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The Grateful Dead Family Tree

by Rosie McGee

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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 sands.

If you're one of those who doubts there really is a Grateful Dead family, consider first what family means anywhere in the world.

Families 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.

Absent 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.

Every 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.

More 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 emotions.

The 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, 1989)

 

 

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