The Grateful Dead Are History’s Most Misunderstood Punk Band

Aaron Lefkove's Grateful Dead/Misfits/Black Flag/Descendents tattoo
Aaron Lefkove’s Grateful Dead/Misfits/Black Flag/Descendents tattoo. Courtesy of the author.

If I have one claim to fame, it’s what I did on the night of July 9, 1995. The only recognition I’d ask for would be a T-shirt that says, “I went to the last Grateful Dead concert, and all I got was high from smoking weed out of a Milwaukee’s Best can and this lousy T-shirt.” The show itself wasn’t much to write home about, or at least that’s what the commenters on say about it: selfimportantdeadhead, who gave the show two stars, says, “we all should have stopped buying tickets,” and basically blames Dead fans for Jerry Garcia’s death exactly a month to the day after the show at Soldier’s Field. Reviewer Let’s All Be Cheerful, contrary to the name, says, “[T]he set list is poop and the performance borderline embarrassing. Saying otherwise is akin to applauding for your child when he strikes out five times in Little League.” The same user then points out, “Which is perfectly okay,” because, “sometimes love trumps the truth.” I wouldn’t know, because I was acting like a punk-rock jerk during the entire show.

Good or bad, today I can at least utter the words that many attendees of famous and infamous Dead concerts can mutter: “I was there… man.” I was at the last Dead concert, and although today it’s something I casually mention with a hint of pride, in 1995, going to a Grateful Dead concert, for a kid who claimed to be punk, was like a scarlet letter on what little cred you had. But there I was — although I didn’t want to be — thanks to a birthday gift from my friend’s parents, both of whom had made pilgrimages to follow the band across the country since the 1970s, but could do so comfortably now, staying in hotels instead of camping in a field. Their son and I had been friends for years, but by the night of the show, I’d almost totally pulled away because, from what I gathered, punks and Grateful Dead fans couldn’t coexist; they were the oil and water of subcultures. It was something that, as a teen, I accepted without question.

Kurt Cobain's "Kill the Grateful Dead" shirt
Kurt Cobain’s “Kill the Grateful Dead” shirt

The Punk vs. Dead debate, however, would come to stand as one of the shining examples of how when I stopped thinking like a kid, I started realizing that not only were there bigger things to worry about, but the two worlds aren’t as far apart from each other as people have made them out to be. The Dead, in many ways, were punk long before people were giving themselves homemade Germs tattoos. They were the house band to the revolution; their greatest crime was really that they got old.

“I think punk kids have more problems with Deadheads than the Dead themselves,” Jesse Jarnow, author of the forthcoming book on the culture of the Dead’s fans, Heads (Da Capo, 2015), tells me. That’s something of a relief; I never really made it to true Deadhead status. I was, instead, a novice Grateful Dead fan who claimed to like their music, but most just owned a few T-shirts I purchased from the mall around the age of 13, and a “Greatest Hits” cassette tape from Target.

To the teenage version of me, the Dead and their community of fans — including a handful who went to my school: the good-looking stoner soccer players; the ex-cheerleader who was kicked off the squad after getting caught with a prescription bottle filled with weed; the guy with the hemp necklace that you could use to tie a small boat to a dock, who everybody knew sold her the weed — looked to an outsider like an easy enough community to break into. Because what were Deadheads? They were hippies, and hippies, I thought, were supposed to be friendly and welcoming to everybody. They basically had to be my friends, right?

That never happened. I’d nod at the handsome soccer captain as we walked down the halls, and he’d just stare at me, and inside I started to feel more unchecked rage than good vibes. My family life was crumbling before my eyes, I found myself unable to associate with classmates, and I started acting like some reject from the Holden Caulfield School of Angsty and Annoying Teenagers. So somewhat naturally, I drifted towards punk rock: I bleached and cut my hair, which I’d tried to grow out, traded the Dead for the Descendents, stopped hanging out with my old friend because all he cared about was hacky sack and talking about music like the Dead, or worse, Phish – the band christened as the Dead of my generation. None of his transition to hippiedom meshed well with my great ascension to punk rock, and leading up to my friend calling up to say his parents had purchased me a ticket to the fateful Dead concert, the gulf grew larger between us, created entirely by my snobbishness and shitty haircut.

Jarnow admits that the band’s sound might not be for everybody: “The Dead kinda sucked unless you were keyed in to their language,” he says. However, he does believe that beyond their obvious differences — “the music and the drugs” — punk and Deadhead cultures have plenty of things in common. He points out that both subcultures are, at their core, utopian and DIY, noting, “There’s also the shared notion between punk and Deadheads that their communities were outside the mainstream of American culture, standing in for alternative ideals bigger than themselves but acting as examples of how those ideals could operate.”

Jarnow is right. Although punk might look and sound dystopian to an outsider, for every wannabe Johnny Rotten carving an anarchy symbol into their school desk, there’s a counterexample of the utopian, communal spirit that has been part of punk since the beginning — everything from Penny Rimbaud starting the band Crass and the record label of the same name out of an open-house community to the Food Not Bombs movement and the DIY attitude that has started countless bands, as well as labels like Dischord and K, and countless shows in basements, garages, VFW halls, and wherever else punk bands can play.