Out of the hundreds of thousands of bands that attempt to hit it big, only a small percentage even make it to the radio waves. Even fewer still get an album released and find enough promotional opportunities to get a tour under way. Then, the luckiest of the lucky gain the notoriety and fame they are searching for, but there still lies one label, one classification that takes more than talent, more than luck, more than anything you can actually plan for to achieve, legends. Of the musical acts who can claim such a title, The Grateful Dead hold a particular place because they not only created fans for generations, but an entire cultural movement.
The Grateful Dead FAQ by Tony Sclafani is an encyclopedic account of the history of the jam band to end all jam bands. From a breakdown of every album made to a year-by-year list of the shifting membership, this book will give exquisite detail to the lifelong Deadhead, while also providing a huge door to those just getting started. It’s like a Wiki-Dead-a-Pedia.
In a moment of total honesty, I’ll admit that I am not and never was a Deadhead (the term coined not only for those devoted fans who traveled around the country following the band on tour, but all fanatics.) I grew up around some cousins who were, and still are, but my experience with The Grateful Dead was limited to their brush with pop fame in the mid-80’s when they released the music video for “Touch of Gray”. That song introduced them to a whole new generation of fans, but this book points out there was a vicious downside to their newly increased reach into the youth culture.
During their rise, the foundation of the Deadhead culture came together around peace, love and psychedelic drugs, but most of the all the music. They shared it through tapes they recorded of nearly every show ever played by the band. The Dead were also one of the first bands ever to not only authorize the recording of their shows by fans, but created a whole section in their audience specifically for them. But after a movie documenting the laid-back party atmosphere which appeared in every parking lot outside their concerts, it was incorrectly assumed by newly reached fans that the tailgating festivities were the main thrust of why the people traveled from across the country to be there. The parties got rowdier, drunker and meaner, causing the whole thing to temporarily implode on itself.
Beyond the fan base and their many forms, this books also tracks the band members and the trial and travails they endured during their legendary run. At one point Jerry Garcia, the leading creative force and famed frontman, fell into a four-day coma, after which he had to relearn how to play the guitar. Other members, including Garcia, also dealt with increased and dangerous levels of drug use which at first was thought to expand their musical range and experimentation, but in some cases proved to do exactly the opposite.
Sclafani strives at some points to defend the Dead from themselves and their actions. Writing extensively on why albums thought to be flops or lesser achievements by fans and critics were actually hidden gems and important moments in the musical growth of the band. Their could be a debate over whether this is the cries of a devoted fan trying to protect the stained-glass imagery of his beloved band, but in retrospect art appreciation is always in the eye of the beholder and Sclafani beholds the Dead quite highly, even in their missteps.
The Grateful Dead FAQ is not a quick read by any means, but for those fans out there who want to really dive deep into the reality and nitty-gritty of everything there is to know about this historical musical collaboration, you can’t get much better than this.