It’s 1967 and hippies are growing like mushrooms in the shadows of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, beneath the careless eyes of two burning black-light suns called Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. As for the Airplane, they crashed and burned because of internal bickering, then resurfaced as a commercial airline flying under the banner of the almighty dollar. But The Dead never did (die). Instead, their legend lives on today as fresh as the acid flashbacks of the loyal Deadheads who keep their lovelight lit in warm, fraternal vigil.
In the beginning (because everything must have a beginning), the Dead were a motley assortment of psychedelic upstarts with a four-fingered guitarist (Jerry Garcia), a couple of classically trained musicians (Phil Lesh, Tom Constanten), three singers (including Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan), a poet (Robert Hunter) and one too many drummers (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart). Following the departure of Constanten–and, with him, much of the band’s experimental tendencies in the studio–they recorded Workingman’s Dead (1970). Influenced by the American folk/country/rock sound of CS&N, Bob Dylan and The Byrds, it was their strongest effort to date, featuring classic Garcia/Hunter compositions including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones” and “Dire Wolf.” American Beauty (1971) was even better. Those two albums plus their live set at the time (which included “Dark Star,” “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat”) constitue the bulk of what many would consider classic Grateful Dead.
After a world tour in 1972, the Dead got their own label (Grateful Dead Records) and begin releasing a mix of solo albums and group efforts that came together on stage. Dead albums from this period reflected the band’s live performances by finding equal time for the songs of Garcia, Weir and the rest of the band (which now included husband-and-wife Keith and Donna Godchaux). A Dead show wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by “Scarlet Begonias,” “U.S. Blues,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “The Music Never Stopped” or “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo.”
In the late 70s, the band signed with Arista Records and released the fan favorite, Terrapin Station (1977), but their next two albums received a lukewarm reception from critics and fans. After a six-year absence from the studio, the Dead surprised everyone by releasing In The Dark (1987), which went on to be their biggest seller and featured their only Top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey.” Lightning didn’t strike twice, however, and Built To Last (1989) proved to be their last. Still, the band continued to tour until a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995; it marked the official end of one of music’s longest and strangest trips.
Yet the Dead continue to live on through their live recordings and merchandising—from ties to teddy bears. Dozens of archival concert recordings have been released over the years, many of them under the Dick’s Picks title, so named for Dick Latvala, the Dead tape archivist who oversaw the series initially. Such is the immortal appeal of the Dead that even Latvala’s death in 1999 couldn’t kill the series, which now continues under the direction of David Lemieux (although it’s still called Dick’s Picks because I guess Lemieux’ Chieux would be hard to pronounce).