I've consumed rock & roll books by the truckload in recent years—and loved 'em all—but Living With the Dead, by Rock Scully with David Dalton, is the only one that had me guffawing from the start. (Scully was the road manager of the Grateful Dead in their first two decades and has especially colorful tales to tell of the early days.)
Having briefly lived and partied with these space explorers in their very early days I confess a certain bias towards the celebratory accounts of their exploits.
I can personally attest to their inspired and well-intentioned lunacy. Some band members were still novices on their instruments at the time, but the emerging genius was unmistakable. Reading-up on the Dead now reminds me that from a business perspective—my usual angle here—the Dead have been one the most influential rock & roll business teams in pop history. How, you say?
First, the Dead were continually and surprisingly inventive in their music. Different bands channel their originality in different ways of course. Some bands (particularly the Fab Four) wrote exceptionally innovative material. But with the Dead it was live performance that spotlighted the creativity. They refused to play the same song twice the same way, using it as a launching pad for extended, eclectic improvisation. In the process they pioneered a new musical entity: the jam band. As a result, their repeat customers got a different product each night.
The Dead made the performance a communal event, by deliberately allowing the audience members—many of them dancing like dervishes in tie-died hippie splendor—to play a key role in the overall show. The "spectators" were included in the spectacle. In a wonderfully reinforcing feedback loop, the customers became an integral part of the product that the Dead were delivering to the customers.
And the Dead introduced a "give-it-away-free" business model to the world of rock. They were one of the first major bands to regularly perform free concerts, but just as importantly they allowed free taping of their live shows.
They actively encouraged "tapers" (who could be any audience members) to record their performances, directly from the band's audio mixing board at times. And—as long as no one was profiting from the sale of these bootleg tapes, records, or dvds—the Dead encouraged the distribution of them.
You could argue that the now-common practice of free mp3 file-sharing had its genesis with this band decades ago.
The band I knew then was not taken seriously as a force to be reckoned with. Yet four decades later, in commercial and artistic impact the Grateful Dead have had few competitors. Hell, I still wear my Jerry Garcia ties.