Syltoya Sterling 5:30 p.m., Sept. 3
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I Was An Undercover Deadhead
Deadheads after the head Deadhead was dead
Once upon a time, the icons of their religion descended on arenas and stadiums like rainbow draped godlings, accepting the ritual sacrifice of dollars before making their divine appearance on backlit altars. Sacraments and effigies were snapped up, to be smoked, worn, folded, pasted to the car, taken internally, or boldly displayed throughout the ensuing bacchanalia.
As the band emerged, hordes of long tressed day-glo devotees would form a sea of worship before the stage, rippling in waves of ecstasy and swaying to and fro, some staring in open mouthed awe as others screamed their fervent adoration. The music would start, and the tribe would begin its communal dance, sometimes continuing their rhythmic twirl nonstop over the next several hours.
Then, all at once, the music stopped.
It was August 9th, 1995, when Head Deadhead Jerry Garcia, guitarist and guiding light of the Grateful Dead, died from a heart attack, caused by clogged arteries and years of physical neglect and chemical abuse. Some mourned and others shrugged, while comedians, columnists and TV show hosts spent the week making Gigantic Jerry jokes, poking fun at both Garcia and that tie-dyed and red-eyed subculture known as Deadheads.
Of course, not all Dead fans fit that hippie stereotype, but the ones who do are so easy to find that they’re as irresistible as Trekkies, postal workers, and Paris Hilton when it comes to comedy fodder.
Where do all the aging Deadheads gather now that Jerry’s long-gone and even their heir-apparent Phish has disbanded?
Where do the macramé jewelry makers now ply their tax free trade?
How do LSD dealers make a living out of their Volkswagen busses now?
Who’s building bongs out of plumbing pipes and painting peace signs on bare nipples?
What do the traveling tapers do now that they’re no longer responsible for documenting every word, note, burp and fart ever uttered on stage by Garcia and his rotating band of merry pranksters?
Who will bra-less little hippie chicks fawn over, now that their sandal sage is no more?
“There’s always The Other Ones,” says longtime Deadhead Chance Dixon, referring to the touring conglomerate comprised of surviving Dead bandmembers (a dwindling pool of potential players - deceased members besides Garcia include Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland).
Dixon is also a fan of local psychedelic jamsters The Travel Agents, a group which attracts a fair share of Dead followers. “I think [The Travel Agents] are even better than The Other Ones. They move around a lot more, they have more of the groove thing going in their act. I don’t know, I have a lot of friends who are into Phish and bands like that, but Phish plays all kinds of way out stuff that has nothing to do with where the Dead were coming from.”
Most Phish fans would beg to differ, as that band routinely sold out arena sized venues, bringing in many who used to travel all over the country, following the Dead’s trail of breadcrumbs and microdots.
“The same people who swap Dead tapes trade Phish shows too,” says J.J. Joyce, a part time carpenter and full time Deadicated audiophile with over four hundred Dead and Garcia concert tapes (he says he recorded more than half of the performances himself).
“I have all the H.O.R.D.E. shows plus tons of bands like the Black Crowes, Leftover Salmon, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, The Aquarium Rescue Unit and a few others with what I like to call Cosmic Awareness. They know that the music belongs to the cosmos and they let anyone bring in their decks to catch a little bit of the magic. You look at the taper section of a Phish show, there’s like hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, probably more than what they’re using up on stage!”
However, Dead concerts are still by far the most popular with tape junkies. Joyce says he makes some money selling cassettes but he usually prefers to trade.
If the supply of live Dead (or Dead live) tapes is so plentiful, where’s the demand? “There’s always someone looking for a certain show that maybe they went to and want to re-live. Or the people like me who want all the shows some day. Now that there’s no more Dead, there’s a finite number of concert tapes. A complete set. The holy grail, man.”
Tape traders hook up with each other at concerts, online and through fanzines such as Relix and the Golden Road. “My thing is soundboard dubs,” says Joyce. “They’re taped right from the mixer, from the mikes. You can tell ‘cause the audience sounds are way in the background.”
When I ask how one can get such a tape, he smiles coyly. “You know, man, you schmooze, you put up a little ganja. There’s usually a guy on the crew you can deal with, or you can find someone who found someone who has the master tape. Maybe the band lets it out themselves sometimes. There’s a ton of soundboard versions out there. Not just Dead shows but lots of ‘Dead Family’ stuff like JGB [Jerry Garcia Band].”
The Dead’s former audience is also prevalent at shows by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, another group once fronted by Garcia. Garcia’s hand-picked replacement in the New Riders, Buddy Cage, was both a friend and a fan of the late guitarist. Cage and I were both columnists for Soundwaves Magazine in New England when I interviewed him about Garcia.
“In concerts where NRPS had opened for the Dead, I would be constantly amazed by his playing. Dig, I would invariably be standing behind his speaker stack, my head stuck inside the open cabinets. Suffice to say I was privy to a direct earful of his playing in megadynes and was astonished, transported, with every note I heard.”
Cage says that the Dead’s growing audience, many of them just coming of age during the band’s third decade of existence, eventually caused the Dead to become more business-like and conservative and much less musical and adventurous.
“[They were] turned into a colossal box office attraction, for the good of all I’m reminded. This has lead to a great deal of confusion on my part. Of course, they’ve earned every dime they’ve made, many times over. But I speak of a loss, once again on my part, that lies in the fact that they [became] less approachable. Heaven knows what insidious side-effects this great success has wrought upon their spirits as artists.”
Bob Lampert, a landscaper at a local resort, misses the band’s free-form concerts and says that currently he’s “Just another Deadhead gone Phish-ing! What I’m involved in now is getting together all my old Dead show ticket stubs and trying to match all those concert dates with a tape of the show.”
He’s ambivalent about surviving members of the Grateful Dead playing as simply the Dead, without Garcia at the helm. “I still go see Little Feat and Lowell George [has] been dead a long time. No, I figure that any Jerry we got after the diabetic coma he survived is just more Jerry that we were lucky to get...the years after that are just extra, as far as I’m concerned.”
T Lavitz, one-time keyboardist for progressive rock/jazz unit The Dixie Dregs, occasionally plays with Jazz Is Dead, an all-star group comprised of bassist Alfonso Johnson, drummer Rod Morgenstein and others, playing totally funked up jazz versions of Grateful Dead tunes. I interviewed him when the band played the Belly Up awhile back.
Though he’d seen the Dead several times and once even auditioned as a replacement for the deceased Brent Mydland, Lavitz says he’s not actually considered a “fan” of the group.
“I was once quoted as saying ‘I was a Deadhead but don’t get me wrong, I didn’t drop my life for them and I still took baths.’ I’m sure that quote will always come back to haunt me. But I really did enjoy seeing them play live, even though a real Deadhead would say, ‘Aha, you’ve only seen them a few times so you’re not a fan.’ ”
Do jazz aficionados and musicians look down their noses with disdain at Jazz Is Dead for pandering to the hippie audience? “Some people raise their eyebrows and say it’s a sellout or a cop-out or a cover band. But if you give me good chords and a good melody, what do I care who wrote it?”
I ask about how Deadheads, who may not be familiar with his jazz roots, interact with him. “They say ‘You guys jam, dude!’ I’ve never come across anyone who doesn’t like it. It may take them awhile to recognize the tune we’re playing, because our arrangements are so weird, but sometimes that would happen with the Dead themselves when they were all spaced out and playing! You don’t have to be stoned to dig it, but it doesn’t hurt.”
Drugs come up constantly as I talk to other Deadheads who find themselves cast adrift, searching for a way to fill the void they feel now that Garcia and The Dead are no more. “I used to be able to stay on the road for six months at a time by selling acid at shows,” says “Peace,” a local biker and self described “future millionaire.” He says “At first, I did a lot of [acid] myself, and I’d end up giving away everything and coming out with no money and sometimes no underwear and shoes, man.”
“Then, I learned to approach it like a business. Sell all my stock in the parking lot, stash the profits somewhere safe and then go in and check out the last hour or two of the show. It was cool. I never did anyone else’s drugs though, only my own. You don’t wanna come across any of that brown acid sh-t, you know? I’ve seen a lot of freakouts at Dead shows.”
Peace claims he had his last psychedelic experience on the day that Garcia died. “I did some ‘shrooms and a bunch of us were out at Winstons [in Ocean Beach], where they used to have Dead nights once a week. Then a bunch of us went to the Rainbow Family Gathering and it was like a wake and a party all at the same time. I got so high...I don’t think I’d want to be tripping at a H.O.R.D.E. concert anyway. Too many kids with nose rings and combat boots. That’d be a bummer of a trip.”
“Skinheads look extra scary when you’re frying.”
For a few years in the late ‘90s, I worked as a security guard at the annual concert series Live on the Bay. The two-day jam-band festival was originally called Dead on the Bay, until organizers moved to head off potential legal problems with the Grateful Dead
The event’s final “Dead On The Bay” incarnation featured several performers connected to the Grateful Dead and their various side projects. Launched as a benefit for the Ecological Life Systems Institute, show promoter Brian Ross told me at the time “It [the concert series] came about because of an interest in not only keeping the festival spirit alive but also to make a difference in the environment…it’s about making a contribution, making an impact.”
Returning for a second year at PB’s Campland on the Bay in 1998, ads and flyers touted that year’s model as “Live on the Bay,” rather than “Dead on the Bay.”
There were still obvious Deadhead connections, including performances by Dead “family” associates like Merle Saunders, David Nelson and JGB (featuring members of the Jerry Garcia Band), not to mention all the oh-so-crunchy patrons.
So why the name change?
Brian Ross told me at the time “The Dead management feels real concerned about people not being confused in terms of who’s putting on a production or who’s associated with a production. They just basically want to put a clear message out.”
Thus, after hearing of other promoters who’ve faced legal problems over supposedly using the Grateful Dead trademark without proper permission, Dead on the Bay organizers opted for a new name. The visuals in their ads and flyers, however, with “Steal Your Face” lightning bolts and dancing skeletons, make it clear that the event was still geared for the psychedelically inclined, among whom Deadheads are a sizable demographic.
“The interesting thing is, the community knows what’s going on,” said Ross. “[The word] ‘Dead’ doesn’t just represent the Grateful Dead band. It represents the community, it represents a Deadhead. As a word in the dictionary which defines a person as into psychedelic experiences. It’s a dead body, it’s Day of the Dead, the Mexican festival. There’s a lot associated with it.”
So why not keep calling it Dead on the Bay? “Because we want to make sure that they understand that we’re not trying to confuse the message like perhaps others have, in terms of the use of the name Dead.”
How has Brian Ross been filling his Deadtime since the death of the head deadhead? “[I’m] Taking advantage of the grass roots resurgence of interest in smaller acts and smaller gatherings. I’m seeing that, with the loss of the Dead and their Big Show, a lot of people are getting the chance to experience through new bands what they missed out on in the early days of The Dead. A more personal relationship with bands like Pure Noodle, Bela Fleck, Leftover Salmon...as [those bands] grow and emulate the spiritual growth of The Dead. I’ve also been taking the time to read Dead books, such as Captain Trips.”
Another Campland Live on the Bay event promoter, Michael Gelfand of Terre Vista Management, still counts himself as a huge supporter of both the Dead and what they originally represented. “There was a whole peace instilling movement going,” he says. “[But] of course as The Dead got bigger, they ended up with an entourage that they were responsible for and they ended up being a corporation.”
He’s excited about the new generationS of post-Dead players. “I’m hunting down music that transcends. Not necessarily Phish and that type of sound...there’s a lot of good bands like Mo and Zero. String Cheese Incident is a band out of Colorado that really gets it!”
(My ’98 staff shirt)
An estimated 1,500 people attended the 1998 edition of Live on the Bay, the first one where I worked security. “Advance ticket sales this were way better than last year, both in the market and through Ticketmaster,” Ross reported at the time, adding that Campland’s sites were more than eighty-five percent full for the event.
The only complaints I overheard were about fatigue from having “too much fun” (“I was shrooming all night and I’m burnt!”). The music from the two performance stages flowed nearly continuously, and there were only a few technical glitches - guitar sound problems for the Steely Damned and a dead amp which delayed the appearance of the David Nelson Band.
The open air grounds had plenty of toilets, lots of vegetarian food kiosks and trailers (Wok And Roll, The Burrito People), and eclectic merchandise vendors (tie-dye, sarongs, crystals, artwork).
(Staff shirt from my 2nd year)
(Above are some pics from my first gig as hired muscle at the Campland jam-band festivals – note the Grateful Dead comic book in my back pocket. All part o’ the disguise….)
I kept a journal over the weekend, for a planned article about bouncing for Deadheads. Here are some excerpts:
The air is tinted with an aromatic potpourri which is equal parts incense, cooked food and pot smoke. Two concrete dance floors are constantly filled with smiling, colorfully clad dancers and “spinners,” jugglers and hackey-sack players.
Many are pleased with the Travel Agents’ set on day one, though not necessarily because of the group’s performance. To the cheers of pretty much everyone, including the band, a woman from the audience tosses off her clothes and dances alongside the band. She remains the focal point of the rest of the set, but afterwards the security guards try to gently talk her into putting her clothes back on if she wants to stay on the grounds.
By day two, sunburn is prevalent. I come across only a couple of black guys. I eventually asked one if he’d noticed his pigmental singularity. “Yeah,” he said, “but I loved this music in the sixties and always will.”
“By the way, I appreciate you calling me black,” he says. This made me feel as confused as I’m sure I looked, and he quickly elaborated. “I mean, I’ve had like fifty people walk up and talk to me about ‘African-American’ music or ‘African American’ art or whatever - I never want to hear ‘African-American’ again as long as I live, man!”
Now here’s something from the archive – a Deadhead-themed comic book story I did awhile back with original Twilight Zone and Star Trek writer George Clayton Johnson, perhaps now best known as the author of the original Ocean’s 11. The art is by Zap Comix co-founder and occasional Reader cover artist Spain Rodriguez.
BURNING MAN BINGO!
More like this:
- Farewell Comic-Con 2010 - Final Photo Phunnies — July 26, 2010
- Confessions of a Concert Crasher — Feb. 28, 2010
- Alton Kelley RIP – Another Rock Art Legend Passes: Unpublished 1999 Interview — June 5, 2008
- 1 Night @Black’s Beach, Confessions of a Local Pornographer: Battle of the Peeps — April 29, 2008
- Where Have All the Deadheads Gone? — March 19, 2008