Mending the Walls of a Brokedown Palace: The Evolving Legacy of the Grateful Dead

On August 9th, 1995 Jerry Garcia passed away, joining former bandmates Pigpen McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Myland in whatever form you choose to believe the deceased exist. For three prior decades, Jerry Garcia sat at the helm of an extraterrestrial entity serpentining the United States. The Warlocks, a psych-folk by-product of the burgeoning arts scene in mid-1960s San Francisco, performed for a year before renaming as The Grateful Dead. As they expanded beyond the Bay Area, Jerry and his team extended their musical influences to include jazz, reggae and long space rock jams. Regardless of their inconsistent discography, the Dead garnered a clique of loyal adherents who forged their own culture in parking lots and theatres from California to Maine. The “Deadheads” followed the band across the country like a fanatic shadow, taping shows and exchanging them in a barter economy. Makeshift markets housed tie-dyed garb and grilled sandwiches, with profits exchanged for tickets to the evening’s show. 2,318 of those shows were performed between 1965 and 1995, though no number could fully encapsulate the spirit of the Grateful Dead.  

At their essence, the Dead manifested freedom. They inspired followers to escape populist thought-patterns and embrace adventure and alternative living. They provided an outlet of joy for the disenchanted post-Vietnam generation and a means of peaceful resistance to members of the post-WWII cultural norm. The music itself was a matter of spontaneity. Drifting onward with nothing but a basic song structure (and often a stomach full of controlled substances), jams often stretched beyond half an hour. With this brazened musicianship came the risk of absolute breakdown, yet failure faced the same unconditional enthusiasm as success. At the epicentre of this maelstrom was Jerry Garcia (lovingly referred to as Captain Trips) and his ability to masterfully noodle the guitar whilst singing. Despite the widespread knowledge of Jerry’s heroin addiction, diabetes, and 1986 coma, the shows continued. After several years of near-disastrous touring, Jerry sallied from the living while sleeping at a drug rehabilitation facility. Although three founding members of the band remained, the journey could not possibly have continued without the Captain.

With the compulsion of any vocation, the surviving members of The Grateful Dead found different vehicles for their craft. Bassist Phil Lesh banded together with a revolving batch of musicians to form Phil Lesh and Friends. Drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann sat behind kits as the Rhythm Devils while guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir continued as RatDog. The first semblance of reunion came as The Other Ones in 1998. Weir, Lesh and Hart participated until 2000, when  Lesh departed and Kreutzmann joined. Lesh returned in 2002, and the band reformed as The Dead the following year. While the group played the same tunes as in the Jerry days, the tempo slowed and the vigour dwindled. Breaking from their apolitical standard, The Dead campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and later performed at  his inauguration. After a summer tour and a rumoured bout of infighting, Lesh and Weir ditched the drummers and formed Furthur. This schism endured for half a decade, until January 15th, 2015, when a new, conclusive installation was announced. Fare Thee Well, tactfully promoted by Peter Shapiro, would be the final set of collective performances by the living members of The Grateful Dead. Trey Anastasio would bravely tackle the role of Jerry. The announcement generated considerable hype. Tickets sold out instantly and a ravenous field of scalpers reaped enough to make alimony payments until the end of the decade. Ultimately the shows honoured the fans more than the music. Unlike the Dead’s first run, this edition failed to reach the plane of transcendence in which Jerry flourished. Although the outing offered fans the opportunity to operate as Deadheads one last time, the music did not deliver. Listening to tapes in hindsight, the shows sound laden with anxiousness and reservation. A legacy like The Grateful Dead’s could not end as flaccidly as the final show of Fare Thee Well.  

Not a week after the final curtain call rumours began to circulate. The Deadhead community pioneered internet discussion forums, managing an extensive network of fans. They once again congregated on platforms such as Reddit to discuss the possibility of another tour. These rumours actualized on August 5th with a left-field announcement: Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann would embark on a set of dates, accompanied by American neo-bluesman John Mayer under the name Dead and Company. The shock and implications of this announcement, although seemingly trivial, confounded many. Any connection between a radio-friendly heartthrob like John Mayer and The Grateful Dead appear non-existent. Besides the fact that each original member was old enough to be John Mayer’s father, there was a distinct musical divide between the two. The pairing of Mayer, the troubadour known for tracks such as “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Waiting on the World to Change” with members of the Grateful Dead – who once performed a 46-minute rendition of “Turn On Your Lifelight” after passing around a jug of acid-spiked orange juice – is kind of like a romantic comedy starring Woody Allen and Sandra Bullock. This is not to deny Mayer his talents or his success, it’s simply a bid to present the bizarreness of this coupling. But moving beyond the realm of analogy, there is the evaluation of Mayer’s character. Similarly to Kanye West and Justin Bieber, Mayer has become a spectacle as much as a musician. His romantic exploits have been examined relentlessly, as have his often provocative statements. Take, for example, his 2011 interview with Playboy, in which he referred to his genitals as infamous white supremacist David Duke, or the Rolling Stone interview in which he said “all I want to do is fuck the girls I’ve already fucked, because I can’t fathom explaining myself to somebody who can’t believe I’d be interested in them, and they’re going, ‘but you’re John Mayer.’” In short, and barring any reference to a specific female hygiene product, John Mayer has a bad rap. Scrutiny would not be withheld heading into the first show on October 29th. Tasked already with the responsibility of filling in for the Captain, Mayer would have to win over a body of wary fans. From the first notes of “Playin’ in the Band” during that debut show, Mayer proved well-equipped for the job.

What has failed so many modern Dead iterations is their treatment of Jerry’s parts. Some projects downplay the lead guitar in the mix while others attempt in vain to imitate Jerry’s style. Slinging a Stratocaster with a gritty tone, Mayer eschews both tactics. He has boldly incorporated his own bluesy flair and in doing so has reinvigorated the band. Each night Weir is bringing effort and panache previously unseen in this millennium, with powerful vocals and a surging stage presence. Kreutmann and Hart deliver their solo section “Drums” with expanding ingenuity and inspiration. Listen to “Ramble on Rose” from Halloween night, “Me & My Uncle” recorded the following show, or “Me & My Uncle” from November 14th to hear the verve pulsing throughout this band. They are not simply a tribute band, but an evolving creative force. As a fill-in for a beloved figure, Mayer has handled his role reverently. A November 10th Instagram post thanked fans for accepting him into their fold, and expressed honour for the opportunity he’d been given. Any vestige of the controversial, megalomaniacal John Mayer has not made it onto this tour bus.

Although there are only 4 dates left on this excursion, speculation of a summer tour already runs rampant. Whether or not the Dead and Company continues, the experience will remain a seminal happening in the history of the Grateful Dead. Consider it a resurrection a la Bob Dylan with Time out of Mind, Springsteen with The Rising or Elvis with his 1968 Comeback Special. Additionally, this tour can be appreciated beyond its sheer musical output: it has served as a forced reflection on the nature of The Grateful Dead. Will their greatest heights remain unattainable without Garcia? Can the band even function as a cohesive unit after his passing? While no unanimous answer will ever be reached in the Deadhead community, this outing has proved that The Grateful Dead is more of a sentiment, or an expression, than the simple sum of concrete parts. If John Mayer can lend joy to “Bertha” or mystique to “Lost Sailor”, then the music continues. Your avuncular neighbour can do the very same in his garage with a battered Martin acoustic. The Grateful Dead will thrive as long as the music and bliss exist; as the record 400,000 Fare Thee Well pay-per-view purchases would suggest, the Deadheads are not ready to quit. But enough pontificating. The boys are hot right now and rumour has it they’ll finally bust out “Cosmic Charlie” tomorrow night. Put on your dancing shoes and flash a big smile, there’s plenty of fun ahead.

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