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The End of the Road?

Citing overcrowding, drugs and violence, some concert venues are banning the Grateful Dead. Are their fans loving them to death?

The Grateful DeadThe Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead perform at the Oakland Colisem Arena on December 31st, 1990

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

 A Grateful Dead concert is for music, not for drug dealing. The problems we are experiencing mostly have to do with drug dealing outside our shows — it’s the most visible, high-profile reason for anybody to have a problem with us. In other words, dealing makes us a target — so please don’t buy or sell drugs at any of our shows. We’re not the police, but if you care about this scene, you’ll end this type of behaviour so the authorities will have no reason to shut us down. We’re in this together — so thanks. —

The Grateful Dead, from a flier distributed at a recent concert

For more than twenty years, the Grateful Dead hosted rock & roll’s best and longest-running party. Their frequent concerts were a place where the spirit of the counterculture lived on and where one had a rare opportunity to see a band dedicated to redefining itself night after night after night. The members of the Dead gave themselves to their fans, and many of their fans responded by structuring their lives around the Dead, following the band on its concert treks and creating the subculture of hard-core aficionados known as Deadheads. But now, with the Grateful Dead at the height of their popularity, the party could be over.

Since the success of the 1987 album In the Dark — which produced the group’s only Top Ten single, “Touch of Grey” — the Dead have become such a big concert draw that the scene is in danger of buckling under its own weight. Longtime Dead venues like the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University say they can no longer handle the crowds the Dead attract. More troubling are local police and politicians. who don’t want Dead concerts in their communities. Most frequently, the complaints are that there are too many Deadheads and too many drugs.

After a pair of concerts this year at the California State University at Dominguez Hills — where one of three reportedly LSD-related deaths associated with recent Dead shows took place — the school said it would not invite the band back, citing complaints from the neighboring community of Carson. In suburban Howard County, Maryland, the police have asked the Merriweather Post Pavilion not to book the Dead or the Jerry Garcia Band because of extensive drug sales tied to a past show. In Orange County, California, complaints from nearby residents have forced the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater to stop presenting the band.

Even in cities where the Dead continue to play, there have been clashes with public officials. In Hartford, Connecticut, the city’s corporation counsel was asked to study the feasibility of banning performances by the Dead after 5000 Deadheads camped in a downtown park; in Pittsburgh, the mayor said she didn’t want the band back after fans fought with police outside the Civic Arena; and in Washington, D.C., a city councilwoman who represents the neighborhood surrounding RFK Stadium lobbied against the group’s return before reversing her position.

It’s a particularly daunting problem for a band that draws its energy and inspiration from performing live. In 1989, the Grateful Dead played seventy-four shows and sold 1.4 million concert tickets (grossing $25 million), making them the third-biggest concert attraction in rock & roll, after the Rolling Stones and the Who. And they could have made a lot more money if they had wanted to: While the Stones were charging $35 a ticket, the Dead were charging $22.50 in deference to the large number of fans who come to more than one show.

In an attempt to address the problems associated with their tours, the Grateful Dead last year put an end to on-site camping and vending at their shows. Unlike any other rock band, the Dead have a hard-core following of 500 to 1000 fans who attend every concert. Many more Deadheads will buy tickets for all of the shows in one area or for all of the concerts up and down the East or West Coast. Until the recent restrictions, fans on the tour typically parked their buses, vans and cars outside the arenas and stayed there throughout the band’s two- and three-night stands. To support their habit, many Deadheads sold items ranging from food to jewelry. Now they may have to find other places to stay and other ways to make money.

Although most Deadheads have cooperated with the new rules, problems persist: On any given night hundreds and even thousands of kids show up without tickets, hoping to score one at the show or just hang out. One of the manifestations of the Deadheads’ belief that something special will happen at a Dead show is the many fans who come to each show hoping to find a “miracle ticket”: a ticket that another Deadhead will sell or give to them. “I need a miracle,” they chant — taking the line from a Dead song of the same name — or they walk around the parking lot simply waving one finger. A miracle, indeed: The ticket often does appear.

“With the number of people milling about the shows, there are problems,” says an exasperated Bob Weir, one of the Dead’s two guitarists and the only band member willing to be interviewed for this article. “I wish to hell our fans would pick up on it, or we won’t be able to play anywhere other than stadiums — and some of them are begging off.”

As the flier quoted above demonstrates, the Dead admit there is a drug problem associated with the tour. “I think we’re being followed by professional drug dealers,” says Weir. “I don’t know if they’re Mob related or if it’s bathtub acid of questionable quality. But if we come to town and there’s LSD choking the schools for the next three months, I can understand how people get upset — especially if it’s bad acid. [Grateful Dead fans] could stop buying drugs so drug dealers won’t come to our shows. Otherwise, we’ll have to go elsewhere; we’ll have to go and play in Europe or Asia.”

It’s a strange position for a group that had its artistic baptism as the house band for Ken Kesey’s acid tests. But these are the Nineties, not the Sixties, and the Grateful Dead want to stay on the road. “There’s this popular myth that we’re about drugs,” say Weir. “We’re not. We’re about music.”

The current problems started in Pittsburgh, where the Dead played one show during the first week of April 1989. As usual, the band’s fans had come early to hang out and party in the shadow of the downtown Civic Arena. Also, as usual, there were a large number of people without tickets.

Although the Grateful Dead organization takes pains to alert arenas and the local police to the differences between a Dead show and, say, a Billy Joel concert, the Pittsburgh police were not prepared for the crowd. When rain began to fall and two kids tried to kick in a door to the arena, a melee ensued.

“The police overreacted,” says H. Yale Gutnick, the attorney for Electric Factory Concerts, the co-promoter of the Pittsburgh show. “There were some pretty horrible incidents of what appeared to be police brutality.” Footage of the incident was broadcast on television. Sophie Masloff, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said she didn’t want the Dead back in the city.

The local press rallied to the Dead’s defense. Both the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette ran editorials supporting the band and its fans. A meeting between Pittsburgh officials and the Dead’s tour people succeeded in mending fences, and Masloff recanted her remarks: The Dead were welcome to return to Pittsburgh — but preferably not to the Civic Arena.

One of the band’s next stops was at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, in Southern California’s conservative Orange County. After the three shows there, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Dead had been asked not to return. But Robert Geddes, co-owner of the amphitheater, says the groups has not been banned. In fact, he says, he’d love to have the Dead back — but the communities surrounding the amphitheater have pressured him into not booking them, at least for a while.

“When I have 45,000 paying customers, I don’t care what they wear,” says Geddes. “The people inside the shows are wonderful.” Geddes’s sentiments are echoed by virtually every promoter and venue operator who has dealt with the Dead: Inside the arenas, the shows are virtually problem-free. The problem is caused by the people hanging around outside the arenas: As a result of complaints from the community, Geddes didn’t book any dates on the Dead’s current tour — the first time they haven’t played Irvine since the outdoor amphitheater opened in 1983.

“They used to open every season,” says Geddes. But the problems that have plagued the Dead since their leap in popularity were evident at Irvine. “At first, we were doing one night with them and drawing 11,000 kids,” says Geddes. “Then we went to two days, then ultimately three, with camping, in ’87.” (The amphitheater grounds can accommodate 2000 campers.) In 1988, campers began spilling over into nearby neighborhoods; because of that, the Dead decided not to allow camping in 1989, but the three shows and the resulting influx of Deadheads that year had many local residents on edge.

“The Dead are just a cultural phenomenon that people don’t understand,” says Geddes. “This community is particularly sensitive. They’re very conservative, very affluent. Recently affluent; they don’t like to be inconvenienced. Perhaps we were too aggressive to do three days and the camping.”

Geddes’s problems at the 1989 concerts were exacerbated by an Irvine councilman, Cameron Cosgrove, who happened to be up for reelection. As Geddes recalls, he and the venue’s private security guards were preparing to sweep about a hundred ticketless Deadheads from the front gate at about ten o’clock on a Saturday night, when Cosgrove intervened.

“Cameron Cosgrove calls it a ‘dangerous condition,’ and calls the Santa Ana Police Department, the Newport Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol,” says Geddes. “He called in the equivalent of the Marine Corps to deal with 100 kids. And the Irvine Police Department isn’t too far from as far right as you can get.” (Cosgrove, by the way, lost the election.)

Irvine isn’t the only town that has reacted to a Dead show as if it were being made into the beachhead for an alien invasion. Rebecca Adams, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has been studying Deadheads as a subculture since 1986. Adams says communities immediately get their hackles up when the Dead and their followers come to town.

“In general, the Deadheads’ reputation precedes them,” Adams says. “I don’t believe that Deadheads behave any differently than any other large crowds.” Adams had to contend with some of those preconceptions last summer, when she took twenty-one students on the road for three weeks and followed the Dead’s East Coast tour as part of a course she taught.”A story about my class went over the news wires,” she says, “and in a few places we appeared on the police logs.” But Adams says there are “some real logistic problems with the flood of people the shows bring into the communities.”

While the Deadheads who follow the tour are the most visible and colorful people in the crowd, the Dead organization maintains that their numbers are small and that the vast majority of concertgoers are drawn from the communities surrounding whatever venue they play.

“There’s a certain fear that people seem to harbor toward Grateful Dead fans,” says Ken Viola, the head of security for Metropolitan Entertainment, the company that co-promotes all Dead concerts in the eastern portion of the United States. “It’s a misapprehension. I have to tell people, ‘Hey, they’re from your community.’ “

Viola may be downplaying the size of the Deadhead caravan. Geddes says promoters are selling small portions of their tickets to local fans. “We can tell from our ticket sales how many people come from the area,” Geddes says. “The majority of the tickets are sold off the Dead hot line [a nationwide ticket and information service for Deadheads]. And the reality is that only twenty percent of the tickets are sold to people from the local communities.” He then adds, only half joking, “Anybody from Irvine would go incognito, anyhow.”

No one can say the Grateful Dead haven’t tried to rise to the challenges of their popularity. Since banning camping last September, the Dead have included a flier with all mail-order tickets that gives information on campgrounds and inexpensive motels; that information is also available to anyone who contacts the Dead’s office, in San Rafael, California, or at the venues where the band is playing.

As for vending, the group maintains it undertook the ban because of an influx of professional hawkers. “It’s not that we think vendors are bad,” says Dead publicist Dennis McNally, “but it became the locus of a small community which we couldn’t control.”

At the Shoreline Amphitheater, in Mountain View, California — where the Grateful Dead are playing three shows — the no-vending rule doesn’t seem to apply to the low-key but hard-core Deadheads who are parked outside hours before the show is to begin.

“The no-vending shows are my favorite,” says a veteran Deadhead named Bob of the Universe, who is displaying a blanketful of patches and buttons beside his blue school bus. “They put everyone else out of business.” Bob of the Universe also raises wolves, and a lone pup ambles by the blanket. “I sold eight of them,” he says of the wolves.

Bob, who has been following the tour for about four years, is concerned with the problems that are plaguing the shows, and he tries to counsel newcomers. “We know a lot of kids don’t behave themselves,” he says. “Some of us try and guide some of these young assholes on their psychedelic journey.”

That journey seems to be in full swing in the outer parking lots. “Anchor Steams, mushrooms, ice-cold imports!” barks one man toting a cooler.

“Spare change for fresh fruit to get our new bus on the road,” says another, standing next to a fruit-laden folding table beside a yellow school bus.

“Grilled cheese for a buck — what the fuck,” shouts a guy with a cardboard box filled with sandwiches. Still another walks silently through the lot, holding a wicker basket with a wide assortment of rolling papers and pipes for sale.

The scene is innocuous save for the open drug dealing. Rock & roll’s only self-contained community is simply supporting itself — looking for a way to keep those buses rolling on to the next Dead show. Almost without exception, the Deadheads are friendly — and far more civilized than the average tailgate crowd at a football game.

Mark Siegart is sitting in the flatbed of his small pickup truck, smearing cream cheese onto a couple dozen bagels. A nineteen-year-old Deadhead from Santa Cruz, California, who lays tile during the week, Siegart has been able to feed his Dead jones by selling bagels in the parking lots. Although he hasn’t been on the scene that long — he says he’s been to about twenty West Coast shows — Siegart blames the problems at Dead shows on “non-Deadheads who see cheap drugs and come up here without tickets.” He pauses for a minute, then adds, “I guess I was a person like that when I started coming to shows.”

Woody Hastings just bought his school bus two hours ago in the parking lot. It cost him just $1500. The guy he bought it from said he wanted to buy some land in Oregon.

Hastings works for an environmental agency in Topanga, California, and he talks about converting the bus to run on propane fuel and making it into a model of ecologically sound transportation. For Deadheads like Hastings — who figures he’s seen “somewhere upward of thirty shows” — a converted school bus is something of a status symbol, proof that you’re really rooted in the scene. At the age of thirty, Hastings is older than the majority of the band’s newer fans.

“I started going to Dead shows around the time the free vending and camping scene was ending,” says Hastings. “Knowing what it was like before In the Dark, I can see that the lid’s really been blown off, especially in a place like L.A., where people come just to hang out and throw beer bottles. The scene has definitely changed.”

But not completely. Parked just a few spaces from Woody is yet another school bus, this one decorated with paintings of cactuses and the Grateful Dead’s dancing-bear logo. A large flag featuring a picture of the Earth flies over it.

The bus is home to Captain Ed and his crew. Tall, blond, sunburned and in his forties, Captain Ed is on a mission to preach the wonders of hemp — hemp for clothing, hemp as an alternative to wood pulp for making paper, hemp seeds as a source of amino acids second in richness only to soybeans. Did you know, asks Captain Ed, that all the sails, rope and corking on the ships that explored America were made out of hemp? Did you know that Levi Strauss made his first dungarees out of old hemp sails just up the road from here, in San Francisco?

So why doesn’t anybody use it? Because hemp is illegal. You probably call it marijuana. “Did you know that canvas is a Dutch word for ‘cannabis’?” asks Captain Ed (who also owns a couple of head shops down in Van Nuys and Reseda). He also recommends hemp as a “wonder drug” but suggests you eat it rather than smoke it. “Smoking anything is no good for you,” says the Captain. “You can make good butter out of it.”

Captain Ed’s bus has a television and VCR set up in the back for showing a government-made propaganda film from World War II entitled Hemp for Victory. Back then, the government was encouraging farmers to grow hemp. Ed’s also got a book he’s selling on the history and uses of hemp — including a reprint of a 1938 article from Popular Mechanics that heralded hemp as a “new billion-dollar crop.”

Guys like Captain Ed go a long way toward explaining the appeal of a Grateful Dead show: For any seventeen-year-old rock & roller worth his salt, the circus is in town. And for many of those younger fans, the psychedelic legacy of the Sixties is given physical substance by the Grateful Dead.

“We get quite a few letters from kids who say they’re envious that we were able to grow up during the Sixties,” says Eileen Law, who runs the band’s Deadhead office, which keeps in contact with 80,000 Dead fans. “They say that if they could go back and live in any period of time, it would be the Sixties.”

Viola, the Metropolitan Entertainment security chief, sees things in a different light: “The audience has gotten younger, and they’re obviously trying to emulate what they think the Sixties were about. They’re clueless. They think we were all in heaven. I don’t know how many of your friends died from drugs or were killed or went to jail in the Sixties….I just can’t understand them abusing anything.”

There are other people upset by the drug use and dealing that surround Dead shows — like the police in Howard County, Maryland. Although the Grateful Dead haven’t played at the county’s 14,000-seat Merriweather Post Pavilion since 1985 (the Dead say it’s now too small for them), the venue’s manager, Jean Parker, said the police have asked her twice in the last year not to book the Dead or the Jerry Garcia Band.

It was a September 1989 show at the pavilion by the Jerry Garcia Band that led to the request, according to Sergeant Gary Gardner, the public-information officer for the Howard County police. Although there were complaints of people “lingering in the community” and camping on median strips, the biggest concern was over drugs.

“For a month afterward, we had large numbers of LSD seized,” says Gardner. “LSD is something we haven’t experienced a problem with in a long time. It seems to be related to the Grateful Dead shows.”

LSD has also been implicated in three concert-related deaths within the last year. Nineteen-year-old Adam Katz was found lying unconscious outside the Brendan Byrne Arena, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, during a Dead show there on October 14th, 1989 (see “Death of a Fan,” RS 575). Two separate coroners offered different causes of death, one saying Katz died accidentally while under the influence of LSD, the other that Katz was assaulted. Although the case remains open, no arrests have been made. However, nine security guards from the sports complex — which has a reputation among Deadheads for hiring overly aggressive security guards — have been suspended because of other charges that were brought against them.

On December 10th of last year, Patrick Shanahan, 19, was choked to death by an Inglewood, California, police officer outside a Dead concert at the Los Angeles Forum. Police say they were trying to subdue Shanahan, who was reportedly on LSD. No charges have been filed against the officer.

On May 5th, while the Grateful Dead were playing the first of two concerts at California State’s Dominguez Hills campus, a fan who had been at the arena where the group was playing allegedly struck a car in a nearby town driven by a pregnant woman, killing her and her unborn child. Heather Tolles, 19, has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder, to which she has pled not guilty. According to police, Tolles was on LSD at the time. Tolles reportedly did not go to the Dead show, but a local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, reported that a friend of Tolles’s said they had each taken two hits of acid outside the arena. A week later, the university announced it would no longer host any shows by the Grateful Dead, citing complaints from neighbors.

While personal drug consumption is something the Grateful Dead continue to consider a matter of individual choice, the band has been making impassioned pleas for the drug dealing to end. And the band’s recent flier also asks that people refrain from “spraying” anyone — a reference to recent incidents in which people at Dead shows were doused with water containing LSD.

“That’s something new,” says Ken Viola. “It’s been going on on the West Coast and culminated with the spraying of several security guards and police.” However, Eileen Law says she’s gotten letters about spraying from as far east as Florida.

Tom, a nineteen-year-old Deadhead, is one of the people the Dead are hoping to reach with their message about drug dealing. Tom says he was born in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco but raised in the South. The way he stays on the Dead tour is by buying sheets of LSD outside Dead shows for thirty-five dollars. Each sheet has a hundred hits of acid, and each of those hits fetches five dollars back home. Tom sends the sheets to a buddy there by an overnight-delivery service; his friend sells the acid and wires back money.

Although everyone in the Dead camp agrees that the current problems are being caused by a small number of people, everyone also agrees that the problems must be dealt with. “We’re talking percentages,” says Weir. “But even a small percentage can become a problem. I hope what we’re saying has an impact, because I like playing for people.”

Perhaps no other band puts as much work into mounting a tour as the Grateful Dead. Cameron Sears, the Dead’s tour manager, is the guy who has to make it work. The philosophy he espouses on behalf of the Dead organization is simple and rooted in the spirit of the Sixties. “We’re not in it for a quick buck,” says Sears. “We’re here to be totally upfront with our audience.”

To help venues prepare for a Dead show, Sears and other representatives of the Dead organization begin talking with them a year before the gig; a three-hour presentation on the special problems and logistics of mounting a Dead show is also given to the venue operator and the heads of security and medical operations.

For example, the Dead have very definite policies regarding how they want drug-related problems handled at their shows. “We let the venues know that there may be people who don’t have experience with psychedelics coming in contact with them at the show,” says Sears. “We consider it a medical problem, not a police problem. If they need to be arrested, they must receive medical attention first.”

The band has also sought to block alcohol sales at its shows. If the promoter says it will cost him a lot of money to ban beer sales, the Dead offer to take a lower fee or seek an early cutoff time for alcohol sales. “We just don’t want drunks in our audience,” says Sears.

In addition, the band grants its audiences privileges otherwise unknown in arena rock & roll. Fans are welcome to tape shows, and the band encourages trading — but not bootlegging — of their concert recordings. The “tapeheads” — fans armed with tape recorders and shotgun microphones — can be found sitting behind the sound board at every Dead show.

All of these policies are extremely rare in the concert business. “The Grateful Dead have broken every rule,” says promoter John Scher, whose Metropolitan Entertainment co-promotes all Dead shows in the eastern half of the U.S. “Their fans are paramount. You’ve got to understand how important the fan is to the Grateful Dead to know how much these problems hurt.”

Scher also worries that the Dead will be forced off the road. “I fear this is a band which is barely hitting its creative peak,” he says, “and it could be forced into touring more irregularly.”

One alternative is what the Dead call “kamikaze shows”: The band doesn’t announce the show until just a few days before it is to take place. The goal is to limit ticket sales to the immediate vicinity and cut down on people hanging around outside. So far, two kamikaze shows — one in Hampton, Virginia (where the Dead were advertised under their original name, the Warlocks), and the other in Hartford, Connecticut — have been mounted. Both sold out, and little trouble was reported.

Things are also looking up at Nassau Coliseum, on Long Island, New York. Once a terrible arena for the Dead (“Every time we played there, they busted 300 or 400 kids,” Jerry Garcia told Rolling Stone last fall), the Coliseum began to look at reversing its reputation when it recently came under new management. “We all went to a meeting out there,” says Metropolitan Entertainment’s Viola. “The police came, and we just sat and spoke frankly about the problems and reputation of the Nassau County police. Everybody was up for dealing with it professionally.” When the Dead returned to the Coliseum in March, there were no security problems. “I wish this could happen in more places,” says Viola.

“I like to think we put more effort into interfacing with communities than anyone else — I’m told that all the time,” says Sears. But he admits that the Dead have a huge image problem left to overcome. “If someone robbed a bank in Des Moines wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, it would be in the papers,” says Sears. “And it would probably be our fault. I think we’re under a microscope because we’re not about mainstream thinking. But if we can be a beacon for that, it’s a powerful statement.”

Bob Weir also wants to see the Grateful Dead continue to be a rock & roll alternative. “This can be the circus of human splendors without the nefarious trappings,” he says when asked about Deadheads who deal at the shows. “I’d like to see it like that. But they’ve got to find another way to stay on the tour. Otherwise there won’t be a tour.” But for all of the Grateful Dead’s efforts, the message is sometimes falling on deaf ears.

Jennifer is twenty years old. She grew up in Manhattan, where her father is a stockbroker. She went to her first Dead show with her parents, smoked pot for the first time with her mother. Jennifer has been on the tour for about a year and supports herself by selling hallucinogenic mushrooms. “My folks are bummed because they know what the drug scene on the tour is,” she says.

And what of the Dead’s requests that the scene be cleaned up? “I know they don’t want me on the tour — it would be easier for them,” Jennifer says. “But it’s totally second generation now. It was a fucking good idea, and we’re carrying it on.” She pauses a minute and looks around the Shoreline Amphitheater parking lot. “A lot of people don’t have family.” She offers a hug to indicate the conversation is over. “I have to go sell my mushrooms. Have a great show.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, The Grateful Dead


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