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Grateful Dead

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Music.

US rock band, formed in 1965 in San Francisco. With a core group of enduring musicians, augmented by a series of keyboard players, the band was long led by Jerome "Jerry" Garcia (1942-1995) as lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter, though rhythm guitarist Robert "Bob" Weir (1947-    ) later emerged as a co-leader of sorts, composing many songs and singing about half of the tracks at their concerts. After Garcia's death, other band members have continued to play together in different combinations under various names, including the Other Ones, the Dead, and Dead & Company.

Since band members were known to be heavy Drug users, and they came from a city then associated with all things "hippy" and "psychedelic", it might logically be suspected that, like the titular hero of "Cosmic Charlie" (released on Aoxomoxoa, 1969), they would have an interest in science-fictional matters. In fact, as their later albums and side projects demonstrated, they were primarily dedicated to rediscovering and reinvigorating the forms of music that preceded rock'n'roll, including folk music, bluegrass, country music, the blues, and jazz, blending all these influences with old-time rock in the memorable concerts that, by general consensus, best showcased their multiple talents. They were a band, in other words, more focused on the past than the future. Thus, learning that one early song was called "Mountains of the Moon" (also from Aoxomoxoa), many would suspect that its subject is Space Flight, but it is actually an adaptation of an old English ballad celebrating a mountain range in Uganda. (It is true that Garcia was reportedly a great admirer of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and once sought to produce a film adaptation of Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan [1959], but because collaborator Robert Hunter [1941-    ] wrote almost all of Garcia's lyrics, these interests are not evident in the Dead's music.)

Still, a few Dead songs bear some relation to sf. The long track "Dark Star" (released on Live/Dead, 1969) includes science-fictional, though oblique, lyrics; but whereas in written form these may come across as frantic or garbled ("spinning a set the stars through which the tattered tales of axis roll about the waxen wind of never") the song itself is musically spacious, flexible, fine-worked and moving; though long a staple of early concerts, however, the song later surfaced only rarely. The song "The Music Never Stopped" (on Blues for Allah, 1975) borrows its title from a sentence in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) and was possibly inspired by that novel. The umbrella name for the band's extended improvisational numbers at their concerts was "Space" (one example released on Dead Set, 1981), and a later song, "Standing on the Moon" (on Built to Last, 1989), is about an astronaut observing human warmaking from that lofty vantage point.

In addition, the band has regularly marketed itself with the imagery of Fantastika, first with the elaborately colourful "psychedelic" posters that promoted its 1960s concerts in San Francisco, and the iconic figure representing the band, a living skeleton, appeared on several album covers (he plays a violin, for example, on the cover of Blues for Allah, 1975). The album Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel (1974) commemorates an actual establishment in San Francisco, but the album cover depicts a building on the surface of Mars, and while there is nothing fantastical about the facility described in the song "Terrapin Station", the cover of the album featuring the song, also called Terrapin Station (1977), features anthropomorphic tortoises playing musical instruments.

Finally, the band has made some contributions to sf media: the concert film The Grateful Dead Movie (1977) incorporates some animated sequences; Garcia played the banjo heard in the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), though he did not appear in the film (he can be observed fleetingly within an Indian crowd in Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977]); the band was hired to compose and perform some appropriately outré music for the first revival of the Twilight Zone television series (1985-1989); their first music video, for "Touch of Grey" (on In the Dark, 1987), began by showing skeletons singing and playing the song before they are replaced by actual band members; and for a series of seven Grateful Dead Comix (1991-1992), comic book artists were invited to draw adaptations of Grateful Dead songs.

The band is occasionally mentioned in sf stories. Its very first poster features as a priceless artefact "not available for any amount of sheer purchasing power" in Norman Spinrad's story "A Thing of Beauty" (January 1973 Analog). Steven Brust's Fantasy Brokedown Palace (1986) presumably takes its title from the Grateful Dead song of that name (on American Beauty, 1970). Allen Steele's first published story was entitled "Live from the Mars Hotel" (mid-December 1988 Asimov's), and the next major instalment of his Near Space series, Orbital Decay (1989), features Space Station construction workers who are fanatical fans of the Grateful Dead. Stephen P Brown has correctly complained that this future devotion to a past band is implausible, but it serves the purpose of conveying that Steele's down-to-earth protagonists are radically different from the stoic astronauts of earlier sf. Steele, who frequently cites the Dead in other works, also posits that the band would carry on indefinitely by bringing in new members to play alongside the surviving veterans. References to Grateful Dead songs also permeate George R R Martin's Song of Fire and Ice novels beginning with A Game of Thrones (1996), including "Dark Star", "Mountains of the Moon" and "Dire Wolf" (on Workingman's Dead, 1970). Gwyneth Jones includes several references to Grateful Dead music in her Arthurian Bold as Love series of novels (2001-2006), including naming one main character Aoxomoxoa, the title of the band's third studio album. Original stories inspired by the Grateful Dead, often containing sf or fantasy elements, appear in Gary McKinney's and Robert G Weiner's anthology The Storyteller Speaks: Rare and Different Fictions of the Grateful Dead (anth 2010). [GW/AR]

further reading

There are innumerable books about the Grateful Dead, of highly variable quality, but the following are two excellent references.


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