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Published: 2002/10/23
by Bill Stites

The Grateful Dead, One Fans Appreciation: The Jammys Speech

{Editor's Note: Here is the text from the speech that contest winner Bill Stites delivered to Bob Weir on behalf of the Grateful Dead, when they took home the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Jammys.]

In 1965, 5 guys in San Francisco set about forging an alloy of all that was new, hip and right about American music. They were not a band the way rock bands had previously been conceived. They were a band like Robin Hood’s Merry Men. On keys and harmonica, a drunken white bluesman, the son of San Francisco’s first R&B DJ. An irritable avant-garde intellectual on the bass. On the drum set, soon to be joined by his musical soulmate, a walking, wide-open conduit of world rhythms. A true American romantic poet providing lyrics. And on guitars, a gifted storyteller, as nuanced and evocative with his instrument as his voice, and his introverted 17-year old sidekick, who grew into every bit as fine a player as his mentor, and who I can’t believe I’m going to shake hands with less than three minutes from now.

As rock and roll was taking its first steps out of infancy, these madman adventurers were already melting it under the white-hot torch of their creativity, stirring it into a cauldron with the free explorations of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman; the conceptual mischief of John Cage and Charles Ives; American roots music from bluegrass to folk and the blues; and the contemporary electric pop of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. For a year or two, the concoction smoked and bubbled, churned by the turbulent social climate of the time. Then, it was given life by a bolt of White Lightning, and out crawled perhaps the greatest democratic artistic success story of American history the Grateful Dead.

While their contemporaries were content to dress up rock and the blues with fuzz pedals and psychedelic trim, plastering a new fae over familiar forms, the Dead rushed to and embraced the unknown, emitting an atmosphere all their own, a traveling alien environment that followed them from town to town, ensuring that the only certainty was to be found in the uncertain. They found virgin musical territory, sounds that had never before been heard by human ears, settled down with them, and made them home.

In a world where most people assume that craven, mindless commerciality is the only route to musical megastardom, the Dead shine as proof of the rewards that await the truly courageous. They were the first act even remotely related to rock and roll to become wildly successful without the benefit of radio play, blazing a trail that would eventually be followed by acts as ranging from Ane DeFranco to Metallica. Both through their daring musical approach and their pioneering career-long commitment to improving the technology of electric music, they turned the entire idea of the rock concert on its head, and in the process laid the foundation for far more than most people realize. They took some of the most arcane, sophisticated concepts of modern music and got them across to literally millions of people through their originality, fearlessness, and infectious enthusiasm for that which is to be found beyond expectations. They turned countless souls onto types of experimental music they otherwise never would have encountered. They were true revolutionaries, and the shockwaves of their influence are still reverberating through the farthest corners of music today. They broadened thinking. They opened minds.

Perhaps it is true that, in the annals of American music, that which is vapid and manipulative has often seen more success than that which aspires to some greater artistic goal. But the Dead have outlasted all the trivial tripe that has come and gone, and the love they inspired, the number of lives they’ve touched, only grows to this day, 7 years after the loss that ended the band’s performing career. By that standard, I can’t think of any other artist, in any medium, that has been as truly successful as they.

Not only the inspiration for the scene we are all gathered here to celebrate, they loom over it as a monument to the possibilities inherent in extemporaneous live music, a challenge to musicians of all kinds to attempt to approach their immediacy, their openness and their primal passion. Where so many bands today are content to imitate and celebrate the past, the Dead were always scrambling as fast as they could toward the future. Without a doubt their sound is idiosyncratic, influential and wonderful. But far more impressive and important are the ideas that led them to that sound. To quote another of this scene’s most admired figures, “if you take from the Dead what you should, you won’t sound anything like them.” I wish more of the bands on the scene today could take that advice to heart.

Over their thirty-year career, the Dead played everywhere from pizza parlors to hash bars to student protests to Woodstock to the Great Pyramids. They inspired a community of fans more rich and devoted than any other in the history of music. What they achieved still refuses to be categorized. It cannot be encapsulated, commercialized or simplified. And it continues to change lives to this day. There is no better reason to present to someone a Lifetime Achievement Award. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we salute The Grateful Dead.

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