By WALLACE BAINE
As the story goes, Jerry Garcia found the term "grateful dead" in a
Funk & Wagnall's dictionary sometime in 1965 when Garcia's band
the Warlocks was looking for a new band name. Even then, when rock
bands were calling themselves "Strawberry Alarm Clock" and "13th
Floor Elevators," evoking death in a band name was a risky proposition.
But the term carried elements of magic and mysticism "" it refers to
a folk-tale motif in which someone who pays off a dead man's debts is
rewarded with good fortune presumably by the ghost of the deceased.
And that magic seems to be imbued with the group of San Francisco
musicians who adopted the name.
In the following years, of course, the Grateful Dead went on to
become an international rock-music behemoth, and evolved into a brand
name that continued to generate cultural wattage well after the death
of its frontman. But, a handful of other music icons "" the Beatles,
Bob Marley, Elvis "" have achieved that exalted status.
What makes the Dead unique in musical history is the band's seemingly
inexhaustible ability to inspire new sources of devotion in its fan
base. The Beatles and Stones still have fans, of course. But the
Dead, even close to 14 years after Garcia's death, still has an
Though the Dead sprung from the Haight in San Francisco, Santa Cruz
has a deep and abiding claim on the Dead legacy. It is at UC Santa
Cruz where the official Grateful Dead archive is housed though not
yet open to the public. And it is here where Dead culture lives on in
at least two prominent local cover bands, and a regular "Dead Dance"
event in which Deadheads gather to enjoy recorded shows from the Dead's past.
Slugs & Roses, for instance, has been around for about a year. The
Dead cover band features two members of the famed Santa Cruz
environmental/educational music group the Banana Slug String Band.
Then there's the China Cats, who play live tonight at Don Quixote's
in Felton. The band recently added a new keyboard player, and took
the opportunity to change its name from Dough Knees. Dead bands from
out of the area, from the Dark Star Orchestra to the all-Celtic Wake
the Dead, find eager audiences in Santa Cruz.
What makes bands like these different from other tribute acts is the
lack of play acting. These are bands playing the music of the
Grateful Dead, not pretending to be the Grateful Dead.
"I've always been a Deadhead," said China Cat Scott Cooper, who is
also teaching a guitar class of Grateful Dead music at UCSC. Cooper
said that what those outside the Dead fanbase don't always realize is
that each Dead live concert was a unique experience from the one the
night before. "They didn't do the same material every night," he
said. "They never, ever repeated a set list. Occasionally, they might
repeat one song from the night before, or something. But, the songs
were rough sketches for them to improvise on, and that's what made
each show unique."
David Faulkner, who started an acoustic Jerry Garcia-inspired band
called Shady Groove and now plays keyboards for Slugs & Roses,
said he had seen the Dead dozens of times before Garcia's 1995 death.
He said his friends often referred to Dead concerts as "church," and
that the hairy Captain Trips was less a guitar player than a "shaman."
"They really set their own rules," he said. "The whole thing wrapped
around Jerry. The thing about him was that he was never just about
rockin' out. He wasn't ever afraid to play something beautiful, just
for the sake of playing something beautiful."
Today's Deadheads don't even need a live band to enjoy the Dead vibe.
For the past several years, a regular "Dead Dance" has been held at
the 418 Project in Santa Cruz. Kristen Young, one of the event's
coordinators, said that a recorded Dead show is played entirely on an
iPod into large speakers and fans come together to dance and to
commune with the Dead spirit. The next dance takes place Sunday.
"I've had some amazing dance experiences there," said Young. "There's
no alcohol, no smoking. We just get together to dance. It's very
family oriented too. A group of us will stay up for hours just
hanging out and talking about the dance."
Young, 42, was born into a Deadhead family. She was taken to Dead
shows by her mother when she was still a baby and estimates she saw
800 Dead shows over the years. The dances, she said, are now
beginning to attract people too young to have had a chance to see the
Dead while Garcia was still around. "I am just so grateful that I got
to be part of that when I was a kid," she said.
The UCSC Grateful Dead archive is currently in the process of
cataloging. It won't be open to the public until 2010 when its space
at the newly renovated McHenry Library will be opened. But there will
be a display of samples from the archive open to the public beginning
March 30 in the Visual Resource Collection room of the Library.
The archive, the cover bands and the "Dead Dance," which attracts a
steady number of people too young to have experienced the band in its
heyday, points to an enduring Dead scene in Santa Cruz into the
foreseeable future. For those who are true believers in the Dead way,
it's a culture that's only partly about good music played well. It's
about personal transformation.
"By the time the show was over," said David Faulkner of Slugs &
Roses, "I felt like I was a better person."