyrics in all of songwriting. Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir have written many great songs during their tenure with the Dead. However, not many people know that Robert Hunter, songwriter and poet, helped write many of the band's best lyrics. Hunter was a close friend of Garcia and was asked to join as a lyricist for the band sometime in the late 60s / early 70s, they wrote countless hits for over 25 years. To name a few, and Sugaree. Rob and Jerry went on to write many hits like Touch of Grey, Friend of the Devil and .Robert Hunter was not the only one helping the band write lyrics. John Perry Barlow came along and hit it off really well with Weir. Weir and Barlow would then write numerous songs together such as Cassidy, Estimated Prophet and Throwing Stones.
Personally for me, some of their best work came from the albums American Beauty and Workingman's Dead; and also in the early 90s before Jerry passed. These guys wrote a lot of classic Americana folk songs; the type of songs that you would listen to your backyard with a bonfire to keep you warm on a cool night.
I'm sure some of you may be reading this and saying "Where do I even begin with this band?" There's a few things that Dead Heads will tell new listeners:
Watch and listen to the live shows.
They have never played a song the same way twice.
No two shows have ever been the same.
If you have the chance, go to a concert and see for yourself
It's all one song
I still remember the first time I discovered the Grateful Dead. I was a freshman in high school and a friend of mine, who is a life-long Dead Head, told me I should check out this band. I searched them up YouTube and the first very song I heard was Touch of Grey. I immediately fell in love and saw Dead and Company a couple years later at Wrigley Field 7/1/17 (Which was one of the best concerts I've ever been to). Even without Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh the band still rocks and John Mayer is the perfect substitute to fill in Jerry's spot. If you have the chance to go see Dead and Co. I highly recommend you go. Worth every penny and it will be an experience you will never forget.
So, how does the Grateful Dead stand the test of time?
The major reason is the incredible huge archive of live shows that the band holds. A big factor to this is that the band allowed people to bring their own recording equipment to every concert to record the show, those people even had their own specific section to set up their equipment. The band realized that if they let people record the shows then their exposure will rise exponentially, which as we can see worked out very well for the band. Another reason why this band stands the test of time is because of the unbelievable fan base. The only way I can describe a Dead Head's love for the band is with this:
The Grateful Dead is like licorice; not everybody likes licorice, but for the people who do, they really like licorice.
The more and I listen, the more hooked I get; and I wouldn't have it any other way with this band.
If you're looking to know more about the band I recommend watching the documentary series Long Strange Trip on Amazon Prime and The Other One: The Long Strange Trip With Bob Weir on Netflix. Both are really great movies and they show so much more than what I could write down.
Without further ado, let's break down some songs.
My favorite Grateful Dead Songs
There are only so many songs I can list on this blog that we would be here all day. So I decided to list a few of my favorites. Ask any other Dead Head what their favorite songs are, and I can almost guarantee that they will have a completely different list of songs from me. And honestly this list will probably change a year from now cause I'm always discovering new stuff from the Dead.
Listed below are the songs that have me tapping my feet to the beat, wanting me to pick up my guitar and play it nonstop. These are the songs that can put into words a specific feeling or emotion that is difficult to describe. These songs are the reason why I love the Grateful Dead.
Althea (Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY 5/16/80)
Up first we have a personal favorite of mine. Ask any Dead Head what the best version of Althea is and 8/10 of them will tell you this one right here. What starts out as a slow bittersweet song slowly turns into hard hitting, head banging jam. Jerry reels you in and out of his solo and then tears it up in the final three minutes of the song. Every time I hear the solo it has me up and dancing. Even though Jerry is playing mostly over the same three chords (Bm A E) only someone like him can capture the feeling of what's going on in the song. Not to mention that Robert Hunter's lyrics show the story about the Greek Goddess Althea and also digging into Shakespeare's Hamlet talking about betrayal, and finding your true self.
It reminds me of Mary Jane's Last Dance by Tom Petty, it's got a cool sound with a good vibe but the lyrics actually tell a bit of a sad story. We often forget about the lyrics because we're thinking more about how awesome the solo we just heard was.
Morning Dew (Winterland 10/18/74)
Morning Dew is a song that has been growing on me for the last two months. I never really thought much of this song until it was talked about in the documentary Long Strange Trip. Originally I was going to put down the version from 5/26/72 (Lyceum Theatre, London) off of the Europe '72 album but after searching for other versions I decided that Winterland is a better fit.
Written originally by Bonnie Dobson, the Dead routinely covered this song at most of their shows. Depicting a post-apocalyptic setting Morning Dew takes you through the emotions of what it feels like when nothing really matters and being completely content with it. Whenever I listen to this song I feel a sense of joy and I'm happy with everything that's going on around me. It takes me to a different place sometimes and the band leads you through this journey and letting you know that whatever has happened in life, is behind you and it doesn't really matter anyway.
In this version we can see Jerry is very much in command the entire time. He has so much control of the crowd that everyone is locked in on him. He takes it nice and slow in the beginning and works his way through the song leaving you hooked and excited to see where he'll take you during these 14 minutes. One thing I love is how halfway through the band picks it up and releases some of the tension in the song. Another thing I love is that Jerry is smiling at the guys in the band and he just lets it loose for the crowd, but only for a minute before going back into the slow moving ballad. Every time I hear Morning Dew I always stop in my tracks and appreciate the beauty that is embedded in this song.
Brown Eyed Women (Barton Hall, Cornell University 5/8/77) and Dead and Co. on the Tonight Show
I know I'm cheating a bit including two versions of the same song but both of these performances are stellar in their own way. I'll start with the Cornell version and why this is a favorite song of mine and then I'll explain why the Dead and Co. version performed on Jimmy Fallon is just as significant and worthy of praise. One thing to mention as well is that this song was never recorded on a studio album and was only heard through live recordings. The first time this song was played was at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago 8/23/71 and the first time it appeared on a live album was on the Europe '72 album (which is another great version to listen to).
Many Dead Heads know that Cornell 5/8/77 is considered one of the best shows recorded. Whenever I'm on a two hour plus car ride Cornell is usually one of the go to albums I put on. Brown Eyed Women is a classic live Dead song that always gets the crowd up on their feet and dancing. This song also holds phenomenal lyrics based on the prohibition and the Great Depression in the 20s and 30s. It tells a tale of a family that used to be farmers that turned to bootleggers making moonshine and trying to get by during the harsh times of the Great Depression.
Jerry only has one solo in the Cornell performance and it's about a minute or so long but he essentially sets the mood for the song. He gives you a solo that at first seems laid back but actually has a pretty cool groove to it. This song is both relaxing and a jam at the same time.
Another key component to the song is the lyrics, I can never stop myself from wanting to it, especially the two stanzas below:
"Delilah Jones was the mother of twins Two times over, and the rest were sins Raised eight boys only I turned bad Didn't get the lickin' that the other ones had" ..... "Daddy made whiskey and he made it well Cost two dollars and it burned like hell I cut hickory just to fire the still Drink down a bottle and be ready to kill"
It's a well written song by Garcia and Hunter that never gets old. This the type of song that would fit perfectly for when you're sitting in the bar on a Thursday night after a hard week of work and you just want to finish the week. "Drink down a bottle and be ready to kill" is such an iconic line that it gives me chills when I hear it. 10/10 songwriting.
Now you're probably wondering what makes the performance on the Tonight Show so significant. It happened a year after the Fare Thee Well tour and Bob Weir decided he wanted two keep playing along with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman. However they needed someone that could fill in Jerry's place and what better guy than John Mayer to take that role. He absolutely kills the solo and turns the song from a chill rock song (like the Cornell version) to a song that really makes you want to dance. This was also the first time the world got to see Dead and Company as they set out on their first tour that year and have been continuing to do so for the past four years.
Jack Straw (Barton Hall, Cornell University 5/8/77)
If you've liked the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, then you'll like Jack Straw. Bob Weir came up with the lyrics with Robert Hunter after reading the book and wanted to explore more of the Depression Era in an Americana Folk type of way being sung from a cowboy's perspective on mythic America. Jack Straw is about two guys; Jack Straw the caught-up innocent guy, and his buddy Shannon the irresponsible dude gambling his life away and running from the law. The song starts out slow with the iconic line:
"We can share the women we can share the wine We can share what we got of yours cause we done shared all of mine"
Then we see how Shannon just got out of jail and the first thing he does is kill a person and takes the guy's rings and money. Although Jack is hurt to hear that he still sticks with Shannon and continues to watch the train of gambling. They soon leave Texas but Shannon claims there is one more score he must settle in Tulsa. The song picks up as it is revealed Shannon got hanged for murder in Tulsa and Jack Straw goes there and gives his friend a proper burial the law would have never given him. The ending comes back in full circle repeating the opening lines as the Outro.
I love this song for a couple reasons. It shows a true friendship between two guys, much like in Of Mice and Men with George and Lennie. Although Shannon has lived a bad life, always caught up with the law and wanting more, Jack still respects his buddy enough to give him the burial he deserves and only he can do it, not anybody else. The other reason I love Jack Straw is because it is a staple of what you would see at a Dead concert. Considered one of their best live songs, Jack Straw was played frequently on tour.
So Many Roads (Soldiers' Field, Chicago, IL 7/9/95)
One of the most beautiful and iconic performances in not only Grateful Dead history, but music history as well. Jerry Garcia is 53 years old, about to be 54, he's been struggling going in out of his heroin addiction and quite frankly he looks like hammered shit; hell looks like a drugged out Santa Claus. He knew it too but that didn't stop him one bit.
I remember one of my friend's Dad was telling me about the show when he went way back in the day. He told me he remembers seeing Jerry walk on stage and that you can tell he's on his last leg, yet he still gave it his all for the love of the music and for the love of the fans. This song turned out to be the highlight of not only this particular show but, ultimately the final highlight of the great career that Jerry had. He was practically knocking on Heaven's door while he was performing that day in what ended up being his last show that he ever played. Sadly he died exactly one month after this performance and to this day still breaks many of the Dead Head's hearts. Including my own.
The reason why this song is significant is because of the lyrics. Jerry knows he is on his way out and that he's not gonna be around much longer. The first time I watched this video I damn near shed a tear because that's how powerful it was. You hear that Jerry is basically worn out and he can't keep going. He wants to take a break and lay low but no one hears his call. From the very first lines to the soulful end Jerry is singing out his despair and wants everyone to know before he moves on.
"Thought I heard a jug band playin' If you don't, who else will? From over on the far side of the hill All I know the sun don't shine And the rain refuse to fall And you don't seem to hear me when I call"
Then the completely next stanza holds my favorite Dead lyrics ever written
"Wind inside and the wind outside Tangled in the Window blind Tell me why you treat me so unkind Down where the Sun don't shine Lonely I call your name No place left to go, ain't that a shame?
You can't teach songwriting like that, a truly beautiful set of words put together by Jerry describing how he feels about his time coming to an end. You feel sorry for him that he gave his whole life for the music, but really that's all he wanted to do. And of course towards the end of the song Jerry literally gives out everything that he has left in him into the final "So many roads to ease my soul" lines. That's always the part that gives me the chills and chokes me up. After watching this performance my love for Jerry grew bigger. I honestly feel like I've known Jerry as a friend and someone who shares the same feelings as me even though I have never met him; and I'm sure any other Dead Head would say the same.
Like I said earlier, I can go on talking about the Dead till the end of time but there's only so much I can say. My list may change a year from now, or maybe even a month from now; but no matter what, I will not stop listening to the Dead.
One thing is for certain, through all the ups and downs the Grateful Dead has gone through during its storied legacy, they still continue to change lives and inspire people everyday. In the end, I consider the Grateful Dead to be one greatest group of musicians to ever perform and their the absolute best at what they do. My love for them will not fade away.
Keep rocking folks!