What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Dan Thompson and Rev. Josh Pawelek

Part I, Introducing the Grateful Dead


This morning’s service explores spiritual insights in the music of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was an American Rock and Roll band, formed in San Francisco in 1965.  They lasted 30 years, through many changes in culture and taste, until the death of one of their founding members, Jerry Garcia, in 1995.   They fused many musical styles including folk, rock, reggae, jazz and bluegrass.  They played some 2,350 shows. The remaining members continue to perform to this day, collaborating with a huge array of musicians.  

To those of us who loved them, the Grateful Dead spoke to two spiritual yearnings: freedom and community.  Freedom to be who you really are, to pursue the things you really like, to step away from the button-down world of business and school and see and experience things in a different light. And in proclaiming that freedom, what emerged was a community—not only of fans and music lovers, but of fellow travelers, searchers, experimenters, counter culturalists, peace-lovers, and out-of-the-box thinkers—people who still share a common bond today, nearly twenty years since Jerry’s death.  

The point of this service is not to turn you into a deadhead. But rather to use the Grateful Dead experience—and to identify music in general—as a kind of stepping stone to enlightenment, our May ministry theme here at UUS:E. The Grateful Dead had some unique successes in terms of their longevity, their output, the huge record breaking crowds that attended their shows year after year, the poeticism of their lyrics, the sense of community that grew up around them, and tie dye.  We cannot forget tie dye.  And so I invite you this morning, as they themselves might invite us, to “come hear Uncle John’s band by the river side. Come on along or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.”

 Rev. Josh:

Dan purchased this service at last year’s Goods and Services Auction. Just a reminder: this year’s auction will happen on Saturday the 18th and yes, there are sermons for sale! Today is a little different than the usual bought sermon in that Dan has written quite a lot about spiritual insights he draws from the Grateful Dead’s music and he will be speaking this morning as well.

A few years ago Dan had read a story in the New York Times about two rabbis who offered a weekend retreat in Litchfield County called “The Grateful Dead: Blues for Challah” (which was a play on the title of a Grateful Dead album, “Blues for Allah.” It was a weekend of discussions, sharing, playing music, singing and philosophizing about the connection between the Grateful Dead’s music and Jewish people.  And Dan thought, there must be connections between the Dead and Unitarian Universalists. And that’s what this morning is really about.

But before we go further, I want to confess a fear. Unitarian Universalists often profess a strong identification with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Because UU ministers marched with Dr. King, because a few UUs lost their lives protesting segregation, the Civil Rights movement is a primary lens through which we view our relationship as a faith community to American history. It is also true that quite a few UUs have a fairly strong identification with (or at least fond memories of) the 1960s counter culture—peace, love and happiness; sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, Woodstock, bell bottoms, long, beautiful Hair, alternative spirituality, communes, co-ops… and hippies. Though not entirely by their own design, the Grateful Dead was and is the quintessential 1960s counter culture band. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Jerry Garcia said the real part of the 1960s was not the political part or the social part, but the spiritual part.[1] There’s a lot about the counter culture that I like, but my fear is that we 21st century UUs will become overly associated with that culture as in, “oh, they’re a bunch of 60s lefties,” or “a bunch of 60s radicals,” or worse, “a bunch of hippies.” the problem is that in today’s world  the hippy identity is not what it used to be. it’s become a stereotype, and quite often a negative one. I’ve never wanted to serve a 21st century congregation with a 1960s reputation.  So, a service on the Grateful Dead? Uh-oh! Wear your tie-dye? Yikes!

In the end, I’m not really concerned. In the end, there is something much deeper here than hallucinating hippies frolicking naked in the mud at Woodstock. The Grateful Dead subverted and even shattered many norms and crossed many lines through their music, their lyrics, their do-it-yourself business practices, and their invitation to their fans to be present or, as writer and music producer Steve Silberman says, “to be however you wanted to be, however you felt just at that moment.” Indeed, he goes on, at a Grateful Dead concert “people were freed up to do what they naturally do—to play, to ponder the mysteries at the heart of everyday existence, and to build community with kindred spirits.”[2]


Part II, What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Freedom


Grateful Dead concerts—shows—were always unique, never carbon copies.  Night after night the band changed the set list and the song arrangements.  Time was an elastic concept on a Grateful Dead stage. A song ended only when every possibility embedded in the structure, and set loose by the group’s improvisational empathy on that particular night, was tested and fulfilled.  The band would often flow from one song to another without a break, and although sometimes those transitions were entirely too long, they were remarkable transitions—as much a part of the show as the songs themselves. The band would often drop into weird time signatures, 7s and 11s (instead of 3s and 4s) sometimes with members playing each to their own time… Fans rarely heard the same song played the same way twice. Perfection was not the point. Where most other artists try to perfect their stage show and get everything just right and repeatable and synched up with the lights,  it was the sense of imperfection, of change, of adaptability that made a Grateful Dead show an expression of freedom.  

Of course this was not the unbridled freedom we might associate with musical anarchy. Each band member was an individual creative entity, but creative in relation to every other band member. They trained themselves to listen intently to each other and to feel each other’s energy. And they trained themselves to listen to the audience, to feel the audience’s energy.  They played to that energy.  They had a saying that the music played the band. For them the entire experience—the audience, the venue, the song selection, the energy—made a whole. Freedom yes, self expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always responsive and responsible to the whole.

So what you were left with, with a good show, was this feeling of being lifted up, of participating with the show, of anticipating where the show would go, and moreover, experiencing this with the entire audience… because the audience reaction often guided where the band went with its music.  And so, yes, you had this organic whole… a unique experience. And that is the experience that people still talk about today…

It seemed natural, easy, free. It seemed to just flow. But it actually took years of practice. It took hard work.  At the beginning they practiced almost daily, and sometimes twelve hours or more.  The incredible jams that they played, that we deadheads loved, with changing time signatures and keys that seemed to float around on their own didn’t just happen, they took thousands of hours of practice.  And this reminds me that anything that seems new or interesting or exciting or simple, often takes many hours of practice to make happen.  

It reminds me that to be successful, to gain joy, to spread joy, it is really, really important to do what you love and love what you do.  Because it can take years to become really good at something.  We might say practice brings freedom. Is that enlightenment? I suspect it is.

Rev. Josh:

I want to address two aspects of freedom that seem to coincide with peoples’ experience of the Grateful Dead. First, freedom within the music. Although Jerry Garcia is often identified as the leader of the band, there was no leader. Bassist Phil Lesh once said that “nine times out of ten if someone tried to take charge … it would just dissolve in their hands.”[3] Guitarist Bob Weir said it is pointless to try to tell each other what to play.[4] Each musician was free to bring their ideas, their energy, their creativity into each song, night after night, such that no performance was ever repeated. Garcia once described the band as a process rather than an event.[5]

It strikes me that this is akin to what we expect our Unitarian Universalist faith to look like. We want each member and friend to bring their full self to the life of the congregation—their energy, their creativity, their passions, their beliefs. If we told each other what to believe—if we asked everyone to confess the same creed—if we expected everybody to think and act alike—it would dissolve in our hands. We wish for each other the freedom to be who we are. But what keeps it together? There must be some limit to our freedom, some boundary. Well, in talking about what kept the Grateful Dead together, philosopher Horace Fairlamb says the band’s unity was not “the spontaneous product of selfless yea-sayers, but more like the opposite. It was the product of strong personalities who shared a vision with enough commitment to make it work.”[6] And what was the essence of that vision? It had something to do with valuing community as much as individual expression. It had something to do with a desire to listen and respond to what others are doing—to revel in the way one’s own ideas can be shaped and positively transformed by what others are doing—to recognize that in a community where acceptance matters more than agreement and diversity matters more than sameness, we have enormous opportunities for growth. Freedom yes, self-expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always aware of the other, always responsive to the other, always accepting the other, always open to the possibllity of change in oneself, always responsible for the health, well-being and positive growth of the whole.

Second, freedom beyond the music. In working together in spontaneous, creative ways; in the nightly discovery of new musical paths, members of the band and members of the audience would describe an intense, communal, even spiritual experience, the emergence of a group consciousness. Fairbanks cites drummer Bill Kreutzman’s speculation that “there is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights , and it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience.” Garcia, more cautiously, called the experience “some kind of intuitive thing.”[7]

I can vouch. It was Tuesday, September 27, 1994, the first of six shows at the Boston Garden, and my first Grateful Dead show. I was not a deadhead, though my then girlfriend, Stephany, was. We went to see the show. I was skeptical. I was more of a hard rock, alternative rock, heavy metal kinda guy. The Dead? Nah. Not my thing. I promise you I took no drugs that night and I saw very little drug use inside the Boston Garden. I was moderately impressed through most of the show, until they played the song “Standing on the Moon.” Something happened. Some spirit of the music, of the evening, of the crowd swept me up and for a moment I was enveloped. Whatever it was, it was palpable. For a moment I lost myself in the whole. And I’ve heard countless Grateful Dead fans talk about a similar experience.

I don’t for a minute believe this essentially mystical experience they’re describing is unique to Grateful Dead concerts. People report these kinds of experiences in response to all sorts of music, all sorts of art, all sorts of physical activities, all sorts of worship. It’s an experience of ourselves stepping out of ourselves into a larger connection, a feeling of oneness. In our Unitarian Universalist sources we call it the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. Often fleeting, often momentary, it’s an experience of freedom beyond the constraints of our daily lives, our bodies, our culture. It’s refreshing. It’s rejuvenating, even inspiring.  This kind of experience is one of the reasons the Grateful Dead were so immensely popular. And I believe this kind of experience is one human beings long for.


Part III, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Community


Philosopher Steven Gimbel writes that the spirit of the Grateful Dead “gave rise to a culture all its own. The traveling carnival that landed in fields, parking lots, and campgrounds across the country several times a year was filled with folks eager to dance over all the conventions that were socially enforced in the white-bread world they sought to leave. Each tour was a living laboratory, an experiment that was one part social engineering and one part chaos theory. There was an ethos to the parking lot, a social code, an economy, and customs all its own. It was a nomadic culture within a culture that attracted those who felt that there must be a different way.”[8]

I certainly agree. For deadheads, the Grateful Dead was much more than a band.  It was a reason for gathering together. To unite.  It was a shared experience.  The people who self-identified as Deadheads sometimes spent summers trailing the band from venue to venue.  Some of them set up camps and makeshift markets where they sold trinkets and beads and tie-dyed clothing.  They knew not only the lyrics to all of the songs, but the order in which they had been played at the shows they had attended.  It became a community of like-minded people who simply wanted to be there for the joy and connectedness it brought them.  

I never called myself a Deadhead, at least not until fairly recently.  But what did it for me was that I came to realize that if I brought my guitar to a sing along there was probably a handful of Grateful Dead songs that everyone knew and could sing along with and maybe even play along with.  And that was the case more than any other group I could pull from.  And that finally made me realize that yes, there is that thread of community and as much as I might want to deny it, I am a part of it.

 Rev. Josh:

I can vouch. It was spring break, March 1987. I was on tour with the Oberlin College Steel Drum Band in the Washington, DC area. The Grateful Dead were playing four hours away at the Hampton Roads Coliseum in Hampton, VA. We had a day off. We decided to drive to Hampton and set up our drums in the parking lot at the Coliseum.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived is that people were living there—tents, campers, vans everywhere. Lots of laundry drying in the sea breeze. Then I realized we had set up in what appeared to be the middle of an open air bazaar. People were selling jewelry, clothes, food, drugs. I’d always heard about the phenomenon of people following the Dead. Now I was part of it for a day.

We played and played and played. A crowd swarmed around us and danced. It seemed to go on for hours. People came with hand drums and tambourines and joined in. At this point, I can’t remember how long we actually played. I do remember people talking to us once we were done, people wanting to know who we were, where we were from; people thanking us for being there. I remember people wanting to feed us. I could perceive an underground economy in the parking lot, one in which sellers would try to earn a few dollars, but certainly would not balk at bartering or giving away their product for free. There was a sense of flexibility, of many ways to conduct business, of friendliness, of mutual concern, or genuine interest in strangers—a sense of real community. All of it mirrored the way the Grateful Dead conducted their own life as a rock band. I liked it. I was glad I went.


Music can tell us about truth and beauty.  It can enlighten us, or just as easily pull us away from enlightenment in the glitz, the glamour, the selling of sex. But the Grateful Dead preferred its audience to seek enlightenment. They said “come join us, be as you are, if you’re weird, that’s ok; if you’re not that’s ok too. We accept you just the way you are, and you accept us just the way we are. Acceptance. I like that. That’s what makes a community.

Rev. Josh: Acceptance. That’s what makes a community. Amen and blessed be.


[1] Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.

[2] Silberman, Steve, “Half Baseball Game, Half Church,” in Gimbel, Steven, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. x-xi.

[3] Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 19.

[5] Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.

[6] Fairlamb, Horace, “Community at the Edge of Chaos,” in Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, pp. 18-19.

[7] Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 23.

[8] Gimbel, Steven, “Some Folks Trust to Reason,” in Gimbel, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. xvii.