In early 2009, a 52-year-old grandfather began leaving comments on the Internet Archive’s Grateful Dead collection, where nearly every note the band played live can be listened to for free.1
“God, how I love this music,” he wrote under the name JustAFloatingSage, about a 1968 show. A few months later he told this story below an irresistible 1970 Fillmore East concert: “So I am feeling a little tired a few months back. I get my sorry ass into the doctor’s office,” and “one of them little f—-ing tests comes back and informs me that prostate-cancer has me scheduled to meet with the big Banana-Head in the sky.”2 He went on: “Here on the Grateful Dead Archive I give my most sincere thanks for the chance to have lived.”
The post, like a good Grateful Dead song, got better as it kept going: “I should have mastered learning to love, I can see that now. I am now willing to love. So much of my life was suffering. Listening to the Dead was one of those simple pleasures for me.” He turned back to the concert: “Time to just shut up and listen to the show,” he wrote. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
The Internet Archive’s mission is “universal access to all knowledge.” It’s possibly best known as the home to the Wayback Machine, an essential digital library of more than 602 billion saved web pages. The Dead database, small by comparison, tallies about 15,644 concerts, including multiple versions of the same shows: 4,714 recorded straight from the soundboard, 6,308 taped by the audience, 1,026 from the year 1990, 660 from 1980, 322 from 1971, 114 from 1968, and two from 1965. All of the music here is streamable. Much is forgettable. Hours and hours, days and days, are sublime. But nothing moves me like the 10,000 or so comments left by listeners.
Dreamy, detailed, and sometimes deranged sentences run on like the riffs they describe. These posts are tender, nostalgic, and frequently celestial. Hipness, a linchpin of music writing, is nowhere in sight. Authority and expertise disappear when each opinion is about as right as the one above. It’s practically the most mellow body of writing I’ve ever found. And nowhere have I seen better usernames: to-the-point (Bonk), catchy (Bobstopper), mellifluous (Shwoogie74), plausible (Dave Davis), and paranoid (NixonWantedMeDead).
This is a serene place, but not a boring one. Consider the reactions to a fan shouting “woo-woo!” throughout “Casey Jones” at the Hollywood Palladium in 1971. In 2012: “Whoever is yelling along with the song is the man.” In 2006: “The fuckhead I’ve wanted to strangle for 30 years.” That July: “At least he is doing it in time to the music, in places.” Back in 2005: “Where was the taper situated, inside King Kong’s mouth? Under Jack Nicholson’s Cadillac Seville in his Mulholland garage? I’ve had a beer or two.” Last year: “I don’t even mind the woo-woo guy.”
Much of the thrill comes from memories that twirl and glide in unexpected directions. Reading the funny and associative anecdotes feels less like consulting polished music criticism than eavesdropping on stoned strangers. When Jjg4762 first heard a forty-three-minute, December 1973 version of “Dark Star” in a friend’s family’s basement, they were left “in total peace, because his mom was the first known alcoholic to us. She would be upstairs drinking away,” he wrote. “Oh, the good old days of youth.”
Some things commenters keep quiet about. In 2006, a decade after Jerry Garcia’s death, Donald Trump introduced Dead guitarist Bob Weir and his band RatDog to the Beacon Theater: “Now, I have some good news,” Trump said, and paused. “I have some really good news for you tonight. Bob Weir will not be able to perform. But I am taking his place. Is that good news?” Here Trump took his own turn. “Nobody—nobody—has sold out Madison Square Garden more than Bob. Two hundred fifty-one times! Nobody,” he said a third time.3 A commenter with the handle Shermski, in 2019, left the only response: “What a hoot, in hindsight.”
Several commenters sound like they could be characters in the same loosely plotted novel. “This was my last in a long life of shows,” Kmisner wrote in 2008, below the recording from a 1989 concert held in JFK Stadium days before Philadelphia condemned the building. “By this year I had three kids and was deep in marriage and all that stuff.” He crossed paths there with a rookie sailor. “This was the first show for me. Stationed in the Navy in Philly. Some friends of mine talked me into going to this show, not for the music, but for the recreational activities,” Leafoflifer posted that year. “While the recreation was everything they said it would be, and more, it was the music that changed my life.”
Read in bulk, certain repetitions emerge. Recordings are “tasty” and “crispy,” “gifts” and “treats,” but also “killer” and “monsters.” Eyebrows bounce and mouths hang loose. JourneyHome remembered laughing throughout the same show, “slack-jawed and amazed all day, at everything, and everyone, including our moronic selves,” before night began to fall with a “big, fat orange, hazy sun going down.” The good moods last past dawn: a user named Traction described stepping out into the morning with a headful of “glistening, piercing, plangent, inexhaustible, transcendent” music from a marathon June 1970 show at the Capitol Theater. “Everyone was smiling.”
The Dead, of course, aren’t for everybody. The same expansiveness that makes fans marvel has been known to annoy or appall many others, and sometimes bores even loyalists. The comments come by their style honestly: The Grateful Dead made rambling music that had no particular place to go and wasn’t in a rush to get there. The music, no matter how much it glistened, never sounded definitive or complete. The songs wanted to be sung in city after city, again and again, a little differently each time.
Many of the memories here wander far, but some are tough and tight. “It was hot, and I was with Leslie S. I was drunk,” one post said about a 1973 show at RFK Stadium. “My first real drunk show. Blacked it out and wound up in a bus terminal somehow. May have got back to Leslie’s house with her family. Took until ’87 to sober up and not drink. This was the first of many shows where I cannot remember much.”
Even the most meanderingly autobiographical comments generally pay off. “I was there, 34 years ago, a callow 21 year old only four months back from two years in Hong Kong, where I had dodged the draft as a Mormon missionary,” another commenter wrote about the 1971 Hollywood Palladium show. “It was at once ecstatic, sinister, joyful, dark, and simply bursting with a sense of possibility.”
An undertone of something mean and dire looms in the Dead’s music. Garcia abused heroin; Phil Lesh, the bassist, lost his liver; the wild and wonderful organ player Pigpen was dead at 27; pianist Keith Godchaux died after a tie-dye artist crashed their car; Brent Mydland, who followed on keys, overdosed. The lyrics are about magnolias, begonias, and roses, but they’re sung by characters who are down and out, in hock, or on the run. Even when the sun shines bright on these songs, you can hear the wind beginning to howl.
Darkness lurks in the comments, too. In July 2009, a user named Oh_uh_um_ah posted a long rave of a show, calling it “superduper.” One month later, a user named Ah_uh_oh_um published almost the same comment, in full, but tagged on a warning. “PS: If you voted for Obama and lost your job, your home, and/or your retirement, or had your college tuition increased and services cut, it’s called karma.” The only text in between Oh_uh_um_ah’s original and Ah_uh_oh_um’s twin is JustAFloatingSage’s post about his date with the big banana-head in the sky. Elsewhere, the latter’s illness brought out both the Archive’s golden mellowness and its shadow. “Here are thousands of us here wishing you peace and safe passage,” Oldhead21470 offered in 2009. “I know that from the second we arrive we are all on borrowed time, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Hey man, you can cure your cancer,” a commenter named Jonathon whispered a few weeks later. “Contact me, man, and we’ll fix you up for your grandkids, OK? Let me know if what I say appeals to you.” It was his only post about a Dead show.
Things got ruder beneath another Fillmore East concert, where Sid Weiss left instructions for downloading show recordings in 2006. “Sid, you are a dickhead!” Cliff Hucker wrote that year. “Who needs to download when we have access to this tremendous library?” “Well, Cliff, you fucking dick face,” someone else answered. “You fucking sanctimonious piece of shit.”
That’s just a whiff of the stench that lingers despite the Dead’s sweetness. “Does anyone remember the guy that jumped off the back of JFK during ‘Wharf Rat,’” 4theFaithful asked about the 1989 show in Philadelphia. “Said he bounced and lived.”
Many of the most chaotic memories here belong to the band’s final decade. Gvtmule and his friends still recall the sound of a Deadhead’s skull at that same show. “We all distinctly remember seeing a guy pass out and hearing his head thud as we made our way to our spots on the field.” Help came and they went on their way. “It’s funny, the stuff you remember.”
Everyone seemed to be taking some kind of spill that year. “People were jumping over the big blue wall that separates the field from the seats,” Bonk wrote about a show the band played three days later in Giants Stadium. “I remember seeing a guy jump and break his arm. As soon as the second set started, he was in a sling, dancing in the lightning storm.” GravityJAG described flowing over a rail with thousands of others to get closer to the stage. “When I hit the floor, two security guards grabbed me and said, ‘Say you’re sorry.’ So I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And they let me go to mess with someone else.”
I find it difficult, too, to read about the era’s plumbing. “The bathrooms were so backed up! Like a lake of piss,” Lover7 wrote in all caps. Dweeter described “some pretty bad scenes in the parking lot,” including “more than one turned over porta-potty.” Not for nothing had dirty Deadheads inspired Joan Didion to report to the polite readers of September 1967’s Saturday Evening Post that the rough beast’s hour was coming round at last. On the night the magazine published “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the Dead was backing Neal Cassady in San Francisco’s Straight Theater.4 Didion’s description of young women inside a Sausalito house where the Dead had been rehearsing would be at home on the Archive: “They are all pretty and two of them still have baby fat, and one of them dances by herself with her eyes closed.”
But Didion wishes she wrote some of these posts. “We only had about $5 between the three of us. Tickets were $5.50 at the door,” MasterST remembered about the 1971 show with all the woo-wooing. “Then a really loaded guy stumbled upon us, and Larry reminded him of his deceased brother. He gave us the rest of the money to get in.”
In Nick Paumgarten’s 2012 history of Dead bootlegs for the New Yorker, one of the best things ever written about the band and its devotees, he cited his admiration for the heft of the Archive’s collection. But he poo-poohed the commenters’ personal memories, calling them “as tedious as recounted dreams.” I think he’s wrong, but I concede others might land on his side. One post about an onstage fire at a 1973 show received this peer review: “One star for the long drawn out story with no punchline.”
Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive a quarter century ago, had gotten his first Grateful Dead bootleg years earlier from a friend inside MIT’s artificial intelligence lab. “‘Well, Brewster, here’s a tape,’” the friend, who’s now a dean at the school, told him. Kahle told me: “It was a real gift.” Later, the Internet Archive’s effort to provide access to all knowledge brought him back to the Dead. The library offered the band’s online community of tape traders unlimited storage for concerts—with high resolution, forever, for free. “We don’t believe you,” said the email back from Etree, an early web group of Deadheads, Kahle recalled. “But, if you can do that, it would be our dream.” John Perry Barlow, who wrote much of the band’s lyrics and was also an early and key advocate for an open internet, gave his blessing. The Dead Archive opened in 2004.
Just before Thanksgiving of 2005, the music disappeared. “It was brought to my attention that all of the Grateful Dead shows were taken down,” Lesh, the bassist, wrote on his website, explaining that other members of the band had come to a decision, which he disagreed with, to remove the recordings. He said he’d become a fan of the Archive: “I found myself being pulled back in time listening to old Grateful Dead shows while giggling with glee or feeling that ache.” It made the New York Times, where Barlow spilled, politely, about a “pretty heated discussion” with Weir about access to the live music. Soon after, the archive was restored with a Solomonic resolution: Audience recordings are now free to listen to and download, but you can only stream the recordings that were made straight from the band’s soundboards.
Some listeners still pout. “The whining has got to quit,” Gdtrfsobad wrote under a 1973 show at RFK Stadium. “I mean, all these guys have ever done for me is open my eyes to a multitude of dimensions.”
On the Archive, the writing about the Dead’s live music often transcends the personal mode and approaches something closer to the galactic. Nothing brings out that cosmic style like “Dark Star,” a song that the band stretched from a three-minute studio single into its own solar system. Ginosega left a flight log for the same forty-three-minute 1973 version that played in the friend’s basement: “About 12 minutes in, Phil fires the engines and turns the ship out of orbit, until at 17 minutes we have arrived in the deepest, darkest part of the galaxy.” The trip isn’t half over. “Only at 21 minutes into the song do they actually start playing the song.” The post, which has a kind of sci-fi internal logic, describes interstellar wind and multicolored ooze, before, “at about 36 minutes, we start the return trip, passing through more familiar systems on our way back home.”
One of the magical things about how high the Dead flew is that they managed to do it without, say, Sly Stone’s rhythm, Joni Mitchell’s poetry, or Brian Wilson’s voice. The allure of this band—whatever it is that keeps sparking so much cosmic wonder and nostalgia—is foggy and mysterious. Paumgarten, in his New Yorker piece, identified a sprawling combination of factors, including Garcia’s soulful charisma and Appalachian gloom, the band’s 26,000-watt sound system, an ethos of group improvisation, and the “particular note of decay” in each cassette swapped from hand to hand. You can think about the Archive as not just the best tape rack of all, but as a collection of thousands of swings at saying the inexplicable. A user named Scottie78 was so moved by a half-hour version of “Dark Star” at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1972 that he not only came close to leaving a bullet point for each minute, but more or less created an identification system to differentiate the micro-micro-genres he heard, from “Space Jazz” and “Acid Jazz” to “Acid Jazzgrass.” It’s embarrassing and magnetic at the same time.
Others tip over from starry-eyed to freaked out. “So cacophonous, atonal and scary that it could potentially traumatize animals when played loud,” Phleshy said in 2004 about a version from Rotterdam in 1972. “If this explanation sounds stupid in words, then listen to the last half-hour of ‘Dark Star’ in a darkened room and see if you feel remotely secure.”
The line between the personal and astronomical is thin. Boboboy’s recollection of the 1989 show at JFK Stadium is what Didion might have described if she had witnessed more people sway: “I clearly remember seeing the swirling masses of thousands on the floor from my perch all the way back.” The dancers below looked like birds up above, “a flock of starlings cruising the sky, but in slow motion.”
Some of the writing aims even higher. “When you want to know what it is like being in heaven, cue up the second set,” Seedanrun wrote about the band’s beloved 1977 show at Cornell. “When you want to feel what it is like to be face to face with God, dim the lights and really focus on the ‘Morning Dew.’”
The glory of that show, performed inside the university’s Barton Hall on a snowy night in May, is perhaps the nearest the Dead Archives come to consensus. The thought of sullying it with a rating scale offended a user named GruUbic: “If this is five stars, is heaven a 4.5?” In 2004, BillDP went further, calling the show “the single best live performance I have ever heard from any group at any time.” His authoritativeness is only outdone by the dumbstruck. “Mere words cannot do justice,” Grateful Hillbilly posted in 2015. “Words like amazing and unbelievable and incomparable don’t capture the immensity of awe.”
Kahle, the Internet Archive’s founder, tells me that he wishes more of the web was shaped like the Dead Archive. “What you’re looking at,” he said, “is from an era of the Internet that I think is best typified by what Tim Berners-Lee called ‘pages.’” Today, he said, instead, what dominates is the “feed.” (“Horrible word,” he added.) Facebook and Twitter scroll by endlessly, unaccountably, and unpleasantly, but “it wasn’t always that way, and it was a choice.”5 Each Dead show, he said, is “something you can anchor to, it’s something you can revolve around.” He went on: “By making things endure, we can have people cherish them, use them, and invest in them. So the writing is fundamentally different. I think we should go back to it—or forward to it.”
Across various pages, JustAFloatingSage continued to post throughout 2009, including a message he sent that September “to everyone at the Archive”: “A honkin’ good thank you from a friend you’ll probably never get to meet.” His description that year of a 1974 show in Louisville’s Freedom Hall reminds me of Philip Larkin’s jazz reviews for the Daily Telegraph: “Piercing when piercing feels right. Bouncing when the bop is on.” Larkin would have hated this music, but not this: “Humdinger of a finger clinger here.”
He left reminders for himself across different shows, including two on the same day: “Note to self: Don’t forget to take this one with you on your trip to Humboldt, perfect for during-the-night driving,” and “Note to self: Don’t ever be down, just turn on this ‘Midnight Hour.’”
Others are plaintive: “Don’t forget to love yourself today when you read this note,” one said.
Eventually, the fog of psychedelia and illness merge: “We will always be looking for that chord,” he wrote about a 1973 concert. “I am lost in the ozone here this morning.” The post ends like this: “Where oh where.” The pace of his comments slowed as the year ended. The only one in January was about a 1969 show at the Fillmore: “Ahhhhh, heaven.”
He left his final comments a year after his first. “Note to self: This ‘Dark Star’ goes everywhere,” he wrote just after Valentine’s Day. “The trick is staying alive.”
Some comments are edited for clarity, but the hyphens are his. ↩
As far as I can tell, the Dead played no more than fifty-two times there. ↩
It wasn’t a keeper. “I guess you had to be there,” Muddguts wrote. ↩
Twitter isn’t all bad. The music writer and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow has a keen eye for the memories across the Dead Archive. ↩