Chuck Klosterman once observed that every straight American man “has at least one transitionary period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” Typically, this “Zeppelin phase” occurs in one’s teens, when a band that sings lasciviously about squeezing lemons while contemplating hobbits aligns with the surging hormones of the listener. But what about when you hit your early 30s? Is there a band that corresponds with graying beards and an encroaching sense of mortality?
I believe, based on anecdotal evidence, that this band is the Grateful Dead.
Before we talk about the “Mid-Life Dead Phase,” however, let’s recognize that people of all ages are embracing the Dead now more than ever before. In the late 20th century, back when Jerry Garcia was still alive, the Grateful Dead was discussed in the mainstream primarily as a phenomenon that was popular among a small segment of fanatical Deadheads who famously followed the band from gig to gig, dispensing grilled cheese sandwiches and cheap acid in parking lots from Jersey City to Eugene, Oregon. But in recent years, the Dead have emerged as one of the most broadly popular American rock bands right now, even as the 25th anniversary of Garcia’s death in August looms.
In 2015, a poll found that the Dead was loved across all demographics, regardless of age or political persuasion. In fact, the groups you might expect to like the Dead less actually liked them more — in the poll, they had a higher favorability rating among people ages 18 to 44 than it did with the baby boomers who grew up in the band’s prime. And Republicans dug them slightly more than Democrats and independents.
There are other, less statistically driven signs of the Dead’s widespread acceptance. This year, there have been new Grateful Dead sneakers and new Grateful Dead edible deodorant. (Who ever thought people would want to smell like the Dead?) One of the summer’s most popular new music podcasts, Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast, is officially sanctioned by the band and details the making of their classic album, Workingman’s Dead, which turns 50 this year. (There are dozens of other Dead podcasts as well, including a medium-popular one co-hosted by yours truly.) There’s also a massive new Vinyl Me, Please box set repackaging several of the Dead’s best albums that includes liner notes written by a wide cross-section of young musicians, ranging from country singer Margo Price to indie rockers like Jim James of My Morning Jacket and MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger.
If there were a normal year, the post-Jerry incarnation of the Dead, Dead & Company, would be in the midst of a stadium tour this month. Even tribute bands to the Dead, like the well-regarded Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, have graduated to headlining large outdoor venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.
This “Dead bump” can be traced back to 2015, when the “core four” surviving members reunited that summer for the Fare Thee Well concerts in California and Illinois. Soon after, guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart connected with John Mayer in Dead & Company, which quickly became the most successful version of the Dead since Garcia’s passing. (As of 2019, they have grossed more than $200 million on the road, and sold two million tickets.) Two years later, the excellent four-hour documentary Long Strange Trip helped to introduce the band to a newer, younger audience, contextualizing the band’s story right down to the minutia of their epic “Wall Of Sound” P.A.. (No other rock band doc has ever featured as much input from roadies.) That same year, Pitchfork ran an in-depth feature positing the best live versions of various Dead songs, a delightfully nerdy endeavor that would’ve been inconceivable on the taste-making indie site back in its early days. (Consider that in 2004, when Pitchfork ranked the 100 best albums of ’70s, they didn’t include a single Grateful Dead LP, even though the decade coincides with the band’s best studio work, including American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, as well as the iconic live triple album, Europe ’72.)
Of course — as many Deadheads, no doubt annoyed by an abundance of recent “why are the Dead so popular?” articles, will point out — this band has always been bigger than they appeared to outsiders. In an evocative 2012 New Yorker story, journalist and Deadhead Nick Paumgarten recalled how the band “was something of a cult” at the boarding school he attended in the early ’80s, a period when the Grateful Dead were as far removed from the trendy rock vanguard — which at the time was enraptured with new wave bands and synthesizers — as they are from pop and hip-hop music in 2020. Back then, the gospel of the Dead was spread strictly via word of mouth, as fans shared cassette tapes of the band’s live concerts, “copies of copies of copies, usually many generations removed from the original source,” Paumgarten writes. No music critic would have called the Grateful Dead “relevant” in 1983, and yet the Dead ultimately transcended such transitory thinkpiece fare thanks to deathless grassroots support.
For years, the Dead’s approach to their career appeared counterintuitive to the point of wanton self-destructiveness: Largely eschew radio singles, make albums with bored indifference, commit to improvising at every concert and throw consistency to the wind, and adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward bootleggers. But they were playing the long game — kids like Paumgarten (and many generations after him) were plugged into a kind of social media before social media, relying on each other to “report” on their favorite band, which (as the internet does) fed their interest in the Dead to the point of mania. The Dead somehow stumbled upon a career path that bonded their audience tightly to them, while also avoiding the inevitable burnout that comes from having a ubiquitous hit song or album that people grow tired of. Years later, when the power of radio diminished and people stopped buying music, the Dead were uniquely positioned to keep on truckin.’
So if the Dead has always been popular, what’s different now? For starters, it’s easier than ever to become an obsessive Dead fan. Collecting live tapes in the ’80s and ’90s required a lot of patience, a lot of Maxell cassettes, and a connection to a nationwide (or even worldwide) network that distributed the music via the mail, in the parking lot outside of a Dead gig, or the sort of dorm-room networks that Paumgarten describes. (This was Spotify before Spotify.) Now, you can simply download the Relisten app on your phone and voila, instant access to good (and frequently great) sounding recordings of virtually every concert (more than 2,000 of them) that the Dead ever played over the course of 30 years.
And then there’s the most troublesome baggage affixed to the Grateful Dead — the obnoxious Deadhead stereotypes that defined the band’s media coverage in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when they rode the wave from their sole Top 10 hit, “Touch Of Grey,” to stadium-headliner status. Paumgarten sums up these stereotypes in his New Yorker piece: “Airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme.” I was a teenager around that time who was equally enamored with alt-rock and classic rock, and yet the Dead didn’t interest me largely because the fan culture both repulsed and intimidated me. Even if you could get past the baggage of Dead fans, would Dead fans actually accept you? Looking back, these worries and prejudices seem quaint. Anybody can be a Deadhead now, whether you’re an old-school hippie like Bill Walton or a modern right-wing ghoul like Ann Coulter. If we believe national polls, the world absorbed Dead culture. Or, maybe, Dead culture absorbed the world.
But what explains the “Mid-Life Dead Phase”? After dabbling a bit in the Dead in my 20s, I turned the corner and became a devotee in my early 30s, which coincided with so many Dead shows being available for download on Live Archive. So technology certainly had a lot to with it. But I had also grown disillusioned with the persistent taste politics endemic to conversations about contemporary pop and indie music. So much of the talk then centered on whether you were a “hipster” for liking certain artists, or hopelessly lame and passé for favoring others. It was all about turning what you like into what you’re like, and it was frankly exhausting. I might have also been a little insecure. As a music critic in a youth-obsessed industry, I was no longer young. But in the Dead world, that didn’t seem to matter, either.
From the outside, getting into the Dead seemed like a vacation from all of that fashion-obsessed stuff I loathed about mainstream music. After all, who likes the Dead to be cool? Becoming a Deadhead, therefore, felt like a way to liberate myself. As much as I’m inclined to reflexively make fun of anyone who claims to “only care about the music, man,” I wanted to be around people who, ahem, only cared about the music, man.
Now, obviously, this was all a naive fantasy. The Dead scene, like any scene, is rife with extremely judgmental people. For Deadheads, the taste police might for instance bust you for caring too much about Cornell ’77, the single most famous Dead live recording that, naturally, makes some of the band’s “obscure for obscure’s sake” self-appointed custodians bristle. (For the record, I love Cornell ’77 and implore you to put it on now if you’ve never heard it.) But I wasn’t completely off. And I suspect this “vacation from fashion” aspect has brought other pilgrims to the Dead after they turned 30.
When I interviewed Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, an enthusiastic Dead convert who often talks about the band on his Apple Music radio show “Time Crisis,” earlier this year, his experience reminded me of my own. “This is a broad-stroke, reductive view, but there is something about the jam-band ethos that feels pleasantly removed from the hard-core branding-and-marketing side of almost every other genre of music,” he said. “You could poke holes in that argument so easily — I recognize that. But to some extent it does stand apart.”
Some of the holes you could poke in that view are the aforementioned Grateful Dead shoes and deodorant, among hundreds of other band-related merchandise. But if the Dead scene isn’t exactly a post-taste and corporate-free utopia, it does offer a tremendous opportunity for seemingly endless discovery. This, more than anything, explains why I and perhaps others have been drawn into this world relatively late in life. Getting into the Dead replicates the feeling I had as a kid learning about music for the first time, when all artists were new and classic albums I had never heard were blowing my mind every day. Once you reach a certain age, it’s impossible to feel that way again, which is why so many people drift away from discovery in middle age and stick with the music they know. With the Grateful Dead, however, there’s always a new tape that includes an amazing “China>Rider” you’ve never heard. Your mind never stops being blown. You put a Dead tape on, and time stops. Jerry is alive again, and the world seems exciting and fresh once more.
The Grateful Dead is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.