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Fifteen Years of the Grateful Dead

Kids join the cult, new blood keeps the sound fresh, and the fathers of psychedelic rock vow to stay forever young

Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead perform in San Jose, California.
Clayton Call/Redferns
August 7, 1980

As Rolling Stone went to press, it was learned that two members of the Grateful Dead and their road manager were among thirty-four arrested July 2nd after a fight broke out backstage at the San Diego Sports Arena. Guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Mickey Hart and Danny Rifkin were taken into custody shortly after the band finished playing a show at the arena, and the three spent eight hours in jail before being released on bail. Weir was booked on suspicion of inciting a riot and resisting arrest; Hart on suspicion of inciting a riot, disturbing the peace and obstructing justice; and Rifkin on suspicion of participation in a riot, interfering with a police officer and assault on a police officer.

According to news accounts, police were called to the stage area to investigate a report that a concertgoer was urinating on another person. While there, officers witnessed an apparent drug transaction. When they moved in to make an arrest, the melee broke out.

"The guy resisted," patrolman Jorge Nelson told a local paper. "Then everything went to hell because it looked like a fight." A police spokesman said Weir, Hart and Rifkin were arrested for attempting to "free the person being arrested."

Bob Weir, however, told Rolling Stone a different version. "On my way back to the dressing room I saw about half a dozen cops standing on a kid who was lying face down in a pool of blood," he said. "About six feet from them were Mickey and Danny. Mickey said, 'It doesn't take all of you to do that job.' One of the cops said to him, 'You're under arrest.' Danny said, 'No, you don't understand. This is our show.' At that point, a door burst open and maybe a dozen more cops came in, all with their clubs up. Four cops grabbed Mickey and Danny and started choking them and dragging them off.

"I stepped into the fray and said, 'Wait a minute.' I was concerned that there was the potential for a riot. Before I could do anything I was grabbed, handcuffed and dragged off to jail."

A police spokesman said the three will be prosecuted. But Weir hopes to "countercharge the police with inciting to riot, because they really were. It was bust fever."

They didn't sing "Happy Birthday" to the Grateful Dead, who turned fifteen on June 7th in Boulder, Colorado. Not that they didn't try. Pockets of Deadheads in the crowd of 15,000 at Folsom Field, on the campus of the University of Colorado, attempted to work up the simple song. It wasn't that they were met with stony silence or anything. The problem was that it was impossible to be heard over this . . . rumble of noise that started as soon as Warren Zevon finished his set. The mix of whooping and whistling, of screeching and screaming, filled the air during the Dead's ten-minute tuning-up. It rose in volume with the beginning of each new song, and settled into mere pandemonium between numbers. But Boulder, where Deadheads had gathered by the thousands the day before, was calm compared to New York.

Three weeks earlier, the Dead had played Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. For three straight nights – well, for three consecutive nights, anyway – crowds of 17,000 Deadheads packed the joint and gave out a nonstop screech reminiscent of a Beatles crowd. The only quiet moments were for the sweet, slow songs that Jerry Garcia sang. Those were like campfire singalongs, everybody joining in on "Sugaree" and "Candyman," arms and cassette microphones swaying side to side in the air. The rest of the time, it was get up on the chair, Jack, and scream the night away – through two sets (three hours, plus the "legendary break"), through a fiery drum duet by Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and through songs ranging from "Johnny B. Goode" and "El Paso" to the newest stuff, like "Alabama Getaway," which was received as an instant classic.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Grateful Dead

"New York," one of the Dead family had said before the first concert, "is extra intense." For the Dead, the East Coast has been intense for years. This time, about 51,000 tickets were sold with no advertising, save some radio-station announcements. On their end of the deal, the Dead turned a basketball arena into a cozy room, keeping the people wired with a mix of Sixties vibes and Eighties technology. Throughout the auditorium, one noticed the reach and clarity of the rented sound system. And a few other things, too:

• Microphones, on stands, sprouting out of the packed floor area, invariably connected to expensive portable tape decks, such as the Nakamichi 500 being operated by a Western-shirted young man with a scarf on his head and a knapsack on his back. Near the middle of the hall, another mike was attached to a crutch, held aloft and angled toward the stage speakers.

• The dancing, true to the Western-based music of the Dead, was free-form hoedown. "The Woodstock Sun Grope," as one writer aptly put it, is alive.

• The people doing the dancing, passing the joints and making the tapes were by no means all time-warped hippies. Probably half the crowd was under eighteen, and there were even some first-daters making out in the balcony while the newest Dead member, Brent Mydland, performed "Easy to Love You." His is a plains-of-California voice, high like Neil Young's and romantic like Jesse Colin Young's. His keyboards – electric piano and organ – give the Dead the extra coloring they'd been missing in the last years of Keith and Donna Godchaux' membership in the band.

Fifteen years after arriving on the San Francisco scene, and after having gone through acid, financial burns, Haight-Ashbury, busts, death and creative highs and lows as extreme as drugs could take them, the Grateful Dead are drawing bigger and younger crowds than ever. As a band, they sound fresher than ever. And they may be on the verge of their first hit single.

Far out, indeed.

Of course, their albums have always jumped onto the charts – but that's because of the automatic 250,000 or so snapped up by Deadheads, devotees who follow the band wherever it goes, tape-recording shows and trading tapes with one another (with the band's blessing). The Dead have even placed a few singles on the charts – "Truckin"' and "Uncle John's Band" reached the bottom half of the Top 100 ten years ago, and more recently, "Good Lovin'" (from the Shakedown Street LP) threatened. But through the years, the Dead, saddled with an image as washed-up hippies, have been anathema to most radio programmers.

That is, until Go to Heaven and its first single, "Alabama Getaway." Showcased on Saturday Night Live in April, "Alabama" almost immediately became the most-played album track among AOR (album-oriented rock) stations throughout the country. Heaven, said John Scher, head of Monarch Entertainment of New Jersey, which manages the Dead's tours, has ended radio's habitual Frisbeeing of new Dead product into the back of the album bins. "There are only three significant AOR stations that aren't playing the record," he said. "Twenty-five to thirty-five out of 200 stayed off the last one." "Alabama Getaway" has crossed over to a number of powerful AM stations, and the influential RKO chain is watching.

"If we ever get a Top Forty single," said John Scher, almost dreamily, "the sky's the limit."

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