Deadheads, still going strong: My experience with the Grateful Dead

This past year, the iconic band The Grateful Dead celebrated their 50th year anniversary as a band by playing 5 final shows. Two were played in Santa Clara, California, where the band got its start. The last three at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, where in 1995 they played their last show before the passing of the band’s creator and lead guitarist: Jerome “Jerry” Garcia. These shows sold out in no time and were a huge success. This came to no surprise to anybody due to the always-loyal “Deadheads”, who flocked from all over the world to attend the shows, despite the band being dormant for 20 years, while other members played in separate solo projects. Many went to relive their glory days on tour and some, like myself, went to experience what they could only see or hear in videos of live shows and the scenes before and after them. However, everybody there was there for one common thing: the music.

Everyone was given a rose to honor the deceased guitarist: Jerry Garcia.
View from our seats in the upper bowl.

Who exactly were the deadheads? The definition given by The Dictionary of American Slang, “A devotee of the rock-and-roll group the Grateful Dead,” gives no justice to the true meaning behind the term due to the definitions extremely broad interpretation. They are arguably considered the largest and most loyal fan base of any band to ever exist, traveling around city to city and even out of the country, selling out shows, disregarding school or work just to hear the music being played. They immersed themselves in the subculture created years ago that still exists today. Not all deadheads were like this however, just the ones who were able to do so. This is the beauty of the subculture: you don’t have to be the most dedicated fan and travel around ignoring every responsibility to be a part of it. In fact, according to a Times article written by Amy Goehner, it states that politicians Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, actress Whoopi Goldberg, and basketball player Bill Walton are all self-proclaimed deadheads. Pelosi even had the remaining members of the band invited to play at a party she was planning back in 2007. What are some of the reasons why this subculture in particular is still so popular and has not yet died off yet? In terms of the amount of shows played or fans reached, why hasn’t there been another band to emerge in the past half a century that did what The Grateful Dead accomplished? Through my experiences and the people I met and at these final five shows played, I was able to understand how the Grateful Dead differentiated themselves from other groups and, in my opinion, became the most successful band of their era.

My introduction to The Grateful Dead started when I was working at Jersey Mike’s, a local sandwich shop that I had worked at for years, on a particularly slow night. With an hour until we closed, my co-worker and fellow Grateful Dead fan Evan and I sat in the back listening to our favorite Grateful Dead show: New Year’s 1978 at the famous Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Although Evan was two years younger than I was, he was arguably more of a fan than I was. We would talk for hours about our favorite songs, sets, or just about anything Dead related. Looking over at Evan scroll aimlessly through his Facebook timeline, his eyes got so wide it looked they might just pop out of their sockets.

“No f****** way… This has to be fake,” he said, as I saw him click the link and investigate further.

“What, dude? Did somebody else famous die or something? I can’t take any more dead celebrities. It’s starting to bum me out.” I say, wondering why he won’t just tell me already. He tosses me the phone.

“Look for yourself! This won’t bum you out!”

There was an article containing an interview with Jerry Garcia’s daughter, announcing that the band would play 5 final shows, and stated the locations and dates. At the bottom of the article there was a text box that read, “In the tradition of the original Grateful Dead Ticketing Mail Order, tickets will first be made available via a first-come, first-served mail order system.” We were both confused by the statement, shocked that we couldn’t just go online and purchase our tickets right then and there.

Fast-forward two months: only two months remained until the concerts and after working so hard to send out our envelopes early and request tickets, Evan’s and my faith began to wear thin, until, one morning, our luck changed. I was awoken by my phone, which rang right next to my ear. The lyrics to my favorite Grateful Dead song: Franklin’s Tower, accompanied by the sweet soothing tone of Mr. Garcia himself play through the tiny phone speaker, loud enough for me not to ignore. “In another time’s forgotten space, your eyes looked from your mother’s face. Wallflower seed on the sand and stone may the four winds blow you safely home.” It was Evan. “CHECK YOUR MAILBOX! CHECK IT NOW! THEY CAME!” I didn’t even have to ask and sprinted down my apartment’s communal hallway, half naked in hope of my tickets sitting ever so peacefully in my mailbox. I opened my mailbox, peered inside and to my surprise saw a single envelope. I tore the envelope open and saw 5 tickets, one to each night’s show. In a matter of hours, Evan and I had our flights and hotels booked and were ready to go.

Ticket stub to one of the most listened to dead shows of all time. (
Ticket stub to one of the most listened to dead shows of all time. (

The Grateful Dead developed a unique strategy to build an extremely large following, some of the ways were a mailing list and hotline they created in which they would provide tour information as well as ticket information to loyal fans who signed up. In a sense, they were a group of marketing geniuses, able to spread the word of their shows to the masses quickly and efficiently. David Scott, author of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead explains in further detail on page 80, “Fans would call a special telephone number to hear a recording about the upcoming tour and then mail in ticket requests, along with money orders, directly to the Grateful Dead ticketing office in San Rafael, California. The best seats, the ones on the floor with the best view, were then mailed to those who knew the drill and were motivated to go to the post office, get a money order, and follow the ticket procedure.” The system also helped catalyze word-of-mouth marketing. Fans would tell fellow fans that they got the best seats when they called in to the band themselves. It created a sense of importance to some fans, as if they were the band’s biggest and most loyal fans. All seats were the same price, and it was completely random as to which seats were received. The algorithm of how they chose which seats to give out is something nobody has ever understood, but it was that sense of mystery and excitement that kept the mailing system alive.

After the journey from our home in Orlando to San Francisco, we rented a car, drove an hour to Santa Clara, and were ready to go to the show. We went four hours early to experience what the parking lot had to offer, with hopes to meet some fellow Deadheads and purchase merchandise from vendors — and oh man, did we do just that! After parking the car, we entered the massive, concrete lot jam packed with people walking around drinking beer and playing guitars, enjoying each other’s company. As we got further into the lot, we stumbled upon an unusually crowded area. A variety of unidentifiable smells came from various vendors and sounds from old friends reconnecting filled the air. Tents lined both sides and had flags and banners promoting their business hanging from their tops, selling miscellaneous Grateful Dead items, but mostly clothing and handcrafted jewelry or backpacks. Before we could even walk into the crowded area, a man with thin white hair and a seasoned tie-dye T-shirt with the classic “steal your face” skull on approached us. He was an older heavyset man with round-framed glasses and a cane. He hobbled over to us and the first thing to come out of his mouth was an offering of drugs. “You boys look like you need some LSD!” A cheerful smile came across his face.

“I’ve got that covered, but I appreciate it, man.”

“What about some Marijuana? It’s good, I promise!” he said, almost seeming desperate at this point.

I looked over at Evan, he shrugged his shoulders and handed me 20 dollars. I took out 20 dollars as well and handed it to the old man.

“You know what, I’ll take 40 dollars worth if you don’t mind.” He pulled out a baggie from his jacket and handed it over.

“Not a problem, you guys are really helping me out, trying to make all five shows, but I’m a little tight on cash!”

He introduced himself as Eugene from Ohio, told us to enjoy our first show, and took off hobbling in the opposite direction. I stuffed the baggie into my pocket, and Evan and I headed deeper into the crowd of people. It was clear that there were a lot of drugs being traded or sold here, but that wasn’t the main reason people were there. As we strolled down the aisle we saw people holding decorative, handmade signs. Most of them stated they wanted to trade tickets to other shows, others held up their index finger in the air, which was a signal that they needed one for that night. We saw groups of twenty or more younger fans sitting in large circles, all banging their drums to a hypnotic beat. Next to them there were food stands selling grilled cheeses or veggie burritos yelling out, “One for three! Two for five! Three for ten!” I walked to one of the vendors selling the run of the mill merchandise, run by a tall, lanky man with a bucket hat on. After buying a shirt and bumper sticker for my car I asked him, pointing back at the rest of the lot, “Does this happen at every show?”

“Of course, man. Half of these guys, including myself, couldn’t afford to make it out here if all of this didn’t exist, it’s all a part of the tour. Now excuse me, I have to get back to work if I want to make it to Chicago on the 4th!” He said, walking away to help another customer.

While all other popular bands of their era were focused strictly on album sales, The Grateful Dead were focused on the complete opposite: creating revenue by touring the country and creating an experience for their fans, attracting them to show after show. They did this by performing a new show every night after night. No two set lists would ever be the same, making fans follow them around in order to see their favorite songs played in person. Part of this experience was finding and exploring “Shakedown Street”, the large marketplace that I had stumbled upon in Santa Clara. The band worked with the Deadheads to create this traveling marketplace that allowed fans to use their iconic “Steal Your Face” logo, a skull surrounded by red and blue, with a white 13 point lightning bolt through the middle, on what they sold. This resulted in free marketing, after they realized half of their fans financed their cross-country tours by selling band related merchandise, t-shirts, and of course drugs, like my new friend Eugene. Just another demonstration of why they are the most dedicated fans in music history.

After having a few more drinks and wandering around Shakedown Street, I realized we need to head into the venue: Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco NFL franchise, the 49’ers. As Evan and I entered the stadium, and saw the massive stage with the bands instruments all set up and ready to be played. Enormous speakers lined the sides of the stage, at least 50 feet high. By the time we got to our seats, all the way at the top of the stadium, the moment we had waited for was finally here. The Grateful Dead took the stage as the sun set over the horizon, and the crowd went wild. The first notes played and to our disappointment, echoed throughout the stadium, which resulted in the music sounding absolutely awful from where we were sat. I looked over at Evan who was equally disappointed.

“We didn’t go through all we did and travel 3,000 miles across the country to hear our favorite band sound like this. We’re going to the floor, follow me.”

He had no objection, even though he looked confused as to how we were going to get onto the floor without a ticket. I told him,

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve been doing this with my older sister for years.”

Which was true, my sister and I over the years had practically become ninjas at these events, and had learned how to sneak around venues to get the best seats. Some were easier than others, but she always had a way.

“You just have to look and act like you know what you’re doing, and that you’re supposed to be there, it’s that easy.” She would always tell me, as I followed her onto the floor of countless concerts in the past. I was confident my previous experiences would help me out in this particular situation.

The path to the floor
Pure Bliss. My view of the original seats moments before Evan and I sneak onto the floor.

By the end of their first song, the sun was setting and Evan and I had navigated our way through the maze of sections, flooded with people trying to get a beer or something to eat without missing too much music. As we walked down the aisle of the lower bowl, I spotted an elderly woman at the bottom of the aisle checking tickets before letting them pass onto the floor. We stopped about ten rows from the bottom and waited, as I looked for a way around the old woman. The band played the chords of their second song, titled “Uncle John’s Band”, a favorite song of many Deadheads. As the crowd erupted with cheers and whistles, I noticed the woman wasn’t checking any tickets and would just let people by as long as they had a ticket in their hand. I explained to Evan that as soon as the band started their next song, we would take our tickets out, flash them to the woman, and swiftly walk past her, and onto the floor.

“I also didn’t travel 3,000 miles to get kicked out of this show.” Evan said to me, in a disapproving tone.

“Relax, man, don’t think like that. We’ll be fine.” I respond, trying to persuade him, intently watching the woman check tickets, still not entirely sure my plan was going to work.

The third song began. “Grab your ticket!” I exclaimed, wasting no time walking down the aisle, which quickly turned into a bee-line toward the floor. I flashed my ticket and smiled at the woman with Evan right behind me, and before she could even ask for our tickets, we were already on the floor. I did a 360 degree turn, absorbing the sights and sounds I had been previously been missing out on in my previous seats. The music sounded crisp and clear, and there were lights of all colors, particularly blue and red coming from the stage. Evan and I decided to get a little closer to the stage and take advantage of my perfectly drawn out master plan to get on the floor being a success.

Where we ended up on the floor!

We got as close as we could, before we hit a barrier separating the rest of the crowd from a group of people, all with long poles with microphones attached to the end. Not your ordinary microphones either. These things looked expensive, as did the equipment they were being plugged into. They were obviously recording the shows, but for what purpose? They looked like ordinary deadheads just like the rest of us without equipment, no uniforms or anything signifying they were being paid to do this like the ones directly behind them in the sound booth. I leaned over and tapped one of the gentlemen with a particularly nice microphone.

“What are all of you guys doing, and why?”

He leaned back over to me and yelled as loud as he could over the sound of the band.

“It’s for the folks who couldn’t make it out to the show, and it could even go into the archive! I’ll of course put it in my personal collection as well.”

Possibly the smartest move The Grateful Dead ever made in terms of gaining exposure, was giving fans the freedom to record the audio straight from their shows, offering the best positioned seats for recording as the “taper section” under one condition: the tapes were traded amongst fans and not sold for profit. Over the years there became a few famous deadheads who were known for their unique recording skills along with the special knack to get the perfect sound quality. Many of these deadheads ended up working for the band as sound engineers or archivists dedicated to recording and preserving the band’s music in the highest quality. Nick Paumgarten, author for The New Yorker and longtime deadhead, explains just how many shows these Deadheads recorded, “It’s safe to say that the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any other performance group in history. From their establishment in 1965, to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, they played 2,318 concerts, and more than 2,000 are available in some form or another. I can’t think of any other band that has even close to that much recorded music all available and so easily accessible” says Paumgarten.

All of this music, along with other countless pieces and forms of memorabilia are held at the University of California, Santa Cruz. According to Scott Rappaport, a staff writer for the University who wrote a piece on the archive, The Grateful Dead donated their extensive band archive to UC Santa Cruz in 2008. A year later the campus was awarded a National Leadership Grant of $615,175 from The Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize the materials from the archive and make them available online. UCSC Librarian Virginia Steel explains in further detail in the same article,

“This is a first for the UCSC Library, and the grant gives us the opportunity to create a new model for web-based archives that will include traditional materials from our Grateful Dead Archive–along with materials contributed by scholars and Deadheads around the world. The web site will provide access to Grateful Dead Archive materials, as well as tools to facilitate public contributions to the archive.”

The archive will not only include music, but materials related to obsession of the deadheads and the bands highly successful musical business.

In 2012 the University was finally able to launch the archive. The GDAO includes nearly 25,000 items and over 50,000 scans, documenting The Grateful Dead’s 30-year history from 1965-1995, according to Scott Rappaport, a writer for the University. This archive being launched meant big things for the Deadhead community, and had the potential to gain the band even more fans. Librarian Ginny Steel expressed her excitement for the community she is proudly apart of, “This is a significant contribution to the Deadhead and Grateful Dead scholarly community,” she noted. “The functionality included in GDAO will offer new opportunities for people to engage with the band’s legacy and to help build it, so we are excited to be able to provide such wide access to this collection.” The archive symbolizes The Grateful Dead and the Deadhead subculture coming together to make something that they both loved so much live on forever, the music.

I ended up traveling to Chicago with Evan and attending the last three shows our favorite band would ever play and had the time of our lives. It was a special moment for both of us and the whole trip is one I will never forget. I am extremely grateful that I was able to attend these shows but more grateful for the legacy The Grateful Dead left behind. I was able to be apart of the mailing system, experienced the bizarre bazaar they called Shakedown Street, and discovered the incredibly detailed and extensive archive that grows every day. Through these experiences and discoveries, I was able to uncover how and why The Grateful Dead, with the cooperation and help of their army of loyal Deadheads, became the most successful and influential band of their era.


“We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” – Jerome “Jerry” Garcia













“deadhead”. The Dictionary of American Slang. 1 Nov. 2016. <


Goehner, Amy L. “How Grateful Dead Fans Became Deadheads.” Time, Time, 26 June 2015,


Paumgarten, Nick. “Deadhead.” The New Yorker, New Yorker, 18 Nov. 2012,


Rappaport, Scott. “UC Santa Cruz Receives $615,000 Grant to Digitize Grateful Dead Archive.” UC Santa Cruz News, UC Santa Cruz, 29 Sept. 2009,


Rappaport, Scott. “UC Santa Cruz Launches the Grateful Dead Archive Online.” UC Santa Cruz News, UC Santa Cruz, 29 June 2012,


Scott, David Meerman. et al. Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History. Hoboken, NJ, Wiley, 2010.



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    Hello there! My name is James Tortorici. I’m 23 years old and a senior at Rollins College studying business management. My hobbies include traveling, seeing live music, skateboarding & collecting glass art. Future plans include moving out west to start my own company.

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