Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart admits his band has always been wary of plastering its name or likeness onto products. “People would bring us suggestions for merchandise and we used to run ’em out of town every time,” says Hart. “You didn’t want to turn the Dead into a knickknack-trinket business.”
But, as Hart says, “Times and attitudes have changed.” In the coming years, the Dead will be everywhere. A slew of products sporting recognizable Dead logos, from luggage tags to ceramic mugs, will go on sale this year. Grateful Dead Game – The Epic Tour, a new video game featuring Dead songs and imagery, will be up and running online in April. And with the band’s blessing, the Hollywood talent agency ICM is working on a movie along the lines of Julie Taymor’s Beatles-driven Across the Universe that will integrate Dead songs (and possibly song characters) into a fictional story. “Who knows what Loose Lucy looks like?” says drummer Bill Kreutzmann. “Anything to get the Dead out there is good.”
The band’s exhaustive recorded archives won’t be ignored, either. In February, archivist David Lemieux will roll out Dave’s Picks, a quarterly CD series of unreleased shows that will pick up where the late tape-head Dick Latvala’s Dick’s Picks left off in 2005 after 36 volumes. A 1977 Virginia show will be followed in the spring by a crystal-clear 1974 gig in Connecticut. And later this year, the band will release a multidisc box set with multiple shows from one tour.
The group’s new outlook began when Rhino acquired the Dead’s recordings and merchandising business in 2006. At a Marin County, California, hotel in 2010, the four surviving members – Hart, Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir – met with Mark Pinkus, a longtime Deadhead newly installed as general manager of Rhino’s Grateful Dead Properties division. They tested the exec by asking him to sing 1989’s relatively obscure “Victim or the Crime.” Once he did that, Pinkus says, “It was collectively decided we should be more aggressive. We want people to know that the Grateful Dead are open for business.”
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In addition to the upcoming line of Dead merchandise, the band licensed its name to a Dead version of Monopoly and a deal with Wines That Rock, a California vineyard that began marketing Steal Your Face red wine last October. “We agreed we shouldn’t hold it too tight,” says Hart of the Dead’s assets. “A key chain isn’t the Grateful Dead. But there are memories triggered from these things.”
Hart says the potential new revenue played into the band’s decision. “It’s formidable,” he says. “You get pennies here and there, and it all adds up and pays the rent.” But another big reason for the new push is the group’s desire to introduce its music to 15-to 24-year-olds who never got to see the Dead with Jerry Garcia. Hence Dead skateboards, lunchboxes and the ICM-backed Dead movie. While the film has no script, stars or director yet, ICM agent Bruce Kaufman (who was also behind Across the Universe) intends for the final product to speak to young fans. “The Dead’s story is every teenager’s story,” he says. “It’s about leaving home and being rebellious.” That project alone could be a huge windfall: The Beatles were paid between $18 million and $25 million for use of their songs in Across the Universe.
The Epic Tour game – currently online in a preview version at GratefulDeadGame.com – lets players register as dancing bears and, until late February, vote on the top Dead shows of all time. When the game is fully designed, players will be able to “travel” from one show to another, and hang out at re-creations of the fabled Shakedown Street parking-lot vending areas. The game will feature music from the band’s vaults – executive producer Adam Blumenthal says the ethos will be very Dead. “Players will build gardens or give miracles to one another,” he says. “We really want the game to not be competitive, but to explore the cooperative experience.”
Two other, non-Dead-sanctioned movies are also in the works. Veteran documentary filmmaker Malcolm Leo is planning a Garcia doc built around largely unseen interviews from 1987, and longtime Rolling Stone contributor Robert Greenfield’s Garcia oral history, Dark Star, is the basis for a biopic about the singer’s early, pre-Dead years.
The long-term plan is ensuring that the Dead’s long, strange trip continues far into the future. With about 1,500 Dead shows still in the vaults, Lemieux says Dave’s Picks could be around “for 30 or 40 years.” Says Rhino’s Pinkus, “Every generation discovers the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and every generation should discover the Grateful Dead. It’s our responsibility to make sure they do.”
• Grateful Dead Drummer: Jerry Garcia ‘Wasn’t Really Happy Playing’ at Band’s End
• Grateful Dead Archivist David Lemieux Announces New Live Series
• Video: Previously Unseen Jerry Garcia Interview Footage From 1974 Movie
• Mickey Hart: Another Dead Tour Is ‘Always a Possibility’
This story is from the February 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.