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Dark Star, Bright Future

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

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."

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."


The current finance-related rift between Lesh and the other surviving members of the Dead -- Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir -- isn't the first time the group's anti-materialist image has been threatened. Immediately after Garcia's death, the last of the singer's three wives, Deborah Koons Garcia, cut off monthly payments that were part of a five-million-dollar divorce settlement with ex-wife Carolyn Adams "Mountain Girl" Garcia. Koons claimed Adams had tricked a drug-addled Jerry into signing the settlement papers two years earlier.

Daughter Annabelle Walker Garcia took a more philosophical view of Mountain Girl's subsequent lawsuit to reinstate payments: "The problem is that Mom and Dad had a real hippie relationship, and you cannot explain a Sixties relationship in legal terms."

Lesh certainly seemed to agree. Appearing in court only after being subpoenaed against his will, Lesh was asked by the judge to describe the nature of Garcia's marriages. Citing a novel twist on the Fifth Amendment, Lesh grinned and replied his testimony was unreliable since he'd spent the past 30 years in "one big, smoky haze."

Lesh was back in court again only three days before arriving at Sunrise, this time testifying on behalf of custom guitar-maker Bill Irwin (the craftsman behind Garcia's famed "Wolf" axe), and against his onetime bandmates. Though Garcia's own will clearly states, "I give all my guitars made by Douglas Erwin [sic], to Douglas Erwin" (the only nonfamily member named in the will), the Dead's estate has so far refused to do so. They claim "the Wolf" is communal property, and Irwin's only intention is to sell it for a seven-figure sum to the highest bidder.

Discussing this matter is not on the agenda as Lesh settles onto a couch next to Kulchur in a backstage dressing room at Sunrise. Post-transplant, he explains, "I look at everything differently now. The things that aren't important just seem to slide away." You can disagree with people on a business matter and still care deeply for them, he adds. Music is what he wants to talk about, and Lesh turns absolutely cosmic as he delves into his art.

"Music comes from the gods," he says solemnly. "If we have a group mind that's in the right mode, we can open the right door, open a pipeline to that dimension." His eyes light up, and he begins gathering steam: "The music that this band makes is a living organism! It thinks, it wants to grow, it wants to perceive, it wants to be solid, it wants to manifest. Our task is to make ourselves open enough to receive this manifestation and transmit it."

Digesting this, Kulchur tactfully inquires as to what substances Lesh might have been indulging in of late. "Oh no, the roadies have the bacchanalia," he laughs. Pointing to the bottle of Pellegrino before him, he smiles: "This is big-time for me now -- fizzy water."

Yet within this methodology lies a pointed critique, one that implies his departure from his former bandmates is based on aesthetic differences more than anything else. "I don't want to speak unkindly of Grateful Dead," he says, choosing his words carefully. "But it was a very laissez-faire operation on all levels." In contrast, he continues, "This band is motivated. There's a desire on everyone's part to open themselves up and play things they've never played before, to play outside themselves." His eyes start twinkling again, and he adds, wryly arching his eyebrows: "That's a new experience for me." For the last few years of his performances with the Dead, he says, "The feeling I got from the crowd was, “It's good to be here, but there must be something more.'"


The gathering of the tribes for Saturday's Sunrise show is a mellower affair than the freewheeling party that greeted the Dead at the Miami Arena in 1994, the last time Lesh was in South Florida. Several generations of fans are on display, from teens tumbling out of ramshackle VW buses to a bushy-haired driver piloting a gleaming Porsche whose license plates invoke a Garcia ballad: BRD SONG. The bazaar of homemade pipes, T-shirts, and "veggie Jerry rolls" that filled the parking lots around the arena is considerably toned down here, though there still are plenty of bongo players and a horde of dogs that would look just swell sporting bandannas.

Inside the theater all the familiar types are on display: a woman who silently frugs away in the aisle until the band eases into the Dead chestnut "Wharf Rat" -- at which point she throws her arms skyward and hollers, "Thank you, God!" A beefy fellow who keeps bellowing, "Phiiillll," as if he were cheering on a baseball player. To Kulchur's right a young man meticulously squeezes out three drops of acid from an eyedropper onto his palm and then slobbers his tongue the length of his hand. "It's more precise this way," he explains.

The most interesting reaction is unfolding directly on stage left, where a flock of the band's own children sit on high-backed chairs, taking it all in. For much of the time the kids act as if they're at a school assembly: murmuring to one another, passing notes, staring out bemused at the cheering audience. At one point the band suddenly drops into the opening strummed chords of a beloved Dead number. "If you get confused, listen to the music play," Lesh sings as the houselights flash on, and the crowd roars in response. A band member's daughter leans over and nudges one of Lesh's teenage sons. She shakes her head, laughing, and points over to Papa Lesh -- now beaming from ear to ear, seemingly ready to take off into the air. If you squinted, it almost looked as if she were saying, "Your dad is so weird!"


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