This feature originally ran in July 2015 and is being republished ahead of Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, Long Strange Trip.
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
Over the past five decades, the Grateful Dead have given birth to a unique and instantly identifiable subculture. How many musicians can say the same? Garbed in flowing tie-dyed T-shirts and shawls, the Deadhead army patrols our nation’s grassy knolls and head shops, spreading mellow vibes and pungent aromas. Their internet archive makes available nearly 9,000 (!) past performances for your immediate enjoyment, and the term “Deadhead” is even in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Perhaps it’s precisely because of the mass cultural movement surrounding the Grateful Dead that the band’s musical significance sometimes gets overlooked. It’s easy to dismiss The Dead as a bunch of stoned-out Flower Power hippies whose contributions are more social than musical, but that would be a huge mistake.
For starters, The Dead was a remarkably diverse and eclectic band, drawing on American roots tunes, British Isle ballads, Harry Smith’s folk anthology, free-form jazz, rockabilly, country, and delta blues. Lyrically, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia culled literary influences from James Joyce to Persian philosopher-poet Omar Khayyám for source material. And their stamina was utterly stupefying, playing gigs that lasted four, five, even six hours night after night, year after year.
Abstracting more than 30 years of brilliance into less than a dozen songs is a fool’s errand. But even thousand-mile journeys begin with a single step, so here’s 10 tracks to usher you across the River Styx and into the land of The Dead.