Music History

Are You a Grateful Dead Fan? Then Read This.

I’ve never been much of a jam band fan, but I do appreciate how these bands super-serve their audiences. This culture began with the Grateful Dead whose attitude eventually begat everyone from Dave Matthews and Phish to String Cheese Incident. But how did they the Dead do it? This article looks at how the Dead revolutionized rock and created the whole idea of the jam band.

Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro wears a mischievous grin as he picks up a skull from his desk, adorned with a lei, a lightning bolt where its third eye would be, a pair of circle-rimmed sunglasses, a crown of roses and a “50.”

The head that once wore this medical skull symbolizes Bertha, one of the official mascots of an up-and-coming band called The Grateful Dead.

“Bertha, I think, is probably some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation,” said longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter of the song for which she’s named. “Cycle of existences, some kind of such nonsense like that. I wouldn’t be surprised, but then again, it might not be. I don’t remember.”

Cycles of existences are worth considering tomorrow on March 17, the 50th anniversary of The Dead’s self-titled, 1967 studio debut, as they continue to inspire a whole inclusive subculture of fans, promoters, roadies and travelers known affectionately as Deadheads.

As one of the most well-known Deadheads, Shapiro can acknowledge how the Dead came through every box in the attic of his life—his cycle started when making a touring documentary about The Dead at 20, continuing as he transitioned from patron to owner of Tribeca’s late Wetlands Preserve, an activist club of Dead-acolytes and jam bands before jam bands were a thing, a year after Jerry Garcia died, in 1996.

When Wetlands closed in 2001, Shapiro took what didn’t work about the venue and learned from it to create the 20,000-square-foot venue/bowling alley/restaurant known as Brooklyn Bowl, which he opened with partner Charley Ryan in 2009 before the franchise spread to London and Vegas.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37452 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “Are You a Grateful Dead Fan? Then Read This.

  • According to Garcia, in a 1971 interview in Rolling Stone, Bertha was a fan in the Grateful Dead office
    …”It was the only air conditioning we had at the time and if you left it for a minute, it would crash into the wall and chew out a big piece of it. It was like having a big airplane propeller, live, you know, running around.”
    Hunter may be speaking of what the metaphor means in archetypal terms as a writer, in interpretation, but the source was something else. People make what meaning they like out of his songs.


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