Paganism, the 1960s and the Grateful Dead
“We can discover the wonders of nature rolling in the brushes down by the riverside.” — Sugar Magnolia by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir
I’ve always had a strange relationship with the Grateful Dead. I’m a bit too young to have grown up on them (and my dad wasn’t really a fan), so I came to the party slowly. My first memory of the Dead is on MTV back when the video for “Touch of Grey” was in near constant rotation. A couple of years later, I caught up with them again in college after hearing “Uncle John’s Band” on the radio. A subsequent copy of “Skeletons From the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead” (on cassette tape!) didn’t make me much of a fan, though there were certainly some good moments.
More so than the music of the Grateful Dead, I liked the idea of the Grateful Dead. They weren’t just a band, they were a community; the Deadheads were just as important to the experience as the music. That’s rare in the annals of rock and roll. I love Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, but there’s not an entire lifestyle dedicated to those bands.
In July of 1995, I caught up with the Deadhead road show and camped with the band’s most fervent followers (literally hundreds of people) for several days. In many ways, those four days were my first Pagan festival. There were drum circles, raves, (free) food kitchens, spiritual moments, excessive partying, a love of the Earth, and a deep sense of community. In the middle of those few days I detoxed for 24 hours and then dedicated myself to Lady, Lord, and the Pagan Path.
That I would see a campground full of Deadheads as a spiritual center shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’ve always believed in music as a passageway into the divine, but the Dead were (and are for a few more days and forever digitally) one of those rare bands whose culture felt like a pilgrimage and whose music felt like a worship service. According to psychotherapist and author Gary Greenberg, a Grateful Dead concert:
“was not just a concert. It was a place of worship. The band was the high priest, the songs the liturgy, the dancing the prayer, the audience the congregation. Out of these simple ingredients, we created a tradition and enacted a ritual that was at once entirely familiar and thoroughly mysterious.” (1)
During his lifetime, bandleader Jerry Garcia was well aware of the Dead’s power, calling the band’s live show “seat-of-the-pants shamanism.” (2) Bass player Phil Lesh’s assessment of the Dead’s live show is not quite as poetic as Garcia’s but still retains a spiritual dimension:
“We used to say that every place we played was church, that’s what if felt like. A pretty far out church, but that’s how we felt.” (3)
Music has a power that’s often overlooked: It can turn a group of people into one swirling (and massive) organism. With their long instrumental jams, the Dead’s music was designed to facilitate that transformation. There’s no singing along in the middle of those moments — it’s simply music and it’s easy to get caught up in.
It’s fun to sing along with a favorite band or artist, it’s another to get completely lost in a moment of music. The energy sweeps up the band and the audience transporting them to another place (at least those who want to make the trip). I’ve felt it happen at Pagan drum circles, on a club dance floor and in the musical journeys of bands like the Grateful Dead.
One of the things that’s often overlooked by mainstream society is how inclusive Deadhead culture and the band can be. We assume that the Grateful Dead trip is meant to be all hippies and rainbows, but it was never that simple. In their early years, the band saw itself as an outlaw gang and they palled around with guys from the Hell’s Angels and loved shooting guns. The band has supported a lot of what most consider “left-wing” (why giving a shit about the planet is political has always escaped me) causes over the years but they never saw their concerts as political rallies.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Garcia said he was disturbed the politicization of the band’s live shows:
“Dig: There’s a music festival, but because there are people there, radicals say, it’s a political festival now, not a music festival. If a musical festival is forcibly transferred to a political plane, it no longer has the thing that made it attractive.” (4)
I don’t think that means Garcia was himself “value-less” — in the same interview quoted above, he talked about protecting the natural world and the rights of workers. I think he truly believed in the transformative power of music, and that if everyone got caught up in a positive musical trip, change would come. In another interview he said “Be the best you can be with your music — the best rubs off.” (5) That’s always reminded me of the old adage “like attracts like.” (I feel compelled to add that the band also worked for change, playing benefits for causes, but not usually for specific individuals. What Garcia and the band avoided was lecturing their audience.)
If Paganism is a culture and not a religious grouping, then the music and fandom of the Grateful Dead has long been a Pagan institution. The best moments I’ve had as a Pagan I’ve also experienced with Deadheads. There’s that acceptance of others and the feeling of chosen family. There are also the moments of transcendence, and I’ve felt them in music and in ritual. The Grateful Dead certainly didn’t invent Pagan culture, but I can’t help but think we picked up something from it along the way.
- From No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. pg. 255
- Richardson, page 255.
- Richardson, page 254.
- Richardson, page 166
- Richardson, page 165