You’d see them at every show. If you’ve been to dead shows, you’ve seen the droves of “tour heads”- people who made their living, their home, on the road with the Grateful Dead. Or maybe you’d just see them on the news when the Dead rolled through your town? Perhaps you heard about your neighbor’s nephew who blew off his scholarship to UConn to sell “Kynd Veggie Burritos”? Ever wonder how they did it? Why they did it? Or what they’re doing now?
We’ve got one story from the golden era of the good ol’ Grateful Dead….
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled from your hometown to see the band?
That was actually probably the farthest from home I ever saw them, although technically I didn’t travel from my hometown to “see the band”. I was on vacation with my family. We were visiting my cousins. My cousin Jill was a deadhead and actually had an extra ticket to the show. I think I was maybe 14. She was 19. My parents reluctantly let me go with her and her boyfriend at the time. I think they still regret making that call (laughter).
You obviously caught the “bug”. Was it an instant thing once you got to that show?
I loved it right away. And I mean I can’t even say that I was a casual fan or I know a few songs from the radio. I literally had never heard a dead song in my life. I mean, I’m sure I heard Casey Jones or Truckin’ or something somewhere along the way, but literally went in with no clue. Not a clue.
So, did you intend to see them again?
I intended to go home and buy all their records. I intended to go home and find out when they’d be in my area. I intended to do whatever I could to make myself a part of what I had just experienced.
What was the next time you were able to see them?
Well, I was in 9th grade so my parents were not exactly on board. I definitely adopted the lifestyle. My clothes changed, my friends changed, the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I turned into a complete deadhead. But my parents wouldn’t let me go to any shows. It wasn’t until I was a senior, yes a fucking senior, that they agreed to let me go. And I know you’re thinking, why didn’t you just go anyway? But I was actually a total goodie two shoes when it came to stuff like that. But anyway, I talked them into letting me go to Hershey (in 85), and my older sister and my cousin went with so they couldn’t say anything. After that I knew that as soon as I turned 18, I was gone. I did the whole summer of 86 tour with Dylan and Petty. And pretty much every spring, summer, and fall tour from 86-95 after that.
So, how many dead shows would you say you’ve gone to (whether or not you got in)?
I wish I would have kept stubs for everything so I had an exact number. I know a lot of deadheads keep count, most probably. I never did. My best guess though is about 300. Although now that you said whether or not I got in, I’m gonna say it is more than that. We worked the lot for a lot of those so we didn’t go in to every show we went to.
So 300 you went inside for and many more that you did not.
When you say you “worked the lot”, what did you do?
We (my 2 friends and long time tour buddies from high school) started out selling vegan banana bread and bottles of water. We eventually started selling beer. There was more money to be made there. We used to sell Sammy Smith’s Oatmeal Stouts. Wow. I haven’t seen one of those in forever. We sold Pale Ale’s and a few others too. We may or may not have sold “other” things along the way, but we kept it as legit as possible for the most part. My friend Gin did hair wraps. She did them for years and years and years. If you ever got hair wraps on dead lot, there’s a good chance Gin gave you one.
And that was enough money to sustain you?
Definitely. We had a good system. The first 2 or 3 shows of the tour, we’d sleep in the van. We’d shoot to get in to 2 out of every 3 shows. Sometimes we’d do straight up trades for tickets. Other times we’d just try to make enough cash to get in at least 2 nights out every 3 night run, and in the summer, we’d basically shoot to get into very stadium show. Easier to get in, plus it’s usually one at a time, so why bother heading to that town if you’re not gonna go in. Not like they’ll be another show there the next night (usually). After sleeping in the van for a couple of nights, on an off night, a travel day or a night we didn’t get in, we’d get a motel. Shower, do laundry, count money, get supplies, all that. We definitely had a good run. Never went more than a week without showering or washing clothes and stuff. I know a week probably sounds like a long time right? (laughs) Trust me, it’s not when you’re on tour!
So, how did you typically travel from show to show?
In our van. It was Gin’s brother’s van. He sold it to us for really cheap when he went away to school. We didn’t even use it for a year because we were still in school. We saved money and fixed it up. We pulled out the back seats and put a bed set up and like these drawer like things. And a little fridge. There was only 3 of us like 75% of the time, so it was perfect.
What about the other 25%?
Well, we’d have people come out with us occasionally. Sometimes we’d meet people who needed rides or whatever. I know it sounds unsafe, but back then it was quite different. We’d give somebody a ride from like Foxboro to Buffalo for like 10 bucks and some pot and maybe some of whatever they were making or selling. It was very communal, very barter system-esque.
If you were living “on tour” what were you doing in the “off-season” (the few times a year when there was no shows and no GD tour)?
There wasn’t much of an off-season. People think of the 3 tours a year. But they always played west coast shows in preparation for their tours so you’d have those, plus the Chinese New Year run, the New Year’s shows, there were Jerry band shows. I think we’d spend time at the beach or in the mountains. You know like at the end of a tour we might say, let’s take off to Santa Cruz and hang there for a few weeks until it’s time to head out for wherever. I myself went home every year I was on tour from Thanksgiving until like a day or two after Christmas.
What did your family think about it?
Um, they had a lot of real concerns at first. They were pretty pissed. But they did come around. They were grudgingly agreeable for the first couple of years. By the time I had been on tour for 5 or 6 years it was like old news. They worried like all parents do, but they would have done that if I was away at college or backpacking through Europe or whatever it would be. It even got to the point where they’d tell our relatives where I actually was instead of on vacation with my girlfriends or visiting friends in whatever state I might be in at the time.
Why did you do it? What made it worthwhile?
The music drew me in instantly. The people. The sights and the smells were intoxicating, literally and figuratively. I saw Jerry on that stage and I felt alive. I felt like I was literally flying around outside of my body and watching myself have an amazing time. And I was totally sober in that moment. After that it just became my way of life. Like anyone else has a daily routine, a way that they live, that was my way. It was worthwhile because I was happy. I was traveling and working and seeing amazing music and thinking for myself, and problem solving and doing all the things anyone else does, just in a different environment, and dare I say, having a hell of a lot more fun in the process! I learned so much. I met so many people. I saw so many things, so many sights and so many beautiful places.
How did your life change when Jerry passed away?
The summer 95 tour was pretty bad. I mean, as far as Jerry looking just exhausted. But also because the vibe was so crappy. People on the lot were getting robbed on the regular by other people on the lot. You didn’t know who to trust. There was this infiltration of kids who were not there for the right reasons at all. I think the scene was imploding. And I think it kind of had to. Between Jerry’s health and the gate crashers, and the accidents, and the drugs, I mean like hard drugs that were all over that had never been a noticeable issue before (at least not with our crowd), it was just a downward spiral. The band had so many people relying on them. I think Jerry dying was the only way it could have, or would have ended. For me personally, I was crushed. Gin and Stacey and I came home after Chicago and planned to do wash and hang out with our other friends and families and head out for fall tour. When the news came down we were shocked and crushed but not like surprised, if that makes sense. We took like a week or two to just talk and figure stuff out. Stacey decided to sell all her stuff and movie to Santa Cruz. She still lives there actually. She got married and works in some art studio or gallery out there as a receptionist. She has 2 kids. Gin and I stayed in Jersey. I went back to school in 97. I went to Temple and got a teaching degree. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do. I would up moving to Costa Rica and teaching english in a little school that was run by a guy that I used to know from tour. Crazy small world, right? I lived there for 3 years. That’s where I met my husband. Things changed a lot after Jerry died, for all of us. Gin kind of stayed in that tour life. She gravitated towards the Phish scene and some other jam bands. I’d see her at shows from time to time. I haven’t seen her in probably 10 years now though. I’ve tried to find her. She’s not on Facebook or anything.
If you could go back and do it all again, is there anything you’d change?
Probably not. I might have tried better to keep in touch with friends from tour after Jerry died. I mean, I spent years with those people. Literally every day in close quarters. For a decade. And when Jerry died, it all just went poof! I can’t say I’d change much else. It was a great life while it lasted!