“America’s Band.” What a loaded phrase. How do you unpack it? That depends on your take on the “American Dream,” doesn’t it? Corporate wealth? Individual expression? Community Based on Individual Expression? Experimentation? All or none of the above? Some gumbo-variation thereof? Spiced to your liking, of course.
It seems to me that anyone epitomized as “America’s Band” should have humble beginnings. The Warlocks’ first show was at Magoo’s Pizza in suburban Menlo Park, California in May, 1965. But, it turned out, the band who would later be known as the Velvet Underground were going by the same name at the same time. Both bands changed their names and this version of the Warlocks debuted as the Grateful Dead, December 4, 1965 at one of Ken Kesey’s acid tests.
Humble beginnings spiced with hard (pull yourself up by your own bootstraps) work, sacrifice for your ideals, entrepreneurship, a little bit of luck and drama ending with “on-your-own-terms” success; that’s the recipe for America’s Band if ever there was on. Though often characterized as fluffy-duffy (or is that loosey-goosey?) hippies with their heads in the clouds (of smoke), the members of the Grateful Dead proved themselves to also be savvy businesspeople. Don’t believe me? Go read “What Corporate America Can Learn from the Grateful Dead” or “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead” or “Startup Insights From The Grateful Dead” or a whole book about the subject: Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip. You get the idea: Business people love the Grateful Dead almost as much as they love Jesus. Because the Grateful shattered a lot of people’s paradigms and demonstrated that you could find success even while remaining true to yourself.
The “music business” (If there is a monolithic entity) likes to promote the idea that bands make most of their money through album sales. This ties bands to labels and keeps the success of the two intertwined. But the Grateful Dead were never primarily as studio band. Not only that, they encouraged and enabled their live concerts to be recorded and given away. You can just hear the suits mumbling, how are we supposed to make any money off of these goofballs if they give away concert recordings and their studio albums don’t match up to their live shows???? But the Dead understood, even before the Internet changed a lot of the way we understand and practice marketing, that, sometimes, “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.”
The Grateful Dead changed the American musical landscape. Not just with their amalgamation of various musical genres (more on that in a bit) but by their business savvy understanding that they could still be true to themselves and make money. They just weren’t going to do it through album sales. The band incorporated itself, installed a board of directors and developed business plans that centered around ticket and merchandise sales. The band branched off into an actual company that oversaw merchandise sales, funneling some of the money that would have otherwise gone to middlemen and venues. Rather than try to re-work their entire image to fit the paradigm, polishing off the rough edges, cut down on the jams and focus on a single, the Dead created a entirely new paradigm for success.
The Dead are the perfect choice to be “America’s Band” because they remind us that America is revolutionary at start. We weren’t going to stand for taxation without representation, so we did something about it. We set up a country where people could pursue “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” because “all men are created equal,” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Individual expression is at the heart of what it means to be American.
But within that penchant for individuality there is also an understanding that we are better when we come together. There is strength in numbers and we thrive in community. This means that to be American is to constantly walk a tightrope, we want everyone to be themselves; be unique and pursue “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but we are not anarchists. We agree that there should be order without suppression, individual expression without endangering others, community made stronger by allowing people’s differences to shine. We are the great melting pot of the world, right?!
The Grateful Dead’s music itself was representative of the community they created. Or vice versa? The band created a culture in which people could be themselves and not fear mockery or exclusion. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could find suit and ties, business casual and raggedy hippies alongside one another. That spirit of inclusion is reflected in the way the band drew from a variety of genres to create something new; something very American. They drew from country, bluegrass, blues, rock, reggae, jazz, folk, psychedelia, middle Eastern rhythms, and world percussion, often all in the context of long improvised segments. Lenny Kaye writes that the Dead’s “music touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists.”
There is something very American about this experimentation; the idea of creating from what already exists. Taking bits and pieces of genres and making something new is exactly what the hip hop community would do years later. But the Grateful Dead understood that they didn’t have to remain content with boundaries between genres. They could come and go as they pleased, bringing bits and pieces with them, creating something new in the process.
“American” culture, and English, our language in particular, are bastardized bits and relics of everything and everyone who have gone before us. We’ve taken pieces of other cultures and made them our own. Our country was founded on the idea that the immigrant could find a home. Surely a country who has always said: Give us “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost,” must find its soundtrack in a band whose audience seems to consist of exactly that.
The Grateful Dead’s success gives the everyman the hope that we too can succeed on our own terms. The Dead’s community displays mutual respect while celebrating differences. Their music joyfully experimented, robbed, begged, borrowed and stole to create something new.
The Grateful Dead are America’s Band because they show us all the beautiful opportunities of free-market capitalism at its most unique.
Stream 05/08/77. Because, 05/08/77, that’s why.
- Read Eustace Whitehead’s piece arguing for U2 as America’s band.