The Grateful Dead Are History’s Most Misunderstood Punk Band

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Aaron Lefkove’s Grateful Dead/Misfits/Black Flag/Descendents tattoo. Courtesy of the author.

If I have one claim to fame, it’s what I did on the night of July 9, 1995. The only recognition I’d ask for would be a T-shirt that says, “I went to the last Grateful Dead concert, and all I got was high from smoking weed out of a Milwaukee’s Best can and this lousy T-shirt.” The show itself wasn’t much to write home about, or at least that’s what the commenters on Archive.org say about it: selfimportantdeadhead, who gave the show two stars, says, “we all should have stopped buying tickets,” and basically blames Dead fans for Jerry Garcia’s death exactly a month to the day after the show at Soldier’s Field. Reviewer Let’s All Be Cheerful, contrary to the name, says, “[T]he set list is poop and the performance borderline embarrassing. Saying otherwise is akin to applauding for your child when he strikes out five times in Little League.” The same user then points out, “Which is perfectly okay,” because, “sometimes love trumps the truth.” I wouldn’t know, because I was acting like a punk-rock jerk during the entire show.

Good or bad, today I can at least utter the words that many attendees of famous and infamous Dead concerts can mutter: “I was there… man.” I was at the last Dead concert, and although today it’s something I casually mention with a hint of pride, in 1995, going to a Grateful Dead concert, for a kid who claimed to be punk, was like a scarlet letter on what little cred you had. But there I was — although I didn’t want to be — thanks to a birthday gift from my friend’s parents, both of whom had made pilgrimages to follow the band across the country since the 1970s, but could do so comfortably now, staying in hotels instead of camping in a field. Their son and I had been friends for years, but by the night of the show, I’d almost totally pulled away because, from what I gathered, punks and Grateful Dead fans couldn’t coexist; they were the oil and water of subcultures. It was something that, as a teen, I accepted without question.

Kurt Cobain’s “Kill the Grateful Dead” shirt

The Punk vs. Dead debate, however, would come to stand as one of the shining examples of how when I stopped thinking like a kid, I started realizing that not only were there bigger things to worry about, but the two worlds aren’t as far apart from each other as people have made them out to be. The Dead, in many ways, were punk long before people were giving themselves homemade Germs tattoos. They were the house band to the revolution; their greatest crime was really that they got old.

“I think punk kids have more problems with Deadheads than the Dead themselves,” Jesse Jarnow, author of the forthcoming book on the culture of the Dead’s fans, Heads (Da Capo, 2015), tells me. That’s something of a relief; I never really made it to true Deadhead status. I was, instead, a novice Grateful Dead fan who claimed to like their music, but most just owned a few T-shirts I purchased from the mall around the age of 13, and a “Greatest Hits” cassette tape from Target.

To the teenage version of me, the Dead and their community of fans — including a handful who went to my school: the good-looking stoner soccer players; the ex-cheerleader who was kicked off the squad after getting caught with a prescription bottle filled with weed; the guy with the hemp necklace that you could use to tie a small boat to a dock, who everybody knew sold her the weed — looked to an outsider like an easy enough community to break into. Because what were Deadheads? They were hippies, and hippies, I thought, were supposed to be friendly and welcoming to everybody. They basically had to be my friends, right?

That never happened. I’d nod at the handsome soccer captain as we walked down the halls, and he’d just stare at me, and inside I started to feel more unchecked rage than good vibes. My family life was crumbling before my eyes, I found myself unable to associate with classmates, and I started acting like some reject from the Holden Caulfield School of Angsty and Annoying Teenagers. So somewhat naturally, I drifted towards punk rock: I bleached and cut my hair, which I’d tried to grow out, traded the Dead for the Descendents, stopped hanging out with my old friend because all he cared about was hacky sack and talking about music like the Dead, or worse, Phish – the band christened as the Dead of my generation. None of his transition to hippiedom meshed well with my great ascension to punk rock, and leading up to my friend calling up to say his parents had purchased me a ticket to the fateful Dead concert, the gulf grew larger between us, created entirely by my snobbishness and shitty haircut.

Jarnow admits that the band’s sound might not be for everybody: “The Dead kinda sucked unless you were keyed in to their language,” he says. However, he does believe that beyond their obvious differences — “the music and the drugs” — punk and Deadhead cultures have plenty of things in common. He points out that both subcultures are, at their core, utopian and DIY, noting, “There’s also the shared notion between punk and Deadheads that their communities were outside the mainstream of American culture, standing in for alternative ideals bigger than themselves but acting as examples of how those ideals could operate.”

Jarnow is right. Although punk might look and sound dystopian to an outsider, for every wannabe Johnny Rotten carving an anarchy symbol into their school desk, there’s a counterexample of the utopian, communal spirit that has been part of punk since the beginning — everything from Penny Rimbaud starting the band Crass and the record label of the same name out of an open-house community to the Food Not Bombs movement and the DIY attitude that has started countless bands, as well as labels like Dischord and K, and countless shows in basements, garages, VFW halls, and wherever else punk bands can play.

Flash-forward to 2011: The Gospel of Anarchy, the debut novel by author Justin Taylor, takes a lot of punk philosophy and lends it to a fictional squat/cult called Fishgut. Today it’s one of the books I’d consider a truly quintessential punk novel, but at the time, as I got to know Taylor personally, there was something about his interest in the punk scene that bothered me for a split second: he was also a Dead fan. Even though I was 30 by then, something about that seemed off. But I shook my head, and put the juvenile “1. 2. 3. 4. Who’s punk? What’s the Score?” question to rest right away. This wasn’t high school, there were no punks vs. posers here; and besides, it was (and is) a great book, and Justin is a good guy and a great writer. What did I care if somebody likes the Dead and likes punk?

Since he was the last person to evoke those weird punk vs. Deadhead feelings, three years later, as I’m working on this piece, I email Taylor, who obviously knows a little bit about both worlds. I ask him what he thinks punks despise about the Dead (or their fans, according to Jarnow). He answers, “If you’re used to two-minute angry fast songs that are all chords, a song that takes 20 minutes to unfold and consists of lots of solos and instrumental interaction is going to seem insane. The Dead seem like hyper-emblematic of that mentality, for some obvious and fair reasons.” I remember having a similar thought as I stood in the middle of Solider Field on that muggy July night in 1995: this band is so fucking boring.

I was at another live show the night it was announced that Garcia had died of a heart attack in his room at a California rehab center. This one was noticeably smaller. There weren’t any burnouts in the parking lot selling bootleg “Steal Your Face” shirts, and the only hint of pot I could smell in the air came from a joint being smoked by the lead singer of a popular ska-punk band (this was 1995, mind you), standing in the alleyway behind the venue, preaching to a gaggle of enraptured young punks in their cut-off cargo shorts and screen-printed Flux of Pink Indians T-shirts.

“Jerry Garcia, man, punks need to understand he was a punk too,” the singer told his audience of a few kids who kept looking over their shoulders to see if other people cold see them hanging out with the guy who sung for the most popular band – at the time — in the Chicagoland area.

“Fuck you, hippie,” my friend yelled at the singer in question, launching a half-empty can of Coke at the guy whose band was about to headline the packed VHF hall where we stood. “Fuck the Grateful Dead,” he said to me, unaware of where I’d been exactly a month earlier. Afraid of what he’d say if I told him, I just nodded my head. “Yeah, fuck hippies,” I replied meekly.

I think of this particular sequence of events a lot these days, mostly because I’ve come to accept and appreciate the Dead once again in the last few years. I mainly listen to their live stuff, because, as any fan would tell you, that’s the gold; they just jam for however long they can stand for, and sometimes it’s great, and other times it’s garbage. The thing is, I’ll turn right around and listen to an ’80s hardcore band like SSD or something newer like Iceage or Destruction Unit, the type of stuff that I listened to when younger me told his friend that the Dead sucked, and laughed when that same friend showed me the patch he had sewed onto the back of his jean jacket that featured a crossed out Grateful Dead bear, with “Grateful When They’re All Dead” written above it. I’ve found some balance, and, ironically, it was punk and indie rock that led me back to the band that I had forsaken. The conclusion I’ve reached is that regardless of what anybody wants to say, the Grateful Dead were a punk band.

Even though it’s well known within punk circles, there is something strange about actually reading a quote from Greg Ginn, founder of Black Flag and SST Records, where he directly says, “My favorite band was always and still is the Grateful Dead.” Although Ginn reformed and has recorded under the name Black Flag (to very poor reviews) in the last decade, trying to imagine American music from the 1980s and onward without his influence is pretty much impossible. Aside from Black Flag (whose own importance to punk, hardcore, and metal is still being felt to this day) you have his record label, SST — it was an influence on Nirvana, American indie rock, and punk, stretching its arms to incorporate many different sounds. It is arguably the most important American record label of the 1980s and possibly the 1990s, and an unabashed Grateful Dead fan started it.

It’s not just Ginn who’s a proud punk Deadhead, either. There’s his onetime Black Flag bandmate Henry Rollins, as well as other musicians on the SST roster from Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth to the very jam-prone Minutemen. A few years ago, Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets talked about his own love for the band, how he and his bandmates had “thought [the Dead were] what we were going to be until Phish started getting all of the kids in tie-dyes.” According to Kirkwood, “right around the time we put out Monsters the Dead asked us to open for them. Unfortunately, somebody in the band vetoed it.”

Members of Pavement are Dead fans; Yo La Tengo have covered the Dead in their sets; and if you go back further, to around 1977, you have Television, the band that started the CBGB scene. Bryan Waterman, author of the 33 1/3 book on the band’s landmark album Marquee Moon, says that although Television “had enough sonic resonance with San Francisco psych bands to provoke comparisons to Quicksilver Messenger Service and even the Dead,” any comparisons to Garcia, Lesh, and co. were more often than not meant to be disparaging. Waterman points to critic Dave Marsh calling the band “the Grateful Dead of punk,” while Lester Bangs took shots at them because their songs were long and they improvised in their live sets.

Love them or hate them, though, there’s more than enough evidence to show that there’s plenty of Dead DNA in the punk sound. Their influence also manifests in contemporary indie: bands like Animal Collective and Akron/Family show distinct similarities to Garcia et al. So, most notably, do Woods, with their penchant for jamming live and on record, and their love for slapping the Dead’s skull logo onto tie-dye shirts and posting them up on their Instagram account.

So why do the band still invite ridicule? The thing is, as Jarnow points out, while the Dead were as aligned with revolutionaries and hippie freaks as a band like the MC5, who are today considered rock gods, they maybe blew their chance to carry some of that rebellion over to the next generation. He blames the fact that they had “the audacity … to not only survive the ’60s and ’70s, but to actually get more popular and more visible all the way until Garcia died in 1995.”

Grateful Dead contemporaries like Blue Cheer, 13th Floor Elevators, and the even more out there stuff that was orbiting around Frank Zappa have been able to get their names added into the list of “protopunk” groups on Wikipedia, a list from which “The Grateful Dead” is conspicuously absent. Jarnow suggests that some of these artists “had the good grace to neutralize themselves by getting slick and Christian (Santana), or getting slick and appearing on the Star Wars Christmas special (Jefferson Starship), or getting slick and turning all boring and classic rock-y (the Allmans), or getting all slick and deceased and pretty cheesy to begin with.” But, he adds, “the Dead got sloppier and continued to do drugs and fly their freak flags.”

Maybe it was something in the pot I smoked at that final Dead show with my friend, his mom, and some guy with dreadlocks who I remember telling me, “Man, punk’s cool. Whatever makes you happy,” but I sometimes think about what I’d say to a younger me if given the opportunity. I know I wouldn’t try to avoid too many of the mistakes that young me will inevitably end up making, because mistakes are what make us. I don’t know if I’d tell young me to steer clear of certain people or stay in the house on specific dates, but I would probably encourage myself to maybe revisit why I think I hate the Grateful Dead, and that punk isn’t worth losing friends over.

Hopefully I’d figure it out: the Dead might be deserving of my scorn only because they kept the party going far too long, but beyond that, they were really pretty much just insane musicians that took a boatload of drugs, and sometimes made some incredible noise, the likes of which I’d come to appreciate years later. I’d hopefully arrive at that conclusion a little earlier in life to understand that it isn’t really even about the Dead or their fans as much as it’s what they represent that allowed Don Henley, the only mellow Baby Boomer rocker more despised than the Dead, to sum it all up by singing about how he saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac in “The Boys of Summer.”

But I didn’t, and I guess I’m a tiny bit wiser now, because I’ve moved past everything and appreciate the band for their music. I’m able to listen to American Beauty the same way I’ve always been able to listen to and love albums by other products of the same ’60s musical universe, from Bob Dylan to Neil Young. I can chill out by putting on The Pizza Tapes, a 1993 recording of Garcia and friends jamming out bluegrass versions of Mississippi John Hurt and George Gershwin songs. And I could effortlessly go from listening a Mount Eerie record to a vintage live Dead set.

The Dead, their logo, their fans, and their music represent not proto-punk, but the failure of a generation — because, like Jarnow said, they tried too hard to keep it going. They got sloppy and they got sad; whatever message there was dissolved like an LSD-laced cube of sugar on a hungry tongue. They kept carrying that beat-up flag of ’60s peace, love, and dope, all the while looking like a bunch of sad dads who cashed the big checks at the end of the night. They became the embodiment of everything that went wrong with the 1960s, and their fans mindlessly followed them until the end looked like endless fields of psychedelic sheep. It was a fake, a sham, and Garcia was a dinosaur waddling towards extinction anyhow: but all of these things were really just accusations perfectly tailored for anybody that claims to be punk — especially a 15-year-old kid just looking to be a part of something.