New Life for the Dead
In Another Time’s Forgotten Space
Consensus—everyone agreeing—was a basic tenet of the Grateful Dead’s operating philosophy when Garcia was alive. There are many stories of this or that plan—some worth big, big bucks—being derailed by a single “no” vote from a band member… and occasionally even a crew member. Generally speaking, though, the band accommodated each other’s whims and would go along (if grudgingly) with ideas or schemes that one or more of them were passionate about.
Without it ever being articulated, however, that modus operandi dissolved once Garcia died and the surviving members found themselves in charge of a huge operation, just recently moved into classy new digs in the Bel Marin Keys area of Novato, that no longer had its core business—Grateful Dead tours—to support it. And this became a principal wedge issue between Lesh and the other members of the group. Everyone at the top of the organization, from then-CEO Peter McQuaid to the musicians themselves, recognized that the company could not survive for many years without either restructuring at some point or obtaining a major infusion of capital from outside sources. Simply selling t-shirts and CDs wasn’t going to keep afloat a business that was top-heavy with well-paid workers of every stripe—from lawyers to roadies to recording engineers to secretaries. The Dead, to their eternal credit, were famous for their generosity and loyalty to their employees, many of whom were also their close friends.
In an effort to preserve and expand GDP, Peter McQuaid, with the backing of Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann, devoted a great deal of time and energy exploring different avenues for generating income for the company. The most controversial involved attracting venture capitalists, who would provide an immediate infusion of millions of dollars, allowing for the perpetuation of the status quo, but also to pay for the digitalization of all the music in their tape vault and improvements in the merchandising end of the operation. Phil Lesh, for one, did not approve of this development, at all. He (and others) feared that the Dead’s biggest asset—the vault—would be used as collateral in such a deal, leading to the possibility of the band losing control of their recorded legacy at some point; a price too high to pay. Though he objected as loudly and strongly as possible, Phil was out-voted by his colleagues (so much for the consensus; it had become democracy) and the machinations and negotiations continued. Disgusted, Phil withdrew completely from the day-to-day of the Dead organization, and, with Jill, set up his own independent operation to run the affairs of his band, Phil Lesh & Friends. In letters to the other band members, Phil mad it clear he had no interest in playing with them again, and so the era of complete estrangement began. Phil & Friends, Ratdog and Mickey’s various groups toured separately, and when The Other Ones regrouped in the summer of 2000, Phil was nowhere to be seen; he was replaced by Alphonso Johnson.
The Dead’s venture capital idea eventually fizzled, a victim of the dotcom bust and the associated belt-tightening, as did another ambitious revenue-generating venture spearheaded by Peter McQuaid: a project called Bandwagon, which would have had the Dead expanding their marketing operation—widely admired and even imitated by other groups—to take on other bands (names bandied about included Phish, Pearl Jam, Santana and even U2). Meanwhile, Weir and Lesh had toured together, each fronting his own band, with Bob occasionally sitting in with Phil Lesh & Friends. The thaw had begun, and by New Year’s 2001, the heartening rapprochement had led to Hart and Kreutzmann joining up with Lesh and Weir (and others) in a midnight set by the “Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band.” Most Deadheads were delighted to see the Core Four together again—“Unity is possible!” Phil declared from the stage at the end of the night—and it wasn’t long before rumors started to swirl that they might get together for some sort of tour in the summer of 2002. The removal of Peter McQuaid from his position in the fall of 2002 was another signal to Lesh that things had changed at GDP; McQuaid was replaced by the Dead’s long-time GD tour manager Cameron Sears.
Slowly but surely, Lesh returned to the fold, but this time he and Jill—his proxy in many business-related matters—had the power. After all, the money-making ideas that had driven him away had been discredited, and there could be no true “reunion” without Phil, so it was incumbent on the others to accommodate him as much as possible. When I asked Bob Weir if it was accurate to s ay that Phil returned on his own terms, he replied tersely, “Very much so.”
This turn of events was not universally embraced within the Dead organization, where there was a widespread concern that the ascension of the Leshes would eventually lead to wholesale changes in the structure of the company. However, those fears were put on hold last summer amid the euphoria that surrounded The Other Ones’ Alpine Valley shows (which grossed over $3.3 million) and the subsequent fall tour, which was tremendously successful financially, and was viewed by most Deadheads as an artistic triumph as well. Not surprisingly, you’ll find many nay-sayers on the latter issue; this is, after all, the fractious Grateful Dead scene. There are Phil & Friends partisans who were crushed that Phil has abandoned his adventurous solo band for what they see as a safer, ersatz Grateful Dead. For the record, Phil says he’s planning to tour with Phil & Friends in the fall. And among hard core Weirophiles, there were predictable complaints about Phil’s singing, and also about some of the freeform noodling that moved into The Other Ones’ music from Phil & Friends’ approach. (The Grateful Dead—pissing off a few cranks since 1965!)
Then, this past winter, as the always hyperactive Dead rumor mill buzzed with the prospect of a big summer 2003 tour by The Other Ones, two big events occurred. First came the announcement that henceforth The Other Ones would be called “The Dead.” The group played its first show under the new name at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day, ably assisted by such guests as Joan Osborne, Sammy Hagar, Michael Kang and Warren Haynes. Even the cynics were knocked out by that show. Then came the long-expected streamlining of Grateful Dead Productions, with all but a small handful of employees laid off, and the Dead’s entire merchandising operation—one of the backbones of the company—completely “outsources” to Musictoday, a company, ironically, not unlike Peter McQuaid’s beloved Bandwagon.
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