It wasn’t just music. It was a movement. An experience. An archaeology of folklore. An awakening.
That's what catapulted the Grateful Dead from its California counterculture roots of the 1960s into one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Known not just for their rhythms and live shows, the band became just as famous for openly discussing their use of drugs to transform music, and entice their audiences into a kind of collective trance during performances.
Deadheads – as their dedicated fan base was labeled – often went on tour with the band as they traversed the country, with true fans clocking up dozens - and some even hundreds - of shows. Even today, more than two decades after the death of band leader Jerry Garcia, live recordings of the Grateful Dead are still at the top of Deadheads' playlists.
Somewhat counterintuitively, perhaps, among the most prominent and devoted group of Deadheads are Republicans, conservatives and libertarians.
“Music is above politics. It crosses party lines,” Mickey Hart, the Dead's legendary drummer - and artist - told Fox News. “Music is for everybody. It is for Republicans and for Democrats. I have Republican friends. We enjoy music together. We don’t agree on a lot of things, but you can share music and it transcends. It’s not about lyrics, it is about that feeling.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson – who has attended at least 50 shows – named his latest book “Ship of Fools,” an homage of the Grateful Dead song of the same name. Conservative pundit and author Ann Coulter says she has seen 67 Dead concerts. Steve Bannon is reported to have been among the college ranks of Deadheads. And Dirk Kempthorne, a secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush, has even met Hart - and bought some of his art collection several years ago.
And that’s just the tip – or the “Ripple” – of the iceberg.
A 2015 poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group found the band has a higher favorability among Republican voters compared to that of both Democrats and independents.
The Grateful Dead always channeled a “timeless quality,” according to Hollywood-based pop culture expert Scott Huver, and even at their height of fame resisted making overt political statements, or attempts to incorporate “relevance” into their music. They remained open-minded, he explained, and built a legacy on long-standing music traditions.
“Despite the band’s hedonistic, drug-friendly image, conservatives are attracted to the Dead’s strong messages regarding freedom, personal liberty, and individualism,” said Huver.
Hart himself said he doesn’t let politics “get in the way of business.”
“And I am in the business of transporting minds,” he went on. “That is what the Grateful Dead does, and these paintings hopefully do the same thing.”
Those paintings are part of Hart's North American art tour, showcasing a never-before-seen collection fusing his fervor for art, music, and science. He characterizes his artwork as “vibrational expressionism.”
“The paintings are really a representation of what the music is. It is a visual representation of what goes on in my head as I play,” he explained. “I vibrate the painting. I play underneath them and them in some way so all the paints come up within each other. It’s a vibratory experience that translates into the picture. Delicate with lots of detail.”
As with his music, Hart hopes viewers walk away from his showcase with a greater imagination and deeper self-awareness.
“It raises your consciousness when you see these things – sparkling rivers of liquid all move in their own way and seek some kind of shape. It’s a pouring medium so I don’t use brushes really. It’s all in learning the language of the colors,” he said. “They tell stories. You can see inside of these paintings – you will find animals, glorious mountain peaks, horror, and laughter.”
While his love for art is no doubt profound, Hart stressed that nothing will ever come before music.
“It all springs from that, from the groove,” he noted, reflecting back on the Dead years. “It was all about the improvisation, just like in painting. We were a jazz band posing as a rock n’ roll band. But in improvisation, you still have to know what you are doing. And then you can let it all go, let the structure go and just be in the moment.”
Hart acknowledged it was because of that improvisation – and likely one of the reasons fans would see so many shows – was because no two concerts were ever the same.
“Same with the paintings. Everyone is an original. So if you go to 60 concerts, you are going to see 60 different shows, with 60 different ways we played,” he said. “It all started in the old days when we couldn’t remember what we did before because of all the chemicals we consumed. So we just said f**k it, and decided not to be hard on ourselves for not being able to play what we knew before. That became our ethos. We are a jam band.”
Speaking of chemicals, Hart also noted that never once did he buy street drugs. Nor did he consider his use of them recreation.
“It was more of a religion. We were going to church. It was an ally. It would help us get to a place that would reveal certain things that were powerful in the music realm,” he said. “We were professionals, and performing under the influence. It took a while to know how much to take, but we were fortunate because the chemist was the sound man. It wasn’t just dropping acid; it was very specific. We knew exactly how many micrograms to take to enhance our playing.”
Hart has recently been touring with a new offshoot band, Dead & Company – formed after Garcia's death in 1995 – to entertain the millions of Deadheads still craving the experience.
But there is one important point Hart wants his longtime fans to know.
“I never inhaled,” he adds with a smile.
Hart is slated to make an appearance with his art at the Wentworth Gallery at the Atlantic City Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Friday, Nov. 9 from 6-8pm, the Wentworth Gallery at the Mall at Short Hills, NJ on November 10 from 6-8pm and Sunday noon-2pm at the King of Prussia, Penn.