As the Grateful Dead commemorate their 50th year in existence, a few passionate fans have shared how they experienced the band's magic for the first time, how it's affected their lives, and which beloved songs still shine.
"The Grateful Dead inspired me to dance, be colorful, take chances, fall in love, explore the West, be kind to strangers, believe in miracles, and embrace the beauty and weirdness in all of us.
"On a plane to Europe in the summer of 1997, I sat next to a businessman who inquired about the Phish tape I was listening to on my Walkman. He asked if I liked the Grateful Dead, and I said I respected them, but didn't really dig their music. From his briefcase he pulled two well-loved San Bernardino 2/26/77 Dead tapes and gave them to me.
"Several months later, shut out of a Phish show and waiting for my friend, I sat alone in my car and listened to those tapes for the first time. The Grateful Dead have been my favorite band ever since, through the happiest and hardest of times, with recordings like Dick's Picks Vol. 6: 10/14/83, Dick's Picks Vol. 18: 2/3/78, Reckoning, So Many Roads [1965–1995], and especially Jack-A-Roe from the Complete Studio Rarities Collection.
"If you're out there, businessman: thank you."
"My three years at summer camp in Maine were not my social apex, but it was a great time in both my life and in being alive, because I had a MiniDisc boom box that could rip CDs. I had forsaken saving any money and, instead, invested heavily in blank MiniDiscs — and amongst my rips was Skeletons From the Closet. I made a lot of decisions about what music I liked that summer, and one of the biggest was digging that greatest hits.
"I don't think it's unfair to say that the group the Dead get the least compared to, but deserve the most, is Led Zeppelin. When the Dead's songwriting is on point, you're singing along to near-nonsense and chanting because it's great arena-level anthem rock. You hear 'St. Stephen,' and you want 20 more minutes of it — you wouldn't be annoyed if they kept playing it.
"People who dig the Dead seem to dig all kinds of music, much more so than any other group of fans I know. There are Deadheads EVERYWHERE. It makes you feel all right to like something that's the outlier. I've found so much incredible music through people who I first interacted with over the Dead."
"I knew I was in for life at The Philadelphia Convention Center in 1974. The music was transcendent, but the subtle messing around the band did with the audience was both mystical and humorous.
"The ceiling of the convention center had antique glass panes. They placed colored lights behind the glass in the ceiling and, at intermission, they changed all the colors of the glass (of course remotely somehow). Needless to say, when the audience realized that the ceiling had changed dramatically, there were those that knew they were screwing with us, while another large contingent simply thought Jerry Garcia was God...and he had made the change on their behalf.
"This band has brought me great happiness and brought many of my closest friends together...for decades. Still does. Just turn on 'China Cat Sunflower' into 'I Know You Rider' from Europe '72. Never disappoints, and even today cannot be matched by anyone in a live environment."
"During my senior year of high school, an incarnation of the Dead (most likely The Other Ones) was touring with Bob Dylan, and they were coming through Columbus, OH. My buddy and I were scheduled to take the SATs the day that tickets went on sale. I believe the on-sale was 12 noon, which gave us maybe 20 minutes to get home to a computer before the on-sale happened. I remember being overly caffeinated, rushing through each section like it didn't matter. Like nothing mattered but getting those tickets... I mean, it was Dylan and the Dead.
"We got to the final section of the test around 11:15 in the morning — and it was a composition analysis of an interview with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. No joke. We finished the exam, the bell rang, we hopped in my friend's car, drove our asses off, and scored four tickets with ease. We didn't do too poorly on the SATs, either.
"There are so many things that make a group like the Dead so dynamic and give them such a prolific legacy. Regardless of when and what, they always represent something unique that the rest of the music community can't replicate. They're the most punk rock band of all time, solely because they're proof-point evidence that you can do it yourself on a mammoth scale without the need for a major label influence. I mean, having Bill Graham in your corner couldn't hurt — that man's legacy is just as punk rock as the Dead's."
"The summer before I went into eighth grade, my neighbor's older sister — who was a bonafide Deadhead (she'd seen them TWICE!) — used to cart us around town. And, on our way to the pool, the mall, friends' houses, etc. we'd listen to Skeletons From the Closet. That summer, I fell in love with 'Mexicali Blues' (from Ace) and 'St. Stephen' (from Aoxomoxoa). Later that year, she let me borrow a couple of tapes from her collection. One was Cornell '77, and the other was a show in our hometown in '87. After that summer, I couldn't go more than a week or so without listening.
"Veneta, OR 8/27/72 is essential — the boys (and girl) were at the peak of their powers upon their return from Europe. Every song, old and new, has been thoroughly tested, stretched, bent, deconstructed, and put back together, and they deliver every performance with the heart of a band that has everything to lose. If you're not in love with the Grateful Dead after listening to that show (or watching Sunshine Daydream), then the Dead are probably never going to be the band for you...
"The Grateful Dead created a community that remains a textbook example of the American Dream come true. Their story is one of dreams achieved through hard work, perseverance, a little love, a lot of faith, and a lot more ingenuity. I try to apply this to every aspect of my life and art. I've found that, when I do, I'm a lot happier and a lot more successful. Must be something to it, I guess."
"As a high school kid, the Grateful Dead were a gateway band for me, opening up doorways to so many other artists I would grow to love. They were the first band I really experienced the joy of fully nerding out over, from fan mythology to digging into collaborations, band history, etc. With no cool older siblings to guide me, being able to access pretty much any music I wanted via MP3 sharing — even if much of it was out of context or chronological order — took me down a lot of baby Deadhead rabbit holes. The Dead were a refuge from pop punk, commercial bro country, rap rock, and other questionable high school choices...
"After college, I went to work in the music industry and, around that time, my 22-year-old self got the idea that it wasn't 'cool' to like the Dead in an industry where cool points are often the currency of choice. Young and eager to impress my hip music industry peers, 'jam' became a dirty word. Surely, no one would take me seriously about noise, punk, or experimental indie records if they also knew I liked the Dead!
"I'm so glad I reached a point where I stopped caring and realized how ridiculous it was to care whether or not it was 'uncool' to publicly gush over a band that had such a profound influence on my own musical development and an impact on so many current bands of all genres. I've spotted Grateful Dead gear on emerging bands like Wolf Eyes and Pinecones and on hardcore dudes, garage rock taste makers, etc. — bands and fans you wouldn't necessarily expect. It's a fun club to be in, and one I'm glad would have me back.
"There's something really joyous about the Dead, and I think people often confuse joyous or carefree with unintelligent or lacking depth. How exhausting it must be to take oneself so seriously. Everyone likes something that some other people don't. Isn't that something that makes music so fun to talk, think, and write about? Wave that flag, and press play on this guide to getting to know the Dead if you don't know where to start."
"I was 15 when I received my first Grateful Dead tapes. The first one had two incomplete sets from 1966 (7/16 & 7/17) live from the legendary Fillmore... I remember the tapes reeked of Nag Champa, and neatly written in blue ballpoint pen was something new — songs unknown beyond the copy of Skeletons From the Closet lifted from my mother's collection. It just took a little taste to open the floodgates, and it didn't help that the soundboards of the historic Live / Dead run from late February and early March 1969 appeared in the mailbox next.
"Going to a liberal patchwork and tie-dye college in upstate New York during the late 1990s only deepened the waters. As soon as I got on campus, the levee exploded, and new friends were made via tape exchanges and geeked-out conversations occurring in circles on the common. Before I knew it, a group of friends and I were avidly catching as many Dead and Phish shows as we could up and down the East Coast. It was all kind of surreal as it happened all so quickly with an open car door and a high five. Some of my best friends in life were made from these adventures, and one is even coming with me to the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago to create a new chapter.
"I'm a sucker for anything 1968. The band was at their rip-roaring, acid freak-flag best — especially during the Winter 1968 tour. If you hear anything from January or February, you will have your mind blown wide open. I also pinpoint some wild jams in Dead Notes, a column I write that surveys the years 1965–74!"
"My father and uncle lived in San Francisco in the late '60s/early '70s. They had quite a few Grateful Dead albums I uncovered from their collections at a young age. The instant I heard 'St. Stephen' > 'The Eleven' from the Live / Dead record, I was hooked — and those are still my two favorite Dead songs to this day.
"Veneta, OR 8/27/72 '72 — aka the Complete Sunshine Daydream Concert — really encompasses all of what made that era so special; it has everything that the Dead did, and did very well. The recently remastered formal version of the show and accompanying film both sound stellar. 'Dark Star' is mind melting, and you can really lose yourself in it — but the most compelling song from the show is the cover of Merle Haggard's 'Sing Me Back Home' in set III. They played it a good bit in this era, but this version in particular is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt pieces of music I've ever heard. Who else but the Grateful Dead could play a somber, slowed-down tune at the end of a full-day concert and achieve pure psychedelic bliss? NO ONE! ⚡️✌️🌹
"I never saw the Grateful Dead. Born too late, I never will see them, and I'm OK with that — I have seen countless shows with the surviving members of the band since the late '90s, and their impact is everlasting. I love, live, and breathe live music, and I owe so much of that to this band. On July 3, 2015 — my 30th birthday — I'll be with my best friends and family in Chicago hearing the music we all love so much, singing and dancing together. In that moment and throughout the weekend, you won't be able to wipe the smile off of my face if you tried — well, maybe when they play 'Brokedown Palace,' and I cry... but I guess that's a testament to how powerful it all is."