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Deadheads Forever: How The Grateful Dead Live On

Culture | July 26, 2019

Left: Original lineup of The Grateful Dead featuring (l-r) Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan. Right: A Deadhead holds a sign indicating he needs a ticket for a show in 2015. Source: Getty/Michael Ochs Archives;

The Grateful Dead has been a cultural force for over 50 years -- even though no group by that name currently exists. Thanks to a nearly religious fan following and the perseverance of surviving members including Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, incarnations and spinoffs of the Dead have kept the music playing even after the death of leader Jerry Garcia in 1995. 

Garcia isn't the only member of the Grateful Dead who's left this mortal plane. The list of departed Dead includes co-founder and organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (died in 1972), keyboardist Keith Godchaux (1979) , and keyboardist Brent Mydland (1990). Lyricist Robert Hunter, who was responsible for the words of most of the Dead's biggest songs and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a non-playing band member, died in 2019. But, to paraphrase another departed Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow (died 2018), the music has almost never stopped.

The group had its genesis in the ‘60s, arose in the Haight-Ashbury, the area that also gave rise to the hippies. The Dead released their eponymous debut album in 1967. Several of their albums were certified gold and platinum, but the only single that hit the top 10, “Touch of Grey,” was from their 1987 album In The Dark. While they didn’t produce top 10 hits, they did have a group of followers who were so devoted that they followed the band from city to city. This unique group of followers, the Deadheads, shared some of the values of the 1960s counterculture, which was in the process of fading in the 1970s, just as the Dead were gaining popularity.

And with The Dead Came the Deadheads

Fans of the Dead at Red Rocks, Colorado, in 1987. Source: (Mark I. Knowles, Wikipedia)

There were a number of reasons that the group’s fans were so devoted and followed them around. The Dead never played the same set from show to show, so fans were never listening to the same sets. The band also encouraged fans to record their shows. The culture extended outside the concert venue, where fans set up small villages, selling tie-dyed shirts, burritos and drugs. However, it was a sense of community that really bonded the fans.

The term deadhead first appeared in 1971 on the sleeve of the Dead’s second live album. The note on the sleeve asked fans to share their names and mailing addresses. Eileen Law, a friend of the band, was in charge of the mailing list and from 1971-1980, a total of 25 mailings were sent out. This was succeeded by the Grateful Dead Almanac, and eventually by

Groups within the Larger Community

Swedish Deadheads. Source: (reddit)

Within the community that formed, there were small subgroups. For instance, since drug use was common at the shows, overdoses were not uncommon and one of the groups that formed was a 12-step program, the Wharf Rats. They gathered together to support each other as they stayed sober during shows.

'Strangers Stopping Strangers, Just To Shake Their Hands'

Deadheads camping out in a parking lot. Source:

This line from “Scarlet Begonias” seems to capture the spirit that was apparent at concerts. These strangers are bound by a sort of spiritual connection over the music. Some scholars see some religious aspects in concerts, including community, ritual, and belief.

Because the Dead never played the same show twice, and each show was comprised of two approximately 90-minute sets, often with jams in between, the band members had to communicate really well. And they had to listen to each other. This sense of presence seemed to spread to the audience. One of the other things that distinguish the band and the Deadheads is their authenticity.

Is It The End?

Jerry Garcia on stage playing 'Wolf' in 1980. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For some Deadheads, the shows provided a sense of community, a sort of home. And with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, many of them felt adrift. The band disbanded, but despite this, the Deadheads showed a desire to remain connected through online forums and bands such as Phish and Rusted Root that also attracted Deadheads.

In 2015, surviving members of the Dead planned a 50th-anniversary tour, called the Fare Thee Well Tour. Initially, only three shows were booked. and in 2016, John Mayer and three additional musicians joined Dead & Company along with original band members, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart. Deadheads have praised Mayer for what he brings to the stage: the respect that he shows for Jerry Garcia, while not trying to be him. For some, these new performances allow the community to continue, while welcoming new members into the fold. Meanwhile, Phil Lesh has continued to play with Phil Lesh & Friends, most notably at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York.

The Spirit of The Dead Lives on

John Mayer playing with Dead & Company at Citi Field in New York. Source:

This year, John Mayer played Jerry Garcia’s guitar, “Wolf,” which Garcia had last played in 1993. During the show at New York’s Citi Field, the power went out twice; one power outage happened during "Fire on the Mountain,” and lasted about two minutes. The audience filled the silence by singing an a capella version of the chorus.

Tags: deadheads | Jerry Garcia | The Grateful Dead

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!