Grateful Dead’s Former Manager Recounts the Music Industry’s Idealism & Hedonism During the ’60s & ’70s

by Andy O’Brien of The Free Press


 

It was the summer of 1966 – at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam, with the Civil Rights Movement in full bloom – when 23-year-old Richard Loren embarked on a pop cultural journey with some of the most influential rock icons of the day. That transformative time was reflected in the revolutionary spirit of the music being made.

“Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to some dope and we went from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,'” recalled Loren in an interview from his home in Nobleboro. “Rock was a movement then. It was the catalyst for change, the driving force behind the counter-culture.”

Over the next decade and a half, Loren went from booking hot new rock acts like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane in New York City to organizing the Grateful Dead’s legendary concerts at the pyramids of Giza in 1978.

During those years, he bailed Jim Morrison out of jail, smuggled pot for drummer Spencer Dryden, sipped mimosas with Ted Kennedy in the “Elysian Fields of Kennedyland” and partied with John Belushi, Gilda Radner and the Saturday Night Live cast. Loren vividly recounts all of the brilliant yet self-destructive rockers, the fawning groupies and the shady promoters as well as the idealism, glamor and hedonism of the times in his new memoir “High Notes,” released by East Pond Publishing in Damariscotta.

And for Loren it all began with Liberace – “the most dazzlingly bedazzled fairy godmother a 23-year-old Italian-American kid from New Jersey could ever ask for,” says Loren.

In the summer of 1966 Loren was hired to host Liberace at a summer tent theatre show in Baltimore. The flamboyant showman arrived “elegantly coiffed in an immaculate white linen suit,” as blue-haired ladies fell all over him with their reluctant blue-collar husbands in tow. Loren remembers Liberace as a strange phenomenon unique to the times. At a time when being openly gay would have been a death knell for any career in show biz, Liberace “flaunted his sexuality” and was a “real flamer,” but was also gracious, polite and generous.

“He was a kind, caring guy despite his stage presence,” said Loren. “He was a humble guy, and he rewarded my hard work and set me up in the business with his agent. I liked him a lot. He was a sweet guy. But who knows? I knew him for a week.”

It was thanks to Liberace’s glowing recommendation that in 1966 Loren landed at the Agency of the Performing Arts in Manhattan, which represented some of the biggest-name acts at the time – including Anita Bryant, Harry Belafonte and, of course, Liberace. But, says Loren, the agency executives recognized that “the times they were a changing” and a new rebellious rock faction was becoming the number-one cash cow in the music biz.

A self-described “young, hip, and hungry” talent scout, Loren began roaming the nightclubs of the Big City in search of the hottest new acts. In the summer of ’67, Loren found himself in the presence of Jim Morrison and the Andy Warhol factory crew in a “Dionysian ritual of overindulgence,” like a “Renaissance painting of some lost angel surrounded by nymphs and satyrs, an ode to the elegance of corruption.”

It soon became Loren’s job to look after the notoriously self-destructive Doors frontman, even having to bail the “Baudelaire of rock” out of jail after the rock star was maced by the police in New Haven and nearly started a riot. Despite all Morrison’s flaws, Loren remembers him fondly and says that while Morrison might be diagnosed as bipolar today, that doesn’t begin to describe who he was.

“He was poet first and foremost, a complex person,” says Loren. “He could be painfully shy, vulnerable and gentle, but on the flip side he could be angry and obstinate at best. The thing about Jim is that he was a poet with a great back-up band. There will never be another Jim Morrison and there are a lot of people who are copying him, but basically Jim was the prototype.”

It wasn’t long before Loren had to move on, reaching an epiphany, he says, after taking acid in Europe while on tour with the soul group the Chambers Brothers.

“[The agency] began to treat the musicians as if they were commodities. And I hated this,” said Loren. “It turned me off the business world. I just couldn’t stomach the deceit, the chicanery. I realized afterwards that it wasn’t that I wasn’t getting my bonus or my vice presidency or the corner office, because I wasn’t going to be happy there either. I followed my intuition and I bailed.”

After a short pilgrimage to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in search of “zed habab” hash oil, Loren, through coincidence and luck, found himself backstage with Jerry Garcia.

With a “California state of mind,” Loren moved out to the Bay Area in the early 1970s and developed a close friendship with Garcia and began a new adventure, booking shows for Garcia’s side projects and eventually becoming the full-time manager for the Dead throughout the 1970s – exciting times, but also an end of an era, as hope and youthful idealism gave way to cynicism, weird cults and harder drugs.

“There was a lot of disquiet. People were being challenged and pressured,” wrote Loren. “The pendulum swing was reaching an apex and the Piper was having a field day.”

Still, one of Loren’s greatest professional feats came at the end of the ’70s, when he orchestrated the Dead’s epic three concerts at the foot of the Sphinx in Giza. At that time, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was embracing the West and making more gestures toward peace with Israel. It was the right place and the right time – and could likely never occur again, says Loren.

“When I went there in those days, I found the Arabs to kind of be like hippies in a way,” says Loren. “They’d get high, relax and smoke hash, and time didn’t really matter that much. I saw a connection between the loose, laid-back style of the Egyptians with the spirit of Haight-Ashbury. The women would kind of stay in the background, but the men were just out there groovin’. I felt comfortable and as loose as I was in San Franciso.”

The last show at the pyramids hit its climax with a full moon and lunar eclipse and, as the last note rang, Loren recalls people jumping onto the stage to announce the signing of the Camp David Accords between the U.S., Egypt and Israel.

“It was the closest we’ve come to peace in the Middle East, and everyone was high as loonies,” he said.

Meanwhile, managing the massive Dead collective of 30 to 50 musicians, roadies and others was no easy feat for the manager.

“Nobody likes the businessman – the one who deals with the financial realities, the ‘no’ man – and my role with [the Dead] was very different,” wrote Loren.

The Dead reportedly lost a half million dollars playing the Egypt shows and had to make it all up by playing more gigs to stay afloat.

“I had to say no more times than I wanted to,” said Loren. “A musician would come to my door and ask for something, and I would have an adrenaline rush because I know that I have to say ‘no, you can’t have that studio’ or ‘no, you can’t buy that house right now.’ I learned how to conduct business in a collective atmosphere where the opinions or viewpoints of others in the Grateful Dead social network had to be taken into account. Because it was a collective there was a community, and it wasn’t like I was in New York with a secretary and a boss. You talk to a promoter on the phone, you make a deal, you collect the money … with the Dead it was different and it was cool.”

But it also meant dealing with occasionally explosive internal politics, which began to wear thin. In 1981, Loren left the band to pursue other business projects, like securing the film rights with Garcia for Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi opus “The Sirens of Titan,” which at one time was to star actor Bill Murray, though it was never made. Perhaps the hardest part of it all was losing touch with his dear friend, as Garcia gradually receded into his drug-induced cocoon.

“He meant so much to me. Jerry Garcia was an amazing human being,” said Loren. “There really is no way to measure his greatness.”

Loren belives that the drugs and the unhealthy living were a coping mechanism for the late musician, who died in 1995 of a heart attack.

“It was a really grueling task to be the ‘non-leader’ of the Grateful Dead,” said Loren. “Jerry really cared about all the people in the Grateful Dead. They were his family and he neglected his nuclear family. To all of the people in the Grateful Dead collective, the most important thing was the Grateful Dead. They partied together and they connected together.”

In the years since then, Loren founded and sold a video rental company and taught English as a second language for a number of years in Italy before moving to Maine because of family connections.

No longer working in the music industry, Loren says now he just likes to host local musician friends at his house to eat, play and sing for the sheer enjoyment of it.

As for the current state of the music business, Loren says, “It is what it is.”

“We have to understand the changes that are taking place in the world,” said Loren. “We’re not young and idealistic anymore. We could be young and idealistic in the ’60s when all of these powerful movements united us and we were going to change the world, but in a way it was a myth. Today music is just entertainment. If you’re not Bob Dylan, it doesn’t have the same impact anymore because I don’t think young kids today realize they’re in a screen trance. It’s like narcotics. Our life has been narcotized.”