NOT FADE AWAY Almost 14 years after the death of iconic Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, the culture of the Dead is still very much alive By WALLACE BAINE firstname.lastname@example.org
As the story goes, Jerry Garcia found the term “grateful dead” in a Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary sometime in 1965 when Garcia’s band the Warlocks was looking for a new band name. Even then, when rock bands were calling themselves “Strawberry Alarm Clock” and “13th Floor Elevators,” evoking death in a band name was a risky proposition.
But the term carried elements of magic and mysticism – it refers to a folk-tale motif in which someone who pays off a dead man’s debts is rewarded with good fortune presumably by the ghost of the deceased. And that magic seems to be imbued with the group of San Francisco musicians who adopted the name.
In the following years, of course, the Grateful Dead went on to become an international rock music behemoth, and evolved into a brand name that continued to generate cultural wattage well after the death of its frontman. But, a handful of other music icons – the Beatles, Bob Marley, Elvis – have achieved that exalted status.
What makes the Dead unique in musical history is the band’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to inspire new sources of devotion in its fan base. The Beatles and Stones still have fans, of course. But the Dead, even close to 14 years after Garcia’s death, still has an all enveloping culture.
Though the Dead sprung from the Haight in San Francisco, Santa Cruz has a deep and abiding claim on the Dead legacy. It is at UC San ta Cruz where the official Grateful Dead archive is housed (though not yet open to the public). And it is here where Dead culture lives on in at least two prominent local cover bands, and a regular “Dead Dance” event in which Deadheads gather to enjoy recorded shows from the Dead’s past.
Slugs & Roses, for instance, has been around for about a year. The Dead cover band features two members of the famed Santa Cruz environmental/ educational music group the Banana Slug String Band.
Then there’s the China Cats, who play live tonight at Don Quixote’s in Felton. The band recently added a new keyboard player, and took the opportunity to change its name from Dough Knees. Dead bands from out of the area, from the Dark Star Orchestra to the all-Celtic Wake the Dead, find eager audiences in Santa Cruz. What makes bands like these different from oth er tribute acts is the lack of play acting. These are bands playing the music of the Grateful Dead, not pre tending to be the Grateful Dead.
“I’ve always been a Dead head,” said China Cat Scott Cooper, who is also teach ing a guitar class of Grateful Dead music at UCSC. Coo per said that what those out side the Dead fanbase don’t always realize is that each Dead live concert was a unique experience from the one the night before. “They didn’t do the same mate rial every night,” he said. “They never, ever repeat ed a set list. Occasionally, they might repeat one song from the night before, or something. But, the songs were rough sketches for them to improvise on, and that’s what made each show unique.”
David Faulkner, who started an acoustic Jerry Garcia-inspired band called Shady Groove and now plays keyboards for Slugs & Roses, said he had seen the Dead dozens of times before Garcia’s 1995 death.
He said his friends often referred to Dead concerts as “church,” and that the hairy Captain Trips was less a guitar play er than a “shaman.” “They really set their own rules,” he said.
“The whole thing wrapped around Jer ry. The thing about him was that he was never just about rockin’ out. He wasn’t ever afraid to play something beautiful, just for the sake of playing something beau tiful.”
Today’s Deadheads don’t even need a live band to enjoy the Dead vibe. For the past several years, a regular “Dead Dance” has been held at the 418 Project in Santa Cruz.
Kristen Young, one of the event’s coordinators, said that a recorded Dead show is played entirely on an iPod into large speakers and fans come together to dance and to commune with the Dead spirit. The next dance takes place Sunday.
“I’ve had some amazing dance experiences there,” said Young. “There’s no alco hol, no smoking. We just get together to dance. It’s very family oriented too. A group of us will stay up for hours just hanging out and talking about the dance.” Young, 42, was born into a Deadhead family.
She was taken to Dead shows by her mother when she was still a baby and estimates she saw 800 Dead shows over the years. The dances, she said, are now beginning to attract people too young to have had a chance to see the Dead while Garcia was still around.
“I am just so grate ful that I got to be part of that when I was a kid,” she said. The UCSC Grateful Dead archive is currently in the process of cataloging. It won’t be open to the public until 2010 when its space at the newly renovated McHenry Library will be opened. But there will be a display of samples from the archive open to the public beginning March 30 in the Visual Resource Collection room of the Library.
The archive, the cov er bands and the “Dead Dance,” which attracts a steady number of people too young to have experienced the band in its heyday, points to an enduring Dead scene in Santa Cruz into the foreseeable future. For those who are true believers in the Dead way, it’s a cul ture that’s only partly about good music played well. It’s about personal transforma tion.
“By the time the show was over,” said David Faulkner of Slugs & Roses, “I felt like I was a better person.”