Book Review “Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail”

Author: Paul Grushkin
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Voyageur Press
Release Date: October 22, 2011

Our Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

There are rock bands. There are rock legends. There are rock phenomena. And then, there’s the Grateful Dead.

Within the group’s thirty-year history, the Dead performed 36,504 songs at 2,318 shows. Far more impressive than the band’s numerical statistics, though, is the legion of fans whose devotion to the band was unlimited and propelled them down endless cross-country golden roads to see as many GD concerts as possible. To merely refer to them as a “fan base” is like calling the Mona Lisa just another painting. Indeed, the Dead didn’t just create a following – they created a culture of Deadheads that always turned on the hippie vibe and tuned into to the swirling jam vibe that the band dropped out at them throughout shows that rarely went less than three hours in length.

As the Dead’s fan-base grew from the beginning days of the acid tests to larger venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore to selling out massive stadiums, obtaining tickets to their shows became increasingly more difficult. Grateful Dead Ticket Sales (GDTS) was formed in 1983 to deal with this demand – and to ensure that Deadheads would have dibs on the best face-value tickets to each show. The organization predominantly operated as a mail-order entity to which fans would send their requests for tickets to specific shows on selected dates. As a result, thousands upon thousands of envelopes poured into the GDTS’s offices, many adorned with sprawling psychedelic artwork that often spanned the entire envelope – front and back – and left not a single spec of white space. A large portion of these letters featured graphical symbols that were associated with the band: dancing bears, skeletons and the iconic “Steal Your Face” skull-with-lightning-bolt logo. Looking through the images in the book is like peering into the collective unconscious shared by the fans and the band. Also included is a hand-written letter from Jerry Garcia to a fan, in response to the fan’s question, which is interesting to read.

Paul Grushkin’s “Dead Letters: The Very Best of Grateful Dead Fan Mail” presents over 300 of these micro-masterpieces in fourteen chapters that are organized by visual theme rather than chronological order. It’s a sprawling and beautiful tome that more than adequately documents the phenomenon that the GDTS inadvertently created and is fascinating and engaging as a skim-through coffee-table book or as a full-on read. And while the artwork is clearly the focal point of the book, Grushkin’s accompanying text provides an informative and enjoyable history of the Grateful Dead and insight into the behind-the-scenes activity that helped the legacy endure.

Even though “Dead Letters” will turn up at bookstores and online in the category of “music” books, it’s also a sweeping romance that chronicles the love between flocks of Deadicated followers and the band they adored.

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Many thanks to my dear friend (and long-time Deadhead)
Donna Marland for her contributions to this article.

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