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Psychedelic Ambiance of the ‘60s Brought Back to Life in Club Dead

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During the late ‘70s, Encino investment broker Ron Carmona was a guitarist with the Dreadful Empties. After gaining popularity in the San Luis Obispo area, where most of the band attended college, the group dispersed in 1981. “We tried to become respectable,” Carmona said, with a laugh.

When he heard about Club Dead, Carmona, 30, wanted more than anything to reunite the Dreadful Empties--if only for a single show. After a bit of coaxing, his four former colleagues agreed. They’ll be live at Club Dead on Sept. 7, along with their original sound man.

“Getting back together has been real exciting,” Carmona said. “Even though we all live in different cities, and we don’t really have time, and we don’t get paid for this--it’s worth it. I only wish I had long hair again.”

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Ever since Club Dead came to the Metro in March, “Deadheads” around town are grateful. Those ever-loyal fans of the Grateful Dead sound have been congregating every Wednesday night at the Canoga Park nightclub. But it’s not only the music that brings out 150 to 200 enthusiasts a week. As one fan put it, it’s “the entire scene”--the music, the dancing, the people, the new psychedelic bands, the vendors, the chance to re-create, on a small scale, the atmosphere of a live Dead concert.

“It’s great,” said Craig Marshall, 36, of Hawthorne, explaining that it filled the time between Dead concerts. “It keeps us going.” Of the 80 to 100 Grateful Dead concerts a year, only about nine dates are in Southern California, but fans also travel to performances in the Bay Area.

In August, 1986, Ken Kulber began promoting events featuring bands that specialize in Grateful Dead music or similar sounds. In November, 1987, he started booking such shows at the Country Club in Reseda, then moved the weekly club to the Metro when he cut a more favorable financial deal.

“Most clubs now cater to heavy metal bands. So I wanted to give Deadheads in the area the chance to hear the type of music we wanted to hear. There are a lot of us out there. The Grateful Dead had 60,000 at their concert in Anaheim,” said Kulber, 30, who is a videotape editor when he’s not promoting concerts.

Tie-dyed T-shirts abound at Club Dead, as do gauze skirts and jewelry made of tiny beads--all reminiscent of the ‘60s counterculture. Just as at the Dead concerts, vendors sell these trinkets and fashions at the club. The dancers go barefoot; men often have hair past their shoulders, and onlookers peer through granny glasses.

Many in attendance weren’t even born when the Grateful Dead first appeared on the San Francisco music scene more than 20 years ago. Most of the audience is in their late teens to mid-20s, but the over-30 crowd is well-represented, too. A couple of minutes in Club Dead, and it seems as if not much has changed over the past two decades--but the new Deadheads say it has.

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The beverage of choice here is beer--a definite departure from the “electric Kool-Aid” (fruit juice spiked with LSD) that was frequently consumed at Dead concerts in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. In fact, many Deadheads these days say they are drug-free.

“Grateful Dead concerts still have some of the negative connotations. But the band themselves discourages people from using drugs and alcohol. A lot of Deadheads get defensive, because they don’t use drugs. Or if they did in the past, they don’t anymore. So it’s a misinformed public that thinks all of us are using drugs and even alcohol. It seems the newer, younger kids know more about what’s going on, and there’s not as much open drug experimentation,” Kulber said.

And Dead cover tunes, including the popular “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin,’ ” aren’t the only songs heard at Club Dead. Of the 20 or so local bands that Kulber rotates, some like Pur’p’l Tur’t’lz prefer writing and performing their own original music. Performers from the past, such as Strawberry Alarm Clock, also are booked; two of the band’s original members will be featured Sept. 14 at the club.

Of the bands that specialize in re-creating Dead tunes, the musicians are anything but ‘60s revolutionaries. Marshall, who plays guitar with Sugar Cubensis, a band that recently performed at Club Dead, has been a mailman for 17 years. He’s also a single parent with a teen-age daughter, who doesn’t exactly appreciate the music he loves.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the steadfast devotion of Deadheads. Marshall, who has been sporadically following the Grateful Dead since 1966, said his commitment to them is a “joyful addiction.” On more than one occasion, he hasn’t hesitated to call in sick, just so he could attend a Dead concert. “You never know how long they’ll be together,” he said.

Marshall, 36, decided to form Sugar Cubensis about three months ago after hearing a local band jam and thinking to himself, “I can do that.” About one-third to one-half of the music his band plays is Dead music, he said. The rest is improvisation.

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Other bands set to play the club are Realize and Starkasm One Destiny on Aug. 24 and Mason’s Children and Electric Blue on Sept. 21. “I’m trying to give all the bands that fit along these lines a chance,” Kulber said. “If the crowd likes them, we bring them back.”

And although Kulber describes most of the groups that play at Club Dead as “garage bands,” club attendees don’t seem to mind.

Steve Zeitz, 23, who spends a good deal of time on the road with the Dead, said, “I love these psychedelic dungeons.” Before heading up to Monterey for a Dead concert, Zeitz recently visited Club Dead and danced his way into exhilaration. Spinning ecstatically helps him “center my energy and channel it upward,” Zeitz explained. “Dancing is the extreme meditation.”

Still others at Club Dead come mainly for the company. Deanna Slais, 19, said she went to her first Grateful Dead concert about 4 1/2 years ago. What she liked best was the way Deadheads acted toward one another. “The people were so friendly,” said Slais, a secretary from Canoga Park. “They were so nice. They would all come up to you and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ ”

Now she goes to Club Dead every week because she finds the same camaraderie. “The people are so groovy,” she said.

For those Deadhead critics who say such fans are caught in a time warp, Kulber insists that myth couldn’t be further from the truth. “We’re living in the ‘80s but using the music of the ‘60s,” he said. “We just love the music--and always will.”

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The Metro is at 7230 Topanga Canyon Blvd. Doors open at 8:30 Wednesday nights, and admission is $5. For upcoming entertainment information call the Club Dead hot line at (818) 999-5954.

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