Grateful Dead Fans, Las Vegas Silver Bowl '95 - photo Bill Hughes
Has recent infighting among former members of the Grateful Dead tarnished the bandís counterculture legacy of peace and love, or is everything still cool and groovy in the post-Garcia era?
by Lee Abraham
Peace and love. Taken separately, theyíre just a couple of words. Put Ďem together though and you have the mantra of a generation. For a brief time, that mantra appeared to spill over into mainstream reality. Flash back to 1969. More specifically, the fleeting few summer months between the fun and music of Woodstock and the death and violence of Altamont. Flower power has gone steadily downhill ever since.
Illusions of nirvana are part of the human condition. Big religion figured that out a long time ago. Entertainers too. But while the fire and brimstone pulpit pounders play their guilt based game of do-as-we-say-and-get-to-heaven, pop idols offer a more immediate and less judgmental salvation. Call it the ĎClapton is God,í syndrome. Face it - more than any other time in history, popular music satisfies a basic spiritual need in todayís wired up society. Bumper stickers and concert T-shirts tell the rest of the world where our loyalties are. Admit it or not, everyone sees a piece of themselves, or who they -want- to be, in their favorite band. Some folks more than others.
Case in point - Deadheads. Long touted as the most loyal of all music fans, deadheads earned their reputation through decades of conspicuous devotion. A vividly colorful, tie-dyed traveling circus that followed the band en masse from city to city, touring with the Dead became a rite of passage. A pilgrimage of the spirit. And for some - a way of life.
In addition to the obvious draw - the music - as well as the never-ending-party atmosphere that oozed from the scene, part of the Deadís charm were the onstage interactions -among- the band. Watching Garcia smile broadly at a riff someone else was playing, or seeing Bob Weir on guitar make eye contact with bass player Phil Lesh during a pivotal transition in one of their patented, improvisational jams, were the type of goose bump generators that seduced thousands of fans into declaring themself a deadhead.
As forgiving as they are road worthy, deadheads were never put off by the occasional onstage blunder. Flubbed lyrics or a botched note only served to strengthen the bond between the band and its faithful. Even infighting and scandal, like rumors of Garcia criticizing Weirís guitar playing back in the early days, or drummer Mickey Hartís father embezzling money from the band while managing their business, did little or nothing to dull the Deadís day-glo image as a bunch of cool and groovy hippies.
After Garciaís death in í95, the formation of the -The Other Ones-, featuring most of the Deadís surviving members, most importantly Weir, Lesh and Hart, reassured deadheads that the ties, did indeed still bind. Just like Buddy Hollyís anthematic refrain, "A love for real will not fade away," which the Dead and their fans sang so enthusiastically to each other in concert time and time again for over 25 years, making music together was the indestructible force keeping the Deadís community alive.
That warm and fuzzy image took a major whack last year when Lesh backed out of -The Other Ones- followup tour, opting instead to front his own project, -Phil and Friends-. Reasons for the split were murky. And rumors flew. Some held that personality conflicts or differing opinions on musical direction were to blame. Others focused squarely on business. The most insidious scuttlebutt: whispers of the Deadís legendary Ďvault,í a near complete collection of high quality recordings from 2,000 of their concerts, being sold to Microsoft.
Deadheads cringed. Although the truth behind the acrimony remained a mystery, the separate tours were plain for everyone to see. True to form, most deadheads supported both rather than choose sides. Even though there wasnít the same old -good loviní- between the two camps, at least there was peace.
And then came the bombshell. Talking about an upcoming announcement for plans to indeed make the vault more accessible in a recently published interview, Hart publicly ripped Lesh a new bass hole. "Nobody's at war with Phil," Hart is quoted as saying. "He's just out of the loop. He just hasn't paid attention for years. He's just in the Phil zone, God save him. Nobody pays much attention to him. He's sort of on the outside. He's of no consequence really." Ouch.
"The Grateful Dead has always worked as a democracy," Hart continued. "Phil's the odd man out. So he took his marbles and split, like a little boy would. That's his prerogative; God bless him, I wish him well. But believe me, we don't miss him. We're having a great time without him. It couldn't be better." Then it got nasty. "If someone doesn't want to play with you, you don't play with them. We have no fight with him; he's sort of at odds with himself. I think that liver transplant didn't go so well. He might have gotten the liver of a jerk."
Reaction was from deadheads was swift. People were more up in arms over the Phil bashing than head over heels about opening up the vault. Hart had crossed the line. And although he has created the most interesting new music among his former mates since the Deadís demise, Hartís assessment of Leshís position in the community was flat out wrong. Ask any deadhead and theyíll tell you - when Garcia died, Lesh became the family patriarch. And although not nearly as universally revered as Garcia, Hartís attack on Lesh, who recently underwent a successful liver transplant, was sacrilege nonetheless. Not to mention a cheap shot.
It didnít take long for Hart to issue an apology. "I said some things in an interview a few days ago that I really regret," he began. "There is definitely a difference of opinion between Phil and the rest of us."
"We lived together and laughed together for many years," the Hart felt apology continues. "But the business stuff has overtaken our reason and made things very gray. The music between us has stopped and that is not good. The music has always mediated our differences, which were never insurmountable. In my frustration with that, I succumbed to negativity, and in mock jest created this atmosphere of Phil-bashing. We should never attack each other." Suggesting that his remarks were "a tongue in cheek-ha-ha kind of thing," Hart then took the high road. "It especially bums me that it came across as having anything at all to do with the young man, God bless him, who was thoughtful enough to anticipate his death and make the greatest gift anyone can make -- life. My apologies to his family and his memory. And, for that matter, to Phil and our greater Dead family. I've always known that the negative is no way to go -- I forgot myself and my tongue took me over the line. It is not over yet. The music will see us through. I have to believe that."
And if the past is any indication, deadheads will believe it too.