When I was thirteen years old, in the late ‘90s, I spent innumerable evenings pouring countless hours into the AOL Grateful Dead forum. Slouched in a stiff wooden chair, stationed in front of the bulky, wheezing desktop computer in my family’s den, I hung out in 710 Ashbury, a chat room named for the San Francisco address where the Grateful Dead lived three decades earlier in a Queen Anne’s Victorian rowhome. My screen name was Deadbear13, and my friend list had grown long with deadheads of all ages who’d formed an online community after Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the Grateful Dead disbanded.
Deadbear13: It sucks I never saw the GD live. I was born 30 years too late!
Mntngrl52: Too bad, Deadbear13. I saw them 30 times
WharfRat69: 82 times here
CandyMan710: I saw them 129 times
The volume of shows those folks had seen spoke to untold years on the road, to bonds forged in parking lots and VW vans, to the nomadic community finding a home online. I, meanwhile, was a pubescent kid looking for a community of my own.
Behind me on a spare dresser sat my stereo and my music collection. That included a brown case full of bootleg cassettes I’d acquired by trading through the mail with these deadheads. Next to the case was my CD tower, stuffed with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Beatles—nothing contemporary, nothing found on MTV, which my brother, two grades older, watched all night in the adjacent living room, always a notch too loudly. But when Mom, who slept alone at the end of the hall, or I implored my brother to turn it down, he sniped back: You won’t hear it once you’re asleep.
Tensions ran high after the divorce, after Mom found out Dad, a hapless alcoholic, had a mistress. Now Dad lived in an apartment across town, in south Orlando, binge-drinking toward bankruptcy. In the house he conceded in the divorce, I played my music just loudly enough to drown out the MTV, but not so loud as to wake up Mom. That night, as the monitor’s gray-blue glow washed over my face, I had on a CD: the Grateful Dead’s 1969 double live album, Live/Dead.
By 1969, the Grateful Dead were the leaders of the San Francisco Sound, a rock subgenre that embraced the counterculture while encouraging band members to roam around in the rhythms, chords, and progressions. Combining a mélange of influences in American musical forms—Jerry Garcia steeped in folk and bluegrass, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the blues, Phil Lesh in formal jazz—the Dead had served as the house band for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during their mid-‘60s Acid Tests. The anything-goes ethos of those gatherings allowed the Dead to experiment with free-flowing musical improvisations while dabbling in mind-altering psychedelics, investing their blues with a free-ranging otherworldliness that fueled their live shows.
They made studio records: The Grateful Dead (1967), Anthem of the Sun (1968), Aoxomoxoa (1969), but none faithfully rendered the band’s live organic inventions. And after Aoxomoxoa, an eight-month acid-drenched experiment with newly invented sixteen-track technology, flopped, the band found themselves $180,000 in the hole to Warner Brothers. That same technology, however, would soon prove their saving grace. The Dead hauled that sixteen-track recorder to a string of their concerts in early 1969, patched the machine into the soundboard, and finally captured a mixable recording of their live sound. Live/Dead would become the first live rock album recorded with a sixteen-track machine. It sold well enough to pay back Warner Brothers.
The album’s opening emerges from a silence peppered with drifting guitar licks and bass notes. Those stray sounds soon snap into the musical motifs that structure the “Dark Star” jam, building toward Garcia’s thin-voiced cry: “Dark star crashes / pouring its light into ashes.” The lyrics themselves trace the borders of the musical nebula at hand, beckoning listeners through “the transitive nightfall of diamonds.” Meanwhile the Dead’s two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, accentuate the fog of star-stuff with bursts and echoes of rhythm while Bob Weir’s guitar chords morph the cloud of notes into constellations. The extemporized jam, then, embodies the theme of decay and rebirth established in the lyrics.
This marriage of form and content envelops the audience, folding them into the performance. Track two, “St. Stephen,” spins from side one’s stellar furnace like a newborn solar system, one housing its own legend and lore. While flitting between St. Stephen’s history, surroundings, and observations, Garcia sings of a “Lady finger dipped in moonlight / Writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky.” The lyrics look upward, toward the genesis of the stars while the song rushes forth into “The Eleven,” plying steadily to Phil Lesh’s jazzy bass and Kreutzmann’s kick-snare combo. The time shifts into 11/8. Each musician hammers through these burgeoning rhythms and progressions. Tom Constanten’s organ adds a bright, traipsing aspect to the snarls and bellows of the guitars and drums before, rolling into an interlocking group chant, the Dead bring the audience back to now: “Now is the time of returning…”; “Now is the time past believing…”; “Now is the test of the boomerang….” And when Garcia chimes in with “Seven-faced marble-eyed transitory dream doll,” the bounds of time and matter collapse into a force here and gone, real and not, live and dead.
Deadbear13: What’s a seven faced marble eyed transitory dream doll?
Truckin123: Drop some LSD, Deadbear13. You’ll figure it out.
I first encountered the Grateful Dead around the age of 12, at my buddy Alec’s house. His parents were music lovers, Woodstock attendees loyal to the Dead’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s sound. “Anything after Pigpen died in ’73 is really second-rate Dead,” Alec’s father Pete told me one day after realizing I was interested in his extensive vinyl library. Tall and lanky, a lifelong surfer with sun-bleached hair and a slow drawl, Pete pushed back his roller chair from the desk of his home graphic design office, pointed toward the other room and said, “Find Live/Dead. That’s their peak.”
Alec and I went digging. A minute later, Alec held up the faded, ruddy album. We marveled at the robed woman on the cover levitating over an open casket, waving a banner that read “DEAD” above elaborate calligraphy: “Live.” Across the back cover stretched the word “DEAD,” folded into an American flag, with the seven tracks listed along the bottom. Two records. Four sides. Seven tracks. My eyes bulged to see a twenty-three minute “Dark Star” filling the entirety of Side One. Side Two featured just two songs, “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven.” “Turn On Your Love Light,” at fifteen minutes, required the whole of Side Three, while side four included three songs: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Feedback,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”
Twenty minutes later, when Alec’s mom Tina came home with armfuls of grocery bags, she found us lying on the floor, absorbed in the spacey, thunderous improvisations of “Dark Star.” She smirked, reminded perhaps of her own first experiences with the Grateful Dead. Near the end of the song, Pete, knowing the album sides by heart, appeared just in time to flip the record.
Deadbear13: Live/Dead is suuuuuch a good album. I think it truly is their peak.
CaseyJones: Wise opinion, Deadbear13. Were you around to see them back then?
Deadbear13: Unfortunately no. I’m only 13! Papa Jerry died when I was 10….
CaseyJones: Wowow you’ve got an old soul, brother.
I loved when those deadheads talked about my “old soul,” even when I knew I was simply parroting Pete’s opinions. Now that I’m in my thirties, though, I’ll say it again: Live/Dead represents the group’s peak—or, at least the peak of the cosmic-jam, acid-blues Pigpen era. Side three flows from the outro of side two, but the content shifts dramatically. Here Pigpen steps to the fore to take on Bobby Bland’s 1961 swinging blues number, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and the Dead range through rollicking jams, drum solos, and Pigpen’s vocal rapping, pleading, “I don’t want it all, no, no, no, I just want a little bit.” The rendition re-situates the band’s material in traditional American music before Jerry Garcia leans into Reverend Gary Davis’s slow blues, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Garcia’s guitar regains that ripping embryonic growl from “Dark Star,” accented by Pigpen playing a delicately trilling organ. In “Feedback,” the instruments do more than growl—they blip and burp, cry and moan like gasses in a star nursery, reigniting the generative process. An a capella “And We Bid You Goodnight” closes out the album, opening an egress through which band and audience can exit this musical universe.
While my Live/Dead CD spun, I grooved in my chair, scanning line after line of chatroom scroll. As Deadbear13, I pitched in my early-teen insights—“R.I.P. Pigpen, gone too soon”—and reveled in the digital embrace of a community that taught me to hear the sounds, follow the music, navigate the parking-lot scene and dance pit of any concert in the Grateful Dead tradition. The AOL deadhead community buoyed me with belonging while my family broke apart.
But like the sound waves themselves, Deadbear13 couldn’t last. My screenname was outdated by the time I turned fourteen. Before long, Mom sold the house, unable to manage the upkeep on a public school teacher’s salary without child support. The three of us, plus our dog and two cats, moved into a two-bedroom apartment where the computer sat in the living room, offering no privacy. And then, when my online girlfriend of sorts, Hippiedom420, said she was travelling through Orlando with a crew of other deadheads and wanted to meet up, I realized I didn’t want to—I didn’t want to run away with the Dead. I wanted to be a teenager. Ahead of me were sports teams and dates and keg parties. So I grew into my teenage years while AOL fell out of favor, its chatrooms slowly clearing out.
I frequented the 710 Ashbury chatroom at its late-‘90s peak, just as the Grateful Dead captured their late-‘60s peak with Live/Dead. And that year I spent as Deadbear13 was a kind of peak for me, too, when I wanted nothing more than to have been born three decades earlier and built my life around the Dead. But Deadbear13 didn’t just fade away; he burrowed down inside me, huddled in my bones, manifested in my musical tastes and outward appearance, the tie-dye shirts and the white-boy dreadlocks I grew my sophomore year. That deadhead veneer provided me cover to duck away from the shouts and simmering tensions at home, the jocks and bullies and rich kids stalking the halls at school. Plus, donning that persona invested me with automatic social capital. I could be a cool kid just by adoring Jerry, smoking dope, playing the hippie. Deadbear13 helped me become the next version of myself—the one I relied on to navigate my teenage years.
Ultimately, the Grateful Dead would assume the next version of themselves, too. American Beauty (1970) and Workingman’s Dead (1970) would take decidedly acoustic turns and become two of their most beloved studio albums. In the ‘70s, when Keith Godchaux brought a new level of complexity to Pigpen’s spot as keyboardist, the Dead’s sound evolved into a jazz-rock fusion—a subgenre they rocked like none other. Pete may have been right that the Dead peaked in 1969, and I may have peaked as a deadhead at thirteen. But as the push-and-pull of death and renewal would have it, we can always peak again.