"It's very weird."
Yep, trying to nail down the logic behind the Grateful Dead's enduring popularity is a tricky proposition. After all, how exactly did a group of mismatched oddballs from the San Francisco Peninsula vault their unlikely band to global fame, garner a one-of-a-kind devoted fan base and trailblaze a massive counterculture that is known throughout the world? Not an easy thing to sum up, and at some point it's maybe easiest to just concede how bizarre it all is.
I wondered about this aloud when I first started my interview with author Chris Miskiewicz, who researched and wrote the new graphic novel "Grateful Dead Origins" (via Z2 Comics), an illustrated deep dive into the lesser known early days of the acid-fueled rock band. Sharing my same mix of fascination and befuddlement at the band's legacy, Miskiewicz gamefully took his own stab at it: "That generation kind of got locked on this band for a myriad of reasons. A lot of it is probably due to a serotonin high at a special show when they felt this elation due to being on drugs. That will stay with anybody. But there's something that just carried through with the entire fanbase."
And there's some value to his theory, a part of the picture certainly. But then conceding that maybe it's not so easily explained, Miskiewicz finds himself back where he began, again admitting,"It's just really weird."
The colorful tie-dyed tale of the Grateful Dead's beginnings as a band is inherently a local Peninsula story, and that's on full display in this new graphic novel, written by Miskiewicz and illustrated by Noah Van Sciver. In fact, many of the band's early interactions traverse neighboring cities from one page to the next: early meet-ups at Magoo's Pizza in Menlo Park (where the band would eventually play their first gig together while still named the Warlocks), an initial impromptu jam with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir at Dana Morgan's Music Shop in Palo Alto, as well as a formative residency at the seedy In Room in Belmont where the group first settled into their sound. And, of course, the moment of revelation when the band met up at Phil Lesh's house on High Street near the Stanford campus to decide on (cosmically discover?) their iconic band name.
While much is known about the Dead once they rose to fame by the end of the 1960s, these early days were a bit more work for Miskiewicz to excavate. "As soon as they hit Woodstock you can find everything about them — what they wore, what they said but this corner of their history is more challenging," he explained. "Most people don't follow that early bluesy, cover band period of them as a ’60s band trying to figure out what they are."
In this regard, Miskiewicz was well-suited to write the book. In fact, he didn't even pitch the idea but was recruited for it by Josh Frankel, co-publisher of Z2 Comics, based on his obsessive research skills, which would certainly come into play on this project.
"It's the most research I've done on anything in my life," Miskiewicz said. "I feel like I can teach a class."
For Z2 Comics, "Grateful Dead Origins" is a well-composed case study in the company's recent focus on music-oriented biographies, which focus on a diverse and compelling array of generation-spanning subjects, including Charlie Parker, the Doors and Gorillaz. It's a shift for Miskiewicz, as well, whose first graphic novel, "Thomas Alsop," follows a Dr. Strange-like protagonist who is tasked with defending New York City from malevolent supernatural forces. In this sense, the Dead were a pivot that he is keenly aware of: "It's silly to say, but it was quite a trip for me to get on this project and get into it."
While "Grateful Dead Origins" deftly puts the early chapter of the band's history under a kaleidoscopic magnifying glass, it does so with an expansive approach, looping in the many social and cultural forces that would shape the band at the time: then-California Governor Ronald Reagan denouncing the use of LSD, the rise of the Hells Angels, the impact on the era by the likes of the Beatles and Ken Kesey.
"The band members were all involved in a different facet of what was happening in California during those years and they kind of bring all of that in."
For Miskiewicz, this wasn't so much trudging through the history books as it was excavating hidden surprises that emerged from his research and embracing them as opportunities: "There were little geek moments where I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I got Ronald Reagan, Allen Ginsberg … and I get to write about Neal Cassady? Yes!'"
(One particularly hilarious scene that shook out of his research recounts how band member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan spiked the coffee with LSD while the group was on set for a performance on "Playboy After Dark," which reduces a previously composed and dapper Hugh Hefner to sweaty drug-addled ramblings).
Yet within the band itself, Miskiewicz found the biggest surprise in terms of just how egalitarian the overall dynamic was within the group, contrary to his initial assumptions.
"With the exception of Jerry Garcia being the creative engine that really starts the entire thing, it really was a group collaboration," he said, "and there's something about that, the idea of 'we not I.'"
And it's on this point that Miskiewicz seems to — almost unknowingly perhaps — properly articulate that elusive explanation about the band's legacy and staying power, when he concludes the previous thought by describing the collective whole of their collaborations as "a conversation of ideas."
And that makes a lot of sense, because while it's easily lost in all the aforementioned weirdness and the obligatory references to LSD and other hippie tropes, it speaks to the underlying merit at the core of the Grateful Dead's legacy and impact … however "hippy dippy" — as Miskiewicz often puts it — that may all seem.
"There's a big idea of community," he said, "and that's kinda beautiful when you boil it down."
"Grateful Dead Origins" is available now via Z2 Comics.
This article was originally published Aug. 6 on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.