Written By: Kostya Kennedy

The Grateful Dead burst onto the ’60s scene with a simple, blunt appeal suited to its time: trippy, danceable and intricately melodic music soaked in the peace and love ethos. That was plenty to get people on the bus. Yet it’s the details and idiosyncrasies, namely, what songs from its rich and alluring catalog did the Dead unfurl when, where and how (and in what order!) that has helped sustain the band’s extraordinary survival—for 30 years until the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, and now for a brimming, quarter-century afterlife. The Dead’s primary offspring band, Dead & Company, had 19 dates on its Summer of 2019 tour and recordings of the Grateful Dead’s roughly 2,300 live performances are still listened to voraciously. The Dead have a dedicated station on satellite radio, a medium indulged largely by affluent suburbanites. If you saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac in the 1980s, you might see one on a Tesla today.

It wasn’t just that the Dead, and the Dead pretty much alone, let fans record their concerts. The fact that they let you plug straight into the soundboard, or point a microphone from the crowd, front row, last row, anywhere in between, meant that you could, within limitations, make your own mix: A little more Jerry here, a little less drums there. How much Weir? How much Phil? Even for the vast majority of Deadheads who weren’t taping, the message was clear: We are giving you this music, this experience, it’s yours.

That each night was unique, that you could attend 50 shows in a year or, more modestly, a few consecutive shows in the week the Dead swung through, and never see the same set, never hear the same song executed in the same way, was not a protracted stunt. It was the thing itself. Every night, the unexpected. At their peak the Grateful Dead played more than 125 gigs a year. Playing more than 80 in a year was common to the end. The band did 47 shows in their rickety final six months, the last performance exactly 30 days before Garcia, doomed by heroin addiction, died at 53—his life cut short, his legacy undimmed. 

According to setlist.fm the Grateful Dead incorporated more than 520 songs, both originals and covers, into their live shows over the year. The cover song they played most often was Not Fade Away, a rendition of the 1950s Buddy Holly song. The Dead would close their second set with it sometimes and in the later stages of the band’s run that set-closer served as a cue: After the Dead walked off and the house lights dimmed, the audience would keep singing the song’s chorus, “You know our love will not fade away.” Then the five rhythmic claps, and then again “You know our love will not fade away.” The crowd would do this for minutes on end, over and over, however long it took until Jerry and Bob and Phil and the rest of the Grateful Dead came back out to play a few more.

Kostya Kennedy, in LIFE’s special edition on the Grateful Dead

These photos, from the special issue below, document the journey of a band that has meant so much to so many.

The Grateful Dead

A new special edition from LIFE

Cover image by Herb Greene.

Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead, in 1965, began performing under the name The Warlocks.

Photo by Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Grateful Dead

Jerry Garcia and band manager Rock Scully (left), spoke to author Tom Wolfe (right) at the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

Image by Ted Streshinsky/Corbis.

The Grateful Dead

Promoter Bill Graham stood in front of the marquee for the final shows at Winterland with the Grateful Dead and the Blues Brothers in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1978. Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images.

Grateful Dead

In their home in San Francisco in 1967, band members protested to reporters that they have been unjustly arrested for marijuana possession.

(AP Photo)

Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez

Jerry Garcia, folk singer Joan Baez, and Mickey Hart shared a laugh at his home in San Rafael, Calif.

Image by Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

Grateful Dead

Suzanne Vega performed with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden in New York City during a rainforest benefit in 1988.

Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Grateful Dead

Two fans cried at a shrine at the entrance to Serenity Knolls, the Marin County, Calif., rehab center where Jerry Garcia died in his sleep on August 9, 1995.

(Photo by Misha Erwitt/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Further Festival

Jeff Cimenti, Phil Lesh, Joe Russo, Bob Weir and John Kadlecik carried on the legacy of the Grateful Dead as they performed at 2010 Further Festival on May 30, 2010 in Angels Camp, Calif.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.

Grateful Dead

Celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead played at Soldiers Field in Chicago in 2015 to conclude their Fare Thee Well tour.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

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