How Grateful Dead Fans Became Deadheads

5 minute read

What do Al Gore, Whoopi Goldberg, Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, Carlos Santana, Nancy Pelosi, Mario Batali, and yes, Ann Coulter have in common? Give up? They are all members of the inimitable community of Grateful Dead fans commonly and affectionately known as Deadheads.

Urban Dictionary defines Deadhead as “a person who greatly enjoys the music of the Grateful Dead and particularly the genius of Jerry Garcia.” But decades ago, a subset of fans cranked up that devotion to a whole new level and began following the band from city to city. This subset grew in number, soon giving birth to a community with its own set of rules and even slang.

Sure, Beatlemania once swept the U.S., where the demand to see the foursome live gave rise to stadium rock. And the Rolling Stones still have audiences under their thumb, despite their combined age of 284. Fans of the band Phish—Phishheads—as well as Bruce Springsteen are a formidable force, but in terms of unbridled loyalty and devotion to the late Jerry Garcia and his bandmates, Deadheads are without peer.

Rock critic Robert Christgau was the first to write about this unique, traveling audience, commenting in the Village Voice after attending a 1971 New York City concert that “regulars greeted other regulars, remembered from previous boogies, and compared this event with a downer in Boston or a fabulous night in Arizona.”

And the band took notice. As Jerry Garcia once said, “our strong suit is what we do, and our audience.” The Dead played a different song set at every show, sending “regulars” on the road to the band’s next gig—since no two shows were ever the same. The Dead also not only allowed but actually encouraged fans to tape the concerts, eventually setting up a “taper’s section” for them. Hence, somewhere in the Deadosphere there exist tapes of practically all of the 2,500 shows the Dead performed in their 30 years of touring. If you have a lot of time to kill, just ask a group of Deadheads to talk about their favorite live show.

7 Pictures That Show the Grateful Dead’s Evolution Over the Years

Warlocks in 1965
Warlocks in 1965Herb Greene
Photo of Grateful Dead & Warlocks
The Grateful Dead when they started playing as the Warlocks, 1965. Paul Ryan—Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jerry Garcia posing with banjo in front of American Flag, 1966.
Jerry Garcia posing with banjo in front of American Flag, 1966.Herb Greene
In 1967, from left: Lesh, Garcia, Kreutzmann, Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
In 1967, from left: Lesh, Garcia, Kreutzmann, Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.Herb Greene
Music File Photos - The 1970s - by Chris Walter
The Grateful Dead, 1970 (clockwise): Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Mickey Hart and Jerry Garcia.Chris Walter—Wireimage/Getty Images
Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez and Mickey Hart
November 1981, San Rafael, California, USA --- Jerry Garcia, singer and guitarist for the Grateful Dead, poses for pictures at his home with folk singer Joan Baez and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey HartRoger Ressmeyer/Corbis
Bob Dylan and The Dead
Bob Dylan and The Dead photographed at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, OR July 24, 1987.Jay Blakesberg

The atmosphere at a performance reflected a sense of community and a deep bond between the band and the audience. In an interview in the short film A Conversation with Ken Kesey, which followed the documentary Tie-Dyed: Rock ‘n Roll’s Most Deadicated Fans, author Ken Kesey commented on this phenomena: “[the Dead] weren’t just playing what was on the music sheets, they were playing what was in the air. When the Dead are at their best, the vibrations that are stirred by the audience is the music that they play.”

And if you couldn’t get a ticket to the show? No problem—there was plenty of action outside. When the Dead were in town, parking lots outside of their concerts were transformed into small villages, with vendors selling tie-died shirts, burritos and of course, drugs. Many of these vendors never attended a single concert, but would camp out, hoping to earn enough money to pack up their painted Volkswagen bus and follow the band to their next stop.

Among the parking lot hordes you could always spot the hopeful, roaming the grounds with a single raised finger: Deadhead code for “I Need a Miracle,” a free concert ticket. Interestingly: That gesture was still in play in 2007 when newly-elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw a party and invited former members of the band to play. Outside stood a pony-tailed, grey-suited gent holding a sign that read, “I Need a Miracle.” A staffer on the inside recognized his clarion call and sneaked him in.

The parking lot scene was featured in the Tie-Dyed documentary and aptly described by one hippie couple in the doc, who met at a show and had been following the band for three years, with their baby —conceived at the first show—in tow: “It’s one big happy Dead kinda thing.”

It was not always happy, though. As Jerry famously sang, “every silver lining’s got a touch of grey”—more than a touch, actually. With the proliferation of drugs at Dead concerts, it was not uncommon to spot fans who had overdosed. The Dead were the first rock band with a group of fans who formed a 12-step program to keep the lure of drugs at bay during concerts, where temptation is everywhere. These Wharf Rats—named after a Dead song—gathered under an arc of yellow balloons during concert breaks, finding strength in numbers as they maintained sobriety “one show at a time.”

Over the years, the fan base changed and evolved, but one thing remained constant. As Dennis McNally, longtime Dead publicist and author of the best-selling book A Long Strange Trip wrote about deadheads, “[They] had only one thing absolutely in common: Each had experienced some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong,” when confronted by the Dead, its music and scene. It was the recognition of an essentially spiritual experience that bound them together. “

Grateful Dead book
LIFE Books

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The Enduring Legacy of Jerry Garcia

The Long, Strange Trip Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead forged a completely unique musical identity, playing thousands of concerts over a 30-year period. Though Garcia's death in August 1995 effectively ended the band's touring days, the Dead's music and cultural influence have continued to grow. Digital copies of the band's concerts continue to sell briskly via iTunes and fan sites, while a Hollywood biopic about Garcia is in the works, and a pair of Deadhead marketing experts have just released a book that posits the band as an ideal model for marketing in the Internet age. Oh, if that's not enough, Cherry Garcia remains Ben and Jerry's No. 1–selling flavor. RB/Redferns/Getty Images
Photo of Jerry Garcia
Dead to the Core The crux of the Grateful Dead's musical identity was the band's willingness to constantly experiment. No song was ever played the same way twice, and no two concerts are remotely alike. This jam-band approach has been successfully co-opted by a number of contemporary groups like Phish and the Dave Matthews Band. Paul Ryan—Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
Scully, Garcia, and Wolfe Talking on the Sidewalk
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test The Dead gained its early audience by performing as the house band at the many LSD parties, known as "acid tests," that were organized widely in the Bay Area in the mid-1960s. The scene, centered on the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets, was later memorialized in a best-selling work by Tom Wolfe, who stands with Garcia and Dead manager Rock Sculley in this 1966 photo. Ted Streshinsky—Corbis
The Grateful Dead At the Family Dog
The Music Never Stopped The free-flowing approach to music that the band perfected over three decades of playing together was possible because of the extraordinary abilities of the musicians Garcia partnered with. After his death, guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh formed a series of bands — the current incarnation is called Furthur — while drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (not visible in this photo) lead the group the Rhythm Devils. In 1970, when this photo was taken, the group included Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, rear left, who sang and played keyboards and harmonica. He died in 1973. Robert Altman—Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jerry Garcia Getting into Car with Suitcase
My Love Is Bigger Than a Cadillac Small-scale tributes to Garcia and the band abound. More than a dozen musical artists paid tribute to the guitarist at the 25th annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash in West Virginia; The Grateful Dead Hour, a radio program hosted by David Gans, can be heard on 73 stations throughout the U.S.; and the San Francisco Giants will give out Garcia bobble-head dolls at their game against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 9, the anniversary of his death. Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
Grateful Dead live
Spinach Jam A critical component of the band's enduring popularity is the visceral connection Garcia et al established with the group's fans, known as Deadheads. Unlike virtually any other act, the Dead encouraged its audience to record its shows and did not object when digital copies of those recordings were made available on the Internet (as long as no one took a profit from the sale of the music). In their book Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History, authors Brian Halligan and David Meerman Scott relate that this unorthodox business model actually proved wildly successful. By giving away its music, the band brought in new fans and increased sales from concerts, records and merchandise. Ed Perlstein—Redferns/Getty Images
Photo of Jerry Garcia
Captain Trips For most of the band's career, Garcia and his fellow musicians did not live the glamorous life that one commonly associates with top rock acts. Though money flowed in, the band was terrible at managing itself or finding someone trustworthy to do it. And in many ways, Garcia was cool with that. The Dead scene is more "inclusive than exclusive," he said in a 1967 interview. It has more to do "with integrity ... The point is, we're not trying to be famous or rich, we're just trying to make our music as well as we can and get it out." Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Grateful Dead
Truckin' In 2008, the band donated its archives to the University of California at Santa Cruz. The collection, which includes documents related to the band's history, fan-generated art and letters, photographs, posters, stage pieces and more, will be open to the public. An assortment of pieces was featured at an exhibit at the Museum of New York in March 2010. Of Garcia's two most famous guitars, dubbed Rosebud and Tiger (played above by Garcia in a 1981 Berkeley, Calif., concert), the former belongs to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while the latter was purchased by a private collector — Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team. Clayton Call—Redferns
Jerry and the Mountain Boys Concert 1988 - Palo Alto CA
Acoustic Set During his lifetime, Garcia was known for his unrelenting obsession with music. He was rarely seen without a guitar in his hands, and he played in numerous other musical groups besides the Dead. He played jazz with Merl Saunders and Ornette Coleman, contributed to albums by the Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young and formed a bluegrass group with mandolinist David Grisman, Old and in the Way, among other projects. Tim Mosenfelder—Getty Images
Jerry Garcia, David Letterman
In on the Joke During their 1982 appearance on David Letterman's show, Bob Weir and Garcia joked with the Late Night host about the '60s, the origin of the term Deadhead and the band's willingness to let its fans record concerts. "The shows aren't the same ever," Garcia says, "not even remotely, so when we're done with it, they can have it." David McGough—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Jerry Garcia
Not Fade Away Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead performs in concert circa 1987.L. Busacca—WireImage/Getty Images

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