The Eternal Return of the Grateful Dead

Here’s a story I wrote for the Ventura County Reporter on the Skull and Roses festival coming up next week at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Let me post the published version (below) and add some color, for those who like a little extra.

From the VCR:

At the end of 1995 the much beloved jam rock group the Grateful Dead disbanded by mutual agreement of the members, a few months after their founder and musical genius, Jerry Garcia, died of a heart attack. The Grateful Dead — the band — is no more, and has been gone for decades.

“It’s a sad day,” said Dennis McNally, the biographer (A Long Strange Trip) and publicist for the band, when he spoke on the record about the disbanding of the Dead at the time. “But you know, they’ve made their decision. All I can say . . . as a follow-up is that the individual remaining members of the band will continue to express themselves musically. And the Grateful Dead Productions, the business end, will support those efforts.”

Today McNally continues to work for the Grateful Dead. Many of its members still perform, to great acclaim, and in the case of one particularly popular incarnation, Dead and Co., to sell-out stadiums. This year, the band will embark on what is said to be a final farewell.

McNally also promotes one of the biggest of all Grateful Dead festivals, Skull and Roses, which will bring dozens of bands that play the music of the Dead to the Ventura County Fairgrounds…as well as thousands of fans. Skull and Roses takes place April 19-23.

Deep Devotion

The headliner will be Phil Lesh, of the group known simply as Phil Lesh and Friends. Lesh was the original band’s brilliant bassist and occasional songwriter, known among Deadheads for his classic “Box of Rain,” from one of the band’s best studio albums, American Beauty. This is Lesh’s second time headlining; his band’s successful engagement at last year’s Skull and Roses was a thrill to 2022 attendees.

Phil Lesh

McNally — who’s seen hundreds of Dead shows — was unsurprised at Lesh’s reception. He knows how his old pals from the Dead are beloved. What has surprised him in recent years is a burgeoning resurgence of the Grateful Dead as a musical movement. It’s an apparent grassroots uprising of bands and audiences, largely unconnected to the originators.

“There are now over 800 Grateful Dead-themed bands!” said McNally in amazement.

A tribute band website,, lists and links to nearly 700 such bands in this country, some of whom have been pumping the Grateful Dead into the subculture for decades, such as Cubensis; or distinguishing themselves through the authenticity of their devotion to the music, such as the Dark Star Orchestra; or delighting local audiences with their sheer joyous energy, such as the Ventura-based band Shaky Feelin’. All of these well-known bands will be present at Skull and Roses, with the Dark Star Orchestra headlining the festival on Friday, April 21.

McNally noted the deep devotion of Dark Star Orchestra, explaining that the band not only recreates exactly the setlists from particular Dead shows from past decades, but will even alter and rearrange its equipment to best match the sound of that particular era of the Dead.The faithfulness of the recreation — the lengths to which the band and its fans go to recreate the Grateful Dead experience — awes him still, after all these years.

Musical and social phenomenon

McNally bonded with Jerry Garcia in the late 1970s over their mutual interest and admiration for Jack Kerouac, the subject of McNally’s first book Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, published in 1979. McNally has been as surprised as anyone to see the Grateful Dead reborn as a musical and social phenomenon, long after they fell apart as a group in the l990s. Though band members continued to play in various Dead splinter groups after Garcia’s death — including Lesh and Friends, the Other Ones, and Furthur — McNally felt a decline, and expected the phenomenon to fade.

The band decided to stage one last big reunion on the 50th anniversary of their founding in 2015. All the surviving members — augmented by three star musicians from other jambands, including Trey Anastasio from Phish on lead guitar — played together in massive football stadium shows in San Jose and Chicago, performing in five dates to more than 350,000 people and taking in over $50 million, according to the promoters.

McNally figured that these “Fare Thee Well” shows would, in his words, “put the stake through the heart” of the band’s popularity.

I thought that the Fare Thee Well shows would put an end to it, but what I came to realize was it just reignited everything,” McNally said. “I think it clarified for the audience what they thought about the Dead, and I think what they decided — although maybe not consciously — is that they weren’t fans of the Grateful Dead, as in the band, they were fans of the music. Who played that music has now become a matter of personal taste. There are fans of Dead and Co., fans of the Dark Star Orchestra, fans of Jerry’s Middle Finger, and so on . . . I think there are more Dead fans now than there were in l995, when Jerry died.”

So . . . how can a band that no longer exists be more popular than ever? What explains the growing interest — among many young people, as well as hordes of boomers — in an ensemble that disbanded more than 25 years ago?

In his magisterial biography of the Dead, A Long Strange Trip, a 736-page book published in 2003, McNally — who spent decades working with the band — quotes Garcia and other band members talking about their long, shambolic history, casting about for a good understanding of the popularity of a group that contains multitudes of hard-to-reconcile contradictions amidst curious ironies and strange events.

Despite their unconventionality and frequent screw-ups, the Grateful Dead were one of, and possibly the most popular and lucrative, of all touring rock bands. Over the decades, since the band was founded in San Francisco in 1965 and into the 1980s and 1990s, the Dead played dozens of dates annually, year in and year out, all across the United States, to what would eventually become millions of people.

Casting a spell

Yet their numerous studio albums rarely sold well, and almost never captured the communal spirit, the “magic,” that Deadheads speak of experiencing at their concerts.

Garcia was nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the Dead will forever be known as the house band for the “acid tests’’ that famous novelist and infamous Merry Prankster Ken Kesey conducted with LSD at concerts for three months in their early days in the ’60s. Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in his early 50s, but by then his health and his relations with his complicated family had been all but destroyed by his rampant abuse of cocaine, heroin and many other drugs. Garcia was also by universal acclaim a musical genius of the first order, a virtuoso among stars, and a virtual God to many — even though Garcia himself abhorred the idolation.

One of the Dead’s many thoughtful and conflicted followers, Andrew McGann — a retired trial attorney from Chicago, and a Presbyterian — points out that only two of the band’s over 200 songs mention drugs.

Andrew McGann

He argues that the Dead are vastly underestimated as storytellers. He believes that as storytellers seeking to speak to vast audiences, they were drawn to the deeply resonant stories and characters in our culture’s tales and the Bible, including the prophets (“Estimated Prophet”), the saints and sinners (“St. Stephen,” “Samson and Delilah”), and the travelers on a fateful journey (“Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Stella Blue”).

Many followers see overt spirituality in the Grateful Dead, and think that’s part of their appeal. On, the band’s message board, a fan named Mike S. Singin’ posted on the subject of “Box of Rain,” the Phil Lesh song that touches on life and death and what it all means, commenting: “Grateful Dead music has always been ‘my religion’ and lyrics like this just reinforce the cosmic connectedness that is always happening…the magic that’s always just around the corner…I have to think that you all have the same magic in this music.”

“Believe it if you need it — if you don’t just pass it on,” sang Lesh, who wrote “Box of Rain” as a young man visiting his dying father. Lesh called on Robert Hunter, the band’s foremost lyricist, for the right words with which to render his complex melodies and his troubled thoughts into singable lyrics. Hunter rose to this challenge with an unobtrusive grace, memorably substituting the evocative “box of rain” in the lyrics for this place called Earth:

What do you want me to do?
To do for you — to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain
and love — will see you through

The gentle, compassionate words for a soul in pain still speak loudly to the band’s countless followers, the self-identified Deadheads, and the millions of others who have faithfully attended shows over the years . . . even if, like attorney McGann, they skipped the tie-dye, the LSD and the other psychedelic forms of enlightenment.

Spiritual journey

Today McGann is pursuing scholarly studies of the Dead after a long legal career, writing essays for online publications and papers for the academic Pop Culture Association. He argues that although “the Dead were not proselytizing and not selling a religious message, they intentionally made use of a Biblical story to draw a deep connection with their fans over notions of exile.”

He sees this in the structure of a Dead show. McGann points out that the band often began shows with the Chuck Berry classic “The Promised Land,” and then over the course of a few hours took their fans on a musical journey from a kind of Paradise — The Promised Land — through disorientation, the long “Space” and “Drums” improvisations that harkened back to the Dead’s formative experience with the “acid tests,” to a slow reorientation and return, as expressed in their familiar song “Ripple”: “If you knew the way, I would take you home.”

“Garcia talked about this,” McGann said, “He doesn’t say that it’s in the middle of ‘Drums’ and ‘Space’ where I hope the crowd is thinking, ‘I saw God.’ He says it’s when we [the band] come out of it. I think what they learned through performance in connection with psychedelics, is that the real power comes in the resolution, in bringing people back home.”

McGann’s personal experience with the Dead over time almost parallels the Biblical journey from Paradise, into exile and dissolution, and then a return home, a reorientation back to connection and Paradise.

“I went through a personal experience after Garcia died,” he said. “It was a big, big bummer, and it’s not because the early ’90’s Dead shows were any good — they weren’t. But it was just a marker that it was over. What made the Dead great is not something easy. A bar band could play ‘Casey Jones,’ and it’s just okay. So I ignored it, and then a friend in 1998 took me to a bar in Chicago where every Tuesday night a band would recreate the Dead by playing a setlist from a past show, and at the end of the show, they’d tell you what show they played. I didn’t really want to go, but my friend took me to a show, with about 30 people there, and John Kadlecik was playing the Garcia lead guitar part, and they were playing ‘Black Throated Wind’ and it was just . . . chills.”

That band was the Dark Star Orchestra, which has become a favorite of McGann’s and countless other Dead fans, probably because they can take fans on that familiar mythological journey, through the struggle of exile, the chaos and confusion, before bringing them back home.

“I’m 61 and I know that there are plenty of Deadheads older than me that still crave that deep spiritual connection,” he said. “I think the Dead created something that others can continue to access. It’s like if your favorite minister in church dies, there will be another one to come along and take the pulpit.”

McNally, the band’s publicist, doesn’t reject the idea that spirituality is part of the Dead’s message, but he looks at it warily. On the one hand, he says, the band regarded the stage as a “sacred space,” and many of their songs touch on matters of fate and destiny and can include the mention of God or the Devil, such the spin of “The Wheel,” the cards in “Deal,” or the murder in “Me and My Uncle.” On the other hand, he quotes Garcia questioning himself about one of the most emblematic Dead songs “Ripple,” with its reference to “a fountain not made by hands of men.”

“When I sing that song,” Garcia wondered out loud in A Long Strange Trip, “I say to myself, am I really a Presbyterian minister?’”

A uniquely Ventura experience

The Grateful Dead have a long and prosperous history at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where they played annually from 1982 to 1987. The shows are remembered fondly today by fans and non-fans alike.

Timothy Teague of Ojai went with friends to shows in 1985 and 1986. He was “not a Deadhead” he said, and still isn’t, and didn’t really know the band, but he loved the ecstatic and joyful scene and noted how intently the crowd focused on the music. For the 1985 show, he recalled the band opening with “Fire on the Mountain,” in tribute to the out-of-control Wheeler Fire burning at the time in the mountains north of Ojai, and got a huge response.

“Ventura is one of the classic Grateful Dead sites,” said McNally. “It’s beautiful, with the ocean as a background, and the fairgrounds are funky and dusty and old and that was one of the things that the band loved about it. The shows were terrific then, and at Skull and Roses last year I looked around at the crowd and what struck me was that the demographics were precisely the same as at the Grateful Dead shows years ago. The people range from 15-year-olds to 75-year-olds. There might be a slightly heavier sprinkling of the older crowd but the energy is the same, it’s only grown over the years.”

Improvisational genius

McNally points out that the Dead revered the improvisational genius of John Coltrane, and the spirituality of “A Love Supreme.” In their own way the band followed the jazz legend, playing without a setlist and improvising collectively.

Today McNally no longer considers the Grateful Dead to be a band so much as a genre, a kind of music, and points out that people all over the country can play and dance to it, as if it were jazz or the blues.

Jeff Hiller, the bassist for the Ventura band Shaky Feelin’, also sees Grateful Dead music as a genre, and one closer to jazz than rock in its improvisational nature. He plays in an eclectic band, but frequently jams with other Grateful Dead-style bands, just for the joy of creating music.

“It’s like a jazz scene today,” Hiller said. “There’s a huge group of musicians who know the catalog and get together and sit in and improvise. I grew up back east: I know this goes on all around the country. I equate it to the jazz scene, it’s really the standard songbook for a lot of musicians.”

As an example of the phenomenon, Hiller mentions that his son, also a musician who plays bass, attended a summer program at the Berklee College of Music, the leading contemporary music college. He said that when the summer school kids got together to jam, they often played Grateful Dead music.

“I think the Grateful Dead have just really notched out a big part of the musical culture today,” he said. “Much more than it might appear.”

Skull and Roses takes place April 19-23 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. For full schedule, passes and more information, visit

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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