Legal Do-Dah Man Helped Stoke Grateful Dead's Marketing Machine
By STEPHEN MILLER
OCTOBER 25, 2008
He was perhaps the only lawyer in America whose stationery was
inscribed "Legally Dead."
Hal Kant, the longtime attorney for America's quintessential hippie
band, gave the legal nod to what became the Grateful Dead's
commercial signature: While most groups prohibit taping, the Dead
tacitly allowed fans to make their own not-for-profit tapes and pass
"Every one of those tapes became a marketing device," says Dennis
McNally, the Dead's publicist for many years.
It was Mr. Kant who led the Grateful Dead to incorporate, making it
one of the first rock bands to offer health benefits and pensions. He
negotiated contracts that preserved the Dead's master recordings for
the band, not a record company, and coordinated its many businesses.
And it was Mr. Kant -- "the Czar," to lead guitarist Jerry Garcia --
who convinced Mr. Garcia to protest when groovy Vermont dairy Ben &
Jerry's Homemade Inc. named one of its flavors Cherry Garcia. The
company now pays royalties, split between a Grateful Dead charity and
Mr. Garcia's heirs.
Mr. Garcia died in 1995, and the band lapsed, though its surviving
members went on to play gigs. They reunited for a concert earlier
this month, for the first time in four years, in State College, Pa.
One of the top-drawing touring acts in the country, the Grateful Dead
was a big business in the 1980s and 1990s, generating tens of
millions of dollars in merchandise sales alone. Since the 1970s, it
had been a favorite of tie-dyed, drugged-out Deadheads who followed
the band around the country. It gained mainstream momentum in the
1980s, and notable figures ultimately came out of the closet as fans,
including Al Gore and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Still, as a registered Republican with an office in Beverly Hills,
Mr. Kant, who died Oct. 19 in Reno, Nev., at age 77, seems an
unlikely candidate to have spent three decades as lawyer to the San
Francisco band, starting in 1971.
"I didn't hang out with them -- they were not an important client to
me financially [at the time], so I could be very independent," he
told Mr. McNally for the publicist's history of the Grateful Dead, "A
Long Strange Trip."
Mr. Kant said he never charged the band a percentage but only billed
hourly, and insisted that the band pay managers a flat fee.
"Hal was the sounding board, the adult in the room" during the band's
anarchic and consensus-driven meetings, Mr. McNally says. Although he
ended up as a pioneer entertainment lawyer, much of Mr. Kant's
practice was a general one, with specialties in tax and corporate law.
Born Harold Sanford Kant in Queens and raised in the Bronx, he was
the son of immigrant Russian Jews in the dry-cleaning business. Itchy
after attending City College for two years, he traveled west to
Seattle and finished college at the University of Washington.
He earned a master's in psychology before service in the Navy during
the Korean War, then used his G.I. Bill money to study law at
Harvard, graduating in 1958. A clerkship on the U.S. 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals took him back to the West Coast, and he went on to
join a Beverly Hills law firm next door to the William Morris Agency.
Mr. Kant counted a few starlets among his early clients. His first
musical client was the Association, to be followed by Captain
Beefheart and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
Asked in 2000 by the Boston Globe why he represented artists, he
said, "The only attorneys in the music business were the attorneys
for the record companies, and their job was to get as much money as
they could for their company and leave as little as possible for the
artists. I decided maybe the other guys should have an attorney, too."
His background in psychology led him to work as director of the Legal
and Behavioral Institute in California. While there, he was co-author
of "Pornography and Social Deviance," which summarized the findings
of President Richard Nixon's Commission of Obscenity and Pornography.
To the president's consternation, the panel recommended
In 1983, Mr. Kant was producer of porn star Marilyn Chambers's first
non-skin flick, "Angel of H.E.A.T.," an exploitation film so slight
that that it may have created the straight-to-video category. "They
wouldn't let me watch it while they filmed in the backyard," says his
son, Jonas Kant, an entertainment lawyer for Sony ATV Music Publishing.
Mr. Kant was also a top poker player, known on the circuit as Dead
Man Kant, puffing on long cigars. "Maybe it's a function of my
personality," he said. "But I can't forget the beats [losing hands].
The winners? I can't remember them."
By the time he had won the Pot-Limit Omaha category in the 1987 World
Series of Poker, he had given up most of his legal work outside of
the Grateful Dead, as the band ascended. The Dead were a lively crew,
and Mr. Kant attended to their occasional legal difficulties,
settling the odd broken relationship or marijuana bust.
Jeff Furman, a lawyer who negotiated the ice cream detente for Ben &
Jerry's, today part of Unilever, remembers the Czar in action.
After Mr. Kant notified the company that it was in violation, Ben
Cohen the ice cream master sent a note to Jerry of the guitar licks,
effectively saying, "Let's not deal with these idiot lawyers,"
recalls Mr. Furman, who is currently a member of Ben & Jerry's
independent board. Mr. Furman says Mr. Garcia never responded, but
that Mr. Kant got hold of the letter and blew up, threatening a
Mr. Furman flew out to L.A. to smooth things over and found Mr. Kant
in good spirits, having just won his poker award. Mr. Furman says
they briskly negotiated a deal.
Much of Mr. Kant's effort in the boom years was dedicated to tracking
down rogue vendors selling unlicensed Grateful Dead paraphernalia,
threatening the band's cash dynamo.
Entrepreneur Magazine in 1999 called the Dead "the L.L. Bean of rock
music, sending out its combination fan magazine and catalog to more
than 150,000 fans who can choose from among more than 500 Grateful
Dead items, from golf balls to CDs, and from baby clothes to
toothbrushes. ... just a fraction of the $60 million that all
Grateful Dead items generate each year for the band, the record
companies and outside licensees."
The emergence of the Internet made enforcing rights more chaotic,
says Jonas Kant.
Musically, Hal Kant wasn't so devoted to the Dead. When it came to
touring spectacles, he preferred Wagner's Ring Cycle.