Fifteen Years of the Grateful Dead

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A lawyer friend of Michelle's who also made the trip told about a superior-court judge in Sonoma County (in the wine country north of San Francisco) who's a Deadhead. "He plays tapes on a deck in his chambers, and he's got a Dead sticker on his blotter." Michelle added: "My husband, Chris, has argued final arguments – to juries! – behind three nights of the Dead. His trip is so charged that he wins."

Such stories abound among Deadheads. In San Francisco's Bay Area Music Archives, Paul Grushkin, twenty-eight-year-old keeper of the books and records, spoke warmly about his twelve-year romance with the Dead.

"The Dead are a very personal thing," said Grushkin. "I think half the fun of being at a Dead concert is watching the changes you go through. Watching yourself metamorphose . . . maybe in time with the music."

He recalled a high point, a Winterland show in 1972. "I didn't think I was that stoned – maybe something like hash . . . or peyote . . . Anyway, that click, whatever it is that Deadheads say about going into hyperspace, where suddenly everything is quite . . . different . . . unnatural, not your normal course of events . . . And I couldn't decide through the next three or four hours whether it was me feeling that way, or if it was because of the band, or the audience, or the drugs. And I started to, if not hallucinate, really fantasize on some things associated with such a monumental experience in musicmaking."

In Boulder, Jerry Garcia, trying once again to explain his band's appeal, said: "They might like us in the same spirit that people like drugs. I think we're like a drug, in that sense. People turn each other on to us. And there's that personal contact involved with every Deadhead. There are very few Deadheads who are Deadheads in complete isolation."

"They've helped me to know myself a little better," said Paul Grushkin. "Dead concerts are a marvelous time for introspection and reflection. It's the perfect music for that. At concerts, I see people who just suddenly get the spirit, like you do at a gospel concert. You understand – not for everybody else, but for yourself. And what happens is, you are immediately, totally distant from your wife or loved one, from everyone. There are moments when it is really splendid or scary, and it's for you alone. It goes back to the [Robert] Hunter song, 'That path is for your steps alone.' I think it's 'Ripple.'

The Dead concert experience has been crystallized in two one-liners. A bumper sticker of unknown origin declares THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A GRATEFUL DEAD CONCERT. Even better is a remark by Bill Graham, so good he even had it painted on the side of Winterland on the occasion of its closing (with a Dead concert, of course): "The Grateful Dead are not only the best at what they do; they are the only ones who do what they do."

It follows, then, that Deadheads are a unique breed. Some have even been known to steal and fence their way across the country – or, in 1978, to Egypt – to see (and tape-record) the Dead. Some were jailed for their efforts.

Mickey Hart met some Dead tapers in Hawaii recently and was awed. "They're cunning," he said, backstage after the second concert in Boulder. "It takes more than going to concerts to be a Deadhead. Deadheads are rabid. They're a lot of things. A very complicated animal. They blow it sometimes, but most of the time they're right on. They go for it. They live on the edge."

I told Bill Kreutzmann, who was seated next to Hart, that many Deadheads have little more than their tape decks, backpacks and thumbs. He straightened up. "I think they're damn lucky!" he shouted. "They're luckier than hell that they don't have to be tied down to a regular old nine-to-five shit job, and get off on traveling with a pack and a Uher. I think that's sweet as hell!" Such effusive support of their fans runs throughout the Dead organization, which, among other things, sends out an irregular newsletter on the band's activities to some 90,000 Deadheads.

David Gans, a Dead tape collector, knows a Bay Area "tape-head" who owns upward of 1000 hours of the Dead in concert. "He's obsessed," said Gans. "He's a twenty-nine-year-old virgin, for Chrissakes! I said to him, 'What about women? Marriage? A little sleazy sex now and then?' He said, 'Well, I've gotten by this long without it'" Gans shook his head. "You remember that April Fool's Day concert [at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey] where they came out playing each other's instruments on 'Promised Land'? That was here, in Oakland, by the 3rd."

Gans, 26, used to be a full-tilt Deadhead, but he's begun to pare down his tape collection. "There's always a new generation of Deadheads," he said. "People grow up and out of it" Gans, a musician (whose band does a number of Dead songs) and freelance writer, struggled with having to be defensive about it. "There's a certain level of embarrassment attached to being a Deadhead," he said. "It is so frowned on by the nons. There's jazz heads who go, 'Don't talk to Gans. He's a Deadhead. He doesn't understand McCoy Tyner.' And the truth is, the thing the Dead do is jazz, only in a rock idiom. It's musical conversation, much as the best jazz is."

Paul Grushkin has no problems being a Deadhead, right in the open. "I enjoy spending a weekend getting prepared for a concert, and all of my Deadhead associates do the same thing," he said. "I don't think it's quite like preparing for the Eagles or the Cars. With the Dead, there's an excitement that begins Thursday or Friday and builds. You're really bouncing off the walls, as if you're psychically getting ready to give it your all, and whatever it is, you're gonna be right on top of the mother. In fact, it's been about six months" – Grushkin's eyebrows danced – "and boy, I'm ready for another one. Goddamn!"

Mickey Hart, after an enthusiastic discourse about drumming with the Dead, was asked about other interests. "That's it!" he shouted, flinging his arms out. "I'm a Deadhead! You're talking to one of the originals. Dead forever; forever Dead!"

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