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Grateful Dead alive at Rock Hall
An feature exhibition: “Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip.”


Mark Urycki
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The feature exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum this summer is “Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip.”

The San Francisco band dissolved after its lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995.  But its multitude of live recordings remains popular and new fans are still discovering the group.  Their persona may sound scary but, as WKSU’s Mark Urycki reports, there are many sides to the Grateful Dead.

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The Grateful Dead are not what you think.   Actually they probably are, but they're more than that.  They got their start playing at LSD parties in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. They were popular with the local Hell’s Angels. The blues singer in the band died of alcoholism. Their artwork leans toward skeletons. And some of their music is dark and dissonant enough to send a chill up your spine.

Tape boxes and manuscripts are among the items on display.  The robe was worn by promoter Bill Graham during a New Year's Eve show. Photo by R&R Hall of Fame and Museum. And yet the Grateful Dead were about as easy going as rock stars get and generous to a fault with fans, playing 3 to even 5 hour shows.  The most devoted fans, called Deadheads, didn’t just go to a show -- they went on the road, following the band from city to city.  And yet the band had only a few hit songs.  Curator Howard Kramer spent a year and a half putting together the Dead exhibition at the Rock Hall.

“It all comes down to the connection between the audience and music.  Hits were secondary.   Here’s a band that never went on stage with a set list.   Everything was called off and improvisation took it.   It could be transcendent or it could be stuck in the mud, even by their own admission they knew that. But the audience wanted that journey.”

The exhibition has a touch screen computer that allows you to search the playlist of any of the thousands of concerts the Dead performed during the decades. Look up a city or a year and you’ll find the show’s play list.   Most are on tape somewhere because the band allowed its fans to record the shows. Look up Cleveland 1973 and you’ll find it was December 6 at Cleveland Public Auditorium.


The Dead was the most American of bands, before the term “Americana music” was coined. Their song lyrics followed the beat poetry of the early 60’s but also stories of cowboys, gamblers, and hobos. They played the music of Chuck Berry, Marty Robbins, Bob Dylan, and Merle Haggard, as well as American traditional blues and folk songs

Twelve members of the Grateful Dead have been officially inducted into the Rock Hall and each brought something to the band,  whether it was gritty blues or psychedelia. Howard Kramer says it was a musical marriage of “country, folk, bluegrass,  rock and roll, rhythm and blues, improvisational, contemporary classical.”

One of the band’s tendencies was to disassemble a song, improvise it as avant-garde jazz, and then slowly reassemble it.

 “I think they got that from their heroes like John Coltrane and Miles Davis.   They got to be very friendly with Miles. They found they had a lot of common ground in that ability to take a core elements of a song and expand upon and not lose its essence.  That’s a gift that very few musicians have.”

Beat poetry and LSD

Part of the exhibition recreates the The band formed in 1965 from San Francisco musicians who were scraping to find gigs.  Kramer points to a remarkable San Jose newsletter from that era.

Their sound man in the mid-60s was Owsley Stanley, a notable producer of LSD when it was still legal.  Through him the band became acquainted with intellectuals and beat poets of the day.  That’s illustrated in a display of materials about Ken Kesey and Neil Cassidy.

“[Jerry][ Garcia and Bob] Weir were particularly generous in saying how important Neil Cassidy was to them. Part of it was as a writer but most of it was his approach to life. “

The exhibition features a lot of original album art as well as manuscripts for songs like “Box of Rain” and “Truckin.’”  It includes notable Jerry Garcia guitars with their own names like Wolf or Rosebud.

There’s a Mickey Hart drum kit and a dress worn by singer Donna Godchaux that are both seen in a concert film that plays overhead.

 In the 1990’s, record sales began to drop off for rock bands. But the Grateful Dead’s focus had always been on live shows and they did very well, picking up new generations of fans like Pied Pipers.  Kramer says the band was ahead of its time in reaching out directly to its fans.

The first social network? 

We have the hotline here.  You can actually listen to the West Coast hotline. There was no other group at the time that had a hotline.  There mailing list, the newsletters.

“They were the first band to have a presence on the internet in 1994:  There was no other group that has an internet presence prior to that.”

Young people are still discovering the Grateful Dead.  Kramer said he overheard a high school student talking the week the show opened:“ ‘Wow! I’m going to get into this. This is really cool.’   This is a person who’s 17 years old.  They never had an opportunity to see the Grateful Dead.”

The Grateful Dead exhibition at the Rock Hall is open through December.  Former singer in the band, Donna Jean Godchaux, performs at the Hall on July 7th.   

(Click image for larger view.)

Related Links & Resources
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Look up any concert at Grateful Dead official site

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