Many bands build a strong fan base, but the Grateful Dead created a legion of them. Some still consider themselves Deadheads half a century after the band’s first concert in San Jose and 20 years after the death of founder Jerry Garcia, enough to warrant a farewell and reunion this summer.
The four surviving members will perform two 50th anniversary concerts in Santa Clara in June and three more in Chicago in early July. They promise to bring the Dead’s long, strange trip to a proper close.
Yet fans, scholars and others whose lives were shaped by the band contend that its legacy will live on. That’s especially true in Sonoma County, where Garcia and other band members left lasting footprints. The voluminous Grateful Dead archives are filled with Sonoma County references.
Garcia was a student at Analy High School when he won his first battle of the bands. Lyricist Robert Hunter wrote “Dark Star” in Rio Nido. The Dead were guest stars for June 1969 concerts at Santa Rosa’s Veterans Memorial Hall.
Drummer Mickey Hart went on to sink roots in Occidental, where he continues to experiment with music created from radio waves and brain patterns, as well as traveling with his Mickey Hart Band. Poster artist Stanley Mouse found his home in Sebastopol.
Garcia migrated to Marin County, where he died of a heart attack in 1995. Bass guitarist Phil Lesh settled in San Rafael and now runs Terrapin Crossroads, a restaurant and performance space. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir lives in Mill Valley and tours with his band, RatDog. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann lives on an organic farm in Hawaii and has written a memoir, “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.”
Deadheads and others whose lives were woven into the Grateful Dead larger legacy also have found their place in Sonoma County. Author David Dodd, archaeologist Breck Parkman, graphic artist Stanley Mouse, and photographers Ed Perlstein and Rosie McGee are among those who keep the band alive in a remarkable body of scholarship that includes extensive archives, academic research, memoirs, cultural treatises, websites, a syndicated radio show and, after 50 years, a thriving market for bootleg reel-to-reel tapes of the Dead’s free-form concerts.
Experts credit the enduring appeal to the Dead’s communal approach to life and music, and a spontaneity that was spawned by psychedelic drugs and sustained by a growing entourage of fans, vendors and support teams.
“They were a part of the American bohemian tradition,” said Nicholas Meriwether, Grateful Dead archivist at UC Santa Cruz. The appeal, he said, “was part of wanting to be free to define and redefine yourself.”
“A strong sense of community was there in the band’s DNA from the beginning,” said East Bay professor Peter Richardson. “Their impulse was to grow the tribe.” In “No Simple Highway,” his new history of the Grateful Dead, he documents the draw of a band that was based on restless creativity, artistic aspiration and egalitarian community.
One of the reasons dedicated Deadheads followed the band from concert to concert was that no two shows were the same, he said, a drastic departure at a time when even the most popular bands were required to recreate their hit studio recordings on the road.
“No show directly copied another,” Richardson said. “You could see them three nights in a row and never hear the same song, much less the same song done exactly the same way.”