Fans Beyond Description: How Deadheads Shaped the Grateful Dead’s Legacy

Written by Music

An affectionate tribute to the people who helped shape the music of a group whose stature seems only to grow in importance with the passage of time.

“Deadheads. Always more interesting than the music.”

A few months ago, the editor of this site made that declaration on his Facebook wall. And while it’s clearly not a statement many fans of the Grateful Dead would see eye to eye with, it does hint at an idea few would disagree with: Deadheads were a pretty intriguing phenomenon, especially during the band’s heyday.

With the much-publicized 50th anniversary “Fare the Well” reunion concerts upon us, Deadheads are back in the news once again. It’s easy for people outside the Dead’s sphere to dismiss them as a cult preparing to worship its leaders one last time, but that’s a simplistic – and inaccurate – assessment of the relationship between the band and its fans.

Deadheads were more than followers. They were, in a way, co-creators of the Dead’s legacy. Their symbiotic relationship with the Dead helped shape the band’s music.

Deadheads didn’t go to concerts with the expectations of your average rock fan who wanted to hear his or her favorite studio recordings approximated on stage. Like were more like fans of improvisational jazz in that they sought a singular artistic experience, not a pre-conceived “presentation.” Since each show became a one-time event, Deadheads began to record them all, which was something not commonly done at the time. They swapped tapes and compared notes on the performances.

The Dead not only tolerated the taping, but in 1984 they made the unprecedented move of officially allowing it. Knowing their shows were being closely scrutinized and compared against one another pushed the Dead into realms uncharted by rock musicians. No two set lists were ever alike. Jams grew longer. Old songs and cover versions of tunes were pulled out as surprises. Arrangements changed continuously. So did tempos.

This also pushed the group into being less commercial, for better or worse. The good part was that the Dead forged an original voice. The negative consequence was that a lot people couldn’t relate to they style they developed.

Still, the originality of their approach to live music couldn’t be denied. Along with the Deadheads, the band started recording their shows, preserving those spontaneous moments on tape forever. Because of this, the Dead accumulated a catalog of live recordings so expansive that they’ve been able to release a seemingly endless stream of multi-CD sets since the early ’90s.

At every show, it turned out, they ran direct-to-two-track tapes from the mixing board, partially for documentation purposes and partially for private listening. Starting in 1993, the group began releasing these “soundboard tapes,” as they were called, as part of a series called Dick’s Picks, which was named after the group’s tape archivist Dick Latvala.

The recordings might have sounded rough, since they couldn’t be remixed. But the music on them almost always sounded fresh and unpredictable. Listeners who didn’t have access to the old fan-traded tapes finally got to hear how the band’s signature jam tune “Dark Star” evolved or how lead guitarist Jerry Garcia found endless variations for his solos on “Eyes of the World,” to cite but two examples.

Fans liked Dick’s Picks so much that the series ran for 36 volumes. After Latvala died, new archivist David Lemieux came up with another series called Road Trips, and then one called Dave’s Picks. He also initiated a download series. A few weeks ago, Rhino Records announced it would drop an 80-disc, $700 collector’s box set, 30 Trips Around the Sun, which would feature live recordings from every year of the Dead’s existence, 1965 through 1995.

That’s an insane amount of music. No other band from the classic rock era could tap into its past and come up with that many releases. That’s largely because other acts didn’t have to answer to followers as obsessed with their music as Deadheads.

For an amusing example of how the Dead-Deadhead loop worked, just look at the band’s set lists during the time period after their only Top Ten hit, “Touch of Grey,” exploded in popularity.

According to Joel Whitburn’s book “Top Pop Hits,” that song entered the Billboard singles chart on July 25, 1987. Setlists.net, which documents the Dead’s concerts, shows that the Dead played 38 shows after that date in 1987. But at how many did they play their hit? A mere eleven. Deadheads wouldn’t have stood for a hit song played regularly, and the band wouldn’t have even considered tossing it out night after night.

“But wait!” you might think. “I’ll bet they played it a whole lot the next year!” Nope. “Touch of Grey” was only performed at 18 of the 80 showed they did in 1988. Casual fans that came to concerts expecting to hear the hit left bewildered or disappointed.

This was one of the downsides of the Dead-Deadhead marriage: The band’s proclivity for playing to its cult alienated outsiders. If you weren’t part of the scene, it was difficult to get a handle on what was happening.

If would-be fans thought they could find a reference point within the group’s albums, the studio recordings weren’t much help either. People who fell in love with the jaunty, countryish “Friend of the Devil,” for example, might not have even recognized the reggae dirge it morphed into on stage.

And then there were the long, long guitar solos, which were nirvana to people in the scene, but could seem like slow torture to non-converts. The Dead took a lot of criticism for this. Outsiders could not relate, to use a Deadhead turn of phrase.

Yet most of that criticism has dissipated with the passage of time. The music on those hissy old tapes proved a lot more accessible when clean versions were used on Dick’s Picks and people could hear how the music evolved year-by-year. The jam band scene that emerged in the years before Garcia died recast the group’s own music as more influential than insular.

So, as Deadheads converge to show their faith one last time, don’t laugh at the tie-dye and other affectations. Rather, think that some of these people helped shape the music of a group whose stature seems only to grow in importance with the passage of time.

Without Deadheads, it’s pretty safe to say the Dead wouldn’t have had such a long career. Nor such a strange one.

Had the group cultivated an average rock audience, they might have ended up cranking out “oldies act” versions of hits like “Truckin,’” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Uncle John’s Band.” No one would want an 80-disc box set of that all these decades later.