by Richard Gehr
The sound of Jerry Garcia's guitar ("Row Jimmy," May 19, 1977) dances lightly around the Grateful Dead's legendary 2,500 square-foot tape vault as archivist David Lemieux gives a final listen to the next release in the lucrative Dick's Picks series of no-frills concert reissues. Meanwhile, across the hall in a rehearsal space, the band now known simply as the Dead is hard at work ironing the kinks out of "Touch of Grey" for a summer tour (which lands at the Gorge this Saturday). It will earn original band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann an estimated $2 million each.
But the new Dead -- filled out by guitarist Jimmy Herring, singer Joan Osborne and keyboardists Rob Barraco and Jeff Chimenti -- is a different animal from the acid-rock juggernaut that roamed the world for three decades. Where the Garcia-era Grateful Dead were an extended family committed to keeping as much of their business as possible in-house while challenging everything the record industry held sacred by sanctioning live taping and trading, the new model is a severely downsized and outsourced company run hand-in-hand with industry giants and with a keen eye on the bottom line.
It's a minor miracle that the band is together at all. After Garcia's death in 1995, the surviving members went their sad, separate ways. Kreutzmann, 57, moved to Hawaii to dive and surf and "get as healthy as I could" after a lifetime of rock-drummer excess. Lesh, 63, temporarily retired from performing. Hart, 59, and Weir, 55, continued working on their respective solo projects. Lesh hooked up with Weir and Hart for a 1998 tour as the Other Ones, then went solo the same year with the first of several touring versions of the band Phil and Friends.
Things went seriously askew, however, when Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee dangled promises of millions in potential dot-com revenue in front of the band for the prospective release of its new primary asset, the tape vault. "After I did some due diligence and spoke to some of the people who were investing and putting the deal together," Lesh says, "I didn't think it was a good idea, so I disagreed. When it was done anyway, I decided I didn't want to be involved in the business." The Grateful Dead, he posted on the group's Web site, "is no longer a band but a corporation whose board members no longer have a common vision."
The deal eventually fell through. "And since we weren't playing together as a band," Lesh says, "I just went off and made music with whoever I damn pleased."
Problem was, Lesh's, Weir's and Hart's bands weren't anywhere near as successful as the Other Ones, much less the Grateful Dead. "Seeing as how I was the one who walked away, I felt it was up to me to make an overture," Lesh says. "So I did. We met, we talked and we agreed that the business was unhealthy and needed an infusion of our energy to get it cleaned up and running right. We also agreed that we should really be playing music together."
Delivered atop a Harry Potter-themed float and attired in wizard wear, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann joined Lesh onstage for the first time since 1995, in Oakland, Calif., on New Year's Eve, 2001. Weir's band RatDog joined Phil and Friends on the road the next summer. The patch-up resulted in a two-day Other Ones festival at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin in August 2002 that happily reunited all four Dead members.
Hart insists that the current tour is "not a financial thing for us," yet the cutbacks and reorganization suggest that love and money are at least of equal import. In the past several months, the band has laid off 15 of its 30 permanent employees, outsourced Grateful Dead Productions and taken away half the tickets that used to be sold by its in-house ticketing service. The recipient of the new business is MusicToday, the Wal-Mart of jam-band merch.
The final member of the band to come around, Weir sounds equally disgusted and defensive about the new order. "I don't wanna have endless board meetings coming up with more kitsch for our business to sell in order to keep its nose above water," he says. "We weren't making a profit on the merchandise -- we were just feeding all those folks back there. They were all brethren, basically. That said, we provided them a good, long run, and I don't feel as bad as I might."
Past and present employees maintain that for all practical purposes, Lesh is leading the Dead, along with his wife, Jill. Where Garcia was a frustratingly uninvolved leader, the Leshes are seen as heavy-handed micromanagers complete with an enemies list. Nonetheless, Lesh says that laying off longtime employees from the "bloated" organization was "one of the hardest things I personally have ever had to do. I agonized over it."
The tour rolls along, meanwhile; tie-dye-decorated soundboard recordings of each show are available on CD for $22. Now that it no longer has a recording contract with Arista, the band is negotiating with the Grateful Dead's original label, Warner Bros., which could bring all the group's work -- both live and studio -- under a single banner for the first time in decades. And the Dead have been talking with Apple about selling content online.
"We can't look after this empire," Hart says. "We failed miserably at it. We made enemies of one another. Things like 'I'm not going to talk to you; I'll never be onstage with you again!' were said in anger. The only way for the Grateful Dead to survive is not to sell more merchandise but to make more music."
Copyright 2003, by Rolling Stone. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
Publication date: 09/18/03