Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who died on Sept. 23, 2019, wrote in a foreword to LIFE magazine’s special issue on the band about what it was like to be in the environment that gave birth to this musical phenomenon. He began, “I’ve never seen a film nor read an article that successfully described the 60s as I personally lived them.” He then valiantly attempting to convey they feeling, talking about the Vietnam war, the peace movement, Angela Davis, protests, and kids showing up at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, so full of hope but also “completely unprepared to feed or house themselves, reduced to panhandling, easy prey for the hard-drug concerns that destroyed the scene in short order.” At the end of his piece, Hunter concludes “Knowing what we know now, even a time machine could never return us to the heart of those times since mind-set is 90 percent of what the 60s were and must ever remain; attitudes born of innocence and fantasy, yet resolutely hopeful.”
It is the mind-set Hunter described, as much as the music, that have made the Grateful Dead an enduring element of American culture. Humans haven’t invented a time machine, but the band’s songs have the power to transport people to a place and a moment that were imbued with a feeling. Even if you weren’t at Haight-Ashbury back in the day, maybe you were at the legendary Dead show at Hampton, Va., on October 9, 1989, and felt the spirit. That Hampton show is when they played for an encore “Attics of My Life”, from the American Beauty album, for the first time since 1972. Or even if you weren’t in Hampton that night in ’89, maybe you were able to enjoy it through a bootleg recording. Maybe you’re enjoying it right this second. Because the band encouraged fans to share live recordings, links to the Dead mind-set are always a computer click away.
These photos, from the special issue below, document the journey of a band that has meant so much to so many.