The Grateful Dead were one of the biggest jam bands of our time. While they never quite reached the same level of fame as the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, it never really mattered. Their devoted Deadhead fans kept the band on the road, and the band’s iconic skull and lightning bolt logo will forever be remembered by rock ‘n’ roll fans.
The obscure band found its way into fans’ hearts with their funky jam sessions, and a sense of community felt at every performance. But while the Grateful Dead were one of the most beloved live-touring acts in the world, they were also plagued by a series of ill-fated incidences, controversies, and tragic deaths. So buckle up, we’re taking a trip back to a time when hippies roamed the land…
Do you know what Whoopie Goldberg, Will Arnett, Carlos Santana, Nancy Pelosi, and, yes, Ann Coulter all have in common? They are all members of the community of Grateful Dead fans, affectionately and commonly known as Deadheads. Urban Dictionary defines Deadhead as “a person who greatly enjoys music of the Grateful Dead and particularly the genius of Jerry Garcia.”
But as everyone knows, these fans aren’t like regular fans. Decades ago, these fans cranked up their level of devotion to an entirely different level. They began following the band on tour from city to city, and, as their numbers grew, a community was born. They even have their own set of rules and special slang.
Sure, Beatlemania once swept over the US, and the Rolling Stones still have their devoted fans. There are Phishheads (fans of the band Phish) and Bruce Springsteen fans, but nothing comes close to the devotion and loyalty to Jerry Garcia and his bandmates. Infamous rock journalist and critic Robert Christgau was the first person to write about the band’s unique traveling audience after he attended a 1971 concert in New York City.
He described an audience where “regulars greeted other regulars, remembered from previous boogies, and compared this event with a downer in Boston or a fabulous night in Arizona.” Well, the band took notice. They played a different song set at every show so that these free-spirited “regulars” would never see the same show twice.
The Grateful Dead not only allowed fans to tape their concerts, but they also encouraged it. The band even set up a “taper’s section” for them. That means that there are tapes of all of the 2,500 shows the Dead performed during their 30 years of touring. And if you ever have a lot of time to kill, just ask a group of Deadheads about their favorite live show. You’ll be there for hours.
Jokes aside, Deadheads really do have a reason to reflect fondly on their time “on tour” with the band. There was a certain sense of community and a deep bond between the audience and the band that has rarely been replicated since.
In an interview for the documentary series, A Conversation with Ken Kesey, Kesey commented on this special bond. “[The Dead] wasn’t just playing what was on the music sheets, they were playing what was in the air,” he said. “When the Dead are at their best, the vibrations that are stirred by the audience is the music that they play.”
But this free-spirited atmosphere extended far beyond the walls of the concert stadium. When the Dead came to town, the parking lots of their concerts transformed into small villages. There were vendors selling tie-dye shirts, burritos, and, of course, drugs, as far as the eye could see. Most of these vendors never attended an actual concert, but camped out, hoping to make enough money to pack up their Volkswagen bus and follow the psychedelic band to their next city.
In the parking lots, you could always spot the hopeful few, roaming around with a single raised finger. This is Deadhead code for “I Need a Miracle,” or, in plain English, “I need a free concert ticket.” The parking lot village scene was the center of the 1995 documentary Tie-died: Rock ‘n Roll’s Most Dedicated Fans.
It was even described by a hippie couple (who met and conceived their baby at a show) as “one big, happy Dead kind of thing.” However, as Garcia famously sang, “every silver lining’s got a touch of grey,” these gatherings also had a dark side. With the number of drugs at the concert and in the parking lot of villages, it was common to see fans who had overdosed.
Deadheads were such a close-knit group that they looked out for everyone, including those who had a problem with addiction. The Grateful Dead were the first band whose fans formed a 12-step program to keep temptation at bay during concerts. Named after the 1971 Grateful Dead song, the Wharf Rats vowed to live alcohol and drug-free.
Finding strength in numbers, the Wharf Rats would meet under an arc of yellow balloons during concert breaks, encouraging each other to avoid temptation “one show at a time.” By 1990, Wharf Rats had a mailing list of 3,000 people, and, even today, these fans have a presence at other jam band concerts.
Deadheads come from all walks of life, and, while the fan base has evolved over the years, one thing remains constant. As Dennis McNally, a publicist for the Grateful Dead and the author of the book A Long Strange Trip, wrote about the Deadheads, “[They] had only one thing absolutely in common: Each had experienced some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong,’ when confronted by the Dead, its music and scene.”
“It was the recognition of an essentially spiritual experience that bound them together.” Some Deadheads use the term “X-Factor” to describe the intangible element that elevates the band’s performance into something higher, while others call the feeling a “religious experience.”
While the Grateful Dead’s music is often described as mellow, frontman Jerry Garcia’s childhood was quite the opposite. While on vacation in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his family, Garcia decided to help his older brother chop some wood. The guitarist, who was four years old at the time, was steadying a piece of wood when the ax cut off a large chunk of his middle finger on this right hand.
But although this injury could have potentially put Garcia at a disadvantage, it allegedly improved his guitar-playing abilities. The injury also became a sort of salute, and Garcia often showed it off to his fans. In 2015, a fan tried to sell a fake finger on Craigslist so he could attend the band’s reunion show.
The same year that Garcia lost his finger, his father Joe tragically died in a fly fishing accident during a family vacation in Northern California. He slipped in the Trinity River and drowned before nearby fishermen could reach him. After his father’s death, Garcia’s mother began working around the clock and didn’t have time to take care of Garcia and his brother.
So she sent them to live with her parents for five years. He and his brother moved back with their mother after she remarried in 1953. Garcia started getting into trouble, and, after stealing his mother’s car in 1960, he was forced to draft into the Army as punishment. He made it all the way through basic training before being given the boot for missing roll call and going AWOL.
This story is all too familiar for rock bands in the entertainment industry. The Grateful Dead’s managers caused them many headaches over the years, but Lenny Hart was by far the most aggravating one of them all. Aside from managing the Dead, Hart worked as a preacher but insisted that people call him reverend.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, he worked as the band’s manager from 1968 until 1969. During his short time with the Grateful Dead, Hart embezzled almost $150,000 by hiding it in a series of bank accounts and shell companies all around California. He then disappeared with all the stolen money while on a trip with Garcia in Los Angeles.
The band notified the police, who put out a warrant for Hart’s arrest, but he couldn’t be located. Unfortunately for him, the law eventually caught up with Hart in 1971. A private investigator found the former manager in San Diego, where he was working as a “reverend,” according to the Grateful Dead’s official archives.
The band managed to get back $63,000, and the former manager died in 1975 of natural causes. But what makes the entire situation even worse was that Hart’s son, Mickey Hart, was the band’s drummer. He left the Grateful Dead shortly after his father skipped town. The incident inspired the band’s song, He’s Gone, a tune about a reverend’s wicked ways.
The Grateful Dead had their fair share of run-ins with the law, especially during the ‘60s and ‘70s. During the summer of 1967, the Dead lived at 710 Ashbury Street in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. This era in the band’s history is filled with countless incidents, both outrageous and delightful. Coincidently, in a sort of wonderful coincidence, the Hell’s Angels lived across the street.
This era in the band’s history was filled with countless incidents, drummer Bill Kreutzman said in a 2015 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. One night, Ken Kesey was driving his Merry Prankster psychedelic bus when the brakes went out. He had to make a quick decision: crash into the band’s house or the Hell’s Angel’s house.
Kesey, obviously, chose the latter. And then there was the infamous incident where guitarist Bob Weir got into trouble with the police for throwing water balloons from the roof. “Stuff like that is probably the real reason that house became so famous,” Kreutzman wrote in 2015. “As at all of our group residences, outrageous s**t happened at least once every time the hour hand circled back around.”
But the band’s fun and games took an uglier turn when the house was raided in October 1967. Narcotic officers found a pound of marijuana and hash inside of the Grateful Deadhouse. The incident made its way onto the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle, and both Weir and founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan were arrested.
A few years after the Grateful Dead moved from San Francisco, they found themselves in trouble again, but this time in New Orleans. “New Orleans police just aren’t welcoming rock bands,” manager Lenny Hart told the Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. “Any group that goes there should be awfully careful.”
The Grateful Dead, as well as most of their road crew, were busted in the same French Quarters hotel that members of Jefferson Airplane had been arrested in just weeks before. According to Hart, the police were waiting for the band to come back to the hotel after their concert. Their rooms had already been searched, and everyone except Pigpen and keyboardist Tom Constanten were arrested.
While Jerry Garcia was waiting backstage to perform at the Fillmore Theater in San Francisco, someone brought in a birthday cake for the band. The guitarist later said he suspected that someone might have laced the cake with psychedelics, but this is Jerry Garcia we’re talking about, and he took a bite anyways.
“I’m looking at it and looking at it and looking at it. But it looks good! I’ll just take a little of the frosting here. I’ll just take a little snack,” Garcia later said. “So I took this, and then someone comes in and says, “Yeah, we put about 800 hits of acid in that frosting.” It’s safe to say that Garcia and the rest of the band were completely wiped out during their performance.
Donna Jean Godchaux, the longtime Dead backup singer, said that she once got so stoned before a show in Paris during the Europe ’72 tour that she somehow found herself under Keith Godchaux’s piano, who also happened to be her husband. Donna was so out of it that she didn’t realize that she was lying under the piano on stage during a live performance.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really fantastic music!’ Then, ‘Oh, my gosh, I sing with this band!’” she recalled in This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: The Oral History of the Grateful Dead. “I don’t know how in the world I pressed through.” Well, good thing she was touring with the Dead because they let this little incident slide.
It may seem strange now, but in the ’70s, yogurt was considered something that only hippies and Europeans ate. Author and Grateful Dead mentor Ken Kesey’s brother owned an Oregon-based yogurt company called Nancy’s Yoghurt, but it was struggling. So he reached out to the band for help. They ended up traveling to Eugene, Oregon, to perform a benefit concert to save the yogurt company.
Tickets cost three dollars, and nearly 20,000 fans show up. Given that temperatures reached 107 degrees, fans dressed for the occasion. “The Grateful Dead said it was the stark naked-est scene they’d ever attended,” says Chuck Kesey. Well, the band’s endorsement worked wonders not only for the company (which is still around today) but for the industry in general.
If a celeb partied with illegal substances in the ‘70s and ‘80s, chances are they partied with Saturday Night Live star John Belushi. This was true for the members of the Grateful Dead, who spent time with the late comedian in 1980. Belushi, who was known for his musical performance in The Blues Brothers, begged the band to let him jam with them during a performance. Although drummer Bill Kreutzmann denied his request, Belushi didn’t take no for an answer.
During one of the Dead’s concerts, Belushi came on stage and started doing cartwheels, and, according to Kreutzmann, “he landed his last cartwheel just in time to grab a microphone and join in on the chorus. The audience and everyone in the band, except for Phil, ate it up. It couldn’t have been rehearsed better.”
In 1969, the Grateful Dead were still an up-and-coming band, and they started generating some buzz along the West Coast. So CBS decided to book the band on Hugh Hefner’s program, Playboy After Dark, and, naturally, things got way out of hand. When the band arrived on set, none of the microphones worked, the cameras were out of focus, and the entire film crew was acting very strangely.
Apparently, the band’s sound engineer, Owsley Stanley, dosed the coffee pot during soundcheck. So everyone running the show was completely out of their minds. But, in true Grateful Dead fashion, everyone carried on as usual and ended up playing a terrific show. Hefner even sent the band a thank you letter for appearing on his show.
If someone became a fan only after hearing the Dead’s 1987 hit single, “Touch of Grey,” then they were considered a “touchhead.” People who earned this nickname tended to be out of tune with the band’s mellow vibe. Touchheads were a rowdier, college-aged crowd who didn’t get along well with the old school fans.
But things took a turn for the worse when some 3,000 touchheads arrived at a Grateful Dead show in Deer Creek, Indiana, without tickets. They stormed a perimeter fence and ran into the crowd, waving pieces of wood at anyone who stood in their way. This incident is considered one of the most infamous rock concert riots ever.
The riot was so bad that the Grateful Dead wrote an open letter to their fans titled “This Darkness Got To Give.” In the letter, the band stressed their disappointment in their new fans and gave them a talking down to.
The band encouraged their older fans to teach the newer crowd the rules of the game: “It’s up to you as Deadheads to educate these people, and to pressure them into acting like Deadheads instead of maniacs. They can only get away with this crap if you let them.” The letter ended with a warning to all fans, new and old: if these antics kept up, the band would have no choice but to stop playing.
The 1969 Woodstock festival is known for its iconic performances that have withstood the test of time. Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead’s set was not one of them. To say their set was mediocre is an understatement. The Dead completely bombed. By the time the band took the stage at 10:30 p.m., they were completely stoned out of their minds.
But drugs weren’t the only reason for their bad set. It was raining cats and dogs, which turned the stage into a literal death trap. “Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal,” guitarist Bob Weir told Rolling Stone magazine in 2019. “There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.”
Not only were the band members being electrocuted every few seconds, but they were also playing in front of an already disappointed crowd. The band was late for their set because their sound engineer spent hours rearranging the entire stage. Then, there were brakes between almost every song. So not only was the audience soaking wet and muddy, but they were expecting a certain vibe from the band, which simply wasn’t there.
“Had we played a good set, we probably would have transported them to another reality entirely,” Weir said. Unfortunately for everyone, that wasn’t the case. “It was probably the worst set we’ve ever performed.” The sloppy performance led to a 50-minute performance of a single song. After five tracks, the band finally called it quits.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was the first Grateful Dead member to pass away. Pigpen was not only a founding member, but he was considered the heart and soul of the band. The singer was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues, which inspired some of the Dead’s early tunes. After becoming friends with Jerry Garcia, he suggested that the two form a band together. The musician’s love for blues inspired his first nickname, “Blue Ron.”
But as time went on, everyone started calling him Pigpen after the permanently dirty Peanuts character, due to his “funky approach to life and sanitation.” But as the group grew, so did their love for psychedelic rock, and Pigpen’s influence diminished. Then in 1968, Garcia called the singer out for holding the band back.
Garcia believed that Pigpen’s abilities weren’t up to par with the rest of the band, which, Garcia believed, was holding everyone back. But it wasn’t just a difference in playing styles that separated Pigpen from the rest of the band. While everyone else enjoyed exploring their minds with the help of psychedelics, Pigpen preferred whiskey and fortified wine.
As problems with the band grew, so did his love for alcohol. It got to the point that in 1970 Pigpen’s doctor advised him to stop touring with the Grateful Dead so he could stay home and fight his addiction. He eventually came back in 1971, but the following year his health took a turn for the worse.
Pigpen’s final performance was at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood in June 1972. After the concert, he cut off all contact with the band, telling them, “I don’t want you around when I die.” A year later, at 27 years old, Pigpen was found dead in his apartment from an internal hemorrhage.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, the musician had been dead for two days before he was discovered by his landlady. Although Pigpen’s influence on the Grateful Dead diminished towards the end of his life, the band was devastated by his death. “After Pigpen’s death, we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead,” Garcia said at his funeral.
There is no question about it, the Grateful Dead were undeniably popular. However, they never enjoyed mainstream success. In fact, the Grateful Dead are considered a one-hit-wonder. The only song that was considered a chart-topper was their 1987 song Touch of Grey. The song made it to the number nine on the Billboard charts.
Their second most successful song, Truckin’, only made it to number 64. Their albums didn’t do that much better, and the band was never awarded a Grammy Award. But, as all true Deadheads know, the band played for their fans, not the fame. If anything, this lack of commercial success made the Grateful Dead that much more appealing to audiences.
Towards the end of 1971, keyboardist Keith Godchaux joined the Grateful Dead with his wife, Donna Jean Godchaux. Donna had previously performed with stars like Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond. But after she joined, Donna was often criticized for her off-key vocals and lackluster performance. Years later, Donna blamed drugs and alcohol, as well as bad stage acoustics for her poor performance.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Donna said that she performed much better in the Dead’s studio sessions. Besides her sometimes off-key vocals, Donna had another problem. She and her husband fought, and it was only made worse by their frequent drug use. The couple were kicked out of the band in 1979.
Jerry Garcia also struggled with addictions to smoking, drugs, and overeating his entire life. By the mid-‘80s, this destructive trio began to get the worst of him. In July 1986, Garcia got an infection from an abscessed tooth, and, unfortunately, he waited to get it treated. This, according to the LA Times, caused him to fall into a diabetic coma.
When Garcia awoke five days later, he had completely forgotten how to play guitar. The Grateful Dead frontman was forced to relearn all of his old songs and solos, with the help of keyboardist Merl Saunders. Amazingly, the band was back to performing by December 1986, only five months later.
This seemed to be the wakeup call that Garcia needed to kick his old habits. In December 1987, his daughter was born, and he even took up scuba diving as part of an apparent commitment to living clean. Then, in August 1992, he became ill, forcing the band to cancel their upcoming tour.
In 1995, after ongoing battles with various addictions, the musician checked himself into Serenity Knolls in California. Sadly, he never checked out. Eight days after his 53rd birthday, Garcia passed away in his sleep. The following year, Bob Weir and his wife Deborah Koons spread half of his ashes in Rishikesh, India. The other half was spread in the San Francisco Bay.