With touch of gray, Grateful Dead fans celebrate long, strange trip

by Bill Ervolino of North Jersey Record

In 1980, more than 2,000 Grateful Dead fans camped out at Radio City Music Hall for three days waiting to buy tickets for the band’s 15th anniversary concert there. But that, former Dead manager Richard Loren gleefully recalls in his memoir “High Notes,” was the way of the world in those days.

“Part of the fun for concert-going Deadheads [was] waiting in long lines, meeting new, like-minded free spirits and getting high on marijuana and each other,” writes Loren, who grew up in Jersey City and Teaneck, and who managed the band from 1974 to 1981. “To these loyal folks, a Grateful Dead concert was not just about the music; it was a ritual of celebration, a ceremonial coming-together of friends to revel in the party atmosphere of the event.”

In coming weeks, the reveling will resume as the band’s surviving members reunite for “Fare Thee Well” — five 50th anniversary concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara, Calif. And thanks to technology that Loren never imagined in 1980, this coming-together is shaping up to be a record-breaker, with the June 27 and 28 shows in Santa Clara and the July 3, 4 and 5 shows in Chicago airing, via pay-per-view, to homes, bars, movie theaters and mobile devices.

As the broadcasting company Live Alliance announced on Wednesday, it is offering a special presale webcast of all five nights for $79.95, beginning on Friday. (The offer runs through May 15. Details will be posted on the band’s anniversary website, Dead50.net.)

Prices for the pay-per-view events have yet to be announced, but according to Live Alliance, the PPV concerts will be hosted by CNBC reporter Steve Liesman and NBA Hall of Famer (and acknowledged Deadhead) Bill Walton, and will include special guests, fan interviews and documentary footage of the band.

And, yes, the Chicago shows are taking place at Soldier Field — almost 20 years to the day after their final concert there as the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia, on July 9, 1995.

Garcia, the band’s lead guitarist, lead vocalist and guiding light, died one month after that show, done in by diabetes, drug abuse and a litany of other unhealthy habits. Since then, the band’s surviving members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart continued to perform, in a variety of configurations, as The Dead, Furthur, The Other Ones, Phil Lesh and Friends, RatDog and The Rhythm Devils, with mixed results.

But for months, these reunion concerts, which will include sometime collaborators Trey Anastasio, Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby, have been breathlessly anticipated. Tickets, which went on sale months ago, sold out instantly. Today, they’re being scalped for as much as $10,000. And while Garcia’s absence still looms large, each night is expected to be a barnburner, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending, according to various industry sources, “about five hours later.”

Of course, serious fans know that, time-wise, the Dead, live, is an investment; just as they know that the band’s first live gig — as The Warlocks — took place on May 5, 1965, at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor in Menlo Park, Calif. By December, they had switched their name to the Grateful Dead and were on their way to becoming one of the brightest lights in San Francisco’s emerging Haight-Ashbury music scene, alongside Janis Joplin and the group she joined, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Mamas and the Papas and Jefferson Airplane.

Folk, rock, country and jazz were the starting points of a distinct sound that also incorporated reggae, folk and psychedelia. Improvisation was always part of the mix, along with a level of artistry capable of turning a lyric as rustic as “Ripple in still waterŸ…” into something thrilling, emotionally urgent and cosmic.

By the 1970s and early 1980s when the band performed regularly here at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, Giants Stadium and Brendan Byrne Arena, Garcia & Company were full-fledged legends and perhaps the biggest anomalies in rock.

The band was among the top touring concert acts in North America between 1985 and 1995, and its name regularly appeared on lists that included the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Elton John and Madonna — no mean feat for a group that didn’t break into the Top Ten until 1987 with “Touch of Grey.” Their only other hit single, that catchy little ditty called “Truckin’,” had been released in 1970 and peaked at No. 64 on Billboard’s Top 100.

A collaboration by Garcia, Weir, Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter, “Truckin’Ÿ” was an amalgam of the band’s life on the road — the blur of moving endlessly from one city to the next, the drinking, the drugs and the drug busts. The tune’s refrain, “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” may have seemed hyperbolic for a band that had just turned five. But the phrase would be recycled endlessly thereafter, by journalists and rock historians, as the hit-free band continued to grow in popularity, outlasting most of their contemporaries by decades.

Details of that journey have appeared in a dozen or so books, including “Playing in the Band” by David Gans and Peter Simon; “Long Strange Trip” by Dennis McNally; “Searching for the Sounds: My Life with the Grateful Dead” by Phil Lesh; and, more recently, Loren’s “High Notes: A Rock Memoir” (available at highnotes.org) and “Deal” by Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen. (Kreutzmann will make an appearance at Bookends in Ridgewood on May 7.)

Like countless fans of the Grateful Dead, Loren recalls Garcia and the band in terms that border on the sacred. “Jerry was not just a rock musician,” Loren says. “He was kind of a rock-and-roll Buddha. He had a force field around him that was so powerful … and everyone who encountered him felt it and felt that he was their friend. Just being in his presence was a gift.”

Loren, who put together the band’s 1978 Egypt concerts, near the pyramids in Giza, was no stranger to charisma. Before his association with the Grateful Dead, he represented Jefferson Airplane, Jim Morrison and, his first client of note, the showman’s showman, Liberace. Since then, notables of every stripe, from writers to artists to celebrity chefs, have been dubbed “rock stars” of a kind. But it was a label Garcia and his band mates seemed to earn while most Americans had their backs turned.

The band members wanted to have fun and make money, of course, Loren says, “but Jerry did not want to have hit records. He wasn’t not trying, but he knew that if he had the hit records, he’d have to go out and play the hits. And that wasn’t them. They never played the same set any night, and that was part of their appeal.”

Fair Lawn native Cliff Librescu, 53, saw Garcia live (with the Grateful Dead or his Jerry Garcia Band) about 75 times. “In 1980,” he recalls, “a group of us drove down to Hampton, Va. The tour had started at the Nassau Coliseum. Then they went to Miami and were working their way back up. We met the tour in Virginia and went to every show after that, sleeping in the car, eating in diners.”

Librescu, who moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., two years ago, said his favorite venue to the see group was the Capitol Theatre, “because there were like 2,400 seats and every seat was great. I’ve had Bob Weir’s sweat on me, I was that close to the stage. Imagine you’re 16, 17 and you’re that close to your idols!

“You couldn’t smoke in the theater,” Librescu, adds, “so everyone would go to the lobby, and you’d have this huge gathering of people smoking weed. The theater would hire off-duty police for security, which was funny, because you’d be smoking a joint and there’d be a cop standing next to you. But, that was a Dead concert. That’s how crazy it was.”

Donald Senft, 54, of Waldwick saw the band about 100 times by his estimate. “The first time was in ’78 at Giants Stadium,” he says. “I also saw them at the Capitol, but at arena shows, the parking lots turned into bazaars. People selling T-shirts they made, falafel sandwiches, whatever. One guy I knew followed them on tour for years. He’d make silkscreen T-shirts and sell them at the shows. That’s how he made the money for his gas and tickets.”

Don Negron, 58, of Wood-Ridge was a teenager when he got a job sweeping the aisles at the Capitol. “If you swept the aisles, you got in to see the concerts,” he recalls.

Eventually, Negron became a stagehand. “I set them up at the Capitol four times, I think, and also in New York at the Palladium, Fillmore East and Madison Square Garden. Doors would open at 7 p.m., but we’d be there at 9:30 in the morning to load in. Jerry was always smoking. I’m not sure if they were Lucky Strikes or Pall Malls, but they were strong. He’d sit on a road case and talk about things, he’d talk about Woodstock and laugh. He was a very down-to-earth guy. They didn’t really rehearse that much, though. They never did the same song twice.”

The band released dozens albums of new material and live shows as well as compilation albums, but for the Deadheads, the gold is in the tapes of their concerts, which fans have been sharing since the 1960s.

In 1996, a recording engineer named Rob Eaton was contacted by a chemistry teacher in Petaluma, Calif., who had purchased some of the band’s old road cases (used to haul amplifiers and other items to show) at auction. The cases were filled with junk — as well as dozens of crusty, battered reel-to-reel tapes.

When those tapes were cleaned up, they yielded a treasury of performances, including a concert from the ’70s that has not been officially released by the band, although 2001 did see the release of “Nightfall of Diamonds,” recorded at “Meadowlands Arena” (actually Byrne Arena, now Izod Center) on Oct. 16, 1989.

Since Garcia’s death, the band has released more than 100 albums of previously recorded work from its vaults. And the non-hits just keep on coming. And selling.

It’s why Loren — and an ever-expanding roster of Deadheads — is always happy to quote legendary rock promoter Bill Graham’s most astute assessment of the band: “They’re not the best at what they do. They’re the only ones who do what they do.”

Certainly, the Dead’s eclectic, folky and improvisational approach to rock and roll wasn’t every music lover’s cup of chamomile. Some rock fans, whose tastes evolved from psychedelia in the 1960s to metal to punk in the 1970s, managed to ignore the Grateful Dead completely. Critics — particularly those who were writing on deadline — occasionally slipped words like “tedious” and “self-indulgent” into their otherwise-positive reviews of concerts that went on into the wee hours.

But, with Garcia leading the way, the Grateful Dead continued to do their thing. And their fans, among the loyalest in popular music, always went along for the ride, even if it meant arguing with some of their friends about the rock band they insisted was the best of all time.

In 1995, hours after it was announced that Garcia had died, a swarm of fans began to gather at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, the tree-enclosed memorial for slain Beatle John Lennon. It was a somber and almost dreamlike assemblage that, by the following afternoon, had morphed into a lively, Summer of Love-like patchwork of music, wine bottles, flickering votive candles and a sea of roses and sunflowers, all to honor the man who gave the world “Scarlet Begonias,” “Sugar Magnolia” and a gorgeous album of haunting bluegrass-infused rock called “American Beauty.”

As Dead tunes poured endlessly from a strategically-placed boombox, more than a few onlookers were baffled. “Jerry Garcia?” one young tourist asked. “Who is this person?”

It was dichotomy that perhaps only one prominent rock star — the one being mourned — would have appreciated.

Email: ervolino@northjersey.com