By Lee Zimmerman
Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail
Voyageur Press (ISBN 978-0760338544)
There’s been no shortage of books, essays and articles that have attempted to define the Grateful Dead’s appeal to the masses, and the accompanying allure that’s kept legions of Dead Heads an ever-growing community encompassing several generations over the course of some 40 years.
“Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads” first chronicled the phenomenon in 1983 and stayed in publication for more than 25 years afterward. However, as it became increasingly evident that this was more than merely a fan following of the usual variety, and instead something of a cultural shift, any new volume never seems to wholly suffice. So credit Paul Grushkin, co-author of the aforementioned volume, for not overstating the obvious and thereby avoiding redundancy. Instead he focuses on the nuts and bolts of the Dead Heads’ intents, specifically the desperate desire to obtain tickets to concerts that became increasingly precious as the band’s popularity accelerated and attracted new devotees in the ’80s and ’90s.
That may seem a narrow focus, but in truth, it goes a long way toward explaining the essence of the Dead Heads’ desires. The volumes of colorfully decorated envelopes and letters that flooded the band’s office — which evolved from a simple homegrown operation to a sophisticated ticketing system (acquiring the name Grateful Dead Ticket Service, GDTS for short) — reflect the full measure of tie-dye-hard devotion that the band’s fans always embodied.
The images accompanying the correspondence dug deep from Dead mythology, from the replicated symbols, album covers and lyrical interpretations etched in the missives, to the original art that featured freehand drawings of band members and other passionate pleas for attention. These were, in fact, the special sacraments of fan homage, a sacred symbol of devotion that captured the hearts of both the band and its hired hands. It became populist art at its purest, a further affirmation of the intrinsic bond that still exists between the Dead and their devotees.
Not surprisingly then, it’s the replication of these missives and assorted archival photos that flesh this book out, with text mirroring the illustrations instead of the usual other way around. A handwritten letter by Jerry Garcia in 1966 — and subsequently sent in response to an early fan’s inquiry — provides an especially touching example of early innocence. Yet, Grushkin makes “Dead Letters” a sequel of sorts to his first volume by delving into history and circumstance, including an entire chapter about famous people and politicians that wear the Dead Head banner proudly. He even got one of them, former NBA champ Bill Walton, to write the foreword, which becomes an eloquent description of how audience obsession can meld with the higher values to which a society aspires.
“The Grateful Dead touch everything that really matters in our individual lives: art, history, music, education, information, communication, love, health and family,” Walton writes. “Being part of this special team is truly life at its fullest and finest.”
That touching and tender tribute effectively sums up the spirit that echoes through this wonderful work as a whole.