I know this song, it ain’t never gonna end.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
The Grateful Dead took perhaps their biggest step towards immortality when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1994. But if there was a distinction for Most Unlikely Success Stories among the now-338 groups and performers that have been similarly recognized as of 2020, our beloved band of misfits would easily win, place or show. From their humble origins as a jug band (Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions), to their pivot to a rock band, called The Warlocks, to their first show as the Grateful Dead on 12/4/65 in San Jose, CA at one of Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” their initial aspirations were more oriented towards survival than fame and fortune.
During their first full year in 1966, the Grateful Dead played 100 concerts, selling tickets at the astonishing price of just $1, somehow surviving on a sparse $60,000 in revenue. By 1993 the Dead had become the highest grossing act in the concert touring industry, with more than $45 million in ticket sales. By the time they were inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year, the band was having its most successful year, commercially speaking, with more than $52 million in revenue.
Along the way there were drug busts, an embezzlement, the deaths of three keyboardists, several changes in personnel, financial issues leading to a year-long hiatus, numerous records that achieved limited financial success, and the ongoing drug addictions and physical decline of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, culminating in another hiatus – this time for five months – while the “leader of the band” recovered after collapsing into a coma!
With all of these skeletons in their closet, how did the Grateful Dead still manage to ride on down the “golden road” to become one of, if not the most beloved band in rock ’n’ roll history? T.W.I.G.D.H. offers a clue, as we travel back in time 13 years from the band’s pinnacle of popularity to the 12/5/81 concert from Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Midway through the first set we’re treated to a wonderful version of Ramble On Rose. In classic Robert Hunter-style Americana – replete with references to the Blues, Ragtime, Folk, Country, Spirituals, Nursery Rhymes and, of course, Rock ’n’ Roll – the song, well, rambles on until we get to the bridge, the climax of which is the crowd favorite: “Take you to the leader of the band.” Sung by the de facto leader of the band, this is the sexiest moment of the tune, but the lyric that gets passed by in the anticipation of the imminent crowd eruption is the one that most deserves unpacking:
I know this song, it ain’t never gonna end.
At face value, the statement is fundamentally illogical, as even “100 verses in ragtime” or the epic 47-minute Dark Star the Dead performed on 5/11/72 during the Europe ’72 tour eventually end. But if we expand the meaning of “this song” to include the Grateful Dead movement and the community that surrounds it, the assertion is not only rational but prescient. More than 25 years and counting after the band’s final concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field on 7/9/95, the “song” has, indeed, never ended, with countless recordings and tribute bands – including those comprised of the surviving members of the band – not to mention an impressive array of art, photography, concert posters, branded merchandise, books, articles, radio shows, podcasts, and websites (including, in all humility, DeadheadCyclist.com).
The knowledge that our time is limited and that most of us will not be remembered beyond our children’s and grandchildren’s generations is a powerful recipe for creativity. Finding your “art,” whatever that may be, is the most pivotal piece in putting together the puzzle of your most authentic self.
Within the context of this inadvertent success story lies a fundamental lesson from which we can all benefit. The Grateful Dead were a W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G. (What You See Is What You Get) band. There were no gimmicks like smashed guitars, no costumes and painted faces, no sliding across the stage on your knees, no playing the guitar with your teeth, no flying pianos, no snakes, and no pyrotechnics. The one word that best describes the Dead is: authentic. There wasn’t one insincere bone among all of the skeletons in their closet, and through all of their ups and downs, the Grateful Dead were an honest band that never lost sight of who they were, held true to their values, and stayed focused on the music and the message.
From the moment Jerry Garcia stuck his finger into a dictionary and pointed to the words, “Grateful Dead,” a destiny was created and followed that resulted in something “built to last.” This process, from beginning to end, was completely unintentional. It happened exactly as it was meant to happen because the players – the band and other influential members of the Grateful Dead family – remained fiercely authentic and committed to their community. By being who they truly were, and by staying out of their own way, the Grateful Dead succeeded in writing a song and a story that “ain’t never gonna end.”
The knowledge that our time is limited and that most of us will not be remembered beyond our children’s and grandchildren’s generations is a powerful recipe for creativity. Finding your “art,” whatever that may be, is the most pivotal piece in putting together the puzzle of your most authentic self. For too many of us, our truest identity lies dormant beneath the “shoulds” we give power to: job, family obligations, material trappings, and the like. Earning a living, being a faithful spouse and parent, and having a nice place to live are important, but only to the extent that they support our true passions, and do not obfuscate them.
For years I ran a small business, supported a family, and raised two children, and those roles defined me. But my art has always been writing, and it was only when I chose to prioritize my art over my roles that my truest self began to flourish.
If the example of the Grateful Dead teaches us anything it’s that there’s a paradox at play where legacies are concerned: The intention of creating a legacy for its own sake is a fool’s errand; being your truest self is the only way to find the path that is “for your steps alone.” Your legacy lies at the end of that path and no other.
For most, this is a lifelong process. You will meet “dire wolves” along the way that will try to seduce you in the direction of a path of their choosing. Most will appear in the guise of material success and other ego based temptations. Limit the power you give to them, as they are the surest path to self-abandonment. It’s not enough to find your true path, you must remain true to it no matter what influences you encounter along the way. And if you happen to find an unexpected pot of gold at the end of your rainbow, so much the better.
Find your song that “ain’t never gonna end,” and watch your life be shaped in its truest direction.
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