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New Life for Dead Merchandise : Band's Product-Licensing Arm Still Expanding Offerings

August 18, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Grateful Dead were Marc Almera's ticket to ride.

A Deadhead, Almera began creating artwork for T-shirts that he sold at concerts while crisscrossing the country following the band.

"Between odd jobs and the T-shirts I was able to go to college and see the Dead on weekends," the 26-year-old Newport Beach artist said. "It worked out real well."

But like many young artists who grew up in the Dead's artistic shadow, Almera is now worried that Jerry Garcia's death and the band's decision to stop touring will dull creativity when it comes to the band's multimillion-dollar merchandising business.

"The thing about the Dead's art is that it always had its own energy and radiance," Almera said. "They never wanted you to regurgitate their art. They wanted you to take their marks and create something new."

In 1994, Almera joined the elite group of artists whose work is featured on the band's officially licensed line of T-shirts. That design, along with another Dead-related drawing, is on display at Dead on the Wall, a Grateful Dead art retrospective that has tripled attendance at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

In the past year, he's had two additional T-shirts approved by the band for use on officially licensed T-shirts. Another design is awaiting approval by Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

The band's well-oiled product licensing machine, already the envy of most rock bands, continues to expand its offerings.

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Grateful Graphics, a Bay Area company with a license to produce Dead merchandise, recently added a children's line featuring the band's familiar dancing bears, and is starting to sell bear-shaped party lights.

But the band's decision to broaden the merchandise line might put its members at odds with longtime fans who've supported them for decades, said Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"If their marks--like the "Steal Your Face" logo, get too popular, they could lose their appeal with Deadheads," said Adams, who's studying the intricate social relationship between the band and its fans. "Deadheads could get angry if their symbols are diluted."

"I've already seen some Deadheads start to move to designs--like Jerry's hand on a T-shirt [Garcia was missing half a finger on his right hand], that only a Deadhead would recognize."

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