As detailed in Rolling Stone cover story, the Grateful Dead are preparing to officially call it quits after 50 years with their series of Fare Thee Well shows. Their absence will end a legacy that continues to span rock, pop, folk, jam and avant-garde music. We asked a diverse spectrum of artists — from their rock heirs in My Morning Jacket and Black Crowes, to pop champions in Bleachers, to the adventurous alterna-types in Sonic Youth and Animal Collective — to pick their favorite song.
I grew up rebelling against the Dead, and the culture around them — it seemed contrived, and I was tired of hearing about them all the time. Then someone told me, "I know you think you don't like them, but just try American Beauty." I started listening to it in our tour van and thought, "Whoa, these are actual songs." One night around then, we had a show in L.A., and I took a walk at three in the morning on Manhattan Beach by myself. "Candyman" came on, and it was one of those moments — it just hit me. It's so dreamy. The harmonies and the guitar work so beautifully. It just takes me to this place. It's about a drug dealer, but it doesn't feel cheap. I laid down against the lifeguard shack and listened to it 20 times. I feel like Jerry's spirit is one of the most beautiful spirits ever. There's something about his voice and his guitar tone, it radiated peace, but not a stupid peace, not a fucking tie-dye shirt with a peace sign on it: It was a questioning, kind of dark, peace.
The Skull and Roses album reminds me of being on the road with my dad. He was an antiques dealer, so he'd ride around different places to do his rounds, and we wore that one out. We'd sing along to "Me and My Uncle" together — I can remember my dad singing along to that last line, "I left his dead ass there by the side of the road." I always loved that. We'd wake up at five in the morning and go to other dealers' houses around rural Ohio, or go to the flea market, and we'd pull into the place and have to wait till the song ended. It's the kind of song you can't stop it once it starts.
That whole record is more upbeat, and pretty rocking for the Dead. You can tell they tailored it for a live audience to boogie and get down [to]. All those songs are groovers to get those hippies dancing. Their sets had movements, almost like opera or classical music. They went on a journey. No one does that anymore. If I did a live record, I would want it to have that quality, because it's just fucking electrifying.
Because I grew up in South Africa, I didn't really hear the Dead until after I came back to the U.S. in my late teens. But when I was a little kid, I heard "Casey Jones." I liked it before I knew what cocaine was, and before I knew what "high" was. So that one is sort of the nursery rhyme that sticks in my mind. You feel just a little bit lame if you choose that one, but I don't care. That's the one that is tattooed to me from when I was nine years old. Jerry Garcia is such a legend, so you don't really think about him being overlooked, but I do think that he is one of the most underrated songwriters. I've learned that in the past 10 years — not because I didn't want to before, but because the Dead just didn't really come into my radar. He was really just the most unique guitar player, and his early years are a perfect example of Americana songwriting.
When I was about 16, I was lying in the middle of a field in North Carolina with a couple of friends. I had just left home for the last time and I was sort of a vagabond. I was tripping — I don't remember if it was acid or mushrooms. When "Wharf Rat" came on the car stereo, it broke through my mind. An epiphany came over me. This was the late Eighties, early Nineties, the Me Generation, the Ayn Rand era. People were calling people "bums." And then here's the Dead, singing about this guy living on the street down by the wharf like he's a wizard, a mystical creature worthy of your time and respect.
They were painting these unbelievable pictures. It felt like they were creating an actual geographic location in the music — I could feel the dense moisture in the air around this dock, and the guitar almost sounds like a tugboat moaning. What I felt was like the way people get into the world of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. "Wharf Rat" made San Francisco feel like some beautiful, otherworldly place. Not everyone can do that — I'm not sure even Dylan's local color was as strong as what Hunter and Garcia and Weir were creating at their peak. It's some kind of half-dream place that I visit when I decide to let my mind go there. There's magick, with a k, all over all of the Dead's stuff.
When I first got into the Grateful Dead I realized that "Dark Star," in the universe of the band, is its own black hole. It's outside of the regular realms of space, time, mathematics and gravitational realities. It's everything great about the band in one song. In a way, it's the American version of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." You know it was born from a real psychedelic experience, a real one. There's no watering it down, even though the edited single they tried to put out was hilarious. The real version just sounds so complete, from the imagery of the lyrics to the fact that it's a song with no chorus and no verse compared to a conventional piece of music. It's abstract, but also incredibly poignant. When you're in a band that can make that happen, that's the occult magic of the whole thing.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a close friend who let me borrow Aoxomoxoa, and that's the first Grateful Dead record that really pulled me in. It wasn't how I imagined them sounding, based on the skeletons in the artwork. It was the Eighties, and that stuff was more associated with metal. But I was fascinated with what I heard. I made a tape from the CD that my friend lent me, and when my family used to drive down to Florida, I remember I'd put [it] in my Walkman and walk up and down the beach, listening to that album with the water coming onto the shore.
I liked "Doin' That Rag" because it's so catchy, but also so weird. It's written in a way that showcases Jerry Garcia's wandering guitar style, and it's hard to put your finger on at first, because it's moving all over the place. It's a song about dancing, so it has this groove to it. Or maybe you just imagine that it's about dancing — the lyrics are really absurd and confusing. "Hipsters, flipsters. . ." I could never really understand what he was saying. It felt like what the psychedelic experience should be: like being confused, but overly ecstatic at the same time.
A few years later, in sixth or seventh grade, I started to go see the Dead. It was the most amazing experience I'd ever had, being at a show like that with so many people tuned in to the same thing. "Doin' That Rag" takes me back to my youth, and experimenting with psychedelics and smoking weed and all that. I got into that stuff with a crowd — we were all into the Dead, and we'd go see them together. Those were easygoing times. It didn't feel rebellious. It just felt like we were kids discovering something crazy about the world.
Europe '72 came out right around the time that I started going to see the Dead and it had a huge impression on me. I was in the middle of high school, living in Oyster Bay, Long Island. I had already heard American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, and those records are so beautiful — their music just exploded for me. Then I heard Europe '72. It's this sprawling triple-record set. It's got all the epic jamming, revisiting their classics — "Truckin'" takes up an entire side, with almost 15 minutes of the most beautiful interplay — and then it's got all these incredible new songs: "He's Gone," "Ramble on Rose," "Jack Straw."
The Dead were just brimming with creativity in that period. It felt like they could do no wrong. "Jack Straw" is this wooly Wild West story, a hippie cowboy song. That mythos figured so much in their iconography. And it really shows off all three vocalists. It's a Bobby song predominantly, but there's a lot of Jerry, Phil and Bob singing harmonies together. Phil never really sang enough for my taste, and the harmony parts on this one are so good.
I saw the Dead in '73 at Nassau Coliseum, and that same year I saw them at the crazy big Watkins Glen festival. It was just outrageous. It was amazing to see the reciprocity between them and their audience. By the time Sonic Youth formed in 1981, my musical tastes had left the Dead behind, but I was always very proud of the fact that we had three different singers singing individually from different points of view, like the Dead. And their spirit of segueing from songs into open-ended spaces where everybody's playing off each other, listening to each other, and then back into another song was very inspirational to me. These guys were taking song form to new places. And I always hoped Sonic Youth would get around to making a live record with all new songs like Europe '72.
"Touch of Grey" is literally the coolest-sounding song of all time. It's just a brilliant song, brilliant songwriting and production. "I will get by/I will survive" is the most perfect lyric. Who on the face of planet earth can listen to that song and not relate? I love it in the context of the Grateful Dead, because it was such a weird moment for them. They represent the greatest fanbase. It's everything you want as an artist: You want it to be bigger than you, you want it to be about the culture. It's also the greatest music video, with the skeletons.