Fare Thee Well, The Grateful Dead…

A long read about the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary shows, their remarkable fans, and what happens next...

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Forty-three miles from San Francisco, Santa Clara does not feel quite like a spiritual home of The Grateful Dead. Larry Livermore, who saw the Dead at least 25 times before becoming a key player in the Bay Area punk scene and discovering Green Day, describes the city as “basically the Milton Keynes of Silicon Valley”. “I saw them in many places; parks, dancehalls, at Woodstock,” he says, “but I think I might have drawn the line at Santa Clara.”

This, though, is more or less where the Dead began, growing up in nearby Palo Alto and working their way through local pizza restaurants and music stores until Ken Kesey’s acid tests led them into San Francisco itself. In David Browne’s new Dead biography, So Many Roads, he describes a night in 1962 when Jorma Kaukonen, soon to form Jefferson Airplane, arrived at Santa Clara College from his home in Washington DC. On Kaukonen’s first day on campus, Browne writes, “he wandered into a folk club and met Garcia and a young, throat-shredding Texas transplant named Janis Joplin.”

In the intervening 50-odd years, much has changed in the area. “When Jerry was growing up, what is now Silicon Valley was all fruit groves,” says Dennis McNally. “In the Dead’s lifetime, it has become one of the economic engines of America and, in fact, the world. It encapsulates the history of the last 50 years, 75 years.”

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Bucolic hippy innocence, evolving into digital idealism, maturing to technocratic capitalism in its most intense form: it’s a neat summary of the journey undertaken by at least some of the Dead’s followers. The band’s fans were early mainstays of online messageboards, while Steve Jobs and his partner at Apple, Steve Wozniak, McNally notes, were formative Deadheads (Wozniak promoted an ’80s festival headlined by the Dead; Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell, is reportedly present at the Santa Clara show).

It’s a transformation that some will also see as of a piece with the mainstream compromises made by the Dead in the latter stages of their career, and by the organisers of Fare Thee Well. The Levi’s Stadium, for instance, is not the most idyllic of venues. When the band had growth spurts in the mid-’70s and ’80s, however, such vast spaces became their home for most of the summer months. “Jerry once complained about playing a stadium show because he felt he had to make the music cartoonish,” says McNally. “Very broad gestures. I remember a band meeting in December 1985, in which the band sat and agreed, rather stonily and with some regret, that they would have to do stadium shows because of the demand. It was not a joyful decision.”

Kreutzmann, true to form, is equally sceptical in Deal, complaining about how the lack of nuance in stadium shows made them “safe… and safe equals boring.” Ominously, he also takes some perverse pride in listing all the significant gigs that his band messed up through their original career. “Just like at Monterey Pop and all the other big shows,” he writes, referring to their performance at Woodstock, “the Grateful Dead blew it.”

Back at the tie-dye stall on Shakedown Street, however, Karen is philosophical: “Yeah, we all wish they’d done it the old way where the tour ‘Heads got the first shot at the tickets, we all wish it was a smaller venue. We’re all gonna complain and bitch, but this is all we’re gonna get. Part of me thinks we should all just shut up and get over it.”

 Heads up! Next month’s Uncut – on sale July 28 in the UK – comes with a FREE GRATEFUL DEAD CD: our historic attempt to piece together the album that should have followed “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty”…

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