Excerpt from This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans, published by Flatiron Books. Signed copies are available from http://perfectible.net

The reason people are still talking about the Grateful Dead fifty years after the band’s founding is that they made an absolutely unique and deeply compelling — to a small number of people — kind of music. They created something musical and something more than musical. If you understood it, if you vibrated with it, it was just incredibly attractive. They played differently every time; they really did. And the charisma of the individuals! They were like the Beatles in the sense that every one of those guys had a persona that people in the audience related to. Plus they looked like just a bunch of schmucks like us. It started out as a neighborhood scene in San Francisco, with them playing for their peers and their friends, and it got bigger because people wanted to get in on it. It grew organically because of its power, its beauty, and also its imperfectness. There was a sort of mystique around it.

The San Francisco music scene came up in the ’60s when the doors were blown wide open in the culture. Recorded music only became available in the 20th century, and a group of smart, alienated, young middle-class kids in Palo Alto, California, had access to music from all over the world. A bunch of musicians with different interests and different styles came together to play, first in a jug band—an interesting phenomenon in its own right—and then found the limitations of that acoustic style of music and went electric, inspired by a couple of different things, including the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night. That seemed to get everybody who was alive interested in being in a band. So these guys were playing in a jug band and they all got electric instruments and started playing music a little more seriously and a little louder. And then they hooked up with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and started taking LSD to play music, and that sort of liquefied everybody’s individual psyche and allowed them to merge their musical sensibilities to create something entirely new.  

An important part of this — and the thing that made the Grateful Dead unique within their cohort and pretty much in the history of rock music—was collective improvisation: their uncanny ability to invent music out of thin air and create a sort of spontaneous midair architecture. They were creating brand new structures on the fly, everybody playing and listening to one another with equal intensity. It depended on everybody having an open mind and a generous spirit, and not (as Dead lyricist Robert Hunter later put it in another context) “dominating the rap.” They could go from one song off into uncharted space and literally go anywhere that the music could take them, including utter silence, cacophonies free of key signature and/or time signature, everybody playing as furiously as they could all at once with no particular cohesion, and every possibility between those extremes. At its best it was incredibly beautiful music, and it made people want to hear how the experiment would come out the next time. That’s how they built a culture of people around them who were drawn to this music and wanted to participate: we wanted to listen in on this conversation among really smart people who were creating an eclectic blend of musics, taking familiar ideas and recasting them by juxtaposition, inversion, recontextualization, repetition, non-repetition — endless possibilities, all based on a vocabulary of mostly accessible themes.

Along the way, they wrote more than a hundred amazingly satisfying songs. And that is another key component of it, because it doesn’t matter how good your jams are if your songs are lame. The Grateful Dead had so many great songs, and they stitched them together with improvisation, in a conversational manner.