Bringing Back 'The Dead'

Surviving Members Talk About Event That Tore The Group Apart

Can you bring back the dead?

A group of muscians now touring the country and playing to legions of loyal fans is hoping it can.

When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, most people thought his band, The Grateful Dead, would die with him. But the surviving members are back on tour.
It would seem that the odds of recapturing the old magic are against them. But they've defied conventional wisdom for decades.

When they started, nobody ever thought they would become the most successful touring band in history. And, as Correspondent Charlie Rose reported last fall, they were always ahead of their time, in ways they didn't even know.

To help Rose understand how they developed their unique approach to music and business, they took 60 Minutes back to where it all began -- in the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco. It's a place they hadn't been back to in more than 30 years

For the people on the street, it was the ultimate flashback.

Fans of The Grateful Dead still recognized bass guitarist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir.

The band went back to the corner where they once posed for a photo at the epicenter of the hippie movement. In the '60s, The Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack for the peace and love generation.

Four decades later, the surviving members of the band are rehearsing again. 60 Minutes first caught up with them last summer in Indianapolis. They had picked up a few extra band members for their first tour since Jerry Garcia, the heart and soul of the band, died.

"It's been a long strange trip, as they say, and coming back this way is like a love lost and found again, for me," says Hart. "The Dead's back."

"I thought, wow! It's really still alive," says Lesh.

And fans are coming to see the Dead for the same reason they always did: their trademark is jamming or improvisation. No song is ever played quite the same way twice, and it's what makes the band so unique.

Rose asked the band to show how they improvise. "It's our little secret," says Lesh, laughing.

They say improvisation is like a conversation, with each band member talking to another musically.

"It's a language, just like any language," says Hart. "Once you learn how to speak it, the more you speak it, the better you get at it."

And like any conversation, there are ups and downs. But by improvising, the Dead are continually risking total success or total failure, and the fans love them for it.

The fans are called deadheads and now, there are three generations of them. Because each show is different and unique, fans tend to go to as many concerts as they can, which translates into repeat customers and increased ticket sales.

It wasn't planned that way, but it's a blueprint for success now, followed by a whole new generation of so-called jam bands, like Phish and The Dave Matthews Band.

"I'm real happy to see it happening because these guys are making music that's a bit more real, shall we say, than, you know, your packaged stuff that was so popular for so long," says Weir.
Creating a money-making machine was never the band's intention. In fact, selling albums was a secondary priority at best. The Grateful Dead didn't even have a Top Ten single until it made a video, some 25 years into its career, called "A Touch Of Grey."

The song reached No. 9 in September 1987. But in typical Dead fashion, the band refused to capitalize on the commercial success. Even though "A Touch Of Grey" was a hit, band members wouldn't play it at some of their concerts.

"We played it about every three nights," says Weir. "It was in rotation."

"The thing is, if we hammer that puppy to death, it wouldn't have any life," says Hart. "And you know, it wasn't improvisational. It was a song, and the songs, they come and go."

Just about everything they did defied conventional wisdom. Instead of record sales, they focused on touring. And in the early days, they played for free as often as they did for a paycheck. And in that same spirit, they helped their fans steal their music. Not only did the band let their fans tape their concerts, they even gave them their own section to stand in.

"Jerry put it the best, as he frequently did, 'Let 'em have it. When we play it, we're done with it,'" says Lesh.

"Jerry thought the music should be free, anyways," adds Kreutzmann.

What seemed like commercial suicide actually turned in their favor. Taping increased fan devotion and also helped spread the word about the band, bringing even more people to the next concert.

"The Grateful Dead is all about luck," says Hart.

And it's the kind of luck that made them the most profitable touring band in rock 'n' roll history, grossing more than $50 million a year. It's a story about how to succeed in business without even trying.

"It's not possible for The Grateful Dead to have a business plan. We don't even plan the music," says Lesh. "Everything we've earned and everything we've done, we sort of backed into."

"The stuff we planned the hardest usually turned out the worst," adds Kreutzmann.

The irony is that the Dead's greatest legacy - in a time where record sales are plummeting and fans are downloading music for free - may be the business model they accidentally created. It's a model that focuses on the music and the fans, not the profits. And they're still improving on it.

Fans can order a CD of the very show they're attending. And the band believes the music industry should follow its example - to embrace new technology instead of running away from it.
The band has always been optimistic and idealistic, but those beliefs were severely tested when Garcia died in 1995.

Garcia, 53, had been battling diabetes, heart problems and a 20-year heroin addiction.

"It's one of the biggest tragedies or the biggest bring-downs of my whole life, to know that he loved the drug more than he loved us," says Lesh. "I felt like I had mourned him already when I got the call, and I had been mourning him for years. He was gone for years."

Approximately 20,000 fans mourned Garcia at Golden Gate Park. The four surviving members vowed never to play again as The Grateful Dead.

How did they find their way back?

"It's a mystery," says Weir. "I don't think any of us was really thinking about getting together and playing again."

"We just wanted to see if we could be brothers again, could we be in the same room," says Hart. "Then the thought as we were talking, 'Wow, maybe we could play again.'"

Because they promised not to play as The Grateful Dead, they're simply calling themselves The Dead. And the fans are just happy they're back.

That's why the band took 60 Minutes back to Haight Ashbury, to pay tribute to Garcia and the spirit of the times that made it all possible. They visited the house they shared during the summer of love - a time when money didn't matter and music was everything.

  • Rebecca Leung

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