The MARTA train doors hissed open, revealing a scene of decadently joyous humanity straight from a Bosch landscape. A high school freshman, I lacked the frame of reference to more than mildly comprehend what I was seeing. That sense of awe and enlightenment carried with me the entire night, so visceral that I can still feel it acutely and picture it perfectly. Though I had been sonically familiar prior to that fateful trip to the Omni, it was not until ensconced in the energy of the community that I was truly indoctrinated into the Grateful Dead mythology. Twenty-five years hence and the music and the lore is one of the few constants in my life.
We are mere days away from a vital moment in our nation’s history. It is a chance to reflect on the continuum of our development and devolution, to mark the quadrennial establishment of the defining, or at least dominant, American ethos. For the past fifty-five years, the Grateful Dead and its legion of fans have been a fixture outlasting any of these political cycles, first in the counterculture and, with their astonishing longevity, then firmly rooted in the mainstream.
Birthed in the Haight during the tumult of the Vietnam War, the band and Deadheads have lived through multiple and ongoing fights for equality, have experienced their share of internal and external death, have seen fashions come and go and come again, have heard the earnest pleas of reformers, and spat out the snake oil of charlatans. They were around for the chaos of 1968, the oil embargo, Iran-Contra, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, and all other milestones of recent American history. All the while, they have toured this land and others, bringing their flock together in a spiritual communion that may last an evening or a lifetime.
A musical amalgam of country, folk, rock, jazz, and their own unique brand of psychedelia, the Grateful Dead is more American than apple pie (a dessert with decidedly Continental origins, just like many things we falsely claim as our own). Their songbook runs the gamut from pure poetry to ribald cowboy tales to quasi-religious explorations to borderline pop and then back again, their live shows legendary for their experimentation and joy. Derided by the uninitiated, defended by believers, they are as polarizing as politics, but a helluva lot more fun.
Enduring their own and society’s hardships this many decades, the Grateful Dead and its successors have nonetheless stayed the course. Although a good deal of their music recognizes the darkness of humanity and American culture, the overwhelming message is one of positivity, optimism, survivorship, compassion, and the blessings of life on this landmass that stretches from sea to shining sea.
Above all, the Grateful Dead has bonded together disparate groups into a following that is unrivaled in its cross-generational appeal. From stockbrokers to dropouts to suburban housewives to rocket scientists to NBA stars, the Deadhead diaspora is surprisingly diverse and inclusive, if not particularly conservative. Called to arms and fellowship by an unmistakable iconography, the Deadhead army would be fearsome if it wasn’t so kind. And yet, there are many core principles that are inviolable, which is why the band and its progeny have been so active in bringing out the vote. Hate and division have no place within the Dead’s conception of this nation.
In this most objectively difficult period of my life, it is no wonder that my radio has been constantly tuned to the Dead over the past ten months. The familiar songs are a salve to my injured soul, a motivation to my restless body, and carry the comfort of continuity. It is the music to which I listen upon rousing from a tortured night and to which I fall asleep after a challenging day. I am thankful for its presence, its lessons, and its connection to a world larger than I can see from my sometimes-lonely window.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, whether we go down the road feelin’ bad or awake to a sunshine daydream, we are reminded by the Dead that this too shall pass, that the future is full of promise. Reassured by those melodies, there is nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.