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  • Matthew Austin Williams

Introduction and Overview

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

During the last few years of pandemic, I had a strong need for a sense of belonging, of being understood, accepted, and part of something larger than myself. The Grateful Dead provided some of this comfort. When I was first drawn to the band, when I was 17, it was the same need they were serving. I love music and listen to a lot of it, but my experience of this band is slightly different for this sense of inclusion.

In this section of the blog you will find a few entries in which I speculate about the culture around the Grateful Dead, including their "hip economy," exploration of psychedelics and improvisation as a spiritual experience, and the collective leadership style. I'm curious about how these elements of their non-musical reality affected the music they made and their legacy.

This is going to be far from scientific or comprehensive, based on my experience of the band, conversations with other fans and newbies to the group, and podcasts like the Good Ol' Grateful Deadcast and the Long Strange Trip documentary.

I wonder to what extent this sense of belonging has to do with the culture around the band, which was highly inclusive. The road crew had as much decision-making power as the band. When they went to Europe in 1972, they brought around 50 people when the road crew and band totaled 17. The secretary of the band made as much as Jerry Garcia through the Grateful Dead organization.

These pioneering and innovative qualities of the Grateful Dead do not get as much attention as they should, and so I want to talk about them and consider their effects.

A quick couple of disclaimers here:

Grateful Dead fans and critics have the reputation of being all or nothing with the band. Either you love them or you hate them. I love the band, and have been listening intently for the last couple of years, but my interest fluctuates. My music listening habits are catholic and I like to find what I like about the music that comes to my ears.

Second, I don't claim the jam band genre by writing about the Dead. For me, the Garcia/Hunter and Weir/Barlow writing teams have no rival in that genre. Especially from the perspective that I'm using, of how the culture/business of the band effected the musical culture, the Grateful Dead may have inspired a genre, but I'm not familiar with any of these bands that are carrying on their legacy in this way.

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