Jul 23, 2021

October 1974: Death of the Dead

San Rafael -- We had been watching a horror movie on the BBC, and by the time we started upstairs, we were terrified. The house, a ready-for-demolition Victorian pile, creaked ominously as we climbed the steeply-angled servants' stairs. Sheet-shrouded furniture, familiar by day, loomed eerily from around corners. After a brief fling at rationality ("We're adults. This is silly."), followed almost immediately by a return of the willies ("I'll watch the door while you go to the john if you stand out in the hall when I go."), my housemate hit on the cure: "Put on a Grateful Dead album." It worked. Halfway through "Ripple," things already seemed brighter. Sure that no monsters lurked in the shadows, we went happily off to our rooms. 
They have always been good for what ails us, but now the Dead are dying. Three winters ago, they played a four-night stand at the Felt Forum. Though they could easily have swooped into New York and shaken their money-makers for only one night at the Garden, they chose to work the smaller hall. But last summer, they played only once - at umpty-thousand seat Roosevelt Stadium. And now they've announced that they will not be coming back to New York - or anywhere else - for a while. Maybe never. The Grateful Dead will no longer perform live, and the Golden Age of Boogie is over. 
"Listen, if there's one thing we learned in ten years on the road," said Ron Rakow of Grateful Dead Records, "it's that celebration is a valid form of revolution." He's wrong. There are any number of reasons why the Dead are going into hibernation, and one of them is that they tried to run their revolution as though it were a celebration. It didn't work. 
Their revolution - not the one that made us boogie on our chairs, but the one that made record company execs quake in theirs - was structural rather than stylistic. True to their mushy Marin principles, the Dead thought music belonged to the people, and they put their money where their minds were. Unlike the adaptive model of rich hippie-cynics - who usually perceived the absurdity of a rock'n'roll "industry" as clearly as they did - the Dead tried to do something about it. They created what was essentially a people's corporation - a family if you will. Rather than working through an established booking agency, they fostered their own (Out of Town Tours, Inc.) in a corner of their San Rafael office, and peopled it with Dead Heads. And their own travel agency (Fly-by-Night) in another. Finally - and most threateningly - they began their own, independently-distributed, record label. 
Out of Town Tours expired in a welter of accusations a few months ago, sending its director (Sam Cutler, of Altamont fame) back to Texas. The people who worked for him - all of them long-time members of the Dead family - were then visited by Hell's Angels and told never to work for the Dead again. "They said something would be coming along in about a month, and that we'd be taken care of," one recalled, "but that if we took any job connected with the Dead, they'd come after us." Far out, man. 
Fly-by-Night folded several weeks ago, and last week a for rent sign went up on the floor of offices that once housed the Dead's operations. The real estate agent says a group of dentists may take it. 
Yet the record company - the most genuinely revolutionary of the Dead's offspring - continues. In a decaying house forever safe from invading dentists, plans go on for a resurrection. The band will continue to record (and a good thing, too - "From Mars Hotel" is their best album since "American Beauty"), and may go back on the road sometime in 1976. If they can find a sane way to do it. 
That condition will be a hard one to meet. Victimized by their own success, the Dead got caught in a spiral of working larger halls so that they could make enough money to support their corporate family, which meant they needed exponentially increasing amounts of equipment (800 lbs. in 1965; 6000 in 1968; 30,000 in 1973; 56,000 now) and more people to transport it and set it up. Which meant more overhead, hence a need to play larger halls. Which meant more equipment... 
All of which was compounded by the legendary disorganization of their entropic road crew. To some extent, their 32-hour set-up time was a function of the complicated equipment and the band's perfectionist zeal. But it also reflected the lingering inability of acid casualties to concentrate on the job - any job - at hand. Besides, who's to give orders in an anarchist family? 
So the band found itself working harder and harder in its attempt to give huge audiences the same experience that they used to share with small ones - with no discernible increase in net income. Though about one-third of their income came from record royalties, almost all their enormous overhead (well over $100,000 a month) went to touring. Six musicians up on stage, not having as much fun as they used to, supporting people who often acted less like family than like superannuated spare-change artists. No wonder the party's over. 
They talk now, bravely, of alternatives. Perhaps buy raw land eight places in the world, then travel from one spot to another, setting up and playing for as long as people want to hear them...or maybe four-walling the group in small halls for a month at a time...or...or... But for now, it's over. Next weekend's Winterland concerts will be the last. 
Say this for the Dead: they tried. And say too that we will miss them.
(by Geoffrey Stokes, from the "Rock Notes" column, Village Voice, October 31, 1974) 


  1. Stokes was a Village Voice writer then living in San Rafael, and he sent the Voice a local report on the ending of Dead tours. Naturally as a fan he's not happy about it: "the Golden Age of Boogie is over."
    Though he mentions the Dead's role as comfort music, here he focuses more on their social role creating a new 'family' model for the record industry. That seems to be going down in flames, as their booking agency crumbles, their acid-casualty "entropic road crew" can barely handle the equipment, and the larger venues they require just mean more work for less fun. So far their record label's still going, and he holds out hope for future albums; but he doesn't see "a sane way" they can keep touring in '76. The Dead's "mushy Marin principles" have met defeat, and the music industry no longer trembles at the Dead's independent "revolution."
    He's well-informed (I think some of the info comes from newsletters & personal conversations). Writing for the Voice, he can skip all the background about the Dead's '60s past and talk about their current importance trying to keep the revolution alive in the '70s. It's an interesting look at the mood when no one knew whether the Dead would come out of hibernation again.

    We'll be spending some time in 1974. Posting will continue to be slow for a while.