The Dead was born in 1965 in San Francisco with country/bluegrass instrumentalist Jerry Garcia (guitar), Bob Weir (guitar), Phil Lesh (bass), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). The band soon switched from its initial acoustic folk and bluegrass sound to one that relied more heavily on electronics (and L.S.D.), creating a mutant strain of eclectic R & amp;B/folk rock. Mickey Hart joined in 1967 and lyricist Robert Hunter signed on in time to contribute to the band's third album for Warner Bros., 1969's Aoxomoxoa.
Dead concerts soon became the stuff of acid dreams and rock legend. Its indulgent, laid-back, often sloppy approach to performing was well received live (among the legions of Deadheads likely more perpetually stoned than the band itself) but never translated very well to recording. Thus the Grateful Dead became, arguably, the most successful touring/least successful recording bands of the rock era. The group's creative (and commercially successful) peak as recording artists was reached in the early '70s with a string of albums -- American Beauty, Workingman's Dead and The Grateful Dead -- that together yielded many of the hits that would be performed endlessly as the group's signature tunes: "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin'."
Essentially locked out of commercial radio, the Dead turned touring into an obsession -- for themselves and their tie-dyed fan base -- spending fully one-half of every year during the '70s and '80s on the road (Garcia's five-day, drug-induced diabetic coma in 1986 kept him off the tour for only five months). Even death has repeatedly failed to stop the Dead. McKernan died of a stomach hemorrhage in 1973 and was replaced by keyboardist Keith Godchaux, who himself died in a 1980 automobile accident. Godchaux's replacement, Brent Mydland, died of an overdose in 1990. Garcia succumbed to heart failure in 1995, at which point the Grateful Dead officially called it quits.
Fans distraught over Garcia's death wondered what could ever replace him. But soon bands like Phish and the Dave Matthews Band took up the slack, and their tours, filled with diehard followers with an underground subculture all their own, became Dead-like traveling communes. Now, nearly 40 years after their Haight-Ashbury days, what's left of the Dead (minus the "Grateful" part) is back on the road.
Publication date: 09/18/03