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'Deadheads' Still Follow Music, Magic

July 24, 1987|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — As the six graying rock 'n' rollers of the Grateful Dead, some with middle-age paunches, played on, the multitudes--42,000--swayed, twirled, shook, passed pipes and hooted as loud as they could.

Sarah, wearing a sweaty tie-dyed T-shirt, stopped dancing long enough to catch her breath.

"It's more than a group, it's like a way of life," she said. Sarah, 18, attended her first Grateful Dead show with her parents when she was 5 and dreams of someday taking in a concert with her own child--a third-generation Deadhead.

Anaheim Show Set

Welcome to the Grateful Dead show, which plays in Anaheim this weekend. It is a church of the offbeat, an ongoing acid test, a counterculture bazaar, a spacey, smoky, amorphous and continuously growing cult born of the '60s, psychedelics and Haight-Ashbury.

Its parishioners vary widely, from doctors and lawyers, to back-to-the-land types and nomadic bus drivers with long hair, beards, beads and rainbow-colored T-shirts. The Deadheads press on in pursuit of the band's unique form of improvisational, raucous, meandering music. The high priest is the music; the guiding tenet: Question authority, but to a heavy back beat.

A Grateful Dead concert is preceded by an entourage of Deadheads who follow the band from stop to stop in a sort of traveling counterculture village. They arrive in the poor man's Winnebagos--old buses, rusting pick-up trucks, ramshackle vans. The band insists that towns staging the shows set aside campgrounds for the throngs.

They may be derided as throwbacks to the '60s by those who don't, as Deadheads say, "get it." But for those who are a part of it, a Dead show is a "safe place in a very dangerous world, a happy place in an unhappy world," said David Gans, 33, of Oakland. "The Grateful Dead is my parish."

Gans, turning an obsession into a livelihood, wrote a book about the Dead, is host for the weekly Deadhead Hour, which airs on FM stations in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and with Deadhead friend Mary Eisenhart organized a modem-linked computer data base for Deadheads, run out of Sausalito.

He's not the only obsessed apostle. Deadheads have compiled lists of every song played in more than two decades of Dead concerts, in the order the tunes were played. Since the band lets fans record its shows, there may be tapes of every song the band has ever played in public.

"When the archeologists come, they will know about the Grateful Dead," said Eisenhart, editor of the Oakland-based Bam magazine.

Commercial Success

Based in Marin County, the band has long been noted for playing outside the recording industry mainstream, shunning studios and record deals in favor of concert tours, performed for an extended family of a few hundred thousand fans. But now, 22 years after it was formed, the band is having commercial success like never before.

Its single, "Touch of Grey," broke in at No. 77 on Billboard Magazine's Top 100, the first time the band has had a hit designed for the Top 40. The new album, "In the Dark," the band's first studio-produced effort in seven years, is No. 26 on Hits magazine Top 50.

There are videos, a planned movie, the July cover of Rolling Stone. The band is completing a six-stop tour with Bob Dylan that will have attracted 300,000 fans and grossed up to $6 million. The final concert is in Anaheim Stadium on Sunday. Lest anyone think that Dylan was the only draw, 54,000 fans showed up in June for three Dead-only shows in Ventura.

They come not just for the music, but for the show, and everyone there is part of it. Bill Graham, who has promoted perhaps 1,000 Dead shows dating back to the days when the band was called the Warlocks, said the scene amounts to an "attempt at another way of looking at life."

"People leave their labors, their toils, their jobs. They come into space where there are no tight pants, or revolving drums, no strobes, no theatrics. It may not change the world, but it's a wonderful thing to share," he said.

Serious Brand of Fun

Whether they view it all as a church, a family or a small town, Deadheads adhere because of a "need to feel they are a part of something," said John Barlow, a Wyoming cattle rancher and one of the band's two main lyricists. "It's also about serious fun. Deadheads are serious about their fun."

Loyalists include a deputy press secretary to Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who is running for president; basketball star Bill Walton; San Francisco obstetrician Robert Liner, who has played the Dead's song, "Franklin Towers" to help Deadheads through labor, and a fellow who calls himself Wizzard, 20. Wizzard sat shirtless in the Eugene parking lot campground, string beads, and when asked where he's from, replied, "I'm from Earth, man, where are you from?"

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