If there’s such a thing as a recession-proof band, the Grateful Dead must be it. While the rest of the music industry has suffered through one of its worst years ever — record sales have plummeted, and the bottom has virtually fallen out of the concert business — the Dead have trouped along, oblivious as ever to any trends, either economic or musical.
During the first half of the year, the group — now in its 26th year — grossed $20 million on the road. Over the summer, which experts have declared the worst in memory for the touring business, the Dead were the only band that chose to concentrate on — and, indeed, that filled — outdoor stadiums. Their average gross per show, according to the industry newsletter Pollstar, was more than $1.1 million, or nearly twice that of the summer’s second biggest touring act, Guns n’ Roses. And then, immediately after Labor Day, the Dead hit the road again, playing three nights at the Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland, nine nights at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and six nights at the Boston Garden. All of the shows, of course, were sellouts.
Jerry Garcia, the group’s 49-year-old singer-guitarist-songwriter, is as baffled as anyone by the Dead’s seemingly unstoppable success — though he continues to search for explanations. “I was thinking about the Dead and their success,” Garcia said on a September afternoon, as he sat in a hotel room overlooking New York’s Central Park. “And I thought that maybe this idea of a transforming principle has something to do with it. Because when we get onstage, what we really want to happen is, we want to be transformed from ordinary players into extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. And the audience wants to be transformed from whatever ordinary reality they may be in to something a little wider, something that enlarges them. So maybe it’s that notion of transformation, a seat-of-the-pants shamanism, that has something to do with why the Grateful Dead keep pulling them in. Maybe that’s what keeps the audience coming back and what keeps it fascinating for us, too.”
Even as they’ve continued to pull the fans in to their live shows, the Dead have been busy with other projects over the past twelve months. Last September, the band released Without a Net, a two-CD live set culled from some of its 1989 and 1990 concerts. Then, this spring, the group issued One From the Vault. Another double CD, One From the Vault documents a now-legendary 1975 concert at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, where the band first performed its Blues for Allah album onstage. (One From the Vault II, the next release in what promises to be a continuing series of CDs from the Dead archives, is due in January. It features a pair of August 1968 shows from the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, and the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles.)
In April, Arista Records put out Deadicated, an anthology of fifteen Dead songs performed by artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakam and Jane’s Addiction. Proceeds from the album are being donated to the Rainforest Action Network and to Cultural Survival. Both organizations will also benefit from the publication this month of Panther Dream, a children’s book about the rain forest, written by Bob Weir, the Dead’s other singer-guitarist-songwriter, and his sister, Wendy Weir, who also illustrated it. (In addition, Mickey Hart, one of the group’s drummers, has collaborated with Fredric Lieberman on Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm, which was just published by HarperCollins. An accompanying CD has also been released by Rykodisc.)
Meanwhile, Garcia has not been sitting by, idle. In July, he and mandolin player extraordinaire David Grisman released a lovely CD of all acoustic music, ranging from their take on the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” to B.B. King’s trademark The Thrill Is Gone” to Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” And last month, Arista issued Jerry Garcia Band, yet another live two-CD set. Heavy on cover versions, including the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and four Bob Dylan songs, the album features Garcia’s longtime side band, which now includes John Kahn on bass, David Kemper on drums and Melvin Seals on keyboards. The band will venture out on the road in November for a series of East Coast dates, including one night at Madison Square Garden.
Garcia admits that these solo jaunts are often more entertaining than his work with the Dead, and one gets the feeling that if he felt he could easily extricate himself from the Dead and his attendant responsibilities, he might just do it. Still, when pressed, Garcia claimed the Dead take precedence. “It’s still fun to do,” he said. “I mean, even at its very worst, there’s still something special about it. We’ve all put so much of our lives into it by now that it’s too late to do anything drastic.”
Nonetheless, Garcia believes the Dead are at a transitional point, a situation primarily brought about by the drug-related death of keyboard player Brent Mydland in July 1990. Mydland, who over the years had assumed a major share of the group’s songwriting duties, has been replaced by both Vince Welnick, a former member of the Tubes, and Bruce Hornsby, who has been sitting in with the band on the road but whose long-term commitment is uncertain.
During two separate interview sessions for this article, conducted during the band’s New York stand, Garcia talked at length about Mydland’s death, the current state of the Dead and his attitude toward drugs. He also spent a considerable amount of time discussing his family. His openness on that topic was in part due to his renewed relationship with his eighty-three-year-old aunt — the sister of his late father, Joe Garcia — which prompted him to explore his roots more thoroughly. In addition, Garcia has been playing the role of family man recently. He was accompanied on tour by his current companion, Manasha Matheson, and their young daughter, Keelin, and — as incongruous as it may seem — much of his free time was filled with such activities as visiting zoos and taking carriage rides in Central Park.