Like a cavalry scout just back with reports from beyond the next ridge. Rock Scully, manager of the Grateful Dead, came back to their suburban Maryland hotel room, eyes awash in wonder with a message to Garcia.

"Wow, you wouldn't believe what's going on down there," he reported to lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and a few of the assembled troops. "There's this Thanksgiving buffet and all these middleclass people, and the radio's on you know, and there's all this news about Guyana . . . it was really weird.

It brought Scully up short, something of a shock to the system. As Garcia himself said yesterday, "there are only a handful of places where we bump into the real world.

There are, after all, a few rockbottom dichotomies in the lives of the Grateful Dead, and one of them is this: In this weary world that has seen so much since John Kennedy was shot and Ken Kesey first took acid it is still possible for Garcia to divide it all up between everybody who's straight.

Hours before their concert at the Capital Centre last night, was as if the gray November rain had dissolved all notions of the present. Suddenly it was back on the bus or off the bus, it was rented rooms filled with Day-Glo colors and the strange spores of the all night Acid Tests, it was Hatight-Ashbury and the Pranksters and all the others swirls in that cultural vortex from which the Grateful Dead emerged . . . and have remained.

It was not as if Garcia hadn't noted the changes. No, he said. the 70's "don't mean something like the '50s or the '60s. The '70s have no sense of identity." Not like the '60s when there was that "nice thing of discovering kindred spirits - meeting people and it would be like. 'Oh you're the weird person from your town? I'm the weird person from my town.'"

It's just that it hasn't made a damn bit of difference.

There he sat long graying shaggy hair, dark blue T-shirt, rimless glasses, talking effortlessly in the argot of the decade that died - all about being "a full human" and "the straight world" and "expanding the frame" and the lines in his kind accommodating face did not seem to reflect the kind of psychic creases that have weathered most of his brethren. At least as far as he would let on.

"The world I experience still has the kind of energy that we had back then," he said but then the Grateful Dead tries very hard to run a distinctly different course from the one on the other side of the stage.

This world of theirs had been hammered into its own finely wrought shape, by now, and all that might distrub its symmetry is avoided all but the strictly inevitable, summed up by Garia in the word "airport," which becomes by intonation a metaphor for all those aggravating confrontations with a culture that he rejected on its merits over 20 years ago, when he got his first quitar.

"Airports," said Garcia, and lit another cigarette. "There're one of those places you just have to behave yourself. I mean, they have sighs that say 'no joking.'" In the 70s, said Garcia, "it's harder to have fun. People seem scared. No more free concerts in the park."

He did not talk much about the changes 15 years have brought since the early days when the Grateful Dead defeined the 60s and their kinetic, often crazed sense of possibility. He has become, he said, "looser now, more comfortable. Tolerant might be a better word. It's easier to go to the airport now, less paranoia." Less anger now that the 60s left so meager a legacy, fewer questions of "why isn't the world a better place, why aren't things improving. The psychedelics made it seem so simple - it was hard to fight the dissonance between what seemed possible and what was really happening."

But, he said, "I'm confused as I ever was." He does not want to talk about himself, his home or his living arrangements, would prefer to talk of angels and demons, and the flying saucers which have fascinated him ever since the '50s - "in the '50s, they were the only thing strange that was happening."

And in the '60s , all that was strange was happening, and the Grateful Dead were at the center, blurring the lines between the dancer and the dance. Now Garcia can still talk of psychedelic drugs as "the profoundly important thing in my life, the source, the wellspring" of all he is today and of all he does. Now he feels, he has a responsibility to the buyers of high-priced tickets not to get too high while performing, and so he sticks to marijuana and "West Coast mushrooms" and "whatever new comes along."

Together with the other members of the band, he is wrapped securely in the cocoon of anomaly. They have, he said, "few allies" in the rock industry - "There's not a whole lot of people who think the way we do."

But there are legions of diehard fans, the perennial Deadheads, who will follow them anywhere, eyes shining with admiration as they talk of a Dead concert as "a religious experience," ardent believers of all ages who describe a Dead concert as they would a fine painting - a mother lode of emotions and insights that unfold new dimensions with each new experience.

On this town, the group has brought more of a sense of organization to a life spent mainly on the road. While they are as Garcia said, "broke" they have cut back on equipment and personnel and have even managed to time their tour to the release of their latest album.

"We were tilting at windmills," said Garcia, of the long wrangles with managers, record companies and money that have erupted over the years."We found ourselves in trouble with the straight world and realized, "Wow, we're really not very good at this."

Nevertheless, it was still, he said, coincidence that has things going along so pacifically for the moment, "pure crazy luck which figures highly in what we do."

He is fascinated by coincidence - "the clues you look for, the little suggestions in your life that there is some outstanding order." In Egypt last September, for instance: Playing at the Great Pyramid on the night of the lunar eclipse. He liked Egypt, it was, as a friend of his had said to him, - like being in a place with no cops or parents," a glimmer of what those early years had been like so briefly, and so long ago.

As for those who have veered off the edge and sought a separate peace in the mainstream, he takes a long view from a time that, for most people proved too fragile to support more than a summer's day of indulgence.

"The 70s are depressing, all right," said Garcia. "But in the Grateful Dead world, things are snapping right along."