Who were the Grateful Dead and Why were they always following Jews Around?
PROLOGUE: Getting “On the Bus”
My story is typical. A third-generation Reform Jew being raised in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio, in the 1960s and ’70s. The environment was cookie- cutter and cliche and I was uninterested in the sterile Judaism of my parents. Too young for the “Summer of Love,” too cool for Top 40, enchanted by the local underground FM radio station, in search of something to fill the void, I joined my friends in all manner of experimentation during teen d ances at the local Jewish Community Center.
Musically, it all began with 8-track tapes – the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Europe ’72. As those tapes looped around a nd around on the player in Mark Nathanson’s bedroom, he and David Brookfield and I marveled at the sweet harmonies of the songs “Uncle John’s Band” a nd “Box of Rain,” boogied to the countrified tunes “Cumberland Blues” and “Friend of the Devil,” and wondered about the cryptic references to cocaine in the long, trippy jams of “Casey Jones” and “Truckin’.”
Soon after that those compact cartridges and tinny sounding speakers gave way to 12-inch plastic disks and better stereo systems, our rewards for ha ving been bar mitzvahed and confirmed in our faith. As I wore out the grooves of those early Grateful Dead LPs, reading and re-reading the liner-not es contained the cardboard gatefold album covers, I noticed an invitation. Inside the jacket of their 1971 release titled The Grateful Dead I found these words:
DEAD FREAKS UNITE
Who are you? Where are you?
How are you?
send us your name and address
and we’ll keep you informed
P.O. Box 1065
San Rafael, California 94901
By responding to that message I received the occasional dispatch from the band sent directly to the mailbox of my parent’s home; a newsletter, cover art for future releases, the usual and unusual fan club fare. News of their solo and side projects was an especially important link during the group’s sabbatical from playing together during much of 1974-1975. One such mailing in early 1976 contained another unusual invitation. In it the band announced their return to touring for a series of shows that bicentennial summer, and gave specific instructions for getting tickets to the nearest c oncert.
WOW! What a concept. Here was one of my favorite rock groups sending me personal details of what it would take to see them perform live. With unc haracteristic haste, Mark, David, and I each pulled together the funds and mailed off our money-orders to San Rafael. Unaware of the practice of att ending multiple concerts during a run in a particular city, we requested and received tickets to a single Grateful Dead performance at Chicago’s Audi torium Theater on June 27, 1976.
We piled into the Brookfield family station wagon, six suburban, mostly Jewish kids, including my older sister Pamela as a de facto chaperone, to ma ke the five-hour journey to the Windy City. Not sure what to expect, what we sought or thought we might find on that hot, bi-centennial summer Sunda y night just one week before the 200th birthday of the United States, it was time to get on the bus for a trip that continues to this day.
The band’s performance was probably the weakest of their four-night run in Chicago, but thanks in part to certain ‘mood enhancers’ the first set was an exciting, magical mix of favorite and unfamiliar tunes. The entire vibe was electric and by the raucous, set-ending song “Might as Well,” I was hooked, happy, and feeling like there was “nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”
While wandering through the ornate theater lobby during intermission I found myself doing numerous double-takes as big men with thick, dark, curly h air and beards crossed my path. In my heightened state I was struck by how many Jerry Garcia look-alikes I was encountering at this performance.
Over the next several years of attending Grateful Dead concerts this trend continued, and at some point I determined that many of the dark, bearded men were Jews. In fact, as I became more aware of the extended community of Dead Heads worldwide, it was clear that Jews constituted a large part of its membership. That realization was the spark that ignited the ideas discussed in this essay. Please understand that the notions advanced here, like those first, innocent observations at intermission in Chicago, are based on anecdotal and personal examples. No quantitative data have been col lected to confirm my observations. Nonetheless, enough possibilities exist to suggest that a connection between Deadheads and Jews is more than just the stoned illusions of a long-time fan. In fact, since 1996 I have presented these ideas several times as a multimedia lecture which has been well -received by hundreds of interested participants.
In this essay I will explore the Jewish Deadhead phenomenon from the perspective of someone who is both a fan and a scholar, by reviewing the histor y of the Grateful Dead and its connections to Jews and Jewish tradition and practice. I will enumerate the key Jewish players in the band’s family c onstellation and suggest a central theory and supporting thoughts for why so many who were attracted to the Dead also happen to be Jews. I will conc lude with an acknowledgement of the darker side of the phenomenon and some specualtion about the future. One broad disclaimer must precede all of th is: I intend no offense to anyone, Jew, Deadhead, or otherwise, by any ideas advanced herein. “Ain’t no time to hate,” say the lyrics of the Dead s ong “Uncle John’s Band,” and that’s the spirit of this essay. I’m not an authority on music or religion, but merely a Jewish Deadhead seeking to sor t out what I’ve observed for over twenty years. “Wo, ho, what I want to know: Where does the time go?”
WHO WERE THE GRATEFUL DEAD: A Bit About the Band
The band that became the Grateful Dead began in the temperate regions in and around San Francisco, California, from the South Bay Peninsula to the c offeehouses of North Beach, as the staid 1950s gave way to the turbulent 60s. The original members were first called The Warlocks and included guita rists and vocalists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” Mc Kernan on harmonica, organ and vocals, Phil Lesh bass and vocals, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. The name they eventually chose derives from a cycle of folk tales about a traveler who encounters a corpse in need of burial and pays his last penny to see that the body is properly laid to rest. Soon after, the traveller encounters another who aids him and then reveals himself as the deceased to whom the traveler had shown such kindness. Although not actually Jewish in origin, the story reflects a deeply held Jewish value that de clares the proper burial of the dead is an important mitzvah, a divine commandment or meritorious act which reflects the will of God. Although none of the bandmembers particularly liked the name it stuck, and on December 4, 1965, in San Jose, California, they played in public for the first of at least 2314 concerts as the Grateful Dead (Scott, Dolgushkin, & Nixon, 1995, p. v, 434-435).
During the nearly 30 years to follow the Dead added and lost many other members. From the original five Warlocks a total of at least 13 performers comprised the Grateful Dead including drummer Mickey Hart, keyboardists Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Merle Saunders, Bruce Hornsby, and Vince Welnick, and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. Two other members bear mention as well, although they seldom shared the stage or the spotlight . Robert Hunter, an early bluegrass bandmate of Jerry’s, soon found himself the primary Grateful Dead lyricist, penning compositions with every memb er of the band. Most of the memorable and cryptic words which typify Dead songs were written by Hunter. In addition, John Perry Barlow collaborated with his old schoolmate Bob Weir on several songs that became band standards.
Beyond the bandmembers and lyricists, the Grateful Dead managers, road crew, office staff, cover artisits, and indeed their fans the Deadheads are a ll considered members of the extended family often referred to as the “Heart of Gold Band.”
Jews in the Family
It was really no wonder that I had noticed and indeed known so many Jews among Grateful Dead fans and concertgoers since many members of the band’s far-reaching ‘family’ also happen to be Jewish. Mickey Hart is the only member of the band who is actually Jewish. Born Michael Steven Hartman in B rooklyn, New York (where else?), and raised in the heavily Jewish suburbs of the Five Towns area on Long Island, evidence of Hart’s heritage include a photograph from his bar mitzvah showing young Michael adorned with yarmulkah and tallit (skullcap and prayer shawl) his eyes turned intently towar d a prayerbook (Brandelius, 1989, p. 18).
His parents Leonard and Leah Hart were both drummers who, although estranged since before Mickey’s birth, each encouraged his pursuit of percussion. While Leah gave her son regular, private drum lessons until he left high school for the Air Force, Lenny left Mickey only his old drum pad, a pair of snakewood drumsticks, and the legacy of a world champion rudimental drummer. Reunited years later father and son drummed for hours and built a re tail music business called Drum City.
Lenny once told his son about some men he had known in the drum corps who had become so consumed with the lure and the ritual of the rudiments that “some would quit their jobs and drum all day – ‘drum bums’ Lenny called them” (Hart, 1990, p. 93). This reference recalls the time I asked my patern al grandmother if it was true that several male elders on my father’s side of the family had been rabbis. “No,” she had replied emphatically, “they were bums! None of them worked at real jobs, those men just sat around all day reading and discussing Hebrew texts.” Mickey Hart brought the same s ingle-minded intensity to his own practice and study of the drum, an obsession he recounts in two books of his own titled Drumming at the Edge of Mag ic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion (1990) and Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm (1991).
These forays into ethnomusicology and his longtime devotion to drumming characterize Hart’s spiritual life as well. Although Deadheads have long be lieved that the reason the band often scheduled their Spring Tour stop in New York during the holiday of Passover was so Mickey could celebrate with his mother, Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally calls that notion “a folk tale” (Druckerman, 1994, p. 23). While an abbreviated version of the tr aditional Passover seder was in fact held backstage between the sound check and the start of their annual New York City gigs, these festive meals wer e attended mostly by some twenty or so members of the Dead’s entourage and crew (Nussbaum, 1996). Hart was reported to have appeared for only about five minutes at the seders. According to McNally, “Mickey is a drummer. He worships the beat. His religion is percussion” (Nussbaum, 1996, p. 16A)
Meanwhile, we yearned for something new and different, our own path, a unique way of being in the world.
Many possible ports of call offered safe mooring for young Jewish souls, among them the arts, the film and recording industries, and the worlds of c lassical, popular and folk music, as well as a range of alternative religions and practices. The subculture emerging in and around San Francisco in the early 1960s offered yet another chance to connect with like-minded soul-searchers, and it was here that plenty of young Jews made landfall.
As the epitome of hippiedom, the Grateful Dead attracted and nurtured an extended community which emphasized spiritual fulfillment and thus filled t he void for many, including many young Jews. Therein lies the best explanation for why so many Jews are also Deadheads. As descendants of the Twelv e Tribes of Israel, Jews may still refer to one-another, with tongue in cheek, as “MOT” – members of the tribe. This tribal association also descri bes the Deadhead community as one which is “centered around what’s missing from many ethnic, national, and religious communities: peak experience th at unifies individuals into a people” (Shenk & Silberman, 1994, p. 294-295). That was certainly true for me, as I never found the joy in synagogue that I did at a Dead concert, never felt so connected at shul as I did at a show.
Yet there is one particular shared phenomenon I have experienced as a member of both communities. When a Jew or a Deadhead meets another of his or her same kind, a stranger in a strange place near or far, there is quite often a common comfort and a familiarity they find with one another, based o n the knowledge of their shared bond, common beliefs and similar experiences. In spite of having never met before, there is a feeling among Jews and also among Deadheads that wherever we meet one of our own we are among family.
And so from a historical tribe referred to as “the chosen people” to a tribe of their own choosing, Jews have found a sense of spiritual community i n the musical and cultural legacy of the Grateful Dead. Supporting Thoughts
Disenchanted Jews who were attracted to the Deadhead community found numerous familiar similarities and links to their own religious and cultural ro ots. Some of these are quite obvious, others are a bit of a stretch. The following are some of the ways the two worlds resemble one another. You be the judge.