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‘Long Strange Trip’: The Cultural Phenomenon of the Grateful Dead

As the eagerly anticipated documentary hits theaters on May 26 and premieres on Amazon Prime on June 2, we take a look at the band’s epic contributions.

Grab your tie-dyed skeleton or dancing bear T-shirts, “Steal Your Face” stickers and a veggie burrito (or two) and settle in for a four-hour event that is sure to delight devotees and casual fans alike. Long Strange Trip, the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary from director Amir Bar-Lev and executive producer Martin Scorsese opens tomorrow in selected theaters and starts streaming on Amazon Prime next week.

Emerging from the Haight-Ashbury San Francisco counterculture of the 1960s, the Grateful Dead stands as one of the most enduring and beloved bands of all time. Under the band’s de facto leader, Jerry Garcia, the group played a blend of folk and rock and brought jazz-influenced, sometimes 30-minutes-long, improvisations into the rock world—ultimately, it became an iconic institution that even Garcia’s death in 1995 has not diminished. 

Bar-Lev first reached out to the Grateful Dead about doing this film back in 2003, and Long Strange Trip features candid interviews with the band, road crew, family members, and notable Deadheads, and documents their rise to fame and subsequent ambivalence toward it. The film is punctuated with never-before-seen archival footage from the band’s vaults, live performances and unguarded offstage moments. 

“I’ve always admired the spirit and creativity of the Grateful Dead,” Scorsese said in a statement. “They are revolutionary artists who forever changed the world of touring and recording live music. They were a cultural force—a lifestyle, that continue to influence new generations of fans.”

So let’s take a short, strange trip through some areas beyond music where the Grateful Dead have made lasting contributions. No acid required.

Social Media Pioneers

Though groupies have existed since the first popular bands starting touring, the dedicated fans of the Grateful Dead truly brought devotion to a new level by creating a spiritual experience rooted in camaraderie. The band’s policy of first ignoring and eventually encouraging bootleggers created the original form viral music marketing. “Tapers,” the gear-heads who recorded shows as obsessively as they followed the band, were given their own special section at each show in the ‘80s. Their reputation as a live band was built on the proliferation of these tapes, which were copied and mailed out and traded. Hence, the Dead helped construct the first social network. By building a community and connecting it through technology, the band helped people around the world share their passion for the music and communicate with each other long before the Internet and Facebook came along.

Audio Innovators

For a bunch of hippies, the Dead were always technological pioneers. Among the revelers at Ken Kesey’s famous “Acid Test” parties, Owsley Stanley was well known for creating the best acid ever cooked and the chemist used the profits from his sales in the early ‘70s to create the Dead’s notorious audio rig: the Wall of Sound. Unwieldy, incredibly expensive and ultimately unsustainable, it nevertheless remains a touchstone for sound systems of all shapes and sizes, from those used in clubs to the massive systems deployed at today’s mega festivals. Why? Its brilliant solution was putting the public address (PA) system behind the band. This configuration allowed the band and the audience to hear the same thing. It eliminated feedback by effectively serving as its own self-contained monitor system. It also separated the vocals from all the other instruments, each of which got its own dedicated PA. This produced a striking clarity in the Dead’s live mix that had not been heard before and set a new standard for live music.

Savvy Businessmen 

In 2012, self-proclaimed Deadhead Barry Barnes, a business professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, published the book, Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip. Barnes calls the Dead masters of “strategic improvisation,” which is the ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances—and that their success lay precisely in their commitment to constant change and relentless variation. Business lessons corporations have picked up from the Dead include:

• Giving away your product for free to increase demand

• Founding a merchandising division

• Learning do-it-yourself business by in-sourcing 

• Creating a business tribe by collaborating with fans

Physical and Online Archivists

Several celebrity have their own museums but, in keeping with its cutting-edge reputation, the Grateful Dead not only has The Grateful Dead Archive (GDA), which is physically housed in the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California-Santa Cruz, but it also has The Grateful Dead Archive Online (GDAO). Online, the socially constructed collection includes more than 45,000 digitized items drawn from the UCSC Library’s extensive Grateful Dead Archive (GDA) and from digital content submitted by the community and global network of Grateful Dead fans. Archive curator Nicholas Meriwether states: “The Grateful Dead archive is going to end up being a critical way for us to approach and understand the 1960s and the counterculture of the era . . . It’s also going to tell us a lot about the growth and development of modern rock theater, and it’s helping us understand fan culture.”