Memorializing the Dead.

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.


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13 Comments

  1. Are you aware that the band, minus Garcia of course, is back at it again? Scully's book is pretty rough on some band members and it's not held in reverence by a lot of Deadheads, just so you know.

  2. I heard they recently played in Massachusetts. I've gotta see them one of these days. I read some harsh reviews of Rock Scully's book on Amazon - that he wasn't that big a fan of the Dead's MUSIC, even though he worked with them so long. I actually agreed with his assessments most of the time, but maybe I share his bias as a rock & roll (vs. jazz) fan. But I was more impressed with the Dead as people than as musicians - which I know sounds crazy.

    Reminds me of Beatles' engineer Norman Smith's recollections of the Beatles' EMI audition. Smith told me he wasn't impressed at all with the Beatles' music but he thought there was something special about them as people - their energy, their enthusiasm, their wit - that compelled him to recommend them to George Martin. I guess I felt the same way about the Dead in the early days. In time the musical talent of both bands caught up with their personal gifts.

  3. "Give it away free" is a great enrollment tool. This band did not worry about losing profit while so many others, both band and business, do. It is an interesting concept to ponder.

  4. Much as I've never been able to stomach their music, when we opened for them in '67 in Boston, they did seem like very nice guys. The audience didn't think much of them musically, either. Pigpen was still alive then, and he was the hippest guy in the band, in fact, the ONLY guy who could actually play blues. When they lost him, they lost the only legit player in the band, outside of their drummers I suppose, although the drummers kept playing that loose, sloppy, hippy-dippy groove all the time. Ugh.

    Anyways very intuitive about the band's future-think distro process. They were crowd-sourcing their music, it fed back directly from their fans, hence it was always going towards the lowest common denominator, which explains how awful it was. But way ahead of its time. Free distro, crowd sourcing, interactive performance, non-linear structure to the sets and music, this is all what's happening in media and the net in general now.

  5. They were also one of the first bands to have their own record label; they encouraged a community of side projects and related musicians; they took their music to places other bands didn't (e.g. they played at the pyramids in Egypt); they chopped and changed styles as the mood / muse took them, realising many fans would trust them come along for the journey, a few would leave and some more would join; they weren't afraid to acknowledge their country / bluegrass / jazz/ blues roots; and their tragic keyboard player problem foresaw Spinal Tap's drummer problem!

    I have a feeling that a lot of this was, at best, serendiptious and it's only since JG's death that the business side has really come together. That said, it's an example of an enterprise that has succeeded by staying true to it's beliefs and doesn't try to second guess what "the consumer" wants.

    Not as groundbreaking as Chuck Berry - the seminal figure in rock n' roll (that'll wind up John) - but a terrific group. And even if you're not a major fan, you must own their "Best Of" or, well, you're missing out big time...!

  6. K, I fondly remember Pigpen as the friendliest fellow in the group, but they were all unassuming and approachable. Crowd-sourcing they did, though their music was far from awful when I heard them - while I'd admit their jam band approach was looser than I'd prefer. Mark, I may quote your comment in the chapter I'm writing on the Dead. I forgot about their record label and their side musical projects. (Nowadays it's de riguer for musicians to play in multiple bands at the same time; then it was unusual.) And I agree that Chuck Berry was THE MAN who - with help from Elvis and a few others - got this whole thing started.

  7. i always liked the dead's jam thing but never realized they were pioneers in "free distro" and crowd-sourcing. most of the publicity the band got -- at least in the old days -- was related to the volume of hallucinogens they consumed.

  8. Mag, you're saying the Dead did drugs? How'd I miss that?

    One of the reasons I'm going to write about the band in my book (which I hope to complete in THIS lifetime) is because they WERE such pioneers - and not just artistically. I'm guessing the drugs were just another element of their free distribution model.

  9. Great post, John! Loved the personal history and analysis. I also absolutely loved the comments, informative and immediate. Thanks all--especially you, J. When will that book be out?

  10. Judith, I'm shooting for my book release to coincide with the next harmonic convergence - give or take a Mayan cycle or two. This was suggested by a Salem Massachusetts astrologist (who's also my financial planner).

  11. J - LOL!!! Now, that's too funny! I did say that I loved this post, eh? Looking forward to reading the book whenever it arrives. It's gonna be great!

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