Dead on arrival
Lured to Chico by way of a show in Berkeley
Growing up in New Jersey, I had a map of Berkeley, Calif., next to my bed. I thought that was where I wanted to live. This was before I had even heard of the Grateful Dead, but I knew something important would happen there one day. I was a weird kid.
One-hundred-and-twenty Grateful Dead shows later, on June 21, 1986, I was being chased by the police outside a Dead show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. I was selling handmade shirts that had a burning American flag over the Steal Your Face skull logo. I thought it was a matter of free speech, but the cops said it was copyright infringement. I also thought running might be my best bet.
After a quarter-mile chase, I ran by Chico astrologer Koz McKev, whom a girlfriend of mine had met on a Green Tortoise trip (the notorious bus company that shuttles hippies, bohemians and international students around safely). As I passed him doing double time, he yelled out, “When you stop running, come to Chico!”
And that is how I found out about this university town. I moved to Chico the next year.
For a few years in Chico I still followed the Dead's summer tours, traveling from Vegas to Ohio to Florida. I sold stuff to pay for the trip: drums (crafted by Charles Kidd), handmade T-shirts, PB&J sandwiches, Sierra Nevada Pale Ales or whatever else I could load into my VW van. The year I drove the AM General, a military-grade transport truck, I sold baby food. Following the Grateful Dead allowed one to lead an incredibly eclectic life.
For me, seeing the band was a positive experience in an amazingly supportive scene. Even at the worst of the 1983/'84/'85 period, when Jerry Garcia clearly was having health problems, whatever was happening backstage, when the band walked onstage, they were always the same guys who struggled mightily to be consummate artists. Deadheads knew the band's members were still trying to make music, art and magic. That drew enormous respect and affection. They shambled onstage as if they were going to a barbecue in a backyard. They weren't posing, they weren't faking it and they tried hard.
When the floodgates busted wide open in the late-'80s, mainly due to the hit single “Touch of Grey,” until the end in '95 when Garcia passed away, Deadheads increased exponentially until the freewheeling experiment came to a close. But, according to Grateful Dead archivist Nick Meriwether at UC Santa Cruz, it was still a scene that had rules and limitations. Rule No. 1: “Know how to handle yourself. And if you couldn't, it was expected that your friends would take care of you. That was a communal enforcement mechanism,” Meriwether said during a recent interview. At any given show, several generations of people and that older generation were capable of exerting enormous moral sway. “And they often did that by failing to exert it,” he added.
Shelby Pawn, lead singer of one-time Chico punk band P.A.W.N.S., has admitted to me she appreciates the band in a cultural context, but that she has no ear for the music. I find this totally and wholeheartedly OK. It was never for everyone. Nothing is for everyone—except maybe air, water and Bill Murray. To love the music, you had to have an appreciation for monster jams that would leave you reeling and discombobulated for what seemed like an eternity, before slamming you back into the groove. Most people don't have the time or patience for that.
“They had an incredible collection of original songs that had a richness that required listening to more than once,” said Sirius XM Grateful Dead DJ David Gans by phone while on vacation in Hawaii. “It anticipated, demanded and ultimately rewarded repeated engagement. I call it spontaneous mid-air architecture. That's what you got when everyone was soloing in instrumental lines, notes and chords with constant reference to what everyone else was doing. They didn't bear down on their part; they were building a groove in concert with their fellow players. They were mutating that groove together. To those who ‘get it' it's an incredible deep and satisfying way of playing and for those who don't ‘get it,' it's obscure noodling.”
I like to say I learned everything I know on Grateful Dead tour, but the truth is I learned just as much living in Chico. The Grateful Dead might have ended with the death of Garcia, but the people the band influenced are everywhere.