over $100,000, after the entire batch sold out in mere minutes. There is hardly a vacant hotel room to be found in downtown Chicago that weekend. How is it that this band that didn't manage to place a single into Billboard's Top 10 until 1987's Touch of Grey (their only song to reach the Top 40 in Billboard's Hot 100 chart) has managed to build such a cross-generational following? Author Peter Richardson tries to answer this question by looking at the Grateful Dead in the context of their times.
Formed as The Warlocks in 1965, The Grateful Dead soon became the quintessential San Francisco band, with their initial self-titled album released in the March preceding the Summer of Love. Despite this album setting a precedent of poor sales, their appearances at Ken Kesey's acid tests and other events and theaters in northern and southern California earned them a reputation as THE live band for the drug culture. Eventually, they moved their operations outside San Francisco to Marin County in order to get away from the scene that they had helped create, which was now being overrun by outsiders.
Richardson focuses on the creation of the Haight-Ashbury scene from its early roots in art school students, folk musicians and writers and and shows how the members of the Grateful Dead fed off of these early ideas in the creation of their sound. While their albums never sold particularly well, the Dead were present at both Woodstock (where they refused to sell their movie rights, thus ensuring that they would not be seen in the successful film of the same name) and Altamont (where they refused to play, after hearing about the conflict between the crowd and the Hell's Angels - incidentally, a group with whom they had many close connections). Somehow their music continued to touch a nerve despite changes in its sound and the community of Dead Heads that followed them across the country grew.
One of the cultural threads running through the book is Reaganism, as he was Governor of California during the sixties - a position from which he decried the youth and drug culture - and then later as President he launched the War on Drugs, which ran contrary to a scene in which drugs were encouraged by both band and audience members. The Grateful Dead were never a political band though, instead trying to nurture a community that existed outside politics.
Also interesting are the Grateful Dead's link to early cyberspace, as Dead Heads would launch one of the first online communities, The WELL. The Dead's attempt to continue to nurture community even as they played larger venues was a challenge, but early newsletters, the trading of fan-made cassettes and cyberspace all allowed fans to connect, even when The Grateful Dead took their occasional touring sabbaticals.
Ultimately, while this book spends much time trying to sort out the cultural reasons behind the continued existence of the Grateful Dead's immense fanbase, it ends up being enjoyable simply as band biography. It's not a perfect book, as the balance between telling the story of a band and its followers and analyzing the world around sometimes coexist awkwardly. But if this summer's shows have got you salivating for anything Grateful Dead then this book is certainly a good one to visit before you pack your patchouli.
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