- Liveness and the Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead are very much alive. Often considered relics of a formative era in the history of rock, the Dead have always been known as a band in the flesh, a group to see in a live environment. "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert," goes the adage among devotees of the group who often followed the band around, sometimes seeing multiple concerts in a single season and creating a large-scale cultural following that was unlike anything that came before in rock music. The group was well aware of its own liveness. Members often cited live shows as the central statements of their work, and the band played with aspects of performativity in album titles like Live/Dead and Go to Heaven, revealing ironic connections between ontologically fixed, carefully crafted rock albums and the concerts that made them famous. Unlike many of the group's counterparts that formed in the mid-1960s, the Dead's performance practice helped to form the basis for the live rock concert as we know it, and the band's music continues to be received in a manner that accounts for a complex and nuanced history of performance practice.
The scene surrounding the Grateful Dead was segregated from mainstream rock. Although the band's tours were among the highest grossing in the business for about ten years during the late 1980s and early 1990s, [End Page 123] the Dead never won Grammy awards, didn't have platinum-selling albums until the 1990s, and received little critical adulation for its music.1 The group had only one radio hit—"Touch of Grey" in 1987—and existed largely on its own plane within the business, running an independent record company during the 1970s and carefully organizing most aspects of its touring operation.
Scholarship on the Dead has in many ways mirrored the outsider nature of the band and its music. One core group of people with intellectual interests in Dead studies meets each year under the auspices of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus as part of the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association. Members of this vastly interdisciplinary group have produced conference proceedings, journal articles and larger special issues, and book-length studies about the band and its music. But like its namesake, and despite the often-provocative nature and high quality of this work, Dead studies has operated within a sphere that is mostly distinct from musicology and popular music studies, infrequently appearing in more mainstream journals and barely registering on the radar of musicology, music theory, and ethnomusicology publications.2
Through a particular brand of collective work, the Grateful Dead and its larger circle were proponents for live performance in a number of ways that extended past simply performing in front of audiences. I use the term liveness throughout this article to encompass a wide range of issues raised by the Dead's use of performance as a creative vehicle, hoping that this concept resonates with readers in a more holistic manner than the individual stories I tell. For me, liveness is an attitude toward artistic expression that foregrounds aspects of fandom and ontology. It is a lens through which to understand the scene that the Dead helped to pioneer, a manner of expressing rock music during and after psychedelia that relied more on live performance practice than studio-oriented approaches. The Dead were by no means the only purveyors of liveness in rock, but the group was among the most important bands in the history of rock to foreground it, building an audience of millions based mostly on connections to live events.
There are several implications to my argument and its situation within larger discourses on the Dead and popular music. I am interested in depicting the importance of performativity in histories of popular music, using the Dead as a case study for the manner in which this aspect of music making was (and is) vital to many musicians and fans. While there are many ways that one might tell the story of the Dead as a live band, I choose to focus on histories that directly involve music and sound, allowing for a...