I just read a wonderful New Yorker article on the Grateful Dead, which made me immediately rustle up some of their clips on YouTube. This clip is from the Grateful Dead movie directed by Jerry Garcia which shows them performing in San Francisco in 1974.
The vast Internet Archive has recordings of the band too, but I wanted to see Jerry Garcia live. He was almost as iconic as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and all the other greats of his time.
Some may consider that an overstatement. After all, the Dead had only one top hit – Touch of Grey – which peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987, according to Wikipedia.
That was long after they started out in 1965. But until they broke up in 1995 when Garcia died, they never ceased to be talked and written about – so powerful was their hold on public imagination and the devotion and loyalty of their fans.
The Dead were not just any other band; they were like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones minus the hits.
They grew on you like Bob Dylan. Not everybody liked, or likes, Dylan. He did not record a string of hit singles like the Beatles and the Stones. He is an acquired taste, but once you get to like him, there’s no breaking away. The same with the Dead. You become a lifelong fan. The Deadheads, as the fans are called, still carry the torch for Garcia and his band.
It can’t be just for the music. Not a single Grateful Dead number made the Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest songs list.
Even Nick Paumgarten, a Grateful Dead fan, writes in the New Yorker: ”They could be sloppy, unrehearsed. They forgot lyrics, sang out of key, delivered rank harmonies, missed notes, blew takeoffs and landings, and laid down clams by the dozen. Their lyrics were often fruity—hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew. They resisted irony. They were apolitical.”
They played “ragged, improvisational, old-timey American music”, according to the New Yorker. Whatever it was, the music still sounds sweet to me after all these years.
Here’s their version of Not Fade Away.
It could not be more different from the Rolling Stones.
But the Grateful Dead could be funny too, as in this number, a calypso hit for Harry Belafonte of all people!
Finally, here is Garcia is at his sweetest.