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Fifteen Years of the Grateful Dead

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On the eve of the first concert in Boulder, Jerry Garcia sat on a bed in his Holiday Inn room. The beds were covered with blue velour spreads that Garcia had brought in himself. In the tradition of touring rock artists, the TV set was on, with the sound off. At ten p.m., Garcia for once wasn't wearing shades, but his glasses were tinted a smoky gray. He wore – what else? – a plain black T-shirt and beige tennies. The subject was hit records, and Garcia was chortling.

"That's incredible," he said about the airplay "Alabama" was getting. Of course, he's often thought about having a hit. "Oh, sure," he agreed. "We were sure our very first record was going to be a hit." He laughed heartily.

Fifteen years ago – the anniversary is marked by Phil Lesh's entry into the Warlocks, which then consisted of bluegrass freak Jerry Garcia on guitar, high-society dropout Bob Weir on rhythm, blues aficionado Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on harmonica and keyboards, and rocker Bill Kreutzmann on drums – Garcia had no idea how long the band might last.

"I wasn't thinking about time," he said. "I was hoping it would do something like what it's done. It went way past all my expectations." He scratched at the back of his neck. "I mean, I've been over the hill of amazement for so long now. It continues to blow my mind."

Despite the years and the tolls the Dead have paid, Garcia sees few fundamental changes.

"The only big difference," he said, "is that our functioning ability has gotten to a point where it's competent. On our worst nights we're competent. It used to be on our worst nights we were just bad." He chuckled. The Dead, after all, were famous for dropping acid before shows and, subsequently, for many musically wasted nights. "Now I'll walk away from the bad ones not nearly as wounded as I used to feel. And not only that, it's more the whole band will feel that we haven't had a good night rather than one of us. Used to be that thing where everybody might have a good night but me. That tells me that somewhere along the line our whole aesthetic has gotten more focused. We share more of a common vision."

Going on thirty-eight, Jerry Garcia obviously doesn't feel his age. "I try not to lose touch with my more youthful self," he said. "I still basically don't think of myself much differently than I did when I was about seventeen. I may have a case of extremely protracted adolescence. I still get treated like a kid in certain circumstances." Garcia is, in fact, often in a protective bubble, watched over by band associate Rock Scully, in whose Marin County home Garcia currently lives.

"It's just . . . I mean, anybody who's a little off the wall is not a member of that invisible adult class that moves gracefully through every aspect of life – everything from walking into banks, insurance, tax, all that straight shit. I certainly see it, but I don't feel that I'm part of the adult world. Nobody I know's like that. The only other side of that world is the kids. Like walking through an airport, which is as close as I get to the public – apart from walking through the streets – you're thrown in with lots of more or less normal people; if there's a family traveling, it's usually the kid I can relate to, if I have to."

In Boulder, Garcia didn't hide from people. He often sat in the small lobby of the Holiday Inn, talking with friends. But for every stranger who ventured up to him, there were knots of others, decked out in Dead T-shirts, who grabbed an eyeful, then walked away, affecting nonchalance.

Good Old Grateful Dead

When Garcia does talk with teenagers, he said, it's "one-on-one." There are exceptions, of course, but he thinks he's no longer a spiritual guru to the counterculture, the gifted rapper known as Captain Trips. "Most people who've gotten at all past a very superficial involvement have read the interviews and stuff and heard me talk my way out of that space," said Garcia, laughing. "So if that space surrounds me somehow, or I'm identified with it, they know it's not something I subscribe to personally. And most people don't come on to me as if that were the case. If they experience anything, it's the normal celebrity fear. I get that myself. I was always afraid to meet the people who awed me." Those, he said, were mostly bluegrass musicians. "I would never have the nerve to introduce myself. I was much too shy for that. But I'd go see them." To Garcia, then, the younger Deadheads "are really the same kind of people we were when we were their age. The thing they like about Grateful Dead music has something to do with what we like about it. It's not a case of mistaken identity. They know who we are."

What we stand for, and what we represent to a lot of people, is misfit power," said guitarist Bob Weir.

At age thirty-two, Weir retains his preppie good looks. He was idly tuning his Ibanez guitar in the clubhouse of the university's football team, along with Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland and John Barlow, Weir's old friend and cowriter. Barlow, a rancher in Wyoming who was filling in for Danny Rifkin as road manager on this segment of the tour, piped up: "We're positive miscreants. Weir and I always vied for biggest asshole in our prep school." The two, only a couple of nights before, had attended a reunion at Fountain Valley School, just outside nearby Colorado Springs.

"I don't wanna talk about that," Weir snapped, but Barlow spoke up again. "We saw a lot of people our age who definitely had a little soul death," he said. This triggered Weir. "Yeah," he said with a sigh, "twenty, thirty years older than me – and chronologically maybe a couple of years younger."

Weir, who has a nervous, halting style of speaking, suddenly sounded determined. "I refuse to get hammered by age into being an old fart," he said. On the couch, working on a steak and a glass of wine, Phil Lesh jerked his head back and widened his eyes. "I'm not clutching to my youth," Weir said, "but there is a spirit here of, 'We gotta keep things fresh.' I see friends of mine who haven't managed to keep things fresh in their lives, and I find that lamentable. I think we relate more readily to people who haven't had the life kicked out of them. Kids – and older people – who are gonna stay young forever."

People such as Michelle, a thirty-six-year-old law-school graduate and friend of the Dead family who'd flown in from northern California to catch the Nassau shows. "I can't talk about it," she said backstage after the first concert. "To describe the indescribable – ta-ta! Basic problem." But she did talk, in a husky, awed voice, about the Dead as "quantum chemists," and about their ability to, if I heard right, "stretch the Taos."

Tom Davis, a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live, declared himself a Deadhead of ten years standing. Sitting at our table, he concurred with Michelle. "There are a limited number of bands that are capable of 'stretching the Taos,'" he said. Then, in an officious tone, he added: "An American band, too, I'm proud to say. Even while our country is hanging its head, at least we have people like the Grateful Dead!"

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