COVER STORY : In the Wake of the Flood : Deadheads are taking Jerry Garcia’s death personally. The prospect of Life After Jerry is most troubling to younger fans, many of whom embraced the Dead as a substitute family.

<i> Patrick Goldstein and Steve Hochman are regular contributors to Calendar. </i>

We didn’t invent the Deadheads.

They invented themselves.

--Jerry Garcia


Longtime Deadheads all, Marty Jacobs and a bunch of his Bay Area friends got together the night Jerry Garcia died to swap stories and listen to favorite concert tapes. As the evening wore on, with everyone trying to grasp the painful concept of Life After Jerry, talk turned to the notion of reincarnation.


The way Jacobs saw it, up in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, Jimi Hendrix, Pigpen, Janis Joplin and Bill Graham were sitting around smoking cigars, eager to celebrate the arrival of an old friend.

“I think it was a comforting fantasy for all of us,” said Jacobs, the 40-year-old owner of Graphic Traffic, an Emoryville- based T-shirt design firm. “The idea was that when Jerry finally shows up, they hand him a cigar and say, ‘Hey, we’ve been expecting you. What took you so long?’ ”

Deadheads, the lost tribe of America’s youth, are taking Jerry Garcia’s death, and the subsequent cancellation of the band’s summer and fall tour, personally.

“I owe a lot to Jerry--he’s always been there for me through the years,” said Christa Forslund, a skinny 18-year-old from San Gabriel who’d gone on the road following the Dead in recent summers. “He brought me out of a lot of bad things. He was more than an entertainer. He’s been a friend to a lot of us.”

Few veteran Deadheads were surprised to hear of Garcia’s death Aug. 9, apparently of a heart attack. Diabetic, overweight, a heavy smoker and often battling heroin addiction, the 53-year-old guitarist seemed in uncertain health in recent years. But to a lot of younger fans, Garcia’s death came as a shock. Alienated from their parents and society, they embraced the Dead as a substitute family.

“For a lot of fans, Jerry was the Good Father,” explained Suzanne Shayne, a Studio City-based psychotherapist whose husband was a longtime Deadhead. “The Dead was a healthy family where you could be different and express your own individuality but still be very bonded and connected.


“To join a big crowd and enjoy great music--it taps into a reservoir of good feeling. There are very few institutions in our culture that can offer that.”

Shayne warned that many Deadheads may suffer severe withdrawal pangs during the next few months.

“Once the sharp edge of pain dies down, I think fans will feel very disoriented. They’re going to feel orphaned. There could be some heavy depression, drug use, maybe even suicides.”

Garcia’s death turned out to be unusually personal to Shayne. Her husband, Sherwin, who died of cancer at age 59 in December, had been a great Garcia fan; Shayne still has a collection of her husband’s Dead T-shirts in her closet. And so it seemed somehow soothing for her that Garcia died on Aug. 9, her husband’s birthday.

“They were so similar, spiritually and physically, it was as if they were twin spirits,” she said. “So when Jerry died on his birthday, I thought, ‘Hey, now they’re together again.’ ”

Tony Agrusa wasn’t ashamed to admit it. “I spent all Wednesday crying,” said the 34-year-old prison guard at the California Men’s Colony. “It was the first good cry I’d had in three years. I’d hear a song I really care about and I’d just lose it.” Agrusa’s pals have nicknamed him “5000,” a somewhat inflated reference to his collection of Dead tapes and albums.


Actually, Agrusa considers himself something of a closet Deadhead. “My fellow guards aren’t especially into the band. In my work environment, it’s Rush Limbaugh who’s considered God, not Jerry.” (The day Garcia died, Limbaugh offered the following tribute: “When you strip it all away, Jerry Garcia destroyed his life on drugs. And yet he’s being honored, like some godlike figure. Our priorities are out of whack, folks.”)

For Agrusa, coping with Life After Jerry has been made easier by an outpouring of Deadhead support: “I keep getting calls from people with names I didn’t recognize. So I’d say, ‘Now where do I know you from?’ And they’d say, ‘The Dead show in ’91.’ And I’d go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

As news of Garcia’s death spread, Dead followers sought solace at vigils in public sites, chanting and dancing and reminiscing about their favorite shows. Wandering among the faithful gathered at Venice Beach last weekend, you felt you’d slipped into an alternate universe. Down by Ocean Front Walk, about 600 people--babies and grandparents, sinewy young skaters and paunchy, middle-aged hippies--formed a big circle, dancing to the steady beat from a crowd of young drummers.

One middle-aged man proudly held aloft a “Vintage Dead” LP, featuring live Fillmore Auditorium jams from 1966. “Some guy just gave it to me,” he explained. “He said I was the one person he knew who still had a record player.”

Vendors snaked through the crowd, selling “In Memory of Jerry Garcia” T-shirts and bumper stickers. “Free card reading with every Garcia T-shirt!” cried one woman, waving a stack of Tarot cards. “Free fruit! Free fruit!” heralded a couple of teen-age guys, passing out clumps of red grapes. “It’s not fruit if it’s not free.” The bases of several palm trees were adorned with makeshift shrines, featuring photos of Garcia, red roses, incense, candles, spiritual texts, American flags. When one of the candles toppled over and started a fire in the grass, a shirtless roller-skater smothered it with his skates. On his bare chest he displayed a hand-painted valediction: “He’s Gone.”

Along the nearby bike path, fans had scrawled messages on a winding scroll of drafting paper, as if inscribing messages in a dead friend’s high school yearbook. “Thanks Jerry, the long strange trip was all worth it,” read one. “Meet you in heaven. Love, Eric.”


At the edge of the crowd, Larry Marshall was explaining why he’d doubled his Dead concert-going in recent years. When the band canceled its 1986 shows in Ventura after Garcia lapsed into a diabetes-related coma, the 40-year-old video producer was forced to confront the unsettling possibility of Life After Jerry. So when Garcia recovered (his first words upon regaining consciousness were reportedly “I’m not Beethoven”), Marshall made a point to see 20 shows a year, funding his cross-country treks by hawking burritos and banana bread outside the arenas.

“I got serious about going to every show because you didn’t know how long it would last,” he said. “In fact, I started going to the gym in the late ‘80s, working out in my tie-dyes and listening to Dead tapes, ‘cause I wanted to have the energy to keep going to the shows.”

Gail Harter burst into tears when she heard the news. “I cried the rest of the day. I could cry right now,” said Harder, a 44-year-old English teacher at Marymount High School, who has been going to about 30 shows a year for the past decade. In a reversal of the usual order of things, it was Harder’s students who comforted her in the days after Garcia’s death.

“The kids who were fans have been calling or coming over to talk about it,” she said. “It was hard for them--they didn’t know what to feel. I told them, ‘It’s OK, I know how you feel. You feel [expletive]!’

“Losing Jerry just broke my heart. I lit candles and took calls from friends all over the country. Even my dad, who’s 72, called to say he was sorry. I had one friend call and say, ‘I understand. I’d feel the same if Barbra Streisand died.’ ”

Harter said Deadheads are now truly a lost tribe. “Where are we going to go? There was always a time of year when I’d gather my money and go to the shows and groove with other people.” She laughed. “Excuse me for using such a cliched word! But that’s what makes everyone feel so strange now--where’s the tribe going to go?”

That’s what Deadheads say they’ll miss the most: the communal spirit of the band’s shows. A Dead concert was an Edenic pilgrimage, to some a throwback to ‘60s idealism, to others a pagan ritual radiating the celebratory verve of a Renaissance fair.


“A Dead show represented a place where people who didn’t fit in anywhere else could fit in,” said John Miller, a 25-year-old UCLA grad student who got hooked on the Dead after seeing them in high school. “When you’d meet a Deadhead from any other place, you had a common bond.”

From the late ‘60s into the ‘90s, people coming of age bought into the system: going to law school, getting BMW convertibles, making mortgage payments, subscribing to Vanity Fair. But the hard-core Deadheads stayed in tune with the Dead’s Summer of Love spirit, packing up and going off on tour with the band for weeks or months at a time, bartering for food and concert tickets, crashing in ancient VW buses that wheezed down the highway like huge refrigerators on wheels.

“Deadheads are really a nomadic tribe of flower children who felt they didn’t need to live their life in a materialist way,” explained filmmaker Andy Behar, who spent a year with the band’s followers making “Tie-Died,” an upcoming documentary about Deadheads. “We were at a show in Eugene [Ore.] where if you got rid of the autos, you could’ve been in the 15th Century. Women would walk around looking like wood sprites, singing songs about trusting Mother Nature. You really felt you were in another time.”

However, peace and love didn’t always reign supreme. Several shows were marred by confrontations with police as more fans came to concerts without tickets, convinced that the legendary “miracles” would somehow bring them entry to the show.

In 1990, a young girl on LSD drove away from a Cal State Dominguez Hills performance, crashing into a car and killing a pregnant woman, prompting a ban on Dead shows at that facility. Other venues also banned the band in recent years, mostly in response to problems with unticketed, unruly fans.

The last leg of the band’s most recent tour featured a clash between ticket-less fans and police outside an Indiana concert. The incident prompted a stern letter from the Dead warning fans to police themselves or face the prospect of the band’s being forced to retire from the road.


But Deadheads prefer to accentuate the positive, noting that once a concert started, good vibes ruled. “That’s what we’re all going to miss--the sense of adventure in the Dead’s music,” said David Brooks, a 36-year-old Portland, Ore., advertising copywriter who honeymooned with his wife in San Francisco, only revealing to her after they arrived that they would be attending three nights of Dead shows at the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland.

“A Dead concert was like getting on a ride and not knowing where the ride was going. When they were improvising, it was like watching a great painter creating a new canvas every night.”

During the work week, Bernie Zaia, 31, is an investment banker for Los Angeles-based Barrington Associates. But in his free time he’s a Deadhead, attending 60 shows in the past two years.

“It was a total escape for me, to check out--just get away from the stress,” he said. “I had this terrible fear that Jerry wasn’t going to be around forever, so I felt I had to see every show. I wanted to have those experiences inside me.”

Zaia says he’s not in mourning: “It’s weird how different things can be. I was very sad when Kurt Cobain died. He was so young and so talented, and he died before he’d really lived his life. But with Jerry--he cheated nobody. He gave us what we’d asked for 300 times over.”

As the band’s following grew during the past decade, it became apparent that you didn’t need to drop out to remain a Deadhead. Die-hard fans plugged into professional life, still taking time to “check out” for a week’s worth of spring shows here, a long weekend of summer shows there. There’s no generation gap with Deadheads--graying ‘60s hippies swayed to the music next to teen-age girls in tie-dyed skirts. Former Capitol Records President Hale Milgrim, a lifelong Deadhead, estimated that at recent shows the majority of the audience was made up of fans in their late teens and 20s.


Said Evan Kaplan, a 24-year-old Los Angeles messenger who says he’s seen 75 shows in eight years: “I’d be standing next to a 45-year-old businessman, and he’d pass me a joint and it would be cool--you weren’t any different from the old-timers at the shows. You’d often see three generations at a show--a father and his daughter and maybe one of her babies.”

Dr. Stephen Segall, a 40-year-old internist in Poway, Calif., put word out on the Internet that he was having a vigil in his back yard. He drew about 25 people, including his teen-age children and their friends. “The kids were really respectful and friendly, which was a big surprise,” said Segall, who has a band with his wife that plays Dead material. “Normally you wouldn’t want to be around kids their age, because they’re, well, so obnoxious and rude, but these kids were great.”

For older fans, Garcia’s death came as a reminder of impending mortality.

“It represents something like the end of youth,” said John Rosenfeld, a 37-year-old Los Angeles real estate lawyer who once hung out backstage at a Dead concert, having gone to the show with bassist Phil Lesh’s stockbroker. “For me and my friends, going on the road to see the Dead allowed us to pretend we were still young. Hearing the news just left me dumbfounded.”

Mark Leviton, a longtime fan who heads the Warner Special Products artists-and-repertoire department, found himself in denial: “I kept thinking these irrational thoughts, like maybe Jerry’s not dead, maybe he’s just in a coma. Then I’d have these fantasies, like maybe Jerry has a son who plays just like him and he’ll take over. It finally hit me when I sat down next to my wife and started to cry.”

For younger fans, the loss often seemed even more personal, like the death of a father or favorite uncle. To them, Garcia was a spiritual guru, offering an alternative to what they call Babylon--mainstream America and its materialism and puritan ethic.

“My mom’s older, and she didn’t think it was a big deal when Jerry died,” said Evan Kaplan. “She couldn’t understand why I wanted to stay home. The Dead was my spiritual side, the thing that stood against money and greed. I don’t know what’s going to replace it.”


Steven Scott, a 28-year-old chef at Il Radicchio in Washington, headed for a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, where Deadheads danced and offered prayers. “When I first heard the news, all I could say was, ‘It’s not true!” recalled Scott, who says he’s been to 115 shows since first seeing the band in high school. “It makes you want to take the things Jerry has given us and put them into our own lives.”

The surviving band members seem to be offering similar counsel. Fans said that when drummer Mickey Hart spoke at a memorial service in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park last Sunday, he told the crowd: “We’ve given you this for almost 30 years, and we’ve had some great times. Now what are you going to do with it?”

Bernie Bildman, a 54-year-old Birmingham, Ala., oral surgeon known as the Grateful Dentist because of his longtime ties with Garcia, echoed those sentiments.

“If the Dead doesn’t continue touring, the message is: Get a life,” said Bildman, a board member of the band’s philanthropic Rex Foundation, which gave $1.5 million last year to community and cultural organizations. “Even though Jerry didn’t speak about it, he was into empowerment. Find something within yourself to follow, rather than something outside.”

Bildman reminded younger fans that there’s more to being a Deadhead than going on tour and getting lost in space: “When I got on the bus, I had a life, a strong rudder. Even though the Dead’s philosophy says, ‘Go where the wind blows,’ the Dead always had a strong rudder. They let the wind take them, but they used the wind to go where they wanted.”

But young Deadheads don’t all sound ready to take that counsel.

“It’s going to change my life,” says Dick Vanselzakker, 17, one of the kids giving out the grapes at the Venice vigil.


He means it literally. The Rancho Cucamonga resident had already been making plans to spend next summer on the road following the Dead from show to show after his high school graduation. His mother even encouraged him to do that, telling him that it’s “a great way to see the country.”

“Now I have an emptiness--what am I gonna do?” he said. “The Dead means togetherness. My whole family is right here.”

But he’s confident that young Deadheads have the momentum to continue even without the Dead. Some, he believes, will go on the road following Phish. “Or there’s the Gatherings,” he says, referring to the neo-hippie confabs that have proliferated under the loose auspices of such modern “tribes” as the Rainbows. “There’s always that--the camp-outs and drumming things.”

He and his family will certainly be welcome there.

“This opens a new door,” says Rainbow member Juliette Smith, a 25-year-old British Columbian selling handmade bead and stone jewelry at the Venice vigil. “It’s a joyous time; there are elders who can teach them how to get by.”

From a musical perspective, David Hoptman can’t imagine Life After Jerry. More specifically, a post-Garcia Grateful Dead. “It would be like the Beatles without John Lennon,” said the 26-year-old from West Hollywood. “Something would be missing.” At least he’s saved the ticket stubs from the 23 shows he attended in the past three years.

“But nothing can really fill the emptiness,” he said. “Whenever I’d leave a Dead show, I’d feel kinda down, because the show was over. But I’d always think, ‘Hey, there’ll be another show.’ And that’s what feels so bad, because there won’t be another one.”

In recent years, several bands have built a loyal following of fans that overlap with the younger generation of Deadheads, most notably Phish (whose fans are called Phisheads), Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and the Radiators. Many older ‘Heads gravitate toward the Allman Brothers, Santana and Neil Young. But would Deadheads follow another golden road to unlimited devotion?


“I don’t know if there’s any substitute,” said Orval Osbourne, 39, owner of a San Luis Obispo environmental laboratory and a longtime fan. “The Allman Brothers have a great style of improvisation, but they don’t have the penetrating lyrics. Neil Young has great lyric intensity, but he doesn’t have the scope of music. It doesn’t feel as participatory going to other shows. With the Dead, the band is in tune with the audience, and the audience is in tune with the band.”

Other fans believe that Garcia’s passing will encourage them to appreciate the musical heroes who survive.

“There’s no substitute for Jerry; losing him is like losing John Coltrane,” said Mark Leviton, the Warner Special Products executive. “But it makes you want to commit yourself to seeing performers when they come through L.A. because you don’t know when they might be taken from you. Dylan, k.d. lang, Randy Newman--now I feel so stupid for missing his show in Cerritos!”

Back in Venice, Larry Marshall, 40, couldn’t come up with an answer to the Life After Jerry question until he bumped into a pair of 15-year-old Deadheads at a vigil the other night. “They were having trouble dealing with the ‘What do we do now?’ issue,” he recalled. “And it just came to me. I told ‘em the next time you’re at a show with great music, get up and dance. That’s what the Dead was about--dancing with your skeletons. And if some jerk squawks and tells you to sit down because you’re blocking his view, just turn around and say, ‘Sorry, but I’m dancing for Jerry, for the ‘Heads and for my soul.’ ”

As Marshall recounted this story, he practiced an impromptu dance step with his 10-month-old daughter, Marlee, sliding back and forth in his roller skates. He boasted that he and his wife had taken little Marlee to 15 Dead shows before Garcia’s death. “Four as a baby,” he said with a typically beatific Deadhead grin. “Eleven in utero. We kept count.”


Brian Gold, A Santa Monica-based surgical scrub nurse and photographer, has followed the Grateful Dead since 1980 and has seen 228 shows; a sampling of his photographs is shown here. He met his wife, Teresa, at a Long Beach show in November, 1985; they are shown (left) at a concert in 1987. “Of course there’s life after the Dead,” he says. “The Dead were only the magnet that drew all of us particles together. Once they were done playing we’d assimilate back into society between shows. Now it’ll just be a while between those gatherings.”