Limited Devotion: A Non-Deadhead's Guide to the Grateful Dead

Plenty of things make the Grateful Dead a band that should completely disinterest me: The marathon concerts, the unflinchingly loyal (and oft-lampooned) fanbase, the band’s surviving members attempting to keep the dream alive despite the decades-long absences of key players. And let’s not start on the noodling. Oh, the noodling. It would appear as though the deck is stacked against any likelihood of my being a ‘Deadhead.’

While I would not go that far in describing my relationship with ‘The Dead,’ I would comfortably describe myself as a fan. Am I as big a fan as my mother? I don’t think anyone could ever be. But could a band with such lasting appeal and wide-ranging influence really have nothing to offer to music lovers of my generation?

What I’ve found to be the best way to appreciate the Grateful Dead (the band) is to essentially forget about “the Grateful Dead” (the brand). As we approach the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, it’s becoming harder and harder for people under a certain age to recognize the Dead as anything more substantial than a cultural shorthand. Think of it this way: the day when people don’t realize that the Ramones or Nirvana were anything beyond words on a $30 t-shirt is already here. But this isn’t about them.

By the way, things may get rocky from here on out. Please keep an open mind.

Like any other band, the Dead’s catalogue has its ups and downs. For me, 100% of those ‘downs’ are the live albums. Longtime fans will tell you that the only way to properly experience the Dead was to see them live. A live album must be the next best thing, right? Not really. Live albums as a whole are dicey at best and the Dead’s legendary concerts just don’t translate that well to recordings.

Sure, there might be that one show where Jerry had a head cold and Bob had to sing all his parts, or maybe you were in the crowd at a show that wound up on Without A Net. Personal context is great for the people who experienced those performances firsthand, but a newcomer isn’t going to find much to latch onto in an endless loop of “Drums > Space > Drums.” (As an aside, one of my favorite Dead-adjacent releases is, oddly enough, the 1991 self-titled double live album by the Jerry Garcia Band. But this is not about them, either.)

Instead, I’d encourage the unfamiliar (or otherwise resistant) to stick exclusively to the Grateful Dead’s studio output. The constraints of a recording studio, not to mention the finite amount of tape at their disposal, helped to wrangle the Dead’s exploratory tendencies into more concise doses. Even then, Dead albums can be extremely hit-or-miss. I’m personally fond of American Beauty, Terrapin Station and From The Mars Hotel, and even each of those has at least one song I’d skip. Now, I realize that those three albums don’t give a full representation of the styles the Dead tried out, but I think they give a proper overview of what the Dead did best.

American Beauty is frequently cited as being the height of the band’s studio efforts, and it’s plenty deserving of that honor. After dialing their psychedelic freakouts down a few notches at the end of the ’60s, the Dead showcased their songwriting chops with this album. The largely acoustic arrangements are warm and welcoming, and the songs’ relatively brief running times keep American Beauty from being too monolithic.

Terrapin Station is the dark horse of my recommendations, as it’s one of the band’s more experimental moments. Thing is, where other albums feature loose jams that run the risk of going nowhere, Terrapin (its side-long title track, especially) is not improvised, it’s orchestrated. That makes all the difference, as the song goes from movement to movement in a thrilling rush of strings and over-processed guitars. To that end, save for the lurching, reggae-inflected opener “Estimated Prophet,” the album’s first side is largely forgettable. All that’s to say that the Dead were never a perfect band. But it’s those very missteps that make them more approachable, more human.

From The Mars Hotel falls somewhere in the middle, literally and figuratively. Released in ’74 and featuring a smattering of free-roaming and more rigidly structured songs, the album has an overarching laid-back feel that is hard to resist. The snide, giddy “U.S. Blues” and the dreamy “Ship Of Fools” bookend the album, and though the it might not contain the band’s most iconic songs, From The Mars Hotel is a transitional album that stands up surprisingly well on its own.

In my opinion, the legacy of the Grateful Dead has worked against the band as often as it’s work in their favor. I’d argue that countless other bands, some of them peers, some of them descendants, do or did what the Dead did just as well, if not better. For throwback rock rave-ups, I’m a CCR kinda guy. And I like to think that Jerry would really dig the organic experiments of Brooklyn’s Woods.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind about the Grateful Dead. Whether you like them a lot, a little bit or not at all really doesn’t matter to me. With these thoughts, I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s favorite band, and I certainly don’t mean to hurt any feelings. What I do hope to do is make you think critically about any art that you hold dear, and what makes that connection so strong. And consider which has longer staying power: the music or the myth.

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