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Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009

Grateful Dead Scrapbook

Documents of a Pop Culture Phenomenon

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The Grateful Dead became the enduring institution of the 1960s San Francisco scene, much as Jerry Garcia and company might have resisted becoming institutionalized. The Dead roadshow that continued through Garcia’s death in 1995 became the object of obsessive Deadhead devotion. For some of their tie-die followers, following the Dead became a way of playacting the ‘60s. The Grateful Dead left behind a pair of great albums, 1970’s Workingman’sDead and American Beauty, and hundreds of bootleg concert tapes through encouraging the transmission of their music by fans in the age before the viral emergence of the web.

The University of California Santa Cruz has established a Grateful Dead archive, scheduled to open in 2010. Meanwhile, selected items from the collection are sampled in The Grateful Dead Scrapbook: A Long, Strange Trip in Stories, Photos, and Memorabilia (published by Chronicle Books). The handsomely designed, slip covered coffee table book is filled with band photos from the early days through the end, along with psychedelic poster art. The text by longtime Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, intelligently assays their long career (vocation might be a better word), finding that in a subculture composed in part of delusions, they were “real,” preferring the spontaneous combustion of the stage to the sterility of the studio and the idea of community between performers and audience over stardom. Grounded in ‘50s rock’n’roll and folk before emulating the early Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead were inspired by jazz and LSD into the freeform improvisation that became their signature.

For many Deadheads, their favorite group became as much a symbol as a band, representing aspirations for the world that never seemed to take hold—at least in the way the dreamers had hoped. The Dead worked to keep their dream alive, aware that utopia had receded. As Fong-Torres writes: “The Grateful Dead constantly seesawed between the storied, blissful optimism of the ‘60s and the reality of the world.”

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