Deadheads Forever: How The Grateful Dead Live On

By | July 18, 2019

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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

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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