The New York Times National
More Articles in National >
Skip to article Welcome, jg867 - Member Center - Log Out - Help

Jerry Garcia: The Man, the Myth, the Area Rug

Published: August 9, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 8 - One of the icons of modern American culture now resides in a nondescript warehouse about 30 miles north of here, in a windowless, climate-controlled, heavily-alarmed room built like a bomb shelter that is called simply the Vault.

Skip to next paragraph
Randi Lynn Beach for The New York Times

David Lemieux is one of only two people who know where to find the key to the Vault, which houses the Grateful Dead's recorded history.

Randi Lynn Beach for The New York Times

Fans celebrating their icon danced on Sunday at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco, near where the famous strummer grew up.

There, in towering rows of 13,000 audiotapes, 3,000 videotapes and about 250,000 feet of traditional 16-millimeter film lives the recorded history of the Grateful Dead, one of the seminal American rock bands.

The Grateful Dead ceased to exist on Aug. 9, 1995, when the band's lead guitarist and most recognizable figure, Jerry Garcia, died at age 53 of a heart attack at a drug treatment center. Yet 10 years later, the man and the band remain alive for millions of fans, and the once notoriously ad hoc Grateful Dead business operation has become a model for a music industry struggling with the Internet and digital democracy.

"When I first got into the record business I learned that it wasn't cool to be into the Grateful Dead," said Christopher Sabec, 40, a lawyer who said he saw the band more than 250 times and is now chief executive of the Jerry Garcia Estate L.L.C., controlled by Mr. Garcia's heirs. "But if you look at where the music business has been forced to go by technology, now it's not about selling records. It's about live shows and inspiring a fan base to be absolutely loyal. Hello? Who did that first? The Grateful Dead."

The Jerry Garcia company and Grateful Dead Productions are separate businesses each generating millions of dollars of revenue a year. Just how many millions is not publicly known. But consumers still buy more than a million J. Garcia-brand neckties each year, and Cherry Garcia is often the top-selling brand of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, each pint generating royalties for the Garcia heirs.

The band's four surviving members - the drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, the bassist Phil Lesh and the guitarist Bob Weir - have toured occasionally as the Dead, though not this year. They control the Grateful Dead's licensing business, which oversees thousands of products sold around the world, like gas tank caps, incense burners, golf club covers and sandals. (The Garcia company receives a share of the proceeds.)

But for cultural and practical matters, the heart of the Grateful Dead's legacy resides in the 10,000 cubic feet of space in Novato, north of San Francisco. The Vault feeds a continuing business based on regular releases of old concert recordings on iTunes, on the band's Web sites and in stores, feeding old Deadheads and creating new fans.

Physically, there is only one key to the Vault, and only two people know where to find it. David Lemieux, 34, the band's archivist, is one of them. Jeffrey Norman, one of the band's engineers, is the other.

"This is it, the key to the Vault," Mr. Lemieux said, holding up the gleaming shard of metal, a sliver that to some Deadheads may be more sacred than a splinter from the True Cross.

One major way the band and the Garcia company have kept the flame alive is by regularly releasing audio and video recordings of old concerts that have been restored with the latest digital techniques. Two years ago, for instance, the band released a DVD of its performance that closed San Francisco's legendary Winterland Ballroom on Dec. 31, 1978.

"There is just no way we could have done the Winterland release without the current technology," Mr. Lemieux said in his memorabilia-plastered office.

For fans used to fuzzy old cassettes, the new releases are a revelation.

"Many of us Deadheads are experiencing a renaissance now in our appreciation for the band because such high-quality recordings are available," said Amir Bar-Lev, 33, a filmmaker from New York who said he saw the band more than 100 times. "Ten years ago I was listening to 20th-generation tapes kicking around the floor of my car. Now, thanks to all of the technology, I can hear the band in all its glory."

Mr. Weir, the guitarist, said in a telephone interview on Friday from West Virginia, where he was on tour with his band RatDog, that although Mr. Garcia sometimes resented his own celebrity, he would have been pleased that his music endured. "I'm glad people can still enjoy it," he said.

He continued: "I am a big fan of Duke Ellington and I never saw him live. I'm a big fan of John Coltrane and I never saw him live. I don't want to put us on that level, but we don't play all of this music casually or callously, and of course Jerry would appreciate people being able to experience it."

More broadly, the Grateful Dead's emphasis on touring over selling records presaged the music industry's current predicament over file-sharing on the Internet.

The Grateful Dead was the first major band to allow fans to freely make and trade recordings of its live performances in the belief that spreading the music that way would ensure long-term success. That formula was later adopted almost wholesale by other successful bands, including Phish, and fans still avidly trade live Grateful Dead recordings online.

Even though there are now high-quality recordings for sale, created using the official sound-mixing boards used at concerts, fans are still free to trade recordings made in the crowd. The band used to offer a special section of seating for amateur tapers.

"They wanted to create a space for themselves and their fans to gather and play, and that didn't sit well in the offices of the record business," said Mr. Sabec, who is perhaps best known in the music industry for discovering and managing the 1990's teen-pop group Hanson. "Now I find myself sitting in meetings where other bands are using the Dead as a model."

In the years immediately after Mr. Garcia's death, Grateful Dead merchandising brought in more than $50 million in annual gross revenue. That figure may have declined a bit since then, and the band's licensing activities are now separate from the Garcia estate's business affairs, but both entities continue to thrive.

In addition to ties and ice cream, the Garcia company has expanded into rugs and wine. An artist as well as a musician, Mr. Garcia signed his work "J. Garcia."

"I'm not trying to turn the J. Garcia brand into something you find at Target, but I am trying to broaden it," Mr. Sabec said. "There are J. Garcia carpets that my mother would be happy to have in her house, and she's not a Deadhead. If you were to position it only for people who were fans of Jerry's music, it would be a much smaller market than what we're going for."

Yet even as the Garcia company has expanded its ambitions, the band's business wing, Grateful Dead Productions, has in some ways pared down its operations in recent years, like many United States companies.

For a few years after Mr. Garcia's death, as the technology bubble expanded (Aug. 9, 1995, was also the day Netscape stock went public, signaling the coming dot-com boom), the band pursued a vision of creating a business tentatively called Bandwagon, which would function as a one-stop merchandising and online distribution operation for a variety of musical acts. In addition, the band came close to creating what would have amounted to a countercultural theme park in San Francisco.

"The whole Bandwagon thing was a function of the dot-com mania, especially spectacularly in the Bay Area," said Dennis McNally, the band's longtime publicist and historian. "There was also an idea of creating a performance space and museum called Terrapin Station, which we figured we needed $50 million to do. And in the context of the dot-com revolution, that seemed perfectly doable."

In the end, the band balked at potentially having to cede final control of the projects to outside investors. And as the dot-com bubble burst, the band went in the opposite direction. It laid off dozens of longtime employees, closing its own warehouse and largely outsourcing the logistics of the memorabilia business.

Now, the band has only about 10 employees, including Mr. Lemieux at the Vault.

Although the theme park never came to be, on Sunday in San Francisco, the city unveiled the newly renamed Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in John McLaren Park, near the blue-collar Excelsior District where Mr. Garcia grew up before moving to the better-known Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

Backstage at the event, Mr. Garcia's older brother, Tiff, seemed to share his sibling's somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the marketing of celebrity.

"They're trying to do an Elvis on him, with all of the garments and merchandise and different items," he said. "But I'm not surprised. He meant so much to so many people, and I'm proud of the fact that one individual could draw so much attention."

The New York Times Store
The New York Times Essential Library: Opera
The New York Times Essential Library: Opera