The Grateful Dead was more than a band. The Dead inspired an entire lifestyle and legion of followers during their heyday in the late 60s and early 70s.
There have been a bunch of documentaries and books published about the Dead in recent years, so I wanted to take a look at what I think are the best Grateful Dead books in my collection. Some of these will not be what you expect, so make sure to stay tuned to the end and see all three Dead books (plus a bonus).
Also, since so many books have been written about the Dead, I admittedly have not read all of them. These are simply the 3 best Grateful Dead books of the ones that I have read so far.
1. The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics – by David Dodd
If you are anything like me, part of what made you fall in love with the Dead’s music was the incredible lyrics in their songs. If that’s the case, you need to get your hands on David Dodd’s annotated guide to the Grateful Dead’s lyrics.
Dodd goes through the lyrics of every Dead song and draws out fascinating allusions and references from Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow’s lyrics.
This book will give you new insights into the genius songwriting of the Grateful Dead. In my opinion, the Dead and their lyricists were underrated songwriters. Many sing the praises of Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, etc, as they should. But you will rarely hear anyone speak of the dozens of incredible Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia songs that were produced over the decades.
In short, Dodd’s Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics will have you seeing the Dead in a whole new “light”…
“Once in a while you get shown the light,Scarlet Begonias – The Grateful Dead
In the strangest of places,
If you look at it right.”
2. Deal – by Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen
Bill Kreutzmann was one of the Dead’s founders and main drummers for over 30 years. As such, Kreutzmann’s book Deal is one of the best books for the “inside scoop” on the Dead’s history and founding.
The book is also an easy-going, free-wheeling read. It feels like a conversation with a friend rather than a hardcore history book, which is one thing I actually really enjoyed about it.
Kretuzmann takes you through everything from the founding of the band to the final years with Jerry. You get his deep insights into the relationships and friendships between band members, the stories behind the band’s most beloved songs and much more.
For that reason, Deal is easily one of the best Grateful Dead books and earns a spot in the list.
3. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – by Tom Wolfe
OK – this is one of those unexpected books I was alluding to in the introduction to this post. In my opinion, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the definitive book to get a feel for the late 60s – the culture and timeframe that forged the Grateful Dead.
The Dead and several members also appear sporadically throughout the book. Back then, The Dead (or The Warlocks, as they called themselves earlier on) appeared and performed regularly at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Tom Wolfe captures all of this.
Thus, with this book you not only get a first-hand account of the early days of the Grateful Dead, but a deep dive into the counter culture of the 1960s.
*Bonus* | On the Road – by Jack Kerouac
For a full understanding of the 60s and the Grateful Dead, On the Road is an essential read. It’s a bonus, because it’s not directly about the Grateful Dead at all. But it was one of Jerry Garcia’s favorite books. It had a huge influence on him, and on a lot of young creatives during the 60s and 70s (and today, for that matter).
“I can’t separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac. I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something outside with my life – or even suspected the possibilities existed – if it weren’t for Kerouac opening those doors.”-Jerry Garcia on Kerouac’s influence. Source.
On the Road tells the story of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country escapades with Neal Cassady (who is referenced in several Grateful Dead lyrics… to see which ones, get the annotated lyric book above). The On the Road adventures are some of the earliest writings of what would come to be known as the “Beat generation”, also simply called “the Beats”, or beatniks.
The Beats spurned materialism in favor of creativity. They were some of the first writers and artists to introduce Eastern religion (see another excellent Kerouac book, The Dharma Bums), jazz music, free verse poetry, and more to a wider audience. On the Road is the book that started it all.
Learn More About The Grateful Dead
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of my other popular guides to the Grateful Dead and their music: