Dark Star, Bright Future

Phil Lesh is grateful to be alive, and to leave the lawsuits to the lawyers

Of all the heartfelt elegies for the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, it was fellow traveler Ken Kesey's that seemed to strike just the right note. "Hey, Jerry, what's happening?" he breezily wrote shortly after Garcia's August 1995 death. "I caught your funeral. Weird."

Weird indeed. It's almost too easy to point out the irony time had provided. Three decades from its origins as the house band for Kesey's brain-melting "acid tests," the Nineties had transformed the Grateful Dead into America's most lucrative touring outfit, grossing more than $50 million with each cross-country jaunt. Yet amid all that wealth, somehow the band remained the keepers of the Sixties spirit, no matter how tarnished or hoary those ideals may have seemed. There were no gold-plated Rolls-Royces, no dating of supermodels; Garcia still seemed to wear the same ratty old black T-shirt night after night.

"To the very end, Old Timer, you were true to that creed," Kesey continued in his beyond-the-grave conversation. "No commercials. No trendy spins. No bayings of belief. And if you did have any dogma, you surely kept it tied up under the back porch, where a smelly old hound dog belongs."

What a litigious, strange trip it's been: Venture capitalists tear the Grateful Dead apart, and Phil Lesh (center) makes some new friends
J.C. Juanis
What a litigious, strange trip it's been: Venture capitalists tear the Grateful Dead apart, and Phil Lesh (center) makes some new friends

Even after Garcia's death, the Dead retains its magnetic attraction -- Grateful Dead Productions (GDP) continues to pull in more than ten million dollars annually, hawking everything from live concert recordings to golf balls and drink coasters emblazoned with the Dead logo. (The $200,000 yearly royalty from Ben and Jerry's "Cherry Garcia" ice cream goes directly to the Garcia family estate.)

The stokers of the Internet economy certainly were paying attention. In late 1999, as the speculation engulfing Silicon Valley reached a fever pitch, its suitors converged on the Dead's tie-dyed empire. Microsoft was just one of the many firms offering obscene sums of money to GDP and the four surviving members of the Dead, looking to transform their "tape vault," with its several thousand hours of vintage performances, into an e-commerce gold mine. After weeks of stonewalling, word finally came from Dead bassist Phil Lesh in the form of an e-mailed posting on the Dead's own Internet bulletin board.

"I have come to the very sad conclusion that the Grateful Dead is no longer a band but a corporation whose board members no longer have a common vision," Lesh declared. "I am and always have been absolutely against venture-capital money buying or “licensing' the vault or Grateful Dead goodwill. This proposal is the reason for the serious rift between the other board members and myself." Referring to his bout with hepatitis C and his recent liver transplant, he added, "After having been given a new life, I refuse to spend it creating a new “business paradigm' with venture capitalists who are trying to squeeze yet more money out of the remains of a great experiment.... The gods have seen fit to enlighten me as to a potential life path, and I fully intend to follow my weird."

There's that word again.

The 61-year-old figure onstage at the Sunrise Musical Theater is about as unfashionable as a rock star can get. With his grown-out mullet haircut, eyeglasses perched low on the bridge of his nose, T-shirt, loose jeans, and sneakers, Phil Lesh looks less like a psychedelic warrior and more like a suburban dad who's wandered inside after mowing the lawn. Still there's nothing weary about his countenance. It's the evening before a two-night stand at Sunrise -- the kickoff for a Southern tour of Phil and Friends -- and Lesh looks positively giddy as he rehearses his new group inside the empty theater.

For more than three hours now, Lesh has been running the musicians through a batch of new songs whose lyrics were written by long-time Garcia collaborator Robert Hunter, endlessly tweaking tempos and arrangements as the stage is bathed in an ever-morphing succession of colors. Candace Brightman, the Dead's lighting designer, is testing her system, though the hand-maneuvered spotlights and projection-driven liquid effects she once oversaw at the Fillmore East are long gone. Now she simply taps a computer screen and voila! Green lightning bolts! White pyramids!

There's nothing explicitly new in the music being fashioned here, and not all of it works. Second guitarist Warren Haynes (on loan from the Allman Brothers) comes from the ham-fisted school of white bluesmen, and his overwrought soloing and crooning often induce an involuntary cringe. There are other moments that seem painfully stilted, recalling the nadir of Seventies prog-rock, as if the group were a jazz ensemble bloodlessly transcribing a rock tune.

Yet there are also patches that cohere as downright transcendent, as on "Rock and Roll Blues," which (goofy title aside) sets up a warm, country-tinged shuffle that physically envelops the listener like a security blanket. "I was born about an hour ago," Lesh sings as the guitarists mimic a pedal steel tone. "I didn't come here to give you advice/I come to whistle and strum my guitar/Sing for my supper and to drive my car/To love my woman for all I'm worth/To give full measure for my days on Earth." The mood is precisely that which biographer Carol Brightman has ascribed to the best of the Dead's songs: "Like no other popular music before or since, it spoke to the dailiness of getting by ... and it satisfied a longing for songs that come from somewhere, that have a past, if only a sense of the past."

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