Where Have All The Deadheads Gone?
by Jay Allen Sanford 04.19.07
Illustration: This unpublished Rock 'N' Roll Comics comic book cover was painted by Dead cover artist Phil Garris, reprising his iconic Fiddler character from his "Blues For Allah" album cover. Unfortunately, it remains unpublished, due to one of many falling-outs with Phil. He returned to paint two covers for our Carnal Comics line.only one of which made it thru publication (portraying 80s porn star Aja).
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 the music stopped.
It's coming up on a dozen years since Head Deadhead Jerry Garcia died August 9th, 1995, 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 Dan Quayle when it comes to comedy fodder.
Where do Deadheads gather now that there are no more actual Dead concerts? Where do the macramé jewelry makers ply their tax free trade? How do LSD dealers make a living out of their Volkswagen busses? Who's building bongs out of plumbing pipes and painting peace signs on bare nipples and what do the traveling tapers do now that they're no longer responsible for documenting on audio tape every word, note, burp and fart ever excreted on stage by Garcia and his rotating band of merry pranksters?
"For awhile, there was 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 was also a fan of local psychedelic jamsters The Travel Agents, a group which attracted a fair share of Dead followers. "I think [The Travel Agents] were even better than The Other Ones. They moved around a lot more, they had 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."
Even Phish phans are now bandless, as that band too has gone "poof" in a puff of smoke, no longer following the Dead's trail of breadcrumbs and microdots from venue to venue. "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.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."
JGB is The Jerry Garcia Band, which still occasionally tours even without their titular leader. They used to play annually at Live On The Bay festival at PB's Campland, along with several other groups who tread the so-called Tie-Die Circuit (The David Nelson Band, Merle Saunders, The Travel Agents, etc.). In previous years, the event had been called Dead On The Bay. Why the name change? Said Brian Ross, one of the festival organizers, "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."
The benefit for the Ecological Life Systems Institute came about "because of an interest in not only keeping the festival spirit alive but also to make a difference in the environment," says Ross. "It's about making a contribution, making an impact." With its band lineup, its target audience and its message, Dead On The Bay had obvious connections to the hippie ideals and philosophies which are associated with the Dead. In addition, visuals used in ads and flyers for the event, such as "Steal Your Face" lightning bolts and dancing skeletons, made it clear that the concert was indeed geared for the psychedelically inclined, among whom Deadheads are a sizable demographic.
Ross states that they were never directly contacted by anyone in the Dead organization. However, after hearing of other promoters who'd faced legal problems over supposedly using The Grateful Dead name and trademark without proper permission, Dead On The Bay organizers opted for a new name. "The interesting thing is, the [Deadhead] community knows what's going on. [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."
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. "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."
Brian Ross says he's filling his Deadtime by "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 event promoter, Michael Gelfand - then 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. [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 generation 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!"
T Lavitz, one-time keyboardist for progressive rock/jazz unit The Dixie Dregs, toured 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. Though he'd seen the Dead several times and once even auditioned as a replacement for the deceased Brent Mydland, he 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 tie-dyed and bleary eyed? "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 "unemployed 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 shit, you know? I've seen a lot of freak outs at Dead shows."
Peace had his last psychedelic experience on the day that Garcia died. "I did some 'shrooms and a bunch of us were out at Winston's [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 that I figured I'd never top the experience so I haven't bothered trying. 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."