A message to Garcia, that’s what she has.
“Who do I see about getting backstage?” she asks with musky urgency. “I’ve got a message for Garcia. It’s very important.“
She’s not sure she’s hitting on the right party; her expression is guarded and nearly indecipherable in the Dead-loud murk of the Fairgrounds Arena, except for the urgency in her eyes. Groupie urgency? Space urgency? There are variations on this movie. “He’s such an amaaaazing dude…. I’ve driven all the way from Dallas here to Oklahoma City…. Tell them my old man died last year and I’ve got to talk to Jerry.”
A message to Garcia. Everybody around the Grateful Dead knows about messages to Garcia. Keith Godchaux, who’s played keyboards for the Dead for two years, remembers with an ironic grimace having to go through the meeting-Garcia movie before he could show his stuff. It seems everybody who’s ever gotten high behind a Dead album has to talk to Garcia.
Jerry Garcia stands for the Dead for a lot of people. He’s the lead guitarist and singer, most of the song credits are his, he’s extraordinarily articulate, and most of all everyone senses his special spiritual authority in the band, his permissive guru-figure status. But at the same time he never puts himself in front of the band. Even in the matter of composing credits, he is so far from claiming the spotlight that the group has just adopted a “Plan C,” under which royalties are not distributed exclusively to the composer and lyricist—the parties of the “original creative flash,” to use Jerry’s term—but a percentage also goes to all members of the band, to acknowledge their part in the finished version of the song.
For that matter, the Dead depend on their road crew of 16—they won’t use any PA system but their own—and, in varying ways, on larger and larger circles of people, ultimately including the whole Dead family of perhaps 150 persons. That’s friends, old ladies, co-workers, resident artisans, side trips—everything from Grateful Dead Records Corporation to Sparky and the Ass Bites from Hell.
* * *
The offices of Grateful Dead Records, Inc., are in a classically funky Victorian house in San Rafael, California. Classically funky by definition—a reminiscence of the Haight transplanted here in Marin County—because it used to be the Dead House before their office operations outgrew it. An audacious idea is afoot down the hall from the painting of Mickey Mouse and Pluto: a rock & roll artist-owned record company. Not a record label, such as Apple or Grunt, under the corporate wing of an established record company, but a company that presses and distributes its own disks and takes the consequences.
“I got the idea for the company on the 18th of March, 1972,” said company president Ron Rakow, characteristically beaming mellow relaxation and at the same time twisting around in his chair from a slight overplus of animal energy. “I was driving on Highway 1 between Bolinas and Olema, and I saw a picture of the whole system, how it would work. So I went on the road to research it. I started at the Securities and Exchange Commission, xeroxing the big record companies’ financial statements. That gave me enough information to start asking questions. I ended up writing a 93-page report with several hundred pages of bibliography, which got called the So What Papers.” That title is said to have been born of a psychedelic meditation on the metaphysical ramifications of the phrase So What.
“I presented the papers to the band on July 4th, 1972. I was surprised they didn’t OK it right away, so I went on the road as part of the equipment crew to work off my frustration. It was finally approved on April 19th, but of course in changed form.” The original plan called for a radical distribution system, completely bypassing record stores: Good Humor trucks, for instance, mail ordering, and distribution through head shops. But the conservative faction of the Dead, anchored by business manager David Parker, prevailed to the extent that Good Humor–type trucks will not deliver the first record, anyway. The first record on the label, Wake of the Flood, is already in record stores, distributed in the U.S. by distributors chosen by Grateful Dead Records and in Europe through Atlantic Records’ distribution.
“The sale of the foreign rights to Atlantic brought $300,000 which financed the operation,” said Ron, “and we also have a financial umbrella in the First National Bank of Boston, which has approved and underwritten the distributors we’re using. That’s the big load off our backs. Here . . . this is our cash-flow chart.” He held out an accordion-folded sheet of accounting paper, dense with categories, entries and subtotals. “Feasibility and function are clearly laid out. I’ve estimated income conservatively and expenses liberally,” Rakow added cheerfully. “We have to satisfy the paranoid viewpoint.” A unique thing about this record company is that a percentage of the records delivered to any distributor, based on local market sales of the most recent Dead album, are final sales; that is, paid for by the distributor whether they get sold or not.
Jerry Garcia took such interest in the proposed record company that he spent five hours going through the flowchart with Rakow even before the So What Papers were presented, and an explanation of the chart based on their afternoon in Ron’s barn went to each of the band members at their request. “That chart is essentially unchanged from June, 1972,” said Rakow, “and I’d like to point out that the financing came two days before the chart called for it, and the studio work on the album was ended on the exact day.
“It’s a no-risk deal. If the company folds, the band is free to sign with any company they want, except that Atlantic has foreign rights to four records in two years’ time. If the band were to break up, what would happen is that Garcia would be obliged to make one record for Atlantic for both foreign and domestic distribution.
“We’ve sent engineers, people who’ve worked in recording studios, from this office to each of the three pressing plants we’re using just to maintain quality control,” said Rakow, fondling the borderline of his curly sideburns and his five o’clock shadow. “There are four people out there, checking—in each shift—to see that the mother is pressing true, that the vinyl is mixed right. Just their presence has made a difference in standards, because the plant workers are not used to having people from record companies take an interest. The original reason we did this was to get top quality, but it turns out that’s impossible. The petroleum shortage is resulting in lower quality vinyl—we’ve noticed a difference this week as against last week—and the best we can do is minimize defective pressings.
“But we’re doing as much as anyone can. We even pulled out of one pressing plant on October 3rd, and the record was due in the stores on the 15th, because it wasn’t meeting our standards. Whew. It was like redirecting the Normandy Invasion.”
Joe Smith of Warner Bros. has disinterested best wishes for the fledgling company, but as president of the Dead’s former label he has, as might be expected, a jaundiced view of the operation. “Originally,” he commented, “they felt there was a problem in our distribution system—we weren’t using mail order, or head shops. We weren’t getting to their people. Initially, as I understand, they looked into this system of distribution and found it would be suicide, and so they ended up going through independent distribution, which reaches the exact same places Warner Bros. distribution does. So there’s nothing unique about the operation except that it’s artist-owned. When they have to start paying for advertising themselves, they may wonder why they did it. If I were starting a label today, I wouldn’t try to go it alone as an independent company. You can’t duplicate the facilities of a full-line record company in sales, promotion, marketing and so on.”
And as for the quality control program: “You can’t do it. There’s no way. I think they’re kidding themselves if they’re trying to get out thousands of records at the same time. They were always over-concerned about complaints about surface noise and clicks—when there were a hundred complaints in hundreds of thousands of records, that was a big thing.”
“Did you see that crow on our label?” asked Rakow. “So many people have had reservations about this company of ours, we decided to put the crow on our album and the labels. That crow’s for eating. Either we or a lot of other people are going to have to eat that crow.”
* * *
Ron Rakow was first associated with the Dead as “the rocker’s dream of the guy who’s going to put up the bucks.” He had a background in economics as a Wall Street arbitrageur—one who buys and sells simultaneously in two different markets to take advantage of a price difference; it’s part of the world-wide pricing system. He loaned them money for equipment in 1965 and within months got swept up in the Dead’s scene, dropped out of his company, Guaranteed Factors, and moved in with them as a photographer. Later he was a partner with the Dead and Jefferson Airplane in running the Carousel Ballroom, a venture which went deeply into debt and ended with the hall falling into the hands of Bill Graham, who renamed it Fillmore West. Now Ron is Grateful Dead Records. No doubt about it, he’s part of the Dead karass, to use the term from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: an involuntary association of people working outside the structure of any human institution to accomplish ends they are unaware of. The Dead scene works largely by karass.
Take Jon McIntyre, for instance, 32-year-old manager of the Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. When he met the Dead, McIntyre had been pursuing a complicated academic career, never quite obtaining a degree at a series of institutions, but lecturing in philosophy courses such as Symbolic Logic. He’d been alternating teaching with acting, from the National Theater to gigs in Iceland, and as a nightclub singer in Chicago. The Dead, he recalls, “rearranged my internal organs.” He got into the trip, becoming successively manager of the Carousel’s restaurant, superintendent of concessions and finally hall manager; then after the Carousel’s demise, part of the Dead office. Under the management of Lenny Hart, father of drummer Mickey Hart, there were many temporary defections from the office, leaving McIntyre co-manager. When Lenny left, he found himself manager.
Or take Rock Scully, current road manager. The same age as McIntyre, he had an even more baroque college career after a childhood in Seattle, Chicago and Europe. After studying psychology under Kurt Adler at the University of Vienna, Scully graduated in history and literature at Earlham College in Indiana; a refusal to take a loyalty oath led him away from a post as administrative assistant to California State Senator Fred Farr and back to college—this time to the proto-Haight-Ashbury ferment of San Francisco State College in 1964. While putting on benefits for SNCC on the State campus, he also turned on a friend named Luria Castel to rock & roll, and her Family Dog organization eventually presented the first San Francisco rock concerts. From there on it was simple: Owsley Stanley, the Dead’s early benefactor, invited Scully to manage the band, and he became in succession a partner in the management firm of Frontage Road, Ltd., then sole manager when his partner Danny Rifkin (now a member of the equipment crew) went to Guatemala; then compiler of The California Book of the Dead and the Dead’s publisher; then liaison with Warner Bros. Records, and since the band’s termination with Warners … back to road manager.
“In this scene,” as McIntyre puts it, “when you need something you just hang on until somebody comes to fill the space.” A classic example is the story he tells of how he heard that Keith Godchaux had joined the band: “I saw Garcia and asked him what it was all about, and he shook his head, very amazed, and said. “Well, this guy came along and said he was our piano player, and he was.’ ” (Little wonder that Alan Trist, head of the Dead’s publishing firm Ice-Nine, was fascinated by the scene—he’d been a social anthropologist.)
Joined to the karass like its shadow is the concept of Hypnocracy. You’ll get a confusing variety of answers if you inquire the meaning of the word. In fact, it’s considered bad form to ask. “It’s for me to know and you to find out,” said Garcia. “I used to know,” said Frankie Weir, adding that it depended on whether you asked a Bolo or a Bozo. Frankie’s partner Rosie stumbled and fell to one knee when asked; this was widely admired in the Dead family as an explanation of Hypnocracy.
Neither a Bolo nor a Bozo, Rock Scully had a historical explanation. “It started where were on the European tour last year, it was just a way of generalizing your trip. One busload of us got to being called the Bolos and the other bus was the Bozos, and while this kind of meant that everybody has two sides, an individual and yet able to submerge into this group thing, that’s how it started.
“We were something like an invasion, because there were so many of us we could just take over a hotel or a restaurant. That’s the meaning of the big American shoe coming through the rainbow on the cover of Europe ’72. Most of the people had never been to Europe before, and it was also the longest Dead tour ever, so a group consciousness developed that tended to exclude the surroundings. I had spent ten years in Europe and was extremely conscious of how we seemed to them—I mean, we were ordering off the menu all the time, running Europe a little crazy. We were the All-American Kid in Europe, in a sense a little spastic about relating to people. That’s how I see the Ice-Cream Kid”—the ‘doofo’ on the cover of Europe ’72, spastically hitting himself on the forehead with his ice-cream cone.
Many would disagree with Rock’s cosmopolitan explanation, and even he admits there is something to the idea of Hypnocracy as symbolizing the group’s “undiscovered common goals.” Indeed, Bob Hunter, the lyricist who collaborates with Jerry Garcia—the chief theoretician of Hypnocracy as well as Robert Burns’ great-great-grandson—has offered this explanation:
“When asked the meaning of life, St. Dilbert replied, ‘Ask rather the meaning of Hypnocracy.’ When asked the meaning of Hypnocracy, St. Dilbert replied, ‘Is not Hypnocracy no other than the quest to discover the meaning of Hypnocracy? Say, have you heard the one about the yellow dog yet?’ “
Speaking of the one about the yellow dog, Hunter has acknowledged that quippie jokes are hypnocratic. The jokes told about the equipment crew are an idiosyncratic mixture of Polack and Shaggy Dog. Sample: “Why did the quippie run the truck into the wall?” “Because it was rented.”
Perhaps—one must be tentative when speculating about deep matters—it has something to do with the Acid Test legacy of psychedelic faith, the sense that the unexpected and inexplicable are truth on the hoof and when it comes down to it all you can do is run along. And philosophic meditation on the doofo may be inevitable when you’re in a scene that runs on the karass principle rather than on some narrow-minded program of eliminating fuck-ups.
* * *
Take Fly By Night Travel as a karass example. The president (“Melon In Charge”) is Frankie Weir, wife of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir; the specialist in booking rock bands is Rosie McGee, an eight-year member of the family who came to Fly By Night from Alembic, the Dead-associated hi-fi workshop (see Rolling Stone No. 144).
“The idea had been in the air to have a travel agency for about four years,” said Frankie, sitting behind a business desk with a nose-ring stud glittering in her right nostril. “So we bought an agency in February—it would have taken three times as much capital to start one from scratch—and opened up here. I don’t expect it to make money for five years. It’s really mostly a convenience for the bands.”
Located in the same building that now houses the Dead offices, three blocks from Grateful Dead Records, Fly By Night shares the same hideous sort of office carpeting and stuccoed ceilings as the rest of the new building. As in the others, there is an attempt to make it more livable with tie-dyes by family artisan Courtney Pollack and visionary fairy-tale illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. Unlike most travel offices, there is not a single travel poster.
“One reason we got it is that Garcia, for instance, won’t come into an agency,” said Frankie, who knows from rock & rollers. She danced her way from San Luis Obispo, California, to American Bandstand and was even a Rockette for awhile before being George Harrison’s secretary at Apple. “Another reason is that we want to be sure that the bands aren’t getting booked into unfriendly or unsuitable places. We’re keeping a file on hotels, limousine services, restaurants that stay open late—a clearing house of information on places all over the country. We’re going to make this information available to anybody.” Comments run from “low key & close to everything” to “hates longhairs” and “The Mayfair is a fleabag and a whorehouse and don’t ever send us there again.”
Fly By Night has handled about 15 acts, including the Dead and its spin-offs, of course—the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia, Garcia’s bluegrass group Old and In the Way, and so on—and a number of Bill Graham’s groups. On the average Rosie is handling three tours at once. But like any travel agency with ambitions to commercial viability, Fly By Night is not counting exclusively on rock & roll, even though it accounts for 75% of the business. They also handle “commercial accounts,” the traveling businessmen who are the regular diet of most agencies. The rock & roll connection has caused Fly By Night some grief in this regard: It seems an early assistant in setting up the bookkeeping was busted June 30th for LSD possession and—bad luck—hot airline tickets. On investigation it was found that the hot tickets didn’t come from Fly By Night and that the fellow was no longer with the agency. Then about the time that scandal was quieting down, the bustee’s roommate was busted for acid. The “acid” turned out to be $300 worth of vitamin tablets, but bad luck again, he happened to be Ron Rakow.
One hopes everybody will keep in mind what St. Dilbert has said: “How can you tell a St. from a Snr. without a program?”
* * *
The Dead fan club dates from the double album Grateful Dead (usually referred to as “Skull and Roses”), which contained a note that read, “Dead Freaks Unite—Who are you? Where are you? How are you?” and a promise to “keep you informed.” About 350 people responded.
“The album was sort of offering people something,” said Eileen Law in the Dead Heads office, an office once again like all the others in the building but decorated with plants, old dance posters and letters from Dead fans. “So we were sort of compelled to respond.”
The office is shared with some other Dead operations: One door leads to a bookkeepers’ office, another to the “boys’ room,” the office of the Dead’s equipment crew. Eileen met the Dead because she was a fan: “If you went to all the concerts, you just inevitably met the band. And if you fit in, you became part of it.” So she understands the people who write in. “People are always asking for energy,” she said, “and they always want to know the dates of concerts.” Dead Heads regularly sends its members itineraries of concert tours, and irregularly something called Dead Heads Newsletter.
“We’re trying to do a newsletter about two times a year,” said Mary Ann Mayer, a former Dead lightshow operator. The newsletter contains drawings, poems and occasional statements from the band. Sometimes it will answer frequently asked questions, such as how the band spends its money (in 1972, the $1,424,543 was split up this way: 27% salaries, 27% road expenses and agency, 18% equipment purchase and maintenance, 17% office expenses—including 2% for Dead Heads, 8% tax and 3% operating profit); how the speakers are set up on stage, and such perhaps unthought-of questions as “What is Hypnocracy?” The newsletter, in fact, is the chief way even members of the Dead family have of keeping up on Hunter’s latest redefinition/obfuscation of Hypnocracy.
There are Dead Heads in every part of the country—even in unexpected places like Poland, Kuwait and Malaysia—and the rate of new memberships has reached 50 a day. The Dead make occasional special use of their fans. A special mailing announcing that Grateful Dead Records was about to swing into operation brought about 3,000 responses, mostly asking how to be of help. The volunteers are going to be put to work checking to see that the record gets delivered to stores and played on radio stations.
Membership is free, and as of September 25th had climbed from the original 350 names to 25,731. It might seem to be getting out of hand, but Eileen hopes it gets bigger! “It’s getting more fun.”
* * *
The band office shows a very resolute attempt to overcome the basic sterility of its quarters, with tie-dyes over the fluorescent lights and rough stained wood planks covering the walls. From time to time you might see a cadaverous bearded fellow whisk into an office decorated with a tapestry of the “Skull and Roses” album cover; that’s Rock Scully. The cultivated-looking gentleman with longish blond hair will be Jon McIntyre who, despite his scholarly manner, can pick up a telephone and storm at promoters with the best of them.
Next door is the office of David Parker, business manager—who also happens to be an 11-year friend of Jerry Garcia’s. At one time he played washboard and kazoo in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the band that was immediate precursor of the Dead. Next to his office is the New Riders office. Around a corner in the Grateful Dead office is the cubbyhole presided over by Alan Trist. This is Ice-Nine, which publishes all Dead songs and at one time, confesses Trist, was “a sink to keep people on the payroll.” Ice-Nine has published three songbooks.
Across the hall are the offices of the Dead’s agency, Out of Town Tours, where the struggle with stucco seems to have been won a little more to everybody’s satisfaction. “We like it better in this building than the Dead do,” said Sam Cutler in his languorous English accent. “We moved in here four months before the band did, in July of last year. We started right here in this building.”
Cutler represents as much as anyone the karass principle in operation. He met the Dead while tour-managing for the Rolling Stones in 1969; indeed, he is the one usually charged with having the inspiration of inviting the Hell’s Angels to police the ill-fated Altamont concert. But he had soon become part of the karass; he took over as road manager for the Dead when Rock Scully went into retreat in Woodstock after Altamont, then decided during the Europe tour to start an agency for the band. Now he is mutating from being the Dead’s agent to being an independent agent, specializing in Marin County bands, “to maintain a close flow with both musicians and clubs.”
The arrangement is often called “incestuous”: Cutler may book bands such as the Dead or the New Riders, which have offices on the same floor of the building, and make travel arrangements through Fly By Night downstairs. And of course Dead itineraries will be mailed to all Dead Heads. Once a week either the Dead or the NRPS will make use of Out of Town Tours’ salle de conference with its plumply psychedelic-carved table and chairs for a meeting. And of course, it is incestuous: The family that works together, plays together.
* * *
Rainbow Arbor—in common usage, Susila’s store—is located just off Mill Valley’s downtown square at 21 Madrona. It’s so small you might miss it, except for the more-than-life-size papier-mache statue of the Keep On Truckin’ kid out front. Inside there’s more papier-mache in the form of tree trunks extending from floor to ceiling where the foliage is continued in paint.
Susila is drummer Bill Kreutzman’s wife and, though her name has a Hindu ring to it, it’s in fact a nickname for Susan, “a Mill Valley girl who never left home.” Her partner is Christine Bennett, a member of the Dead family for seven years. A contrasting pair—Christine dark and ethereal, Susila blonde and down-to-earth—they’ve been partners before, in Kumquat Mae, the Dead’s old ladies’ store. The stock at Kumquat Mae ran to art and antiques, but after last year’s European tour Christine and Susila, who had become, with Bob Hunter’s wife, the dominant figures in the store, decided they had a different concept for a shop and Kumquat Mae was closed. “And we were having hassles with the landlord,” said Christine, “and anyway the store was in San Anselmo and everybody was moving to Mill Valley. Rainbow Arbor is the continuation of the energy of Kumquat Mae.”
At this visit, the stock is mostly art, paraphernalia and clothes: wall fabrics, Maxfield Parrish and Tibetan thang-ka prints, simple Western clothing on the order of shirts and jeans, some flashier handmade clothes, pipes, “magic boxes,” Ozium air deodorizer (“our old stand-by on the road”), jewelry, comics, Audubon Society bird calls.
And T-shirts. There are two T-shirt companies associated with the Dead. One is Monster Company, comprising the San Francisco dance poster and comics artists Kelly and Mouse; the other is Susila’s; she stocks both in her store. Her company’s shirts include the “Skull and Roses” design, a New Riders shirt and a configuration of marijuana leaves and Confederate flags she designed for the Allman Brothers. She tours with the Dead as the T-shirt lady, arranging for T-shirt sales in the hall.
* * *
Of course, any band needs a practice studio. Sometimes the Dead use the New Riders studio, located in the San Rafael industrial neighborhood. The studio is rented, natch, from an old friend of the Dead’s, Don Wrixman. He rents another part of the building to some woodcraftsmen, and yet another is the Dead’s sound and lighting equipment warehouse. The original Dead warehouse, which the equipment has long since outgrown, is now a workshop for repairing electronic equipment and building speaker cabinets.
As for a practice hall for the Dead themselves, they might build one someday on a piece of land they own known as “Deadpatch.” When Bob Weir’s home studio is complete the band could fit there, though Weir built it—with some of the heaviest insulation ever put into a building—so he could practice by himself: “I’m one of those people who can’t stand to be overheard when they’re working something out,” he says.
And then there’s Mickey Hart’s studio out in the woods near Novato. Mickey, it will be remembered, was with the band during the period when it had two drummers—including, alas, the year and a half in ’68 and ’69 when his father managed the band and embezzled perhaps $150,000 from them, of which they got $63,000 back. A few months after Lenny Hart was brought to justice Mickey’s musical directions led him away from the Dead, but he’s remained in the karass. These days his studio, or “experimental situation” as he calls it, serves for practice and also for recording. Both Bob Hunter and Barry Melton of the Fish have recorded and mixed albums in the studio, and Mickey did his own album Rolling Thunder there.
As would be expected, Dead spin-off bands such as Old and In the Way have messed around in Hart’s studio as well. A new spin-off group is soon to be launched from this mysterious hideout: an electronic music outfit consisting of Phil Lesh (a dropped-out electronic composer before he learned bass with the Dead), an MIT music student named Ned Legin, and Mickey himself. “It’s biofeedback music,” said Mickey, “neuro-sensory system music. Highly evolved music. We’ve been sitting around late into the night out here in the forest working on it and we’re gonna bring it out pretty soon. We’ve been building special equipment to play it. What are we gonna call ourselves? Ha! The other night we were thinking of ‘Warp Ten.’ We don’t know yet—anyway, it’s Warp Ten to me.”
The only other hint we’re going to get for a while is from Scully: “I hear one time they just put their instruments down facing each other with the speakers on and walked around among them—and the instruments were like talking to each other, man, holding a conversation.”
* * *
One other side trip needs to be mentioned: the Neal Cassady Memorial Foundation. Ron Rakow had mentioned it as “one of the measures we’re taking to ensure that the Dead are never financially secure.” Jerry Garcia gives the details: “When I recorded Garcia, I found for a while I was rich, so I started giving the money away. And I found after a while that it cost me $1500 to give away $1000. So we’re getting an institution registered to promote research in the arts, sciences and education so I can give away my money easier. So far it hasn’t done anything.
“Well, yeah, it ought to keep us insecure.”
* * *
“The road is—whew, the road is a whole other thing.” —Uncollected Rock & Roll Wisdom
When the band goes on the road, life is quite different. Instead of kicking around in the woods and hanging out with family, the cast of characters is reduced to the basic touring party of 23. This consists of the six musicians and a road manager, and the 16 members of the crew: two drivers for the 40-foot semi truck that contains the sound equipment, a lighting crew of three plus a lighting designer, nine sound crew quippies and the T-shirt lady. Other old ladies may come along, particularly when the band’s playing an interesting place—New York is popular—but they pay their own way. The social scene widens when the Dead runs into a fraternal band such as the New Riders, the Allman Brothers or Doug Sahm, or when the non-payrolled band of friends known as the Pleasure Crew pop up. Susila is said to have her own following on the East Coast, people who come to gigs to help her with the T-shirt business.
So much for the comers and goers. Now for the crew—the quippies, objects of many a hypnocratic joke, the T-shirted gang glimpsed hulking about the stage during a show, the villains of many a wild-assed kid trying to leap the stage or climb the speaker towers. Let Steve Parish, sentimental giant and acknowledged “loudmouth” of the group, speak his piece.
“We’ve shown a rough exterior to a lot of people, but that’s because you get jumpy on the road after a couple of gigs, getting up at eight in the morning and working till showtime, then spending another four hours tearing everything down so we don’t get to quit till four in the morning.
“But we’re not gorillas. We’re all really sensitive guys.”
Part of the gorilla reputation derives from the quippies’ former habit of destroying hotel rooms. “Well, yeah,” said Steve, grinning and wiping his black mustache, “it used to be a big thing to flip out. We were experts at flippin’ out. And we did a lot of machoing out too, brotherhood swaggerin’ kind of thing.” Rock Scully points out also that, contrary to the reputation of roadies the world over, this crew is usually too busy to have a shot at picking up groupies, which makes for a certain tension. “Only, after a couple of weeks out,” he adds, “one night—you can never predict it—suddenly everybody’ll score.
“Your basic original quippie was Ramrod,” Steve recounts over the cops and robbers noise from an Oklahoma City Hilton TV set. “He’s from Pendleton, Oregon, and he came in through Ken Kesey. He got his name because he was like an expert at loading watermelons, so he got in charge of loading the equipment. He held it together by himself for a long time. Also for a while he was co-manager of the group with Scully.
“Ramrod brought in some more guys from Pendleton. One was Rex, Rex Jackson. He does the piano now, and spare parts. You gotta have spare parts for everything on the road.
“Actually the original guy from Pendleton was Johnny Hagen, who was the brother of Kesey’s buddy Mike Hagen. He came on when the Dead asked for somebody from the Kesey bus. He left during the Lenny Hart period and later came back to be quippie for the New Riders. All the New Riders’ crew is from Pendleton.
“Joe Winslow is the other guy from Pendleton. He’s in charge of the PA for the left side of the stage—I have the right side. And he’s a driver with the 18-foot van that carries the lighting equipment.
“Then there’s Dan Healey, who mixes and oversees the PA. He’s been around a long time and he knows a lot about the system. And Danny Rifkin has been around for a long time. He handles mikes and cables onstage.
“Sparky Raizene came to us from Alembic. He’s in charge of the monitors, the vocal speakers on the stage for the musicians. Then there’s Kid, he goes way back to the Pendleton period. He works in the mixing booth out on the stage floor, a hundred yards from the stage. And there’s Larry, and the drivers, Moe and Jimmy, who drive the semi truck.
“And there’s the lighting crew under Ben Haller; Bill Schwarzbach and Tom Shoesmith. They all come from Fillmore East. And the lights are designed by Candace. She came on with us for the Europe tour.”
* * *
It seems an immensely large crew, but the Dead’s system is immense. The equipment weighs about 23 tons at the moment, all of it needed if the Dead is to have the sound they want: a sound that will fill an arena clear to the back at any level of volume, from a whisper to a fortissimo you can feel in your kidneys, but completely clear and distortion-free. But as it happens, at the moment the Dead are thinking of getting away from the use of this titanic accumulation of amps and speakers.
“The direction of the last year was dictated by overspending in 1972,” said Sam Cutler back in the Out Of Town offices. “There’s the matter of growing demand too, but the Dead are supporting, directly or indirectly, 40 or 50 people. Whether you want to call this the family or not is a matter of definition—when the Dead plays Winterland the guest list runs to 350 people. Anyway, the overhead is $100,000 a month, and that’s forced us into the larger halls. There don’t seem to be any halls in the country between about 6,000 capacity and 10,000, so the band has been forced to provide sound equipment for those gigantic ice rinks.
“The band prefers to play in the smaller clubs; they make it possible for people to be in a much better space because they don’t require police to be there and aren’t as subject to absurd early curfews. But if the band plays, for instance, a 3,000-seat hall, and tickets are $5 apiece, they will make $7500 for the night. At that rate they’d have to play 15 gigs a month, and the Dead don’t want to work that hard. They want to work long enough to satisfy the music withdrawal symptoms. And they’re road-fragile—they’re not built for it. They don’t have the gypsy-like mentality of some other bands.
“But they don’t like playing the large halls and they haven’t been happy with their performances in the last year. So next year we’re compromising: We’ll have maybe two tours of large halls, concentrating on the ones that have acoustically redeeming features and no hall management or police hassles. And then four or five small-room tours. There are some other ideas in the air too … weird ones.
“It means we’ll have to prune the tree a little to make for better blossoms. How exactly will we do that? That’s the million-dollar question.”
At the Hilton Inn in Oklahoma City, Jerry Garcia adds his angle:
“The record company may alleviate economic forces that have put us in this place. Right now, somehow, we’ve ended up successes. But this ain’t exactly what we had in mind, 12,000-seat halls and big bucks. We’re trying to redefine. We’ve played every conceivable venue and it hasn’t been it. What can we do that’s more fun, more interesting?”
For the tours of small halls, the sound equipment will be cut back from 23 tons to seven, and modularized so that a crew of two or three men could set it up with fork-lifts, mounting it above and behind the band instead of on both sides.
As for what happens to the crew then, the Dead karass will provide. The Dead are setting the quippies up in a company called Quality Control Sound Products to build speaker cabinets with the rock & roll tour in mind, cabinets that won’t fall apart like commerical press-board models. They’ve already sold some to the Allman Brothers. There are also plans for a quippie consulting service and a J.B. Lansing speaker franchise.
So the quippies are a company as well as a crew, like so many of the Dead family back in Marin. If that weren’t enough, they’re also—are you ready?—a band. The Dead have been coaching them on instruments, and the New Riders rehearsal hall sometimes pulses with the rock & roll sound of Sparky and the ABs—Sparky and the Ass Bites from Hell. They’re Dan on lead guitar, Rex on bass, Steve on drums, Danny on piano and Sparky on harmonica—with Sam Cutler sometimes sitting in on rhythm guitar—and as singer, a friend of theirs, Darlene di Domenico.
* * *
This is what the crew does on a working day. We’re in the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds Arena at 9 AM, where 12 hours later people will be trying to get messages to Garcia. The two trucks are backed up to a stage.
First, the bass speakers come out. They’re lifted into place in the scaffolding on either side of the stage by fork-lifts—or, if the hall’s structure makes fork-lifts impossible, by hand. For this show 12 bass speakers are being stacked up on each side, one on top of another. “They couple when we stack them vertically,” explains Dan Healey. “More volume.”
By 10:30 the 12-inch speakers are also in place—today a bank of 32 on either side, slightly fanned out for sound dispersal. On top of them go two banks of five-inch speakers, 32 in each, in semicircular cabinets the crew has designed for horizontal dispersal. The two banks are aimed with a sight level at different parts of the grandstand for complete sound coverage, then tied into place. Twenty-four tweeters go on top of them. Fifteen more speakers of various sizes go on each tower for the piano and guitars, making 163 speakers on each side of the stage.
So much for the PA. The monitors, meanwhile, have been set up with amplifiers interspersed among them. These 133 speakers will keep the musicians in tune and make up for the missing area of sound coverage right in front of the stage.
Now comes the puzzle of tracing the miles of coiled cable from the right amplifier to the right speaker. The electrical equipment is massive; the onstage power, which is completely separate from the power needed for the 326 speakers on the scaffolding, comes through a military surplus ship’s connector, which was designed to plug in ship-to-shore power when a boat’s in port.
Dan Healey points down at the cable thick as an arm that will ultimately bring in all the power. “This would power six blocks of tract homes,” he says. “It’s 600 amps, three-phase. And we started out with just two extension cords. Now just our power equipment alone would fill a pickup truck.”
The ship’s connector is not exceptional. The Dead use a lot of military surplus equipment. “We’ve got to have equipment that’s waterproof and destruction-proof,” says Healey. “It’s got to be rock & roll specs, which are tougher than military specs. We know, because a lot of this surplus falls apart on us.”
Out of two huge military lockers have come the Genie lights—telescoping towers powered by air pressure that will support the stage lights and the black backdrop. Altogether there will be some 48 lights on the stage, between the Genies and the lights on the scaffolding. On top of that, there will be four follow spots up near the roof of the arena, provided by the promoter and operated by local union men controlled by Candace with headphones.
By 3 PM the speakers—all 459 of them—are set up well enough that the musicians can make a sound check and set the volume levels. By now the union cleanup men have broomed up the popcorn cartons and spilt beer from the last show, and a few score adventurous Dead freaks have gotten into the hall to listen to the sound check, which sounds like a rehearsal.
When the quippies have adjusted level knobs to the musicians’ satisfaction, the musicians go back to the hotel for dinner and the quippies finish lashing everything into place for the concert. Before the show, by custom, they are provided a steak and lobster dinner, and in some places souvenir T-shirts of the concert. “The crew are actually working for those shirts,” jokes Scully.
The bare stage of the morning is transformed. The black backdrop, the color-changing lights Candace operates, the towering banks of speakers, the amplifiers glowing cybernetically in the dusk—it’s the stage that Dead fans know. Right down to the hunched forms of a dozen quippies.
“We’re part of the Dead,” Steve Parish had said. “You really put your whole heart into the system, right from the vibration of a guitar string out to the back of the hall.” As it happens, this show we see that in action. Something is wrong with the speaker balance as the show starts. The audience doesn’t mind—even here in Oklahoma City, apparently, Dead fans are Dead fans, and the gathering of 8,000 or so together is a happy occasion in itself. The dark arena floor is rich with potsmoke and a sort of soft contented mumble is rising from the whole great floor.
But something’s wrong. Ramrod scrambles up a scaffold, then runs to crouch over an amp. Finally, after five numbers the band stops playing to let the crew straighten out the sound. Bob Weir covers by telling an exceptionally pointless story about two Martians while the quippies work frantically.
Bingo. The audience starts taking notice of the music—there is cheering during the next song and part of the audience is on its feet. Good old Grateful Dead. The excitement level is moving up in a regular, even curve. By the time of “Playin’ in the Band” the whole audience is on its feet and demanding two encores. It nearly stomps down the plywood barriers in front of the stage under the stolid gaze of the rented Airport Police, but at last it lets the Dead go.
The lights are up, the crowd has almost entirely dribbled out, and the whole wreckage can be seen. Bushels of popcorn boxes, dozens of bottles, somebody’s right shoe. Suddenly the pile of equipment on the stage looks dismayingly large, but the crew is climbing the towers like ants, tearing it all back down: cutting tape, pulling plugs, rolling up cable, boxing speakers. This is going to take until 4 AM.
“It takes us a couple of days on the road to get into the hard pace,” says Steve Parish. Sparky may not be into the hard pace yet, or maybe it’s the fact that his night’s grind is just starting.
“You’re goin’ back to the Coast tomorrow?” he says sardonically. “You’re lucky,” and throws a coil of cable squarely into a locker 12 feet away to his right, without looking.
* * *
“So if everything were to collapse and even the band broke up,” said Jerry Garcia with a benevolent grin back at the hotel, “I have to do a record for Atlantic. I’m the consolation prize.
“But our scene is always healthiest when it’s really struggling. Basically our situation is on the borderline of collapse all the time anyway.”