Why The Grateful Dead Still Matter

In advance of this summer’s reunion shows, Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker explains why indie rock needs to quit snubbing America’s biggest band.

This Friday and Saturday, legions of Grateful Dead fans will descend on the Bay Area for the West Coast leg of what is being billed as the long-running jam band's last tour ever. The California shows—which will welcome some 65,000 ticket holders into Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium on both days—will precede a three-night run in Chicago next weekend, which will convene an additional 60,000 Deadheads at the Windy City's Soldier Field. With Stubhub sales far-outpacing even the demand for Taylor Swift's "1989 World Tour," the sold-out run is a reminder that the Grateful Dead, love 'em or hate 'em, are still pretty much the biggest band in America. That doesn't mean greying hippies and frat bros will be the only people in attendance, though.

Real Estate bassist Alex Bleeker has been a fan of the Dead—and jam band culture in general—since a life-changing encounter with American Beauty, the band's 1970 album, in his preteens; and next Friday, July 3rd, his namesake folk-rock outfit, Alex Bleeker and The Freaks, will take over City Winery in Chicago for a night of musical remembering. The event is a follow-up to the jam-packed Grateful Dead tribute marathon they led at New York's Brooklyn Bowl this past February, and will feature guest appearances from Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, among other independent rock musicians you probably wouldn't expect to count the Bay Area legends as an influence. The FADER asked Alex Bleeker to tell us why he's devoted the past six months of his life to learning how to play their songs, and why it's time the indie rock world got over its jam band stigma for good.

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ALEX BLEEKER: When I was twelve or thirteen, totally out of nowhere, my mom was just like, “I gotta hear The Grateful Dead's American Beauty.” And I had no idea what that was. We drove to Barnes & Noble in New Jersey and she bought American Beauty on CD and put it on in the car on the ride home. Something was driving her, like she needed to hear it. And those were the first notes of The Grateful Dead that I heard: "Box of Rain," the opening song. I was just like, “What. Is. This.” And I stole the CD from my mom, I think, the next day. I can't think of any other time where that happened to my mom, or any other really strong shared musical experience that I had with her. With all things surrounding The Grateful Dead, there's a tendency to be like, “It was cosmic; it had to happen this specific way.” That’s just how people talk, but it really does feel that way to me.

The album came at this time in my life when I was at the end of middle school and going into high school. I think I was looking in a very "young teen" way to redefine myself, and it was definitely this gateway to the whole suburban hippie jam band scene. At first, I was really into Phish. Going to a Phish or Grateful Dead-related show back then was like going into this world that I didn't know existed. I recently told The FADER about how I don't smoke weed anymore, but I was really into pot at the time, so that was totally a part of it. It was like, here's this place where all these people are smoking pot and dancing around to music. It was all these different ages, and I felt like I was looked at as an equal there; older people would come up to me and want to talk to me about the set. Even though it was big stadium shows, it felt like a secret world that I could enter into–and then I’d be in the hallways of high school the next day, feeling like, “Whoa, my life is crazy.”

As a band, The Grateful Dead were always open to it being a group experience. A lot of that was borne out of the drug culture, but I think whatever experiences they were having with the drugs was a symptom of this greater desire to be more spiritually grounded or connected or curious. They had this awareness that they were a band that created improvisational moments out of nothing, and that the audience was a part of that experience. It wasn’t like, “We're the band, you're the audience, there's a line, you can see us but you can't touch us.” It was like, “We're all here together.” I think maybe that's part of what made them so popular. Even now, the band are quote unquote over, and yet they're throwing the biggest concert of the summer—not Madonna or Taylor Swift or Skrillex.

Whatever was happening at the shows, it was so resonant and liberating that people literally followed them around on tour and lived off of the parking lot culture—like, sold tie-dye or burritos or whatever in the parking lot in order to keep following them. It just happened, and the band understood, and they were sympathetic and appreciative of these people. In that sense, there was this homespun D.I.Y. ethos, even though they became this really big band. Now people take that blueprint and know how to do it in a more organized way—like throwing a festival, or having a whole team of people that work together on something.

If you think about the Dead and the Velvet Underground, you have these two bands of people that have roots in playing out-there art parties, where there's some sort of early '60s drug culture happening. Almost like East Coast and West Coast equivalents of each other. There's huge bootleg taper culture behind both bands. Both bands are prone to really long, far-out periods of improvisation and loose structures. And if you look at The Velvet Underground's relationship with Andy Warhol and the underground art scene, you have that in the formation of The Grateful Dead around Ken Kesey, the Acid Tests; Allen Ginsburg was involved. You look at it now, with whatever us as music fans have brought to it, it's like, “Well, The Dead created, like, hippies and The Velvet Underground are kings of avant-rock and hipsters.” But I think their internal spirit was the same,, and their approach to music is the same; the Dead just blew up into this massive thing, which you can’t really blame them for. And The Velvet Underground broke up.

“What’s the real difference between a bro and an indie rock fan anyway? In a lot of cases, it’s which lunch table you sat at in high school.”—Alex Bleeker

In Alex Bleeker and The Freaks, we always had a couple Dead songs that we knew how to play just for fun. We would maybe mix some in on the road when we got bored, but we never really thought that we would do this until we mounted the Brooklyn Bowl show. We really only knew two or three songs, and we learned like 28 songs for it. Grateful Dead songs can be difficult, but it's only to serve the melody or to do this subconscious thing that moves the song in a way that you can't even hear as the listener, but you feel. Figuring out what all those things are, just in the way of getting them into our own fingers, has made us all better musicians. They're coming at from the same approach that I think they lived their lives by, which is never to do anything the same twice in a row.

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Sometimes people will be like, “You don't wanna be in a cover band, do you?” And no, I don't wanna be strictly in a cover band. We'll always play our own music, but The Grateful Dead is like a modern canon. I used to do a lot of theater, and I loved playing Shakespeare; it's just like, “Oh, these words in my mouth feel so good.” I'm not nearly as good as Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir on guitar—not even a shadow, not even a hair. But I can take what they did and turn it into my own thing, which is what I think anyone would say is really the point of it. You can make mistakes— they often did. And then you just look up and there are all these people with bright eyes and smiles, singing along and dancing right there with us. They're dancing for whatever Grateful Dead they're hearing in their head as much as us. It's like, we're all here tapping into this.

Even at Real Estate shows where there'll be a room full of people who are obviously fans of music, who bought tickets, there's not this culture of, “We’re gonna move around, show our appreciation.” Everyone's looking over their shoulder to see what's okay. And maybe that's why dance music is so popular right now. The DJ is still the rockstar, but you don't have to watch the musician. You turn around and dance with your friends. Just being in a space where it's free to dance and sing is really cathartic for a lot of people.

Nowadays, you have this frat boy type of culture surrounding the Dead. I think something happened in the '80s or early '90s to their fan base; it started to shift, and it became about doing drugs a lot more than anything else. Still, I think the further away we get from this dichotomy of, The Grateful Dead are one thing, and indie rock—or alternative, or underground music—is another thing, the more we see that there really don’t need to be harsh divisions like that. Our whole thing with Real Estate is trying to be like, “We’re just guys from the suburbs, we had this very common experience.” And I think a part of that common experience was having a knowledge of or interest in The Grateful Dead.

What’s the real difference between a bro and an indie rock fan anyway? In a lot of cases, it’s which lunch table you sat at in high school. It’s like, “I fall on this side of the line; I’m not the kid who maybe either teased me in high school or was a burnout dropout.” There’s this sort of intellectual elitism that comes with like, “I’m into alternative music and not that.” But now, to me, the Dead’s music sort of transcends those meaningless social boundaries, and people can actually address the music for what it is. And then maybe people can even dabble in each other’s social worlds—like, oh, you know what? I see this from your perspective, and it’s really fun, or it’s really interesting, or it’s really cool. If somebody who seems like a "bro" is there, I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek, but they're my bro.

Part of the reason why the reunion shows this week are such a big deal is that everybody is saying this is the last time the surviving members will ever play together. It's not just people who used to go—it's people like me, and people even younger than me who never even saw Jerry Garcia play. Who are just like, “I wanna go and pay respect, pay tribute." I'm going to see the music and I think it'll be really good, but it's not like I have any illusions that it'll be better than something I can listen to on my headphones from years ago. I'm going to be there, in that space, with these people who I respect so much. It's not just the band, it's everyone else who's going. It's just gonna feel really good to be united by this one thing.

Why The Grateful Dead Still Matter