A Long Strange Trip – How Glastonbury Honours the Spirit of the Dead

by Elliot Davies

Grateful Dead PyramidJerry Garcia probably never visited Glastonbury, but the festival still acts as a perfect embodiment of everything he stood for, while also providing anyone with a thirst for adventure a perfect opportunity to sample, if just for one weekend a year, a more unhinged way of life.

In 1971, The Glastonbury Festival, then called Glastonbury Fair, was still in its infancy. But Grateful Dead were already well on their way to establishing themselves as an unstoppable force of cosmic goodwill.

They were invited to play a festival outside of Paris, but it was rained off. Instead, they played a laid-back, informal show to a languid gathering at the Chateau d’Herouville. I’ve got a bootleg of this show, and it’s gorgeous.

There, the invite came to play the 1971 Glastonbury Fair. But, expecting a freezing, rainy mud bath, they declined, and flew back to the US.

So The Dead never played Glastonbury. If they had, yes, it might have been a rainy, underwhelming washout, just like their earlier experience with UK festivals. But what if it wasn’t? What if it had proved phenomenal? For all we know, it may have been the musical event that singularly serves to instill world peace, like the televised Wyld Stallyns show at the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

It was never meant to be. But still, the Glastonbury Festival evolved into a UK institution, while The Dead evolved into a US institution. Now, over 40 years later, both of these institutions are about to do their thing on each side of the Atlantic, almost simultaneously.

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts takes place June 24 – 28. Then, on the very next weekend, Grateful Dead will celebrate 50 years of playin’ in the band with a series of shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium.

I tried and failed to get tickets for both, so this is my embittered hate-rant about how each event is a sham, and about how I didn’t want to go anyway, and about how anyone that did somehow manage to get tickets, well. They smell.

Ahem.

Anyway, in this essay, I’ll demonstrate how, despite having never played host to a Grateful Dead set, the Glastonbury festival nonetheless embodies many of the same qualities that have enabled the band, and all jam bands like them, to become an American institution.

For America doesn’t have a Glastonbury of its own; but then, neither does the UK have a Grateful Dead of its own. But it doesn’t matter; as each is a realisation of the same underlying, elemental spirit.

And I’m still a firm believer that, were it allowed to flourish, this elemental spirit could save the world, Wyld Stallyns style.

UK Festivals are Miserable Bliss

In Julian Temple’s excellent film about Glastonbury, at one point somebody wonders aloud as to why music festivals have never really taken off in any other countries. Over footage of mud-caked freaks dancing gleefully in a brown puddle to Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, it’s suggested that British people simply have an innate ability to put up with things. We’re so used to the weather pissing on our every plan that we simply don’t let the elements get to us as much as they should.

The best festivals are those at which chaos is given free rein, at which it feels as though anything could happen. And when you capture this energy, this potential, nothing else matters – not the weather, not the lineup. Anything seems possible. And when anything seems possible, the sort of hang-ups and inhibitions that plague you through your 9-to-5 suddenly don’t seem to matter. Then you start to wonder – why? 

Why do we ever settle for mediocrity when we always have the option to gather together with good friends and good music? Why do we ever put up with crushing boredom when, underneath the paving stones, we find the beach, the forest, the field?

There are those who insist that Glastonbury has lost its edge. That it’s too safe, too controlled, too contained. But to argue along these lines is to ignore the fact that this is a festival that displays Water Aid, Oxfam, and Greenpeace banners where most other festivals display beer ads.

And running through the festival, effectively cutting the site in half, is an old railway line. If you ever find yourself feeling hemmed in, all you have to do is gravitate to the other side of the tracks, where you’ll find Green Fields, Healing Fields, Craft Fields, and Shangri La. You’ll find wizards, druids, dragons, travellers, and shamans. You’ll find circuses, theatres, prayer wheels, singing bowls, and ska-punk.

Glastonbury has still got it going on – but even if the festival had lost its way, the UK would still play host to the likes of Boom Town, Beautiful Days, Wilderness, Green Man, and Bestival – all of which arguably have strong ties with the counterculture.

But how are things in the US?

Scrutinising the US Festival Scene from the Other Side of the Atlantic

In recent weeks, a certain image enjoyed mild success on several social media platforms. It claimed to show the difference between US festivals and UK festivals.

Representing UK festivals were a number of creatures, more mud than man, grimly soldiering on. But representing the US festivals was a photograph of an impossibly photogenic crowd grinning in sunglasses beneath a sky of perfect blue.

UK v US Festivals

That’s the popular perception of US festivals, then: So perfect they’re annoying. But it cannot be argued that UK festivals are inherently superior just because it tends to rain here.

By far the most arduous Glastonbury I’ve ever attended was 2010, the only festival in the past decade at which it didn’t rain at all. I soon learned that hot and dry weather can be much more punishing than cold and wet weather. When you’re cold and wet, all you need is a bit of shelter, some hot food, some cold beer, and you’re good to go. But in the intense heat, dehydration is a very real problem. And if you get dehydrated, you won’t have a good time.

Most US festivals take place in climates with temperatures almost twice as hot as even the balmiest of UK summers. If you’re to take “levels of self-induced hardship endured” as a measure of the relative merits of UK and US festivals, I’d say we’re on roughly equal footing.

But beyond that, it must be remembered that the very idea of a music festival can trace its roots back to the US. If Woodstock wasn’t the very first music festival, it was certainly the first to popularise the idea that music sounds fantastic when resonating across sprawling fields full of spiritually-inebriated countercultural types. Indeed, it was reportedly Woodstock that inspired a young farmer called Michael to first build a pyramid on his land.

Then there’s Burning Man, but I’m not too sure I’d class that as a music festival per se. In fact, I’m not exactly sure just what the hell is going on at Burning Man, though it looks like a more naked version of Glastonbury’s after-dark areas that’s been hastily reconstructed right in the middle of the Fury Road warpath.

The US Festival that’s really caught my eye, though, is Bonnaroo.

The Dream of the 90s Is Alive at Bonnaroo

In just over a decade, Bonnaroo has been able to develop its own set of rituals and traditions. Bonnaroo appears to have more of a unified feel than any other US festival, and it appears to have played host to more “legendary” sets than all other happenings combined. It’s a sustainable festival with woodland chillout zones and a thriving arts and crafts presence.

Like Glastonbury, Bonnaroo appears to be a venerable Brigadoon at which people are free to be who they are, and at which people simply do things differently. Writing for Pitchfork, photographer Dorothy Dark put it like this:

The flavor of devotion that is required for any participant of this social experiment is unlike any other that currently exists. You won’t find people who…had a buddy from the office who had some extra tickets and wanted to pop in to see what the scene was like. You don’t pop in to Bonnaroo. You drive however many miles you need to, you sleep in a tent, you go days in the sweltering heat, and you not only tolerate but befriend the strangers around you all in the name of your love for what this festival is made up of: positivity, music, and a kind of freedom you don’t find at home.

But what makes Bonnaroo different? I have a theory. I think it’s because Bonnaroo has its roots in the jam band scene.

Browse the Bonnaroo lineups from the past 13 years and the same names pop up time and time again: Widespread Panic, Disco Biscuits, Gov’t Mule, moe., The String Cheese Incident, Phish, even The Dead. Jam bands all; and such roots have apparently allowed Bonnaroo to flourish into something wonderful.

I’ve been listening to jam bands for a few years now – mainly Grateful Dead and Phish. I read a lot online about how morally repugnant this music’s supposed to be, but I just don’t feel it.

I’ve found that there’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a good bootleg, and the idea that a song, once started, can go anywhere makes me feel happy, thrilled, and ultimately, peaceful.

I can’t quite explain it, but this is music that makes me want to be kind to the world, to animals, and to other people. I appreciate that I might be wrong here, but it feels as though any festival that evolves from the jam band scene is bound to be a good one.

Where Are All the British Jam Bands?

It’s quite lonely, being a British fan of jam-based music. I’ve struggled to find anyone else over here who likes this stuff like I do. And then I realised that the possible reason why there are no British jam fans is because there are no British jam bands.

We had Pink Floyd, who used to groove all night through Interstellar Overdrive. Their live shows, though, ultimately became painstakingly-rehearsed performances with light shows and visuals so elaborate that there was no room left for improvisation. Hawkwind, too, are noted for their extended deep space explorations, but their music’s often so primal that it has more in common with trance and techno than anything truly exploratory.

Jamming appears to be an inherently American trait. It’s there in jazz, in blues, in country. Americans are fine with jamming, as it’s an accepted part of their musical heritage. But why is such onstage behaviour treated with suspicion over here? Is it because of punk? Are we still sold on the idea that music has to sound a certain way in order to be deemed acceptable? Are we still maintaining a list of things it’s not OK for musicians to do?

But even if our musicians were still taken to take an exploratory approach to their live sets, Britain’s simply too small to allow for the sort of devoted following that American jam bands inspire.

With jam-based music, you can watch the same band, night after night, and 30 shows later, you may still find yourself without the slightest idea of just what to expect. It’s not uncommon for jam bands to go through an entire tour without ever duplicating their setlist. See a song one night, and it might not be played again for a month. And when it is played, it might be played with a different arrangement, or even with different lyrics. It will flow from a completely different song, and segue into another completely different song – and these seamless transitions will be moments in themselves.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that people take to following jam bands on their tours. When you never know what’s coming, it’s never “just a gig”; and if you immerse yourself for any stretch of time, it ceases even to be a tour, and instead becomes a way of life.

If you want to follow a band on their UK tour, you can essentially do so as a commuter. You might have to book a hotel room or two to take in some of the farther flung corners of the country, but it’s likely that, most nights, you’ll sleep in your own bed. You probably won’t even have to take much time off work.

But following a band on their US tour takes so much commitment that the whole thing bleeds into that other great American tradition – the road trip.

I recently read Sean Gibbon’s excellent Run Like an Antelope – On the Road with Phishwhich documents the band’s 1999 tour. In this book, Gibbon makes a life spent following a jam band on tour seem like Woodstock on Wheels. It’s a giant rolling convoy of grilled cheese, countercultural ideas, and chemical excess. He describes the strong community spirit shared by all involved, and the sneering suspicion that borders on violent hostility from all who aren’t involved.

Gibbon’s book isn’t popular among committed Phish-heads (or “Phans”, as I think they like to be known), as he dares to suggest that, sometimes, life on the road is horrible, and sometimes, Phish aren’t very good live.

These darker moments, though, were my favourite bits, as they revealed the closest ties between the UK festival scene and the US jam band scene.

Tweaked slightly, any one of the following quotes could equally apply to any Glastonbury Festival as they could to Phish’s 1999 tour:

You have to be patient on tour because life on the road can be a huge pain in the ass – gridlock before and after every show, no escape from the heat, car trouble, long lines for food and water. Your average day on tour is full of many such annoyances, things completely out of your control, the kind of things that if they happened to you back in your normal life you’d say, “I’m having a bad day.” But on tour the attitude seems to be, “We’ll get there. Don’t sweat it.”

No matter how far you’ve travelled, no matter how worn out you feel, no matter how little money you have in your back pocket…who cares? You’re here and your band is taking the stage…What else is there to look forward to? Tomorrow means another traffic jam, more rest areas, a scramble for a decent meal. The end of the tour means finding another job, since you quit the last one.

To many, it will sound like a depressing life. But for those who are deeply involved, it’s likely the idea of a “normal life” that seems intolerable. No paycheck will ever be big enough to counter the sacrifices that must be made in terms of freedom, belief, and ethics. To sit all day, every day, in an office – that’s depressing. So they search for something else – anything else.

Except, in Britain, we can’t take to the road. Our country’s too small. In the US, if the state troopers find that you’ve become an inconvenience, all you have to do is drive until you reach another state. Then you’re somebody else’s problem. Everybody wins.

But in Britain, there’s nowhere to run. If you decide to spend your life travelling, no matter how frequently you move, they’ll always be able to corner you in a beanfield. And when they do, no matter how loudly you scream, or how much you bleed, the popular opinion will always be that you deserved it.

Festivals are Static Road Trips

The New Age Travellers who were forced to flee from Stonehenge were given refuge at the 1985 Glastonbury Festival. But given that Michael Eavis was eventually forced to turn the travellers away from his site – or risk losing his license – it wouldn’t be right to suggest that the travelling spirit lives on in festivals.

But perhaps we can say that, in a country where such escape is almost impossible, festivals provide a rare opportunity to reconnect with what really matters – be it music, people, or the conviction that we can change the world.

So even if we’re only there for one weekend a year, and even if we invariably trudge back to our jobs, our worries, and our prejudices once the weekend’s over, festivals still provide a glimpse into another world. And for many, myself included, that glimpse is a loud reminder that there’s more to life than this.

Glastonbury can still be thought of as an “alternative festival”. Cynics will take one look at the mainstream acts on the mainstages and snort – “alternative to what?” But alongside the sets by Kanye West, Lionel Richie, Florence & The Machine, Burt Bacharach, and Deadmau5, all sorts of discussions and demonstrations will be taking place about alternatives – alternative ways of living, alternatives to austerity, and the various means by which we might escape from the neoliberal nightmare from which the world currently seems unable to wake.

When there’s nowhere to run, you’ve often got no choice but to face your problems head on. And maybe that’s what Glastonbury is: alongside the freedom and the revelry, it’s a think tank, a place where those who care can meet and discuss viable alternatives. As well as offering an escape, Glastonbury promises solutions.

So when The Dead play their last ever shows on the last weekend of July, I’d like to imagine that, somewhere out there, Jerry will hover; and issue an appreciative nod in Pilton’s general direction.

“We should’ve played Glastonbury,” he’ll mutter, before drifting off to jam with Hendrix, BB King, and Janis Joplin.

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts takes place June 24 – 28.

Screenings of the last ever Grateful Dead show will be held at select cinemas across the UK on Monday July 6.

Header image by Adrian Boot.