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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.

Communal approach

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.”

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As a result, concerts weren’t always good. Some were bad, but no one cared because they were spontaneous.

“That also invited a different kind of participation from the fans,” Richardson said. “There were no spectators. Everybody was part of the show. The fans felt that they were not just witnessing the show, but that they were helping complete the show through their own participation.”

The musicians also were stimulated by the process, Hart told The Press Democrat in 2013. “The Grateful Dead never even had a set list. Once we were out of the cage of the studio, we were able to make each of these songs come alive again. That’s what I looked forward to.”

Meriwether describes the band’s sense of community as “driven by wanting to have every aspect of their work, their art, their craft to be as good as possible. They felt they were practicing the creation of art in the moment.”

Band members also recruited the talent they needed from among the tribe rather than hiring experts, he said. “That sense of community was very much rooted in the realization that people have different skills and talents.

“So, for example, when they realized in 1965 and 1966 that they really needed to develop and refine their recording techniques, they tapped friends — and friends and friends — and brought them into the circle and used their talents.”

Rosie McGee, until recently a Cotati resident, was among them. She lived with Lesh for four years and continued to travel with the band for a decade, making travel arrangements in addition to taking photos. She remembers the ‘60s and ‘70s as a young, naive time that people believed was a new age. In keeping with the times, she said, band members believed that things should be free, including tapes of their performances.

They focused on the joy of live performances rather than making records and, over time, developed a spontaneous improvisational style, seeming to communicate almost telepathically. “They called it the group mind,” she said.

Drugs were an intrinsic part of the experience, one that McGee says can’t be ignored. “Everyone was getting high as part of the experience,” she said, transforming it in a way that amplified the creativity but was different for everyone involved.

Five-hour minimum

Grateful Dead concerts were among the longest of any band’s. “Their contracts stated that they must be allowed a minimum of five hours, which evenly matched the length of an acid trip,” said Perlstein, who photographed the band’s concerts. “It was a great pairing with the music’s improvisational nature, you could freely move, and the music allowed you to work with the drug.”

Drug and alcohol abuse eventually took their toll, also becoming a part of the band’s history. Keyboard player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan developed cirrhosis of the liver and died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage in 1973 at his Corte Madera home. Garcia was suffering from diabetes when he died of a heart attack while at a Marin County drug rehabilitation facility in 1995, leaving the band and the tribe without their spiritual center.

The challenge of scholarship based on the work and legacy of the Grateful Dead is not finding something to say but figuring out how to cover it all, experts said.

“Peter Richardson wrote a 400-page book, and he felt like he left out huge chunks,” Meriwether said. “I just finished writing a 78,000-word essay on the band?s history, and I’m haunted by what I left out. The subject is just huge.”

Press Democrat staff contributed to this report.You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243, dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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