A long read about the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary shows, their remarkable fans, and what happens next...

Three hours before The Grateful Dead begin their brief and poignant farewell tour in Santa Clara, California, a couple called Jeremy and Karen are setting up their stall of bespoke tie-dyed articles in the parking lot. As they arrange the $70 silk shirts and $10 bandannas, they are talking of their times on the road following the band; journeys which began in the 1970s for both of them, and which reached a sustained climax for Jeremy between 1987 and 1995, when he was present at every one of the Dead’s last 300-odd shows.

“It wasn’t just music,” he says now, looking like a cross between Jerry Garcia and John Goodman. “The term Utopia is very maligned in society, especially in this age. What we had wasn’t a working blueprint for Utopia, but it was an unfolding better way of living, away from the safety net of a society that acts as either a sieve or a meat grinder. It was a different way of doing things. It had all the regular trappings and problems of society, but it offered hope.”

 

A few hundred metres away, Santa Clara’s year-old Levi’s Stadium, normally home to the San Francisco 49ers, awaits today’s influx of 83,000 multifarious Deadheads. Lifers like Jeremy and Karen mingle with new young fans, and a great many middle-aged men and women whose love of the Dead has endured long after their own quests for Utopia have ended. Over the next two weekends, the four remaining core members of the Grateful Dead and their accomplices will play five Fare Thee Well shows, two here and three in Chicago, which will reportedly net $40 million in ticket sales alone. Out in the parking lots, however, a more idiosyncratic brand of entrepreneurship is flourishing, even while cops patrol the aisles on golf buggies.

This is Shakedown Street, storied hub of the grey economy that has long clustered around the Dead, an ad hoc marketplace for all your quainter hippy needs. Hash pipes proliferate, as do conch shells and vegetarian burritos. There are drum circles, hackysack players, dogs in bandannas, and t-shirt memorials to Brent Mydland, one of the multiple keyboard players who died during the Grateful Dead’s original lifespan between 1965 and 1995. A large man loudly advertises the hash brownies that he is selling, neatly packaged in branded plastic containers. Another wanders through the crowds, carrying a mysterious box labelled “Take a gift”.

Jeremy, though, has a living to make. The day Jerry Garcia died, Tuesday August 9, 1995, he postponed thoughts of getting a job for a good 24 hours. The next day he found work at the University of Santa Cruz, but soon took to the road again, selling his tie-dyes at festivals through the summers, until it became harder and harder to survive the winters. Finally, he had an idea; America’s only make-your-own tie-dye store, A Brighter World. “Jeremy’s one of the few people who made it,” says Karen. “Everybody had their little things – I crocheted crazy stuff to get me across the country – but he actually turned it into a business. People who can combine the hippy thing with a work ethic, they can find a really interesting way to live.”

Jeremy claims he is mostly here to promote his business. After several hundred shows, though, a profound emotional attachment to the Dead remains, transcending his cynicism over the premise of Fare Thee Well, and his scepticism that the band can still be meaningful without Garcia. “I just hope they play like it’s their last one, as opposed to going through the motions,” he finally decides. “It could be like going to someone’s house for a home-cooked meal but they got sick, so they ordered out. It’s OK, but I hope it won’t be like that…”

 Heads up! Next month’s Uncut – on sale July 28 in the UK – comes with a FREE GRATEFUL DEAD CD: our historic attempt to piece together the album that should have followed “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty”…

  1. 1. Introduction
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