A Virtual Community of Deadheads

Dave Lichtenstein, Brown University, Autumn 1997

"But that's what we're after — a kind of community. And we have it." — Jerry Garcia

With the call of "Dead Freaks Unite" in their 1971 self-titled album (asking for names and addresses, and promising to keep their fans "informed"), the Grateful Dead began what was commonly referred to a large and loving family. Over their nearly thirty years of existence constant touring, a dedicated fan base, and the mailing list helped to link together a sort of community of "Dead Heads", as they became known. Fans came to the concerts not only for the music, but for the atmosphere, the gathering of so many people all in pursuit of happiness and a night of magic.

But what served to make the Grateful Dead family even tighter was the presence of cyberspace. Using computers and electronic mail, a Dead fan could find out about upcoming shows, news of the band, or trade bootlegged tapes (tapers were sold special tickets at shows) of favorite concerts. More importantly, fans had a place to come together to share interest in the Grateful Dead and in a common way of life. Their unity became quite apparent with lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia's death, as Mikal Gilmore notes in the Rolling Stone tribute issue for Garcia:

In the hours after I learned of Garcia's death, I went online to the Well, the Bay Area computer conference system that has thrived in no small part due to its large contingent of Deadheads. I wanted to see how the fans were doing and what they were saying in recognition of their loss. For the most part...what I found were well-meaning, blithe comments people sending each other "beams" (which are like positive extrasensory wishes) and fantasies of group hugs."

Such systems as the Well (http://www.well.com/index.html) and various Dead home pages allowed fans, from all over the world, to feel as though the Grateful Dead was not simply a band, but a communal experience. With music that "broke down the lines between artist and audience" (as Ben Fong-Torres put it in the same issue), with a warm atmosphere that stressed community and an open mind, and with the (electronic) means to keep hundreds of thousands fans linked together despite being spread over different continents, the Grateful Dead, perhaps as no other band has, formed a tight-knit virtual community and truly allowed all those "Dead Freaks" to unite.

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Last modified 27 January 2005