The three Chicago shows sold out through Ticketmaster in minutes, the long-defunct Grateful Dead suddenly a hotter summer ticket than the Stones or Taylor Swift. But among the “Deadheads,” the group’s affectionately-named hard-core fans, all was not well.
“An outright tragedy,” Stewart Sallo wrote in the Huffington Post, “that perhaps the most beloved band in history has put itself in a position to be remembered for participating in the biggest money grab in music history.”
That’s when a very Dead thing happened. Promoter Pete Shapiro, who organized the multimillion-dollar gigs, tracked down Sallo’s cell number. They talked and e-mailed several times, sharing opinions and market realities. By the time the band announced two additional shows in California a few weeks later, Shapiro used a lottery system, outside Ticketmaster, to handle the hundreds of thousands of requests. And Sallo, the enraged Deadhead, sounded ready to join the drum circle.
“I’m convinced Pete Shapiro’s heart is in the right place,” he says now, “and I don’t think you can expect these guys to work for free.”
The path to “Fare Thee Well,” kicking off June 27 in Santa Clara, Calif., and wrapping July 5 in Chicago, would be one of the strangest musical stories of the year, except it concerns the Grateful Dead, a band that’s rarely done anything normal. In their heyday, they seriously considered selling all of their music from roaming ice cream trucks, blew a fortune gigging at the base of the pyramids in Egypt and took their lead from Jerry Garcia, a brilliant, heroin-addled addict who proudly called the band “leaderless.” Now, with Phish singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio and singer/keyboardist Bruce Hornsby enlisted, the four remaining members — guitarist Bob Weir, 67, bassist Phil Lesh, 75, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann, 69, and Mickey Hart, 71 — have set aside their differences to celebrate the group’s legacy and say goodbye with five sold-out concerts.
Anastasio added buzz. The pledge by the remaining four to no longer play together added urgency. Weir, declining to discuss how he and his bandmates made peace, speaks of a higher calling.
“Pete Shapiro sure as hell helped,” says Weir, “but I think the guiding force is that it’s the right thing to do. I think everybody came to that realization. We have a duty.”
Everybody knew the 50th anniversary was coming. And everyone knew it would be big business. LiveNation made offers, as did the Bonnaroo and Coachella festivals. But Shapiro scored the gig.
The promoter, 42, has built a jam-band empire since graduating from Northwestern University in 1995. He publishes Relix Magazine, founded the Jammys and renovated and runs the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a place the Grateful Dead played
13 times in one year alone.
He has developed a close relationship with bassist Lesh, whose strong will — or, his detractors say, thirst for control — has caused friction with his former bandmates. Lesh has also made it clear that he’s done with long tours. Hence, the concentrated stadium run. Shapiro has worked closely with Weir as well and with Trixie Garcia, the Garcia daughter most involved in the late guitarist’s businesses. Garcia and Shapiro have a licensing deal to run a bar, Garcia’s, at the Capitol.
Shapiro also is a fan, saying his life was changed by a 1993 show.
“I’m a Head, I love the music and it was important for me that this 50th anniversary get celebrated,” he says. “I tried to put the pieces together to do this the right way. Taking into account my history. Taking into account the reality of 2015.”
There have been serious bumps along the way.
Shapiro says the thirst for tickets caught him by surprise. Seats sold out in minutes in February, with StubHub and other ticketing services soon listing tickets for thousands of dollars and locked-out Deadheads grumbling. The band agreed to do the two California shows and this time ran sales through a lottery to keep ticket brokers at bay. Still, Shapiro got blasted last week for changing seating charts and ticket levels to, he says, squeeze in thousands more desperate fans. Instead of ignoring the World Wide Dead, Shapiro again picked up the phone to call a blogger named “Grateful Dean” who had called him a “jackass.” A day later, Shapiro announced a new plan to appease fans.
Then there are the frayed relationships among band members. The remaining four have actually toured together since Garcia’s death, billing themselves as “the Dead.” But a 2009 swing did not end well.
Drummer Kreutzmann, writing in his just-published memoir, “Deal,” complained of fights over money and power. “I don’t want to be in a band where the musicians in front of me don’t get along and somehow manage to put up with each other just to do the gig,” he wrote.
Weir continued playing with Lesh after the tour in a band called Furthur, telling Rolling Stone that the drummers weren’t included because “Phil and I are way more current.”
Lesh’s style has created friction as well, Dead insiders say. The bassist blasted his bandmates in his memoir, “Searching for the Sound,” for considering distributing the group’s vast audio archive through venture capitalists and contesting a section of Garcia’s will that left some guitars to Doug Irwin, the man who built them. The tendency of Lesh and his wife, Jill, to be “profit motivated” and “lord over” was a barrier to a reunion, said Sue Stephens, Garcia’s assistant for 22 years.
One former Dead staffer even noted that, a few years ago, Jill Lesh ordered her husband’s sidemen to shed their bandanas lest they look like hippies.
“The idea of someone telling someone else how to dress on a GD stage,” the former staffer said, “is incomprehensible.”
You won’t hear the original four talking about a truce. That’s because you won’t hear the original four talking much at all. At first, they declined all requests for interviews.
“They’re not selling an album,” Shapiro said earlier this summer. “It’s so sold out, there’s no point.”
But then Kreutzmann had to promote his book, which led to interviews. He talked freely about sharing 13 groupies with a friend one night, as well as his cocaine addiction. When it came to the “Fare Thee Well” shows, he turned as tight as a snare drum.
“I don’t really have anything to say except I’m really looking forward to playing them and that’s all I’m telling you,” he said, ending a planned 30-minute interview 13 minutes in.
Weir, doing an interview to promote a new documentary about him, “The Other One,” was looser in describing early rehearsals with Anastasio and Lesh. (The band, as of this week, had not begun rehearsing together.)
“There’s a little anxiety,” he admitted. “I want to get rolling, basically. Right now, it’s easy to feel a little anxious about it just because we’re not doing it. We’re thinking about it. There’s ample opportunity for any of us to overthink the situation. Which won’t serve us at all. I think once we get rolling, we’ll find our center.”
During his lifetime, Jerry Garcia was that center.
“The rock-and-roll Buddha,” says Richard Loren, who managed the Grateful Dead from 1974 until 1981. “He let other people feel they made the decisions that he made. Jerry was the glue, and when he fell apart, it got really petty.”
Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan played their first Grateful Dead gig in late 1965 as the house band for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey’s acid tests. They added Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter in 1967. (McKernan died in 1973.)
It may be hard, all these years later, to realize how much the Grateful Dead revolutionized music, but consider this: Onstage, they virtually invented the jam band, melding the spirit of free jazz with rock, bluegrass and country. Offstage, they also were pioneers. They formed their own record company, started their own ticket office and not only allowed but encouraged fans to record shows and trade tapes.
The Grateful Dead did not need hits. They could always count on a community of Deadheads who would travel, selling enough T-shirts and grilled cheese sandwiches to get to the next gig.
“For a band that could be sort of chaotic and dysfunctional offstage, they had a real sense of how to have an organized business,” says Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne, author of “So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead.” “They went seven years without releasing an album, and yet, at the end of that, they went from sheds to stadiums.”
Amazingly enough, they did this with Garcia, whose personal life was chaotic. His relationships with women were a mess, with split-ups, marriages and children sprinkled in with years of total isolation.
He was a heroin addict, though his chain-smoking and junk-food habits also killed him. When Garcia died at 53, in 1995, it was because of a heart attack, not an overdose.
Garcia never wanted to be a rock god. He found it a drag when the band could not take a break because they needed to maintain the overhead for dozens of Grateful Dead staffers. He did not like it when the band, in the 1980s, jumped from theaters to arenas.
“They’d propose the tour and Garcia’s saying, ‘What’s the matter guys, are we broke, do we have to play these places?’ ” says Stephens, who took notes at band board meetings.
The surprise 1987 hit “Touch of Grey” did not help. It led to more ticketless fans crashing the famous parking lot scene.
“It became a burden, it lost the simple joy of it and became a responsibility,” says Dennis McNally, the band’s publicist for years and the author of “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.”
“When you have a half a million people telling you that you’re the greatest, that you’re Beethoven, Jerry would just say, ‘S---, man, I was just trying to stay in tune up there.’ Jerry wanted to be Huck Finn with a joint in his mouth and a guitar floating down the river.”
In 1995, in the first band meeting after Garcia’s death, the remaining members quickly ended the band. But that didn’t mean retirement. They played on in various configurations, among them The Other Ones, RatDog and the Rhythm Devils. They joined forces for the 2003, 2004 and 2009 outings as the Dead.
They also shored up the Grateful Dead business, a mess after squabbles over Garcia’s estate.
These days, the band’s Rex Foundation, which has provided nearly $10 million to a range of needy organizations, continues to raise money. Rhino oversees the band’s catalogue, releasing a seemingly endless stream of curated concert sets. (The most ambitious — an 80-disc, $699.95 set of live shows — will come out in September.)
Revenue flows through music and merchandise sold on Garcia’s official Web site, ties, artwork and royalties from the Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” flavor.
That’s the business end. Musically, there are those who say the Grateful Dead ended with Garcia’s death.
One of those? Kreutzmann.
“The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia would be like the Miles Davis Quintet without Miles Davis,” he wrote in his book.
But basketball legend Bill Walton, who has been to more than 850 shows featuring the band or side projects over the years, takes a softer stance.
“We all loved Jerry, but this is a team,” he says.
Whether this truly is the Grateful Dead remains a debate even among the players. Technically, they say they’re doing a tribute and farewell. Just try to interpret that from the way the band name is plastered on the ads for “Fare Thee Well.”
“A good friend of mine had a dream in which Sigmund Freud came to him and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been dead for a little over 100 years and I’ve had some time to think it over and I’ve determined that neurosis is the inability to accept ambiguity,’ ” Weir says. “I totally buy into that description. Let’s not get neurotic about this.”
If only that were the only debate about “Fare Thee Well.”
In addition to ticketing issues, some have questioned choosing Anastasio over the stable of smaller-name guitarists who have played with band members over the years. (In his book, Kreutzmann takes a petty swipe by calling one of them, John Kadlecik, a “fake Jerry.”) There is also the choice of Chicago. The final shows with Garcia were indeed played at Soldier Field in 1995. But they were not scrapbook material.
Grossly overweight and using again, Garcia flubbed solos, stumbled on cues and sometimes barely seemed to remember lyrics. At one point, Kreutzmann crashed a cymbal, he says, to remind Garcia that he was onstage.
“That whole year, man, 1995, was the worst year of my life, a hard, hard year,” Kreutzmann said when asked whether he had fond memories of that final tour.
Right now, the band members are just starting to prepare. They’ve been e-mailing each other ideas for set lists and rehearsing in small groups.
Hornsby, an honorary member of the Grateful Dead during Garcia’s final years, looks forward to the moment the music takes center stage.
“The Grateful Dead songbook is so great,” Hornsby says. “They just set you up. The pressure is, we’ve got these great pieces and we need to deliver them. So they can be heard to greatest effect. That’s a tall order, but that’s our charge.”