Column: Nancy Pelosi on Dylan, the Grateful Dead, a wild night in Argentina — and the healing power of music

Nancy Pelosi holding a set list of the band Dead & Co.
Nancy Pelosi may not fit the stereotypical image of a “Deadhead,” but she’s a longtime fan of San Francisco’s legendary Grateful Dead.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)
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Bob Weir was cold.

It was a partly cloudy July night and temperatures were falling as Dead & Co. played before tens of thousands of fans in San Francisco, ancestral home of the band’s legendary forebear, the Grateful Dead.

Typical summer weather in the city, and Nancy Pelosi knew what to do.

Socks, she told the Birkenstock-shod guitarist on a visit backstage. And a hat.

It may be easier to picture the former speaker, still one of America’s most influential women, surrounded by suits and wingtips than beads and sandals. But Pelosi, who grew up listening to opera waft through the streets of Baltimore’s Little Italy, is a genuine tie-dyed in the wool Deadhead, as cultists and aficionados of the group are known.

She’s friends with Weir and drummer Mickey Hart, having seen the Dead and assorted iterations more times than she remembers. On several occasions, the elegantly styled lawmaker has been seen dancing in the wings, 4-inch heels and all.


It wasn’t certain she’d make the band’s valedictory performance that night, one of the last of Dead & Co.’s recently concluded farewell tour. The House of Representatives was pitching another fit, with balky Republicans acting up, must-pass legislation stalled and restless lawmakers anxiously eyeing the exits.

But in the end, the House approved the necessary defense spending bill with time to spare and Pelosi easily made it home for the Friday night show, mingling with the band and scoring the evening’s set list as a souvenir.

When Weir returned for the second half he was still sockless.

But he had on a hat.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been on a valedictory tour. At the California Democratic Convention this weekend, honoring her is the main event.

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Going through a closet not long ago, Pelosi came across a “Deadheads for Dukakis” purse from the 1988 presidential campaign; she was a freshman lawmaker at the time.

Nearly 20 years later, several of the band’s alumni played at a Washington gala celebrating Pelosi’s path-breaking election as speaker. (A review describes an uptight audience mostly sitting on its hands, though “Iko Iko,” the New Orleans standard, finally got some of the Beltway slugs moving.)

Hart was in the House gallery watching as Pelosi claimed the speakers’ gavel for a second time in 2019.

How and when did they meet? “I haven’t the faintest idea,” she says. Over the decades, San Francisco’s yeasty music and political scenes have blurred together, though, no, it’s not because of some bad acid.


It’s been a long, historic trip.

“They’re wonderful musicians,” Pelosi said of the Dead and company, putting a lie to the notion — propounded mostly by haters — that the group’s kaleidoscopic catalog can only be enjoyed in a drunken stupor or chemically induced haze. (Pelosi doesn’t drink and has never used drugs.) “It’s great music.”

Maybe it’s a congressional Democrat thing.

The late Harry Reid, another teetotaler and a Senate leader when Pelosi was speaker, had a Dead poster signed by the entire band hanging in his home in Searchlight, Nev. He called it his “prize possession.”

Nancy Pelosi with a Grateful Dead "Vote" poster
Pelosi brought an exhortatory poster for a luncheon conversation about the Grateful Dead.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Perusing the menu at San Francisco’s Delancey Street Restaurant — a favorite of local politicians, staffed by ex-convicts and recovering addicts — Pelosi savors the freedom of life as just another member of the House.

“You have to remember,” she says, “that for 20 years, either as speaker or [minority] leader, I was responsible for everything that happened on the floor ... in terms of what happened with the Democrats ... and I didn’t even realize that it was a burden until it was gone and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What a relief.’ ”

She continues studying the menu.

“I still, obviously, take an interest in the legislation,” Pelosi goes on, “and I still raise money for the Democrats,” though not the $1 million a day she pulled in as speaker. “It’s a completely different story.”


Other diners crane to see the celebrity in their midst, seated in a booth slightly away from the main dining area.

Orders are placed. Soon lunch arrives, an international smorgasbord of latkes, kale salad, a chicken quesadilla and matzo ball soup.

“Liberated” and “emancipated” are words Pelosi often uses in her new incarnation. She’s started on a book — not a memoir, but an account of certain decisions. Her husband, Paul, continues healing from the ghastly hammer attack by a QAnon crazy who broke into their San Francisco home last fall, looking to take the ex-speaker hostage.

Will she run again next year for a 19th term, something many in this politically hyperactive city are panting to find out? “I have to make up my mind,” Pelosi responds, purposely opaque, “and then see what I want to do.”

Back to music.

She ran a finger along the crumpled set list pointing to several favorites — “Fire On The Mountain,” “Ramble On Rose,” the trippy sound-collage “Drums/Space” and “Standing On The Moon,” with its indigenous lyric:

Somewhere in San Francisco/ On a back porch in July/ Just looking up to heaven/ At this crescent in the sky.


So beautiful, Pelosi rhapsodized, “I could listen to it forever.”

Two sheets of paper with song titles on them
The set list from Dead & Co.’s July 14 performance in San Francisco.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to music, Pelosi says, she’s something of an omnivore, with an appetite for “everything from rap to opera.” Drake, Taylor Swift, U2, Keith Urban, Elton John, Metallica, Stevie Wonder.

The Democrat is on a first-name basis with Bono and Cyndi Lauper as well as the other Paul and Nancy. (That would be McCartney and his wife Nancy Shevell.)

She’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite show of all time, but recounts seeing Bob Dylan with the Rolling Stones in Argentina — the “Bridges to Babylon Tour,” Pelosi specifies. She brought along a fellow Democrat, former New York Rep. Nita Lowey, who was seeing her first rock concert. (Naturally the performance included “Like A Rolling Stone.”)

At one point during the show there was an announcement, Pelosi says, seeking donations to fight HIV and AIDS. A young man circulated through the crowd and after receiving a contribution from Lowey, handed her a thank-you gift. “She’s like, ‘I don’t know what this is,’” Pelosi recalls, “‘it’s all in Spanish.’”

A pause.

“Condoms!” Pelosi exclaims.

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The dishes are cleared. Time for dessert.

Pelosi considers the profiteroles, but abstains. She had three peppermint patties on the way to lunch, she confesses, and ice cream for breakfast.


These are fraught times. She turns serious.

“I’m a strong believer that the arts are the secret, our best hope for the future,” Pelosi says.

She describes the warm reception she received years ago when she was introduced at a Barbra Streisand concert.

“In that audience ... they’re not there because they’re Democrats. You’ve got a very mixed group of people. And it just completely drove home the point ... which is that [music] is a unifier. People forget their differences, they don’t even think of it. They laugh together, cry together, are inspired together, find common ground together and I do think that’s our hope.”

“That’s our hope,” she repeats.