Dead Heads Grateful for Big Treat : Nostalgia Rides High at the Band’s Southwestern Gig

Times Staff Writer

Among Dead Heads, Bob Otto is an original: he went to his first concert before the Dead even called themselves the Grateful Dead. Now he is the patriarch of an entire Dead Head clan--three generations of Dead fans.

Last week, the clan took a few days off from work to celebrate Otto’s son’s birthday over three days of Dead concerts in Oakland. Then Otto and his son, daughter, and 7-week-old grandson headed south for the Sunday afternoon outdoor concert at Southwestern College.

“It’s a way to get rid of your hang-ups, your headaches,” said Otto, 46, who runs a sound-equipment business in Southern California. “The establishment’s way works when it comes to making a living and financial independence. This works as relaxation.”

Full-time Dead Heads, part-timers, closet Dead Heads and virgins poured in Sunday to the southwesternmost campus in the United States in convoys of painted school buses and rolling tie-dyed T-shirt shops, the sounds of bootleg tapes filling the air.

They began arriving Friday, many straight from Oakland, checking into local campgrounds and being chased from the college parking lots. By Saturday night, they were permitted to pitch camp on the asphalt. There were parties, skateboarding and forays to the 7-Eleven.


Sunday afternoon, the 20-year-old band that became famous in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love and has reportedly played more sellout concerts than any rock group, took the stage before a crowd estimated at 14,000 in DeVore Stadium.

From above, the floor of the stadium became a roiling sea of bodies--men in bandannas and straight-haired women in tie-dyed shirts merged in floppy, free-form dance, the hot breeze spiked with smells of barbecue and dope.

Men in wheelchairs along the periphery bobbed in rhythm. Babies in diapers rode on parents’ shoulders. A white-haired woman watched through binoculars in a yoga position under the football scoreboard. A few spectators turned pale and quietly passed out.

“It’s a chance to Bozo and Bozoette with someone.”

“You start to tingle! That’s what it’s all about!”

“You know, you only need five words: Mellow. Loving. Further. Why not?”

Many said they came for the music--the country, bluesy, folksy rock, epitomized in songs like “Truckin’ ” and “Uncle John’s Band.” Several said they liked it because it was “American” and “not processed.” Others liked it simply because it was The Dead.

Many said they came for the crowd--described as mellow even by some among the phalanx of football players dressed as security guards. People said they liked the group’s diversity, tolerance and lack of inhibition. Like a big picnic, one said.

“It’s the people. Yeah, definitely, it’s the brotherhood,” said Greg Lister, 21, who explained that he spreads love and joy for a living. “You know what I mean, people looking after each other. You know, sharing. All that good stuff.”

“You go to see Ma- don -na,” sneered a man who identified himself only as Brent. “And everybody’s drones.”

All along the quarter mile from the parking lots to the stadium Dead Heads and others hawked the Dead-abilia that some use to support their peregrinations from concert to concert and state to state.

There were Dead tapes, Dead decals and bumper stickers. “Supposedly worn by members of the band,” crowed a man displaying six Dead T-shirts on hangers. Generations of T-shirts loped past: Deadercise. High Sierra Dead. Club Dead.

Lori Wahrenberger, 24, a Dead Head from Pittsburgh relocated to Los Angeles, said she always wanted to grow up in the ‘60s: “It seemed new and young. There was a lot of youth in the government--Kennedy was young. There was a lot of civil rights.”

She figures she has been to at least 100 Grateful Dead concerts. At one point, she said, she traveled for several months with other Dead Heads, following the band and selling Dead bumper stickers for some spare change.

They check with the East and West Coast Dead concert hot lines, catch rides, camp out and make friends in every city, she said. She recalled 5,000 Dead Heads once descending upon Boise, Idaho. It is an education, she said; eventually, she’ll get serious and go into radio.

“They don’t feel like selling out and working,” she said of Dead Heads’ motivations. “And you learn a lot spiritually, and about how to work with people.”

Christie Ferguson, who was born four years after the Grateful Dead was formed, spends her entire $10 a week allowances on the Dead. A high-school student in Palos Verdes, she heard them in Colorado last week--during a carefully timed visit to her father.

“Because they preach nonviolence,” she explained. “They’re happy with their lives.”

“Some of these kids are 16 years old,” marveled Barry Reed, a bemused 37-year-old glass-blowing instructor from San Marcos. “They must have gotten into encyclopedias to learn to dress like this.”

Over the years, seasoned Dead Heads said, little has changed. The audience has broadened and diversified, the drug use has diminished. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s leonine mane has turned silvery gray. “Jerry’s got a little heavier,” Reed conceded. Just a fact of life.

Time and circumstance have edged some old timers into semi-retirement.

Michael Hinson, 40, traveled as a Dead Head in the mid-1970s but cut down his intake to about one concert a year. “Because there is the rest of your life to get on with,” he explained apologetically. “That’s a controversial statement in itself around here.”

Bob Otto figures he’s been to more than 300 concerts since that original Warlocks concert in Boston back in the mid-1960s. In the meantime, he said, he’s gone from hippie to cocaine addict to reformed addict to successful businessman. But he hasn’t dropped the Dead.

Now his son and son’s girlfriend, his daughter and her husband, and their young son are all in the Dead Head clan. “I think they get the same thing out of it that I do,” he said. “High. Hopefully, naturally.”

Nearby, Natasha Goodwin, 22, flagged down a Dead Head she had met in the Phone Mart in Westwood. “There’s Dead Heads everywhere,” she explained to a stranger. “And it’s instant bond when you meet.”