Twenty years ago, during their annual Mardi Gras swing through the Oakland Coliseum, the Grateful Dead debuted their last great song "The Days Between." The song's haunting lyrics -- "the singing man is at his song, the holy on their knees" - poignantly symbolizes the special relationship that Grateful Dead devotees, known as Deadheads, have with the band, and especially with the late bandleader Jerry Garcia. So it is altogether appropriate that the most important week of the Grateful Dead's liturgical year is now called the Days Between, observed from August 1st to August 9th each year, spanning the dates of Garcia's birth and death respectively.
Although the Grateful Dead have come to symbolize the message and music of the 1960s, they toured together for 30 years and their music constantly evolved with the times. Fueled by their eclectic and improvisational fusion of American musical genres, they developed an extremely loyal and devout fan base that literally spent their lives following them from concert to concert -- city to city, state to state, and country to country. Deadheads collectively formed an intentionally itinerant community numbering in the tens of thousands, with their own rituals, customs, language, music, mythology, and economy. They flocked to Grateful Dead concerts to have mystical experiences and the ethereal sounds of Jerry Garcia's guitar often catapulted them into ecstatic trances. With Garcia as a reluctant leader of the hippie movement, the largest countercultural movement in American history, the Grateful Dead quickly evolved from a rock and roll band into a new religious movement.
Every religion struggles to redefine itself after the death of its charismatic founder. Often times, this process takes the form of establishing and edifying the authoritative scriptures and commentaries of the tradition. For Jerry Garcia, evangelizing did not happen through sermons or speeches, but rather through his concert performances. Accordingly, Garcia's numerous concert recordings endure as the foundational texts of the Grateful Dead canon.
The Grateful Dead were pioneers in concert sound and live recording, and encouraged their fans to proactively tape and distribute bootleg recordings of their concerts. This free exchange of bootlegged concert tapes is a radical idea at a time when popular musicians desperately cling to and monetize every vestige of their sound and image. For Deadheads, concert bootleg tapes are not just musical but also autobiographical, as each tape is accompanied by a story or memory about the show or the recording. Indeed, for the vast network of Grateful Dead tape collectors and traders, concert tapes are both the scriptural texts and the sacred relics of their religion.
The power to effectively disseminate a religious message or spiritual teaching has always been a function of technology. Whereas ancient religions transmitted their theology through the spoken word and medieval religious traditions utilized the printed word, new religious movements spread their message through transnational media. With the evolution of digital music technology and online platforms, the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead can be instantaneously streamed or downloaded anywhere around the world.
Additionally, through the meticulous process of digitizing, indexing, restoring, and archiving Grateful Dead concert recordings, the musical gospel of Jerry Garcia continues to spread. Indeed, the Grateful Dead Archive Online at the University of California, Santa Cruz, ensures that generations to come will experience the Grateful Dead through the interdisciplinary lens of research scholarship. And the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have recently released several stunning box sets featuring soundboard concert recordings from arguably the three best Grateful Dead tours ever -- Europe 1972, May 1977, and Spring 1990.
The 20th century gave birth to a number of popular recording artists who inspired cult followings by not only defining their musical genres but also creating them. More than musicians, they were also spiritual icons and they viewed their music as sonic theology, thereby blurring the lines between their biographies and hagiographies. Jerry Garcia is firmly entrenched in this pantheon of virtuosos, joining the likes of John Coltrane, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Tupac Shakur. This week, during the Days Between, as Deadheads around the world memorialize the life and legacy of Jerry Garcia, they celebrate him as a guru as well as guitarist, saint as well as singer, a reticent redeemer and psychedelic prophet who challenged each of them "to become an understanding molecule in evolution, a conscious tool of the universe."