I needed a miracle.
Specifically, I needed construction on the Golden Gate Bridge to halt so that I could make Grateful Dead Funk Night at Terrapin Crossroads, the San Rafael restaurant and music venue owned by Phil Lesh, a founding member of the legendary band.
Bless Saint Christopher, because I discovered an alternate route and arrived well before the musicians strummed the opening chords to “Althea.”
Unless you’re living in “1989,” you know that 2015 is the Year of the Dead. Twenty years ago this month, the Bay Area group performed its last concert, at Soldier Field in Chicago. Over Fourth of July weekend, the four remaining members returned to the Midwest stage for three “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead” shows. The half-century anniversary marks the band’s creation in Palo Alto, Calif., but its timeline is crowded with other significant dates. For example: Jerry Garcia’s birthday, on Aug. 1, 1942, and his death, on Aug. 9, 1995.
The band dismantled after the loss, and its members pursued other projects. Northern California’s devotion to the Grateful Dead, however, will not fade away.
“Their footprints are everywhere. They are part of the landscape and the soil,” said Scott Unterberg, who documents some of the band’s seminal sites on his blog, Dark Star Palace. “San Francisco is definitely the Land of the Dead.”
Most devotees start and end their pilgrimage in Haight-Ashbury, the rainbow-bright center of the 1960s countercultural movement. The neighborhood and its squatters, many fogged in by a cloud of patchouli and pot, seem permanently stuck in the Never-Ending Summer of Love.
The Dead’s journey, however, extended beyond Haight. They performed their first gig at a pizza shop in Menlo Park, about 30 miles south of San Francisco; Garcia died of a heart attack at a rehab center in Forest Knolls, about the same distance north. Guitarist Bob Weir and Lesh, the bassist, reside in Marin County and run live music and dining establishments that are less than 10 miles apart. Unterberg, who lives in Mill Valley, said Weir has appeared in the local Memorial Day parade. My NoCal friend bumps into Lesh when she’s running errands.
Clearly, the Dead are still walking.
For my groupie tour, I contacted Scott, who started compiling the locations during sleepless hours with twin newborns. The veteran concertgoer (more than 50 Dead shows on his twirl card) pulled together a list that included nearly 20 stops in seven Marin towns, plus San Francisco. Squeezed for time, I had to sacrifice a few, such as two rehearsal spaces (the heliport in Sausalito and the Stinson Beach Community Center); the former Girl Scout camp in Lagunitas, the group’s living quarters in 1966; and the ticket sales office and Garcia’s house in Stinson Beach, where he also recorded a solo album.
Before I set out, however, I planned a private moment with Jerry. Our rendezvous spot: Suite 220 at Hotel Triton.
In September 1994, Garcia designed a guest room at the whimsical San Francisco property steps from Chinatown. (Kathy Griffin and Häagen-Dazs also have theme suites.) The room feels like a private art gallery. The artist’s simple character drawings and psychedelic prints adorn the walls, and one frame contains several of his Escherlike ties. A trippy pattern repeats on the throw pillows and headboard. A swirling blue paisley design on the carpet creates a wave sensation underfoot.
The pièce de résistance is his looping signature on the wall paired with a photograph of the bearded one lounging on a bed. The ultimate fan-boast: I slept in the same bed that Jerry Garcia sat on.
That was then and this is now.
Then: Concert promoter Bill Graham opens Fillmore West in 1968 and books bands, including the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, that help define an era.
Now: Customers shop for cars at the Honda dealership that took over the building.
Yet, in many cases, then is still now — only with some updates.
In 1980, the Dead played 15 sold-out shows at the Warfield Theatre, a downtown facility that dates to the 1920s vaudeville age. It continues to host acts, although the style of music has changed. In early July, the large marquee announced Lilly Singh, the Canadian comedian and rapper, and a smaller billboard promoted performances by Motorhead, Snarky Puppy and “American Idol Live.”
While I was snapping pictures of the Warfield’s exterior, an employee cracked opened the door and looked at me curiously. I explained my quest to visit the Grateful Dead’s concert sites.
“This was the main one,” she said with a sense of proprietorship.
The names associated with the original Fillmore, which Graham had abandoned to open the Fillmore West, could make a tape head pop off: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Cream, Muddy Waters and the Dead, who were barely above bar-band status when they played here.
I walked by the brick building several times before finally looking up and noticing “The Fillmore” sign high above the Western Union store. I found the entrance and peered through a padlocked metal gate at a marble foyer with a table, chair and black telephone, the antechamber to the unofficial Music Legends Hall of Fame.
At Golden Gate Park, the grassy staging ground of many free Dead shows, I discovered several musicians noodling around on guitars by the Conservatory of Flowers. A man in a folding chair started singing freestyle.
I ain’t got no dough
To get a burrito
I’ve got a bad, bad case of the burritos
The song segued into rallying slogans: “Live in peace.” “Throw your guns away.” “Don’t smoke crack.” He then stood up, collapsed his chair and, without saying goodnight, drove away, the Mexican food anthem reverberating in his wake.
The Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour met in the most unlikely spot: by the McDonald’s parking lot and near Whole Foods. Like Dylan said . . . .
Except for a few modifications, however, the neighborhood has kept a sandaled foot in the past.
“On Hippie Hill, you can always find someone on a sunny day pounding on a drum and saying, ‘Wow, man, far out,’ ” our guide, Stannous Flouride, said of the carnival-like gathering place in Golden Gate Park.
Urban planners created the district in the late 1800s for tourists visiting San Francisco’s 1,017-acre park, which borders Haight-Ashbury. The city was barren of trees until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev commented on the lack of vegetation during a visit, spurring officials to start sprucing up business districts. Hippies also stepped in with seeds and shovels to beautify the noncommercial areas. Friends of the Urban Forest later took up the green cause, and have planted 59,000 trees since 1981.
“That is the legacy of the ’60s,” he said. “If you saw a problem, you get your friends together and fix it.”
Stan carried a stack of pictures to illustrate his points. He showed us an old-timey photo of a vegetation-less Haight Street and, for his discussion on the local fire department, a graphic image of the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face skull surrounded by Station 12 lettering, a fire hydrant and a ladder. The logo, he said, appears on the company’s trucks and uniforms. As if on cue, a firetruck rumbled by. I raced to the scene to goggle at the cab, not the accident.
Stan covered a broad sweep of topics (history, architecture, drugs, psychos), and the Dead seemed to nudge their way into many of his stories. For example, he pointed up a hill to the Spreckels Mansion, which was built by a nephew of a 19th-century sugar magnate. The revolving door of later occupants included Jack London, who wrote “White Fang” in the posh crib, and actor Danny Glover, pre-divorce. In the ’60s, Gene Estribou built Buena Vista Studio in a fifth-floor ballroom and invited such musicians as Steve Miller, It’s a Beautiful Day and the Dead to record tracks there.
On Belvedere Street, a smoky gray Victorian that had contained a recording studio made the news in 1967 when police raided a marijuana party and busted Royal Ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. In 1996, Stan had an opportunity to peek inside the building. He found egg cartons stapled to the ceiling and Fillmore posters plastered on the walls like a coat of paint.
The biggest fan attraction in San Francisco is the Grateful Dead House on Ashbury Street. The home barely hints at its former tenants: a stencil of Garcia playing guitar on the sidewalk, a skull-and-roses emblem on a curb, stickers on the next-door-neighbor’s utility box. After Garcia’s death, the owners erected a gate to prevent pilgrims from leaving flammable mementos on the wooden steps. But they welcome visitors to pose outside the purple Victorian.
Stan crouched down to snap shots of our group. People started to show up to pay tribute, and he offered to take their pictures as well. Two older guys — one with a dark mustache and long ponytail, the other with a flowing beard and yards of lemony hair — flashed the peace sign, taking us all back to 1967.
Olompali State Historic Park’s narrative began 8,000 years ago, with the Coast Miwok Indians. But because my time machine was stuck in the 1960s, I headed straight for the last display in the visitors center, the one titled “Radical Changes.”
In 1966, Jerry & Co. moved to the secluded area in northern Marin and invited friends over for al fresco jam sessions. A photo in the small exhibit shows skin-baring beauties (men and women) reclining on the lawn while the band plays in the background. Months later, a houseboat businessman moved into the estate’s 26-room mansion and formed a commune called the Chosen Family. They all lived happily ever after until 1969, when an electrical fire incinerated the home and scattered the inhabitants. In 2002, archeologists retrieved charred items from the debris, including a record, beaded bracelets, a shoe and a coffee can used to bake bread for Summer of Love revelers.
The stucco mansion still stands. I peered through dirty windows at the shambles inside. Crumbling walls. Blackened bricks. A purple door lying on its side. A utopia lost.
Serenity Knolls, in the town of Forest Knolls, wasn’t my last stop, but it was Jerry’s. The notation from Scott, my tour adviser, was simply “where Jerry passed.” Based on its ethereal name, I imagined a fairy-tale setting with songbirds chirping on piney boughs, water trickling over pearlescent rocks and residents playing harps or painting on easels.
Inside the wooded retreat, I drove by birds, trees and water (in the form of a pool) and also cabins and facilities that cater to patients battling drug addictions. I tried to tiptoe away without notice, but the road dead-ended. Then I backed up onto a grassy bank while two onlookers watched from a picnic table.
“Can I help you?” an amiable man asked me through my car window. “Are you looking for someone?”
I couldn’t admit the truth, so I gave a semi-coherent answer and waved goodbye. On my way out, however, I respectfully slowed down at the Serenity Knolls sign, the final milepost on Jerry’s long, strange trip.
At Terrapin Crossroads, Lesh isn’t shy about his Grateful Dead connection. A small gift shop sells souvenirs that riff on the band’s discography and imagery. Framed photos of the musicians ring the periphery of the restaurant. The bassist’s son, Grahame, often performs here with the Terrapin All Stars, and Papa Lesh occasionally plays sold-out shows. For Garcia’s birthday, the Dead tribute band Stu Allen & Mars Hotel will take the main stage in the Grate Room.
For Grateful Dead Funk Night: Vol. 7, the crowd was ample and appreciative. Guests danced in pockets around the bar and between tables. The band featured a rotating cast of singers each channeling a different legend: Joe (Cocker), Aretha, Janis, Jerry.
The group played several Dead songs, amping up the energy level like a shot of Red Bull. From my front-row stool, I watched the mating dance of two middle-aged hippies. A guy named Cliff, who sported a 50th anniversary T-shirt, a Steal Your Face necklace and lanky locks, sat next to me. I said hello, and he responded with a torrent of commentary.
“I just got back from Chicago, man,” he said, without coming up for air. “I haven’t slept in days.”
From what I could discern, Cliff’s friend had absconded with the Soldier Field tickets and the security guard wouldn’t let him inside. I wanted to assure Cliff that although the band had said goodbye July 5, the Bay Area would never say fare thee well to the Grateful Dead. But Cliff drifted off to dance before I could get the words out.
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342 Grant Ave., San Francisco
The hotel, a former Kimpton property, has 140 guest rooms, including the Jerry Garcia suite. From $279 for a regular room; suites from $429.
100 Yacht Club Dr., San Rafael
Combine dinner (American classics) with a show (lots of rock). Entrees from $14. Concerts in the bar, free; ticket prices for Grate Room shows vary. Jerry’s Birthday Bash Aug. 1, $25.
Olompali State Historic Park
Off Atherton Blvd., Novato
Hiking trails, a Miwok village exhibit and a small visitors center. Open Wednesday-Sunday,
9 a.m-5 p.m. Parking fee $8.
Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour
The 21/2-hour tour is held Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m., Fridays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. $20.