What Now for the Deadheads?
Last August 9, before Jerry Garcia's drug-depleted, gratefully dead body was even cold, a San Francisco-based radio reporter hit the street to ask the tie-dyed, teary-eyed mourners on Haight Street the obvious question: "What're you gonna do now?" "I dunno. Get a job, I guess," answered one, a self-described Grateful Dead "tourhead," one member of that fabled lost tribe who have devoted their lives to following the band to its every show. Sadly, the job skills this woman is likely to have picked up in her pursuit of the Dead-selling T-shirts, rolling veggie burritos-won't be a big plus in her chase for employment. Tourheads typically supported themselves by "vending" all manner of items in the parking lot at Grateful Dead shows. Ticket or no ticket they'd be there, trading on that age-old capitalist axiom, "If you got lemons, make pink lemonade." Whatever other tools they might lack, the tourheads exhibited an undeniable entrepreneurial flair, hawking everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches to-yes, it's true-a wide array of mind-bending substances. While the Grateful Dead's traveling circus rolled along, a lot of people made their living in its wake. As in any market, some made a killing, some just got by; some flew to tour stops first-class, some crowded into broken-down VW buses with spare engines chained to the roof. These fugitives from the 9-to-5 world were immortalized in all their colorful variety in the recently released documentary Tie-Died. Director Andrew Behar made the movie during the Dead's 1994 tour, focusing exclusively on the parking-lot scene, which he describes as "all about the spirituality and the magic that Jerry Garcia brought to the world being embodied in these people who've been on the road 25, 30 years and are now homeschooling their kids in the backs of their buses." Behar concentrated on the parking lot because Garcia and his bandmates wouldn't let Behar's cameras inside. But Behar wasn't bitter; instead, he says, he mellowed: "During the summer of filming I really started to question my lifestyle. Most of us go to high school, go to college, and the big decision we make is, Should I be a banker or a musician? But there's another big decision we don't realize we can make, which is, Should I be inside the system or outside the system? A lot of the Deadheads watched their parents living middle-class existences, paying mortgages, going to jobs that they didn't necessarily love, and they said, 'I don't want to just live for the weekend. I want to live for every day.'"And they went to a Dead show and said, 'Wow, this is a place where I could just do what I want to do every minute of the day. Yeah, I gotta earn some money for gas or tickets, but I only have to work a couple hours. I can make handmade jewelry and sell that. I can live a whole other existence outside the system.' I met a lot of people who'd been every single place on the summer tour but had never gone in once. And didn't really want to-they just wanted to be part of the community."Behar invokes the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, who called Deadheads the planet's most recent nomadic tribe. Eva, who recently gave up the wandering life to settle in Santa Cruz, dropped out of a college engineering program to be a tourhead. For the past 10 years she and her husband have not only tie-dyed their T-shirts, but hand sewn them as well. Together they've made it through 34 tours in their '68 Chevy van. "It varied," Eva says. "I could make $60 a day, or on a really good day I could make $1,000. You never knew. But I'm still kind of at a loss, because I was supposed to be on fall tour right now. It's still all new to me, living without the tour." Ian left his native Berkeley to follow the Dead and eventually landed in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, health food store. Ian says he's moving to Hawaii, because "now that Jerry's dead, there's no reason to be on the mainland."Of course, it doesn't have to come to that. The tour scene is not necessarily over for good. Last summer, fans of Phish-the band most often mentioned as a replacement for the Grateful Dead-were spotted selling T-shirts at Dead concerts. Another band, Blues Traveler, already has a cult following complete with a 40-seat school bus. It's even possible that the Grateful Dead will get back together. Carlos Santana is rumored to be the front-runner for Garcia's lead-guitar spot, and the Jimmy Buffett lobby is pushing its own candidate. If the Dead do rise from the grave, however, the new band will definitely not welcome the "tour scum" habitues of the parking lot. David Gans, longtime chronicler of the band, hosts the nationally syndicated weekly radio show the "Grateful Dead Hour." Gans plays tapes of the group's live performances and occasionally offers Dead updates. While not a spokesman for the band, he echoes the concerns of "established" Deadheads on the topic of the tourheads. "Unfortunately, the parking lot had become a destination," Gans says. "There were people who came to the show with no intention of hearing the music. There were capitalists who had gone there only to profit and who didn't give a shit about the Grateful Dead, and that whole thing had become really cumbersome to the band and, I think, really punishing to the spirit of Jerry Garcia in particular. "It's one thing to have people like me who became devoted fans of the music and continued coming to concerts to hear music, as opposed to people who came for the scene and for the extremely remote sort of spiritual nourishment of Jerry Garcia, the icon. The deification of Jerry Garcia was a big problem and good riddance to it." It's tempting to call the tourheads a cult, but Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, who's a cult expert, wouldn't go that far. Singer, who has interviewed survivors from Jonestown and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, as well as Deadheads, says tourheads are more like adolescents who become obsessed with a celebrity and turn their obsession into an "artificial friendship." "If you follow something that has a lot of other followers, like Elvis or the Dead," Singer explains, "you can start a conversation around the topic, which gives a lot of people an entree to finding someone they can really share a lot of good fantasies with. It's some kind of an adolescent collective grown older. I think it has constrained and narrowed their lives and caused a lot of them to give up a lot of stuff-like getting a special partner or an apartment. They're likable, sweet people, but they have become pretty unreal in carrying this devotion to a lifestyle. They're so over-identifying with the band that it's as if they're doing the performance-only they're these waifs out in the parking lot." Gans implies that more mature Deadheads have no such illusions: "I think there were a large number of people who were mourning Jerry in life for quite some time, because it was obvious in the last year or so that he was weary. When he died I wasn't entirely surprised. And I wasn't as broken up. I did not cry unabashed tears of misery and sadness at Jerry's loss. I felt a certain amount of relief. I think he was tired of being this fucking godlike person-he was a guitar player." One can trace the dark roots of the schism between the Grateful Dead and their tourhead followers to the 1987 release of "Touch of Gray," the Dead's last radio hit. That was the advent of what Deadheads refer to as "the mega-Dead period." The money started rolling in, and it kept on rolling-by the time of Garcia's demise, the Dead were the biggest money-making tour band in the world. Last summer alone they grossed over $26 million on 26 tour stops, and that doesn't include revenue from the sale of souvenirs and other peripherals. There was enough cash flying around to support tourheads up and down the food chain. At the bottom were people like Ian, who paid his way by selling "everything, man-sandwiches, salads, bagels with cream cheese, 100-percent organic, non-dairy, vegetarian, politically correct, macrobiotic treats made by lesbians in Santa Cruz." Ian says he would take in anywhere from $35 to $50 a day. Others made a good deal more. Vendors selling balloon hits of nitrous oxide, fondly known as "hippie crack," could get a tank of nitrous for $50; one tank yielded about 300 balloons, which they then sold for about $5 each. Do the math. Another cash cow was the traditional tie-dyed T-shirt. Joe, a vitamin salesman from Santa Cruz, says he made about $11,000 in six weeks of selling T-shirts last year. "And there were a lot of people who made a lot more," Joe says. So lucrative was the trade that there were reports of Mafia involvement in illicit T-shirt sales. If the Dead were reluctant to take on the Cosa Nostra, they made it clear they weren't going to tolerate the Joes of the world. The police and the Dead's own enforcers would routinely confiscate merchandise that infringed on Grateful Dead copyrights. "In Atlanta this year they arrested 700 people for vending," Eva says. "We think they were practicing for the Olympics. This one girl, she sold a soda to somebody and they threw her in jail." The band realized that the $10 million-a-year parking-lot economy was money out of their pockets. They even stopped playing the Deadhead mecca, Berkeley's Greek Theater, because, some say, they got tired of gazing up at all the freeloaders on the overlooking "tightwad hill." "If you walked outside during a show you'd be amazed at how many people were out there," Eva says. "I met this girl who was on tour for three years and never had seen a show. I was just amazed by that. Jesus, has this country gotten so bad that people have to hang out in parking lots?" A lot of "mainstream" Deadheads were more to the point than Eva-this summer anti-tourhead signs began cropping up in parking lots, expressing such sentiments as, "Don't be a shithead, be a Deadhead." The pot boiled over last July 4, at the Dead tour's now infamous Deer Creek stop. Nestled in the Indiana countryside, Deer Creek was one of the last intimate venues the Dead were allowed to play. The amphitheater is designed to seat only 20,000, but the July 4 show attracted 50,000 fans. Halfway through the performance, thousands of rowdy gatecrashers trampled a fence and streamed in, battling security with rocks and bottles. Although Jerry and the boys were clearly not amused, many in the audience cheered. The following day's show was canceled, and at the next stop on the tour, in St. Louis, the band issued an open letter to fans, which said in part: "If you don't have a ticket, don't come. This is real. This is first a music concert, not a free-for-all party. Secondly, don't vend. Vending attracts people without tickets. Many of the people without tickets have no responsibility or obligation to our scene. They don't give a shit. They act like idiots. They think it's just a party to get as trashed as possible at. We're all supposed to be about higher consciousness, not drunken stupidity."First a printed rejection from their idol, then the ultimate rejection-his death. For tourheads, the question rings like the last note of a Jerry Garcia guitar solo: what're you gonna do now? Asked if he thought the surviving members of the Grateful Dead feel any compunction to help out the tourheads in their time of need, Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally replied tartly: "You must be joking. I don't think the band feels any obligation to finance them for the rest of their lives. Or give them therapy and job training so that they can possibly find another way to function." McNally went on to describe the Dead's perspective on the parking-lot scene: "In the summer of '88 we did a bunch of nights in Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. Big shows-40,000 people inside, at least 20,000 people outside. Every goddamned high school kid in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois who was bored -- i.e., 100 percent -- went and bought a case of beer and headed to this show to sell the beer to make enough money to get into the show. Thousands of kids. They're all babies and they're all getting drunk. Some of the more sophisticated ones were buying nitrous tanks. "In the summer of '89 the people at Giants Stadium pointed out to us that if we were going to allow it -- camping and vending -- that meant that they or we or some combination thereof had to plan on supplying city services to 10,000 people for at least five days. Sewage, food, water, security, hospitals -- i.e., some kind of medical tent. That was out of the question, so we banned camping. "The vending created this lovely culture that's celebrated in that movie Tie-Died. That was all very well and good, but in fact it was in direct conflict with the function of bringing people to a concert, having them watch the concert, participate in the concert, and leave. Unfortunately, there were a hell of a lot of people who wouldn't accept that, because they didn't want to be told no, and because they didn't have the money and they wanted to be taken care of. It's not just Deadheads, it's Americans who think the world owes them a living." The remaining members of the Grateful Dead had yet to make an announcement regarding the future of the band. "The Grateful Dead doesn't have the first notion of what it's going to do," McNally reports. If they do tour again, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir warns that it won't be like the old days. A recent posting in a Dead chat group on the Internet quoted Weir's advice for the tourheads: "If you want something for free, jerk off."