When it comes to the Grateful Dead—man, what a long, strange cha!-ching! it's been.
Twenty years after the band played its last show, they're back this summer for what are promised to be the very last Grateful Dead shows ever, in honor of the 50-year anniversary of their formation in 1965.
The shows are more than a musical victory lap. Whether you're a Deadhead of not, they offer a window into a cultural phenomenon that seems more pervasive than ever.
Interest, to say the least, has been high. The reunion was announced in January, and by early March, CNN breathlessly reported that a three-day pass to the Fare Thee Well event in Chicago was being offered on the online ticket broker StubHub for an eye-popping $116,000.
David Meerman Scott didn't pay that much, but the marketing expert, author and veteran Deadhead says he did "pay through the nose" for his Chicago tickets through Ticketmaster. He's psyched for the shows, even if the rollout was rough going and left lots of loyal fans in the dust, as the band has acknowledged.
Scott lives outside of Boston and is co-author of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead. He's been a Deadhead since the late 1970s and says the lesson the band forgot this year is just how popular they still are when they announced the three-night stand at Soldier Field.
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GETTING WEIR'D The trip isn’t over, as the Dead gear up for new shows.
"I think they misjudged demand," says Scott. "They put the tickets on sale thinking that they might have trouble selling out Soldier Field for three nights."
Au contraire. The shows sold out in veritable nanoseconds, and thousands of tickets wound up on the resale market, with little concern for that legendary fan outside the gate with outstretched palms, seeking the miracle ticket.
Scott notes that season-ticket holders to Chicago Bears games were given dibs on Dead tickets, and that as many as 10,000 passes might have entered the resale market that way. While the Dead find appeal in many cultures and subcultures, Scott is perhaps correct in asserting that a Venn diagram of Bears fans and Deadheads wouldn't find much crossover.
The Chicago shows were promoted as an offering to fans after the abrupt demise of the Dead, two decades ago this summer. The Grateful Dead's last show was at Soldier Field on July 9, 1995—but the band didn't know it at the time. The tour ended, everyone went home, and Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack a month later at a Forest Knolls rehab center.
The ensuing years saw surviving members tour under monikers including the Dead, Furthur, the Other Ones, RatDog, and Phil Lesh and Friends. Band members went into the nightclub business. Terrapin Crossroads and Sweetwater Music Hall became live-music destinations in Marin County as the band slipped into a comfortable, post-spectacle late-adulthood.
But there was always that phantom limb of a last show to contend with, the band avers on its site, and a 50th anniversary synced up nicely with the 20–year-gap between Grateful Dead shows. So why not?
"I think the energy is all coming together, and it's wonderful," says Greg Anton, a Sebastopol musician who used to play in the Heart of Gold Band with Keith and Donna Godchaux, former members of the Grateful Dead from the 1970s.
"When the Grateful Dead come together, they bring with them a whole culture, not just the music," says Anton, who has also co-written dozens of songs with Garcia collaborator Robert Hunter. "I'm happy they are doing it. I just wish they'd do it more often," he says.
Anton's not going to make the shows (he's a touring musician and the freshly minted author of the rock and roll novel Face the Music), but ticket prices have come somewhat down to earth since the first rush of interest in the Dead reunion, to a more manageable high-end offering of $32,000 for an up-front seat at Soldier Field, according to the latest StubHub information available. The most recent news from the Dead is that they've bought back some of the Soldier Field tickets and plan to make them available to fans.
Scott says there's no way the Soldier Field snafu could have been avoided, given that the band had announced that those shows would be the last ones ever, and that popular Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio would sit in the Jerry chair. That's a double-whammy of demand. "They misjudged how many people were going to want tickets," says Scott, "and it meant that a lot of hardcore fans got left out."
The vagaries of capitalism require that, theoretically anyway, the market determines the price for these highly in-demand tickets. But the market does not, and can't possibly account for this question: Twenty years down the road, who or what sets the value of a Grateful Dead ticket beyond its price?
Is it even worth asking which "countercultural" values are being represented in this extended exercise in groove-culture redux? Is it the Grateful Dead value of the temporary autonomous zone within which to twirl, trip and choogle along until properly blissed out? Or the ground-breaking, open-source ethic embodied in the band's tolerance and support for its tape-sharing community?
Tape-sharing was a huge marketing coup for the band, says Scott, and one that's rippled through to our digitized new millennium.
"Free-sharing foreshadowed what we see on the web," says Scott. "The idea of letting people tape the shows—this was a social network before Mark Zuckerberg was even born."
Twenty years after the last Grateful Dead show, now you can find eBay offerings of vintage Dead cassettes recorded off the soundboard. One batch of two-dozen tapes ranging from 1970 to 1994 had a bid that hovered around $60 before it closed over the weekend. To bring it all home: eBay itself launched in September 1995. Time flies.
'The band has always been very innovative with everything," says Anton, "and the music reflects that. Everything about the band is uniquely Grateful Dead, and it's based on innovation, creativity and kindness."
But there's another value that may be getting promoted here that springs to mind, embodied in this John Barlow lyric that Bob Weir sings in the song "Money Money": "Money money, money money money / Money money, money money money."