The Last Word on the Grateful Dead (Maybe)

After the tour, a week of remembrances, and just one more

The Grateful Dead playing in Los Angeles in 2009.

Photographer: Richard Vogel/AP Photo

The Grateful Dead’s final jam last weekend left behind a horde of die-hards — and a week of thoughtful analysis. Wired published a particularly nice appreciation of the band’s role as tech pioneers. On Thursday, Time traced the sharp decline in LSD use to the group’s fading glory. 

So here’s one last (?) reflection on the digital Dead.

The band intersected with the personal-computing revolution in all kinds of interesting ways. Both evolved in and around the Palo Alto of the 1960s, with early tech giants Hewlett-Packard, Ampex, and Xerox all based in the area. The laid-back West Coast lifestyle and proximity to Stanford and Berkeley proved irresistible to musical innovators and to the unique brand of scientists and engineers who would lay the foundation of the modern technology industry.

LSD was key, for sure. It permeated both the musical counterculture and the management of these companies, a full decade before it was established as a mainstream recreational drug. Myron Stolaroff was the corporate point man — his departure from Ampex, where he had served as director of instrumentation marketing, was prompted by a psychedelic weekend trip that left several board members dazed and confused.

Convinced that acid could be harnessed as a creative force, Stolaroff administered the drug to numerous friends and colleagues to observe its effects. Doug Engelbart, the personal-computing pioneer and inventor of hypertext and the mouse, was one of his first guinea pigs. The impact of these experiments was unclear. After one trip, in which Engelbart was instructed to invent something, he contributed a device to help boys improve their aim while peeing.

The Grateful Dead’s emergence as the house band for the Palo Alto area stemmed from the group’s participation in the psychedelically enhanced parties known as the Acid Tests. Meanwhile, popular local hangouts like Kepler’s bookstore provided a space for techies to overlap with the counterculture scene. Computer engineers and programmers from any number of companies and research teams would gather at Kepler’s — openly discussing internal projects over coffee — among hippies, writers, and artists serenaded by the Warlocks, the Dead’s earliest incarnation. Just down the road was the People’s Computer Company, later the Homebrew Computer Club of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates fame.

Many of the original computer geeks were close friends of the band. “A lot of the early tech innovation, before Silicon Valley was really established, focused on sound,” says Michael Parrish, dean of the College of Science at San Jose State University and a consummate Deadhead. Owsley Stanley, he notes, was “an engineer by trade, but after meeting the band at one of the Acid Test parties, he eventually became their first sound technician.” Stanley would later secure his place as one of the most prolific distributors of LSD, mass-producing more than a million doses in his basement.

In 1966, the Dead headlined the San Francisco Trips Festival, co-organized by the writer and entrepreneur Stewart Brand. Two years later, Brand helped Engelbart deliver his famous Mother of All Demos showcase of essential PC components. Discussing the growth of personal computing in a 1972 Rolling Stone article, Brand said the trend was spurred partly by “the youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science” and “an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar,” the first computer game and a favorite pastime of early techies. Brand also developed an early social network, the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, or the WELL, in 1985. Deadheads were some of its first users.

By the 1970s, the tech visionaries of Silicon Valley found themselves at arm’s length to the now massively popular Dead, more fans than friends, and the sharing culture was changing. The Homebrew Computer Club had granted members free access to the most cutting-edge hardware and software designs then available. It was “grounded in Doug Engelbart’s original vision for personal computing” and sought to “expand the human consciousness through the PC as an extension of the human mind,” says Preston Gralla, contributing editor at Computer World.

Now, the rise of several technology companies, most of them founded by Homebrew members, disrupted that vibe. Jobs capitalized on Wozniak’s technical brilliance and on unpatented Xerox technology to co-found Apple in 1976. That same year, Gates—“the harbinger of the consumerization of computing,” as Gralla calls him — shocked Homebrew members in a letter he wrote for the club’s newsletter, demanding payment for a version of Basic that Microsoft had recently released.

“If you remember it, you weren’t really there,” the counterculture slogan went. The tech industry largely seems to have forgotten. Silicon Valley is a very different place today. You don’t chat over coffee with rivals about your secret projects. But the legacy is still with us. Advocates of the sharing culture have raised important questions about the future of computing and information technology. Wozniak in particular has stayed true to his Homebrew roots, inspiring the next generation of computer scientists, technicians, and hackers. Perhaps the Dead were right in concluding: “Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.”