If you tried to delineate the Grateful Dead's family tree, it
wouldn't be effective to use the traditional bloodline progression, descending
through the "begats" to get to the wider branches. Rather, this family tree, not only of birth and marriage, would
have to be felled, its great trunk sliced open, and the concentric rings
examined to define the widening circles that shaped it. At the core you would find the musicians, and
with them, their wives and children and other blood relatives - the families
within the family. But how far do those
rings go outward, who is included and in what order? Do you count ALL THOSE PEOPLE?!?
You'd have to consider the truck drivers, ex-wives, ranch
hands, lighting designers, jugglers, road crew, housekeepers, photographers,
past band members, carpenters, shadow people, tie-dyers, medicine men,
lyricists, sound mixers, office staff, lawyers, jewelers, managers, pleasure
crew, chiropractors, travel agents, lovers, friends, neighbors, and all those Dead Heads,
present AND past.
The definition of Grateful Dead family depends on what
year it is, who's out of sight and who's around, and mostly, on who's drawing
the picture. It also depends on how
good your memory is, and on your need for definition in continually shifting
If you're one of those who doubts there really is a Grateful Dead family,
consider first what family means anywhere in the world.
celebrate seasons, feasts, holidays and weddings; they shower a pregnant sister
with gifts and sit with her through her labor; babies are shown around with
pride at family visits. School
graduates, performers, and artists can count on applauding family members in
the audience, and when a household moves,
there are strong backs willing and a truck ready. If child-care is needed on a moment's notice, there is always
someone to jump in and offer the help.
family members are missed and talked about. Vigils are maintained in hospital hallways when a member is struck down,
and when there is a death, everyone mourns. If a cousin is out of work, an uncle puts in a good word with a friend;
if an award is given to one family member, everyone feels pride. When tragedy strikes, everyone pitches in to
bring things back to normal.
family has its black sheep, outcasts, vendettas, prodigal sons returning,
and geniuses. There are family jokes,
resemblances, pettiness, arguments, drunks, crests, recipes, pets, parties,
vacations, heirlooms, pictures, beliefs, and history.
than anything, being part of a family provides untold comfort and
continuity. You can go away for years
and be greeted on your return; you can blow it completely and be forgiven your
stupidity; you can sit alone on a mountain and know you have brothers and
sisters down below who truly care about you. When you achieve something, you have
people you can brag to; knowing you can always ask for help gives you the confidence to
not have to ask; seeing the best
members do the impossible makes everyone else stretch, and when you fail, there
are loving hands to pick you up.
The Grateful Dead
family, which evolved exponentially from its beginnings as "just a rock and
roll band" and a few friends, has sustained an incredible number of people for well over thirty years through shared work and music, humor, adversity, achievement,
tragedy, deep love, fierce loyalty, and very strong
feelings have substance; and however you define it, whatever its shape and
size, however far the rings go outward, the Grateful Dead family is real.
(© Rosie McGee. First version published in The
Grateful Dead Family Album by Jerilyn Lee Brandelius, Warner Bros. Books,