Book explores popularity of Grateful Dead

Their career spanned three decades and generated one of the most loyal followings in pop culture history. They outdrew some of the biggest musical acts in the world. They redefined what a rock concert should be. And they've become synonymous with the city of San Francisco itself.

What was it about the Grateful Dead that made them the most successful touring rock band of their time? The answer, Peter Richardson writes in his new book No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, is fairly simple.

Photo of SF State Humanities Lecturer Peter Richardson.

Humanities Lecturer Peter Richardson's new book explores the cultural legacy of the Grateful Dead.

"Many other bands had more commercial success, but the Dead had something those bands didn't: a focus on community," said Richardson, a lecturer in SF State's Department of Humanities. "They offered their fans a social space to have some adventure, especially when they went on the road, and to do both of those things in a community of like-minded people."

Understanding the Grateful Dead is integral to understanding San Francisco and California history, added Richardson, who teaches courses at SF State on California culture. The band was shaped in part by the mid-century Beat and San Francisco art scenes, absorbed their principles -- especially their heavy emphasis on transcendence, mobility and community -- and eventually came to embody those principles.

"They took values that were already present in the San Francisco scene and that [lead guitarist] Jerry Garcia discovered as a teenager and supercharged them," he said. "Their touring operation became a kind of traveling simulacrum for the 1960s counterculture environment. Everyone was invited."

Work on the book began four years ago, when Richardson began incorporating the band into his class, which focuses on the various utopian and dystopian aspects of California culture. He conducted extensive research at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Grateful Dead Archives. He interviewed individuals close to the band and the music industry at the time, focusing on "people that hadn't been interviewed so many times." And he traveled annually to the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus in New Mexico, even submitting papers each of the last four years. "It's like the academic version of a Grateful Dead concert. Kind of uneven, and very communal," he said.

The cover of the book The result is the first "interpretive history" of the band, which not only documents the band's history but also explores its cultural contributions and places its story in the broader context of American cultural history. Those contributions were not limited only to countercultural values, Richardson emphasized. Despite their laid-back attitudes, band members remained devoted to their music and to always improving and evolving.

"When it was working, it was magic," said Richardson, who grew up around the music (his brother was a Deadhead) and saw the band live once. "It didn't always work, but they created a safe space to fail." The Dead were pioneers in creating the modern rock concert -- contrast their heavily improvised and hours-long shows with the Beatles' tightly choreographed 30-minute sets -- and paved the way for modern jam bands such as Phish.

The band stopped performing and disbanded following Garcia's death in 1995, but surviving members such has Phil Lesh and Bob Weir have continued to perform to large crowds, and the following the Grateful Dead cultivated during their career remains as passionate as ever.

"If you've got a band that can sell 35 million albums, you're going to let them keep making albums, and that's what happened with the Dead," he said. "But when you put it together with the touring opportunities, which depended on this community that had grown over a 30-year period, it created a really unique story."

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead was published Jan. 20 by St. Martin's Press.

-- Jonathan Morales