This article is from M magazine feb 92 issue.
THE DEAD AGAIN...AND AGAIN...AND AGAIN
Like a star collapsing on itself, the sixties counterculture
has become focused around one band, the Grateful Dead,
making it the most successfu] touring act in rock and roll.
BY FRED GOODMAN
Fred Goodman is a New York based writer who covers business and entertainment.
So far he's been to six Grateful Dead shows.
"Need tickets? Need doses?" Two teenage boys¿skinny, white and rain-soaked¿
discreetly call out their sales pitch for Grateful Dead tickets and LSD from
beneath the shelter of an overpass a few blocks from the Boston Garden. A cold
autumn rain has been falling since late afternoon and into the evening, but it
hasn't deterred the crowds. Thousands of kids, many of them dressed as if
they'd stepped out of a late-sixties time warp, sit and listen to music in
their cars or huddle beneath highways in the makeshift parking lots that
surround the arena, transforrning the hub into a hippie Hooverville.
Down the side streets and in alley doorways the vendors have set up shop:
along both sides of the street T-shirts, tiedyed dresses, handmade jewelry and
crystals are draped over the sides of vans for inspection. Old, beat-up school
buses painted purple or green and sporting license plates from as far away as
Colorado and California hug the curb; their owners ¿ invariably long-haired and
bedraggled¿squat in the buses' open doorways, eyeing the crowd and talking
quietly with fellow road warriors. They are the hardcore fans, the small but
highly visible inner cirde of Deadheads who follow the Grateful Dead to every
stop they make on the tour circuit.
In the shadows of the arena, several Deadheads stand silently, holding up one
finger. Unable to buy seats for the sold-out show, they are searching for a
Miracle Ticket, the legendary freebie they hope will appear before show time.
Strangely enough, the free ticket frequently _does_ appear. "Karma," explains
one Deadhead simply. Like much about the Dead and their fans, the Miracle
Ticket defies logic. At 7:15¿just 15 minutes before the show is scheduled to
begin¿the fans start filing into the stands and onto the old parquet floor of
the Garden. For a sports fan, this arena is sacred ground; for a music fan, it
has all the acoustic warmth of an airplane hangar. But the Grateful Dead's
audience knows that the group spends more time and money on their sound system
than any other rock act; when Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia finally hits the
opening note at 7:50, the sound is crystal clear, and the faithful are up and
whirling like dervishes.
You can say what you like about the Grateful Dead's
music¿and you can _certainly_ say that it's one of rock and roll's great
mysteries that a group of musicians who have been together for 25 years can
play as badly as the Grateful Dead often does¿but they are arguably the most
genuine group in rock history. In an era when a Rolling Stones concert is
choreographed down to the last detail, when more bands than anyone would care
to admit won't take the stage without the aid of pre-taped accompaniments, when
live performances strive to simulate an MTV video, the Grateful Dead stands as
a band dedicated to taking chances and being of the moment.
There are no plans, no set lists when the Grateful Dead hits
the stage at the Boston Garden. Tonight, like every night, the
band is trying to find something new for themselves and for
their audience. Their spontaneity is the heart of an unspoken
contract between the Grateful Dead and their followers, a rela-
tionship unique in popular music and built on mutual respect
and a common thirst for new expenence. The Grateful Dead
has made its fans partners rather than observers in a nightly
journey of discovery. In return, their fans have made the Dead
the center of a subculture unlike anything in the history of
American arts. Bruce Springsteen is admired; James Brown is
awe-inspinng; Elvis Presley, in death, has become a near-religious icon. But
in every city thousands of people live for the Grateful Dead.
It is about more than music. Receiving their artistic baptism in Ihe LSD-
soaked Haight-Ashbury rock scene of the late sixties, the Grateful Dead
remains an adherent to the spiritual legacy of the times¿anachronistically
mystical and tribal. Like a giant dwarf star collapsing in on itself, what was
once the hippie counterculture has become focused and concentrated around
this center; everything about the sixties is gone - everything except the
Yet the appeal of the Grateful Dead transcends even the things the dead
have come to symbolize. The Dead is the most successful touring act in rock and
roll and will sell well over $30 million worth of tickets for their U.S. shows
this year. If they are built on the ethos of the sixties, the Grateful Dead
is a phenomenon for the nineties: a freestanding community whose members
run the gamut from lawyers to the lawless. In a time when American popular
culture seems static and tired,the Grateful Dead experience promises
more than entertaimnent. It promises adventure.
Larry Moulter has no trouble remembering the sixties. Now 41, he is the
president of the Boston Garden.
"The last time the Dead played here was in 1981," Moulter says. "At that
point the band vowed never to come back because my predecessor threw away the
lobsters they were cooking on the fire escape backstage." Moulter laughs. "He
didn't like rock and roll. I grew up listening to the Dead."
Going without dinner is about the last thing the Grateful Dead has had to
worry about in recent years. The band consistently lands on Forbes's annual
list of the 40 highest-earning performers. According to pollstar, a rock-
concert trade publication, the Grateful Dead sold over $22 million worth of
tickets in the first six months of last year. Indeed, in the midst of a
recession that otherwise crippled the rock business, the Dead was responsible
for six of last year's 10 top-grossing shows in the U.S. And they did it while
charging substantially less for tickets than other bands.
But their success has created problems. After nearly two decades as a
cult, the scene exploded when the band had their first hit single in 1985 with
"Touch of Gray." The song climbed to number one on the Billboard charts, and a
whole new generation of fans¿including many who hadn't been born when the
Dead was formed¿came out to the shows and discovered a vagabond circus.
The sheer numbers brought the Dead and its followers to the brink of
catastrophe. Where once there were a few hundred Deadheads hanging around town
when the band played, now there might be 10,000, and the explosion of the
subculture was more than some towns and venues were willing to put up with.
Along with the hordes of campers came other problems, especially drugs.
In the sixties the Dead had been the house band for Ken Kesey's storied
"acid test" LSD parties, and the drug culture remained part and parcel of the
Dead legacy. In some towns authorities
linked Dead shows to a rise in local drug use, complaining that the caravan
left a backwash of hallucinogens in its wake. The band, while unwilling to
come down against personal choice, was forced to admit that there were drug
dealers following their tours. Faced with the possibility of being banned
from some locations, the Grateful Dead began placing restrictions on their fans
in the late eighties.
Flyers asking Deadheads not to buy or sell drugs are routinely
distributed at the shows. In Boston, radio spots asking fans without tickets
not to come and hang around the Garden were aired on rock stations. Those steps
are only the most visible in a spate of programs started by the
Grateful Dead to make sure that they can continue to tour: months before the
Dead comes to town their road manager, Cameron Sears, meets with arena
management and local law officials in each city to educate them about the
Dead's audience. The Dead knows that it's the scene outside the hall as
much as the music inside that draws people; pleas to ticketless fans often fall
on deaf ears, and the band helps the venues get ready for what's coming.
"A week of the Grateful Dead is certainly a great learning experience,"
says Moulter. "The city fathers were somewhat skeptical of the crowds behaving
themselves, but everything the group and their management predicted came true.
The only surprise was the magnitude of what showed up. But we debriefed the
police and there were no surprises. The concert was very well thought out by
all the necessary parties."
Boston businessmen were pleasantly surprised: despite the milling crowds
around the arena, the Deadheads proved a boon for the city's economy. Local
media carried the requisite stories about Deadheads sleeping on the streets,
but over the course of the six-night run virtually every hotel room in the
area was booked; the conservative Boston Herald, under a story slugged "Hub
Grateful for Dead," estimated the shows had pumped $10 million into the
downtown business economy. "We had minimal problems," says Moulter. "It was
good for the city, good for the building, and I hope it was good for the
band. We're hopeful they'll come back next year."
Whether the Dead will be back in the near future is up for grabs. Dennis
McNally, the band's publicist, says tour dates are already booked for the
spring, summer and fall of this year. But Bob Weir, one of the Dead's two
guitarists, predicts the band will take some time off. Conficts like this one
aren't easily resolved: the Dead organization doesn't have a manager and the
group relies on reaching a consensus among the approximately 60 employees who
make up the Dead "family."
The band, along with their road manager, attorney and a financial officer,
operates as the board of directors of Grateful Dead Productions, an umbrella
organization that oversees the group's business operation. But everyone in the
Dead organization has a say at the Dead's monthly meeting.
"I've repped the Grateful Dead for about 20 years," says attomey Hal Kant,
"and I don't remember anything ever coming to a vote. All points of view are
accommodated; it goes way beyond consensus. There has never been a situation
where a crew member was dragged unwillingly into doing a show he objected to.
The Dead works on things until they get it to where everybody feels they can
live with it. I've been a director of several public companies, and what makes
the Grateful Dead organization work is a level of accommodation and support
that l've never seen anywhere else." Kant says the Dead's organization model
has been included in management training courses at IBM.
Employees are well paid: aside from full medical and retirement programs,
profit-sharing assures employees a cut of the band's record royalties¿an
arrangement virtually unheard of anywhere else in the music business. But the
most important principle is full value for the Dead's fans.
Grateful Dead ticket prices are held approximately $4 to $5 lower than
other bands' in deference to the large number of Deadheads who want to attend
as many shows as possible. "It has never been a key goal to extract the last
dime," says Kant. The band operates its own mail-order ticket agency to cut
down on ticket scalping and ensure a fair allocation. Shows run at least three
and a half hours in length.
Although they've been forced to crack down on vending outside the arenas, the
Dead still encourages taping at their shows¿with the proviso that tapes can
only be traded among collectors, not sold. The result, once again completely
unique to the Dead, is the Tapeheads, a group of approximately 300 hobbyists
who carry their portable tape decks and shotgun microphones to as many shows as
possible. The existence of these tapes has led to a larger web of collectors
with personal libraries that often run into the thousands of hours.
Other leading rock acts arrest anyone taping their shows¿but it hasn't
hurt the Grateful Dead, and a few other bands have just begun to allow their
fans to do the same. If anything, the appetite for live recordings by the Dead
appears insatiable. Aside from recording for Arista Records, the Dead
themselves recently began culling recordings from their own concert archives
to sell on their own mail-order imprint. The first release, a concert from
1976, sold 150,000 copies with very limited advertising.
Aside from the commitment to their fans, the Dead offers listeners
something they can't get in too many other places: an open search for
spirituality and mysticism through music.
"If you take it to its ultimate fruition, music¿like all art¿ is a
magical thing," says Weir. "We've stuck it out for so many years that we've
managed to actually start to get to the crux of that. That's what the band
comes to the shows for and that's what the Deadheads come to the shows for.
"Everybody wants to be transmogrified a bit into a somewhat lighter,
higher being," he adds with a self-conscious laugh. "We abandon reason; we try
to supercede reason on a nightly basis, and the audience is there to help us
with their hearts and with their voices and whatever they have."
The Dead claims to have drawn their primary influence from the beat
writers of the fifties rather than any musical movement¿Neal Cassady was a
good friend of the band's and the basis for the character Dean Moriarty in
Jack Kerouac's beat classic On the Road. But if the ideology came from the
fifties, the tools for traveling the spiritual road were definitely a product
of the sixties drug culture.
First as the Warlocks and then as the Grateful Dead, the group became an
integral part of San Francisco's burgeoning art and drug scene: aside from
performing as the , house band for the "acid tests," the group was also
bankrolled in its early days by LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. For the Dead,
LSD created a kind of chaos which opened new opportunities for mind expansion
and musical improvisation. It is that faith in chaos, and the beat generation's
dedication to being of the moment, that finds its expression in the Grateful
Dead's nightly ritual of unplanned concerts.
Like any mystical conclave, the Dead are rich ¿ in ceremony and legend.
Long before Robert Bly's _Iron John_ hit the New York Times's best-seller list
by encouraging men to beat drums and get in touch with their mythic male
spint, Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart was writing and researching
the history of the drum and its place in world mythology, teaching kids to tan
hides and build "earth drums." Both Hart and Garcia hit the lecture circuit
with noted mythologist Joseph Campbell, who compared Dead concerts to
"The audience wants desperately for us to meet them spiritually," says
Weir. "And they lend what they can¿the specially charged ether from which we
weave the spell. They give us their entire support because they know what we
are trying to piece together: a sort of magical, alchemic occurence."
If the phenomenon surrounding the Dead is a mystical search for ritual and
meaning, it is also a search for community. Jennifer
McCracken of Fulton, California, has part-time jobs in a school cafeteria and
in a post office; that makes it relatively easy for her to follow the Dead,
although she doesn't see them as much as when she was able to follow the tour
by selling T-shirts. Jennifer met her husband after a Dead show; now their
four- and six-year-old children have each been to more than a hundred Dead
shows. "It's their option as to whether they want to come along or not," says
McCracken. "Most of the time they want to. It's a great social scene with good
music. Even if the band isn't on, we get to see some good people. There's so
much energy and interaction ¿the people that go to the shows just seem more
environmentally and spiritually aware."
Not everyone who follows the Dead is of the same mind.
Alex Whitney, a 27-year-old Columbia student and computer technician, is a
Grateful Dead Tapehead. Whitney also calls himself "an anti-Deadhead Deadhead.
My friends and I always wear polo shirts to the shows," he says. "I wouldn't
be caught dead in a tie-dye." Whitney is also active in The Well, a computer
bulletin board for Deadheads. But he is densive of the Deadheads who follow
the tour in renovated buses and VW vans, terming them "road rats."
Others, though less militant in their stance, have also broadened and
redefined what it means to be a Deadhead. The Wharf Rats is a 12-step program
whose alcohol-and-drugfree members hold a public meeting at every Dead show.
The group, which takes its name from a Dead song, often mans a table in arena
lobbies to let other fans know of their existence. One Deadhead recalls seeing
a group of women at the Gay Pnde Parade in Boston calling themselves the
Grateful Dykes. A Grateful Dead fanzine, The Unbroken Chain, features a
regular pen-pal column called "Deadheads Behind Bars."
Like Whitney, Bob Block, 31, is a Tapehead. Block is also a CPA and manages
the finance department at a large teaching hospital in Connecticut. He's been
a Deadhead since 1978 and has attended close to 300 shows. A Tapehead for the
last three years, his personal collection of Grateful Dead concert tapes is
"probably over a thousand hours": the master list of shows he has runs 10
single-spaced typed pages. This year Block will attend 3l Dead concerts,
including two trips to the Bay Area and one to Las Vegas.
"I was in high school when I started following the Dead," he says. "It
was a rebellious thing¿you know, drugs and everything. But I don't even drink
beer anymore when I go to the shows. Having been in it for so long, it's a
community. I just like it; it's what I do. Some people get religious about
volleyball or basketball. For me, it's the Grateful Dead."
Marc Arbeeny, 35, has seen approximately 200 Dead shows. Although he now
lives in Boulder, Arbeeny saw most of those performances while he was living
in New York City¿and working as a bond trader for a leading investment house.
Most of the people he goes to Dead concerts with are also professionals,
including a close friend who owns a dress company, a director of a corporate
advertising department, chemists, engineers and other Wall Streeters. "I would
never put anything before the music," Arbeeny says in assessing the attraction
of the Dead. "But it's definitely a social phenomenon. When you trade bonds,
there's a certain beat to the market; when the market really started rolling,
there was an energy you had to tap into. The Dead's music is the same. There
are about 30 of us that see the Dead and have a blast. When I travel to
Chicago I'll see my friends on the Chicago Board of Trade and we'll play golf,
go skiing and see the Dead. The Dead is an excuse to get together."
Rebecca Adams, associate professor of sociology at the University of
North Carolina at Greensboro, has been studying the Deadheads as a subculture
since 1986 and is currently working on a book about them. She says people are
drawn to the Deadhead experience for community, spirituality and friendship.
"The Dead has made several decisions that bring people into constant
interaction," says Adams. She points out that by permitting fans to camp
outside the arenas, vend crafts and trade tapes, they have helped to form a
community beyond the concert hall. Popular logos associated with the Grateful
Dead¿a skull and lightning bolt, skull and roses, and dancing bears¿are
prominently displayed on vans, cars, buses and clothing, making it easier for
community members to identify each other.
Weir sees the Deadhead phenomenon as crossing all age barriers. "There
are people who are a bit older than me¿real beats¿who follow us, " he
explains. "And then there's our generation, who maybe caught the last wave of
that and are still riding with us. Then we have the kids who are just catching
that same wave."
'A couple of years ago I presented the Dead at JFK in Philadelphia,"
says one rock promoter. "The band is on stage, everything is going smooth. I'm
standing in the parking lot when a BMW screeches up and this guy in a suit
jumps out. He pops the trunk on his car and takes out a gym bag. 'Don't say a
word,' he says, 'the goddamn judge kept me until 6:30!' And then this lawyer
starts changing his clothes in the middle of the parking lot¿putting on
sandals and tie-dyes. It was like watching Superman get out of his suit and
into his costume."
David Bluestein is a vice president at Brockum, a Toronto-based rock and
roll merchandising company working with the Grateful Dead. Brockum has
designed and sold T-shirts and other paraphernalia for hundreds of rock acts
including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Guns 'N Roses. Bluestein, an
irrepressible capitalist and a self-proclaimed Deadhead, has just about given
up trying to define the Grateful Dead's audience.
"I have never ceased to be amazed although I understand the Dead
themselves have ceased to be amazed¿at who the fans are," says Bluestein. "I
take my kids to see a show. The one in kindergarten wants to take her
backstage pass into school for show-and-tell. She takes the pass in and her
teacher asks if she met Jerry Garcia. _The kindergarten teacher is a Deadhead._
"The principal buyer at a chain of stores in America calls and says her
sister wants to see every show in the Northeast.... We're owned by Labatt's
Beer¿the son of the president of Labatt's wants tickets for both shows in
Albany.... The lady across the street's nephew in Winnipeg wants to take the
car and drive to California for the West Coast dates...." Bluestein's voice
trails off and he sighs.
Daunting though it may be to target the Deadhead population, Bluestein is
not beaten. He still wants to get a Grateful Dead T-shirt onto as many backs
as possible. "There's this market that we think goes from 14 or 15 to the
known end of the spectrum of life¿and maybe beyond, but we don't have those
rights," he says.
"We've done okay, but we've gotta figure out a way to get these into
kids' sizes and into Gap Kids. Y'know, the Deadhead dad just loves to send his
kid to school in tie-dyes." Bluestein also dreams of a licensing deal for a
limited-edition BMW (the preferred car of the band members) that would place
the Dead's skull and lightning bolt logo on the hood where the blue-and-white
BMW emblem usually goes. "Airport gift shops," he says. "Don't you think you
should be able to buy a Grateful Dead T-shirt at the San Francisco Airport?"
Bluestein's really cooking now. "How about those wonderful knit sweaters
the NFL has that say GIANTS or BEARS? Get into the market, know what I mean?
What can you make for the Deadhead on Wall Street? A tie? Leather jackets with
a small Dead logo on the breast? Golf hats. Fishing hats. Racing hats. Skiing
Bluestein can pitch his fantasies endlessly, but he knows he has
virtually no chance of selling them to the Dead. Part of the appeal of the
scene is that there aren't any golf hats¿in fact, the band has already turned
down a request from a bank to do a Gratefill Dead MasterCard. And even though
vending is now discouraged outside of Dead shows, the band often looks the
"I recognize that the scene supported the band in the late seventies,"
says Bluestein. "Now the band is up at the top, and they don't want any of
those kids trying to finance their way to the next gig to get hurt."
Even for those with Deadhead stickers on their Cadillacs, who aren't
financing their way to the next show, there's a line that can't be crossed, a
confidence that can't be breached. The Grateful Dead have dared to think of
themselves as an experience rather than an entertainment, and their ambition
has been rewarded with a loyal community rather than a clutch of fickle
consumers. The independence and dignity of their audience is never lost on the
band. "We didn't invent the Deadheads," says Weir. "They invented themselves."