“Dead Heads”. Better known as the dread-lock having, tie-dye wearing, LSD-using, loyal fans of The Grateful Dead. I had heard about their fanbase before, mostly through the TV show Freaks n’ Geeks which ends with the main character leaving her life behind her to follow the Dead on tour, but it didn’t make me want to do the same thing…yet.
I got into the Grateful Dead last year. I listened to their hits like “Friend of the Devil” and “Touch of Grey” before that, but last year over the summer while driving around in Post Grad Life I ended up tossing their music on shuffle quite a bit. Their psychedelic, folk, country, rock blender bowl discography of music was perfect for long drives with the windows down (especially when fatigued by the popular trap music that constantly bombarded my ear holes).
I started to like more of their songs and regularly played “The Grateful Dead Radio” on Apple music. I had heard their music changed people’s lives back in the day, and I knew John Mayer toured with the remaining members as Dead & Co., but I still was seeing it as a pretty good band with a cool logo…but then I had the privilege of attending their show last weekend. That was when they went from a band, to a full blown lifestyle. A lifestyle that’s seducing me in like a sexy mermaid would a fat hairy sea captain in the 1800’s.
I bought tickets to the show with some friends a few weeks ago. We were all excited because we listened to the music together when we were in the car together, we had heard people liked to get crazy before, and it was at Gillette stadium: an awesome venue. That was basically all I was expecting though, just a good time. But what I found was an entire community of people who had dedicated a HUGE portion of their lives to following this band. How did they create such a big following? Well, there’s a number of reasons.
1.) The Brand
You could teach an entire semester long marketing class on The Grateful Dead’s branding. It’s truly incredible how they’ve incorporated their visuals, logos, merchandise and more into their music and fanbase and how well it encapsulates their brand. Just as Jimmy Buffett has created a homogenous fan base of margarita-drinking dads in Hawaiian shirts called “Parrot Heads”, the Grateful Dead has a fan base of smelly hippies wearing ratty tie dyes covered in teddy bears and skeletons, and I loved every second being surrounded by them.
Artists follow the band on tour from stadium to stadium, setting up their shops in the parking lots all in a row. They all set up tents, cars, grills, coolers, and whatever else they want to sell in a big area they call “Shakedown Street”, in reference to A Grateful Dead album of the same name. A dude in the row in front of me at the concert was maybe 60 something years old and said after his first Grateful Dead concert decades ago he just decided to follow them around selling T-Shirts. He was also passing doobies around to everyone in the stands. The man was a legend, needless to say. Some people sell iron-on patches, some people sell hats, some people sell beers and grilled cheeses, some people sell essential oils, some people sell wooden carvings, some people sell merch out of converted buses, like this guy.
Their brand is the coolest thing ever. Everyone knows the most fashionable man on the planet right now is Jonah Hill, and what’s arguably his most iconic outfit? This one.
And do you happen to know what that T-Shirt is? That’s right, it’s the 1992 Lithuanian Men’s National Basketball Team Jersey.
Yup. The Grateful Dead read about Lithuania’s independence and economic struggles in a 1992 newspaper article and felt inspired to help them out. So they had someone design tie dye shirts of a skeleton (known as “Skully”) and donated $5,000 and all the profits of the shirts to the team and a Lithuanian children’s fund in order to support them as they rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s oppression. And guess what? New versions of the Skully jerseys were used in the following 2 Olympic Games AND Skully is the only cartoon character to be enshrined in ANY sports hall of fame….no normal band has that kind of reach.
But besides a foreign country’s basketball jerseys that Jonah Hill finds stylish, their other merch is awesome. Whether it’s the lightning bolt, the banjo-playing turtles, the colorful teddy bears, the dancing skeletons, or the iconic big-headed skull, their brand is covered across millions of cars, t-shirts, skateboards, refrigerators and anything else you can imagine across the U.S. And, it all looks rad as hell. Just look at some the stuff me and my friends got.
A nantucket red hoodie with a lil bolt on the front? Cozy, stylish, durable, can’t be beat.
A sweet colorful tie-dye with all the tour dates on the back? Sign me up.
A yellow hat with a conga line of teddies struttin’ along on the front? GAS.
There is so much going on in this shirt and I love. An amusement park with Teddy bears and skeletons ridin’ round a coaster. I’m surprised the bears were even tall enough to ride! Not to mention there’s a portal to another entire sky coming out of the yellow skull in the background. Crazy stuff. Anyone tripping balls is gonna eat this bad boy up.
And look at this assortment. Just electric. Take it all in. This was only like 1/15,000th of the options you could get between the official merch and the back-alley artists selling tees out of a 1998 Honda Odyssey.
This stuff alone would’ve got me in the doors to see this band, but they obviously bring so much more to the table.
2.) The Music
The next reason the band has such a crazy following, and probably the most important reason, is the music. It was indescribable. I mostly listened to the studio versions of their songs like an absolute IDIOT before the concert. If you’re going to dive into these guys after reading this do yourself a favor and only crush the live albums. They go on crazy solos, they add extra instruments, and the crowd’s energy adds so much to it. When we were listening to them perform you could just see thousands of people swaying along to songs, dancing like maniacs, and playing a TON of air guitar. The saying “dance like no one’s watching” had never rang so true. Everyone looked INSANE, but there was no judgments. You were allowed to be crazy. Why? Because when the boys start jamming, it is impossible not to let the music possess you. Let me tell you something.
And I’m not talking their songs are “slappers” like the way you’d describe an Ariana Grande song, I’m talking they SLAP guitars and bass for like 20 minute stretches. I left at the beginning of a song, went to the bathroom, grabbed a beer, and came back to my seat and the SAME SONG WAS ON. I mean, these guys just love playing music and showing off how good they are at it. John Mayer is moving his fingers up and down the neck of the guitar solo-ing like an absolute BOSS. Which brings me to the next point as to why I’m gonna leave the life I’ve built behind to follow these guys on tour full-time.
3.) John Freaking Mayer
F**k John Mayer. This guy is the absolute worst. He just sets the bar for coolness WAY too high. The man has dated some of the hottest women in the world, he’s handsome as hell, he’s funny, he has a talk show, he’s got great style, he’s a an angelic singer AND to top it all off he’s most likely the greatest guitar player in the world right now. The guy has it all. I am so deeply jealous of him it’s almost scary. I wanna follow the band around solely because it will increase my chances the slightest bit into meeting this man and having a lil’ pinch of his swagger rub off onto my chubby unimpressive body. Me and the groupies are gonna rush the stage and try to lick your face Johnny boy, why? Because the Dead Heads are a passionate group of people, which is another reason I’m devoting my life to Dead-ism.
4.) The Community.
Everybody at the concert was incredible in their own right. There were gypsy women selling big ass crystals told to have healing powers, there were several people who brought their own instruments and were playing their own music around Shakedown Street, and there were a bunch of old dudes walking around with big smiles on their face like it was the 70’s and they were sticking it to the man…and (not to sound like Post Malone parody account on twitter) there were just good vibes all around. These people ruled. They were all so weird, but in the best way. Everyone had different tie dye shirts on, many with holes because they must have worn it for all of the 40+ shows they’ve been to. Everyone was so friendly, asking how many concerts they’ve been to or how long they’ve been a fan for. But you can also see that once you go to a Dead show, you’re in.
One of the cool things we saw were people walking around holding one finger in the sky. We didn’t know what it meant until eventually someone told us it was a sign for “I need a miracle”…aka, they came to the show but don’t have a ticket. These people wanted to go to the concert so bad they came all this way without a way inside but took the chance anyway because it’s worth walking around the tailgate, hanging with the community, and trying for that “miracle” of seeing the dudes perform.
One of the other cool aspects of the Dead Heads is the balloons they float at the tailgate. It’s a way for sober people to flag down and meet up with other sober people who used to use drugs and listen to the Dead, that now want to do it sober. It’s such a sweet supportive gesture and really shows that despite how heavily drugs are associated with the band, the music really is what drives their love them at the core. But, that being said….drugs are a huge reason anyone would follow these guys around the country.
5.) The Many, Many Drugs
If you couldn’t tell by the rainbow teddy bears dancing around in all their merch, the Grateful Dead has DEEP ties in psychedelic drugs. And if it’s not psychedelics, it’s something else. Literally everyone is on something. I even saw a girl that couldn’t be older than 9 walking around sipping a PBR like it was a Capri Sun. The minute you get to Shakedown Street people are trying to sell you molly, LSD, weed, acid, shrooms, coke and any other kind of drug you can imagine putting in your body. There were even giant tanks of nitrous in the middle of the parking lot filling up whip-it’s for those looking to freeze their brains. I shouldn’t have to say this, because they are usually massive sweaty men with scraggly beards and missing teeth that look like they came out of a Law And Order episode, but DON’T BUY ANYTHING FROM THESE PEOPLE.
You can tell the people who came after smoking a lil’ bit, or the people who had a few beers, but some of these people were so absolutely gone it was almost adorable. They were so blissfully unaware of the people around them thinking they looked absurd. They’re like toddlers with ice cream all over their face, except instead of four year olds they’re sixty and instead of ice cream on their face it’s poop in their pants. Do whatever drugs you want but I’d suggest hitting up that stoner kid from your sophomore year of high school biology class before you bought it off of the radioactive Steve Buschemi pacing around the parking lot with a Jansport.
There you have it folks. Those are the 5 driving factors in making me want to put this whole damn town in my rearview mirror and follow these guys on tour. And keep in mind, it’s 2019. They’re not even technically the Grateful Dead anymore. I’m sure they have a long career ahead of them too if Bob Weir continues to be this SHREDDED.
Look at that golden god. The man’s 71 and he still blew my mind sonically. Imagine if I saw them in the 70’s or 80’s when Jerry Garcia was still slapping too? In the height of the hippie era? And if I didn’t have a stable job or family that cared about my well-being? I wouldn’t even be typing this because I’d be screen printing T-Shirts in the back of a VW bus with my new girlfriend named MoonBeam who doesn’t shave her armpits high as hell off DMT.
So yeah, if you’re a recent Dead fan as well or if you went to one of the shows, hit me up soon because God knows I might be tossing all forms of social media out the window when I commit my life to being a Dead Head.