My Days as a Deadhead, published in Farang Untamed Travel 2005
All photographs by the extraordinarily talented Joe Ryan
Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter and founding force of the Grateful Dead was a larger- than-life character, hailed by many of his fans as a Messiah-like figure. When he died in 1995, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco for a candle-light vigil. Shortly after, the band announced their split and to many it seemed like the end of an era. But time has proved otherwise and ten years after Jerry’s death, and forty years after the band played their first gig, the spirit of the Dead is alive and kicking. The Grateful Dead formed in the 60’s and seamlessly provided the background music for Ken Kesey as he unleashed his acid tests on California. Playing their unique, psychedelic boogie music, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolise the summer of love and the phenomenon of the‘Dead Head’ was born as loyal followers went on the road for the bands legendary tours across America.
In the spring of 1993, I embarked on my own summer of love and went on tour with the Dead– albeit selling falafel to hungry Dead Heads. We arrived in Chicago for the first show and seemed to have passed through a time warp when we entered the parking lot. There were tie-dyes, buses with flowers painted on them, girls in patchwork dresses, drumming circles. It was bitterly cold but everyone was in high spirits and incredibly friendly. I swapped a falafel for a space cake and off I went. A truck opened its doors, revealing hundreds of balloons, a queue formed and people were soon reeling about with big grins on their faces as they inhaled the happy gas from the balloons. Everything seemed to go a bit crazy, my friend Martin was arrested for selling falafel and the cops were bombarded with snowballs. The disco bus raised its flag, cranked the volume and the air was filled with the funky beat of Freak out, suddenly everyone was dancing – even the cops. All around the snow gently fell.
There were thousands of us on the road with the Dead, but we weren’t just following a band, we were following a lifestyle. I had stumbled upon a sub-culture, whose roots were firmly entrenched in freedom of expression and that was something I could relate to. Although I could never fully silence the cynic in me, at times I came close. I have never experienced such kindness and dare I say it, love! Dead tour was about people coming together; it really was one great big happy family, complete with its own lingo. Everything was ‘kind’; ‘kind bud’ to get you high; ‘kind veggie pasta’ if you were hungry and it seemed that I had become a ‘kind rainbow sister’ which I wasn’t really too sure about. Kind brothers and sisters kept asking me if I could ‘kick down a kind falafel’ which I eventually figured out meant they wanted one for free. If something was good, it was‘styling’ or ‘grooving’ and no-one said hello, it was ‘hey now’ or ‘hey dude’ or ‘hey bro’. Scores of people would hang around outside the venue calling out for a miracle (a free ticket).
The scene teemed with vitality and energy. In the heat of the summer I saw a show at Shoreline, California in which Terrapin (my favourite song) was jammed out for over an hour during the most glorious sunset. The music built and built until it became almost unbearable, erupting into a frenzy just as the sun sank behind the horizon.
It soon transpired that my friends ( a motley crew of fellow backpackers) and I were working for the falafel mafia, so-called because our boss, Bill, was no Dead Head, he was in for the money and not the vibe, which was very uncool. I eased my conscience by kicking lots down (falafel that is) and later by kicking in the whole job. It had all got a bit much anyway, six of us sharing a room, Wendy screaming out “Falafel” in her sleep and Dave – who seemed to have missed the point entirely – waking us all up every morning with blaring Megadeath tunes. He was increasingly drawn to the black power movement and had started shedding all his belongings which were not black. I scored a purple sleeping bag and a red Swiss army knife. He was last seen at the end of the tour buying an axe and heading off to live in the caves of Yosemite National Park. By then I had traded in travelling in the back of a truck- with six people, bulk falafel mix and pitta bread – for a styling van and a Dead Head boyfriend named Dion. He was beautiful and funny and loving and kind, until he broke my heart when he took off with a Dead Head chic in a ‘I love Jerry T-shirt’. “Ali, I’m just grooving on Jacky’s energy”, he explained to me. “Well, groove on this baby”, I screamed as I punched him in the face. And my days as a kind rainbow sister were over.
I was travelling in the Middle East a couple of years later when I met some US Marines who told me Jerry had died. With only two tours and ten shows under my belt, I was hardly a Dead Head, but I had been touched by the magic and it seemed that things would never be the same again. However, the movement that surrounded the Grateful Dead proved to be big enough to sustain its own momentum. “While he was the guitarist extraordinaire, half the voice and arguably the leader of the band, the band was a whole lot bigger than the fat man”, claims David Dranginis, a veteran of 30 Grateful Dead shows. The sales of music and merchandise continued, Dead Heads kept doing their groovy thing and other ‘Dead’ influenced bands such as Phish and Blues Traveller partially filled the void for people looking for a similar experience. Surviving band members went on to form their own bands, keeping the music alive by including a number of Dead tunes in their sets.
In 2003, to the delight of fans, surviving members reunited, calling themselves simply,‘The Dead’. “For a while we had to let it go, but now we’re reclaiming that part that we had a right to”, says Bassist, Phil Lesh. The band embarked on successful tours in 2003 and 2004.
Dead Heads have heartily embraced the cyber world and there are thousands of websites related to the band. Many fans have their own pages; merchandise is sold on-line; music is traded and there are numerous chat rooms and forums. I logged into a chat room recently and my inquiries about the current scene saw my inbox inundated with messages. People sent photos, colourful anecdotes, general musings, and a couple of people even remembered me (there weren’t to many Australians on Dead tour).
The Dead and their various incarnations continue to show almost total disregard for the record industry, at all times remaining true to their artistic vision. While they have enjoyed limited success in the studio, it’s always been the atmosphere of the shows that provides the magic: the unstructured improvisations: the legendary light shows: the people spinning in the doorways: the chance to see all your friends. They went from crazy hippy freaks to mainstream popular culture, but did it their way; they ignored the rules and against the odds became phenomenally successful.”The band became synonymous with a way of life”, wrote Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, shortly after Jerry’s death. “Without ever intending to, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolize the summer of love, both for aging baby-boomers who lived through it and those who wished they did.”