Ladies and gentlemen, not the Grateful Dead

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Stewart Sallo

It has been almost 20 years since legendary Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia transitioned to the big acid test in the sky. And since Jerry left us, the debate has raged over whether the remaining members of the band — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — could call themselves the Grateful Dead. That question was answered definitively with a resounding “NO” this past weekend as some 500,000 fans logged on to the Ticketmaster website in an attempt to purchase tickets to the “Fare Thee Well” shows, scheduled for July 3-5 at Soldier Field in Chicago. You heard it here first: Even if these shows go down as the greatest in the history of rock and roll, this is not the Grateful Dead.

Many of the 500,000 hopefuls had already engaged in the ultimately futile exercise of participating in the mail order presale, thinking they were participating in a revival of the beloved tradition that marked the band’s commitment to its fans by selling tickets directly, rather than through third-party agencies. Unbeknownst to the true Deadheads who put their hearts and souls into decorating their envelopes and sending off large sums of money on Jan. 20, back-room deals had already been made with big music industry players, such as Ticketmaster and a Philadelphia-based V.I.P. package provider called CID Entertainment (with options ranging from $519 to $2,198, plus “service fees”), to cash in on the genuine love and appreciation that is still alive and well among those who have never been able to replace the Grateful Dead as a source of joy and inspiration in their lives.

The capacity of Soldier Field for these shows is 210,000. According to Grateful Dead Ticket Sales, some 60,000 mail order envelopes were received representing 300,000 ticket requests, more than the capacity of the venue. However, based upon those numbers, odds were favorable, as about two-thirds of the requests could have been fulfilled. But rather than announce that the on-sale date to purchase tickets through Ticketmaster had been cancelled, due to the shows selling out through the mail order, the on-sale date was postponed to Feb. 28. The explanation on the dead50.net website read: “In order to give the good folks at GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales) the time to sort through the 60,000 (!) envelopes received so far the new public on sale is Feb 28th @ 10 a.m. CST via Ticketmaster.”

Huh? You’ve received payment in the form of money orders from true, envelope-decorating, tradition-following fans for 300,000 tickets, have only 210,000 to sell, and you’re still going to be selling tickets online through Ticketmaster? In other words, you’re going to sell some of the tickets that have already been purchased by true Deadheads so that Ticketmaster can receive its cut. Nope, this is not the Grateful Dead.

But it gets worse when you examine just how many tickets were held for Ticketmaster and other middleman partners to sell. It was announced through multiple sources last Wednesday, including the Chicago Tribune and Billboard Magazine, that only 10 percent of the mail orders are being filled out of deference to the need to save tickets for sale through Ticketmaster, et al. Let’s do the math: 300,000 tickets were purchased through the mail order, but they’re only going to sell 30,000 of those tickets so they can sell 180,000 tickets through other avenues that more generously line the pockets of big music industry players.

Most suspicious of all is the way tickets mysteriously became available on eBay-owned StubHub immediately after the Ticketmaster sweepstakes ended. As of press time, literally thousands of tickets are available through StubHub in virtually every section of the venue for prices ranging from $600 (behind the stage with no view) to $3,500. Where did StubHub get all these tickets? They certainly didn’t get in line with 500,000 people to buy them from Ticketmaster! And if the inflated ticket prices on StubHub are unaffordable, you can purchase a parking pass for the modest price of $180 and enjoy the show from the parking lot at Soldier Field. Once again, where did StubHub get parking passes to sell?

One answer may lie in the inexplicable choice of Chicago as the site of this quickly souring last stand. Despite having developed loyal followings across the country and even internationally, the Grateful Dead were first and foremost a West Coast band. The band members lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, as did the most longstanding fans of the band. Against that backdrop, why Chicago?

That question becomes amplified when considering the fact that the Chicago Park District’s agreement with Chicago Bears season ticket holders entitles them to purchase their seats to all events that take place at Soldier Field. This may explain the sudden appearance of thousands of tickets on StubHub. The massive hype behind these shows had reached the radar screens of Bears fans, most of whom couldn’t care less about the Grateful Dead, but who saw an opportunity to make bank by turning a $199.50 purchase into a $3,500 trip to Puerto Vallarta. The party line that Soldier Field was chosen because it was the site of the last Grateful Dead concert on July 9, 1995 rings more hollow with every passing scalped ticket purchase.

And then there is the perplexing choice of Phish lead guitarist Trey Anastasio to join the band. Since Jerry Garcia’s death, several notable guitarists have performed as a substitute for Garcia in various post-Grateful Dead bands, such as the Other Ones, The Dead, Dark Star Orchestra, Phil Lesh and Friends and, most recently, Furthur. These include Widespread Panic lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, who was a founding member of the group Jazz is Dead, and who played in The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends; John Kadlecik, the founding lead guitarist of the Dark Star Orchestra who has been playing in the band Furthur; and Warren Haynes, who has played in the bands Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, and who has been a part of The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. In many ways Haynes was the sentimental favorite, due to his creation of the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration concerts, in which a large portion of Garcia’s musical compositions were committed to score and performed nationwide with a rock band, featuring Haynes on lead guitar, and backed by local symphony orchestras.

All three of these fine musicians have studied Jerry Garcia’s music in a way that qualifies them to fill his enormous empty shoes. Not so with Anastasio, who has made appearances with Phil Lesh and Friends but was quoted last month in Rolling Stone as saying, “I never really sat and studied what Jerry actually played, until now.” It now appears that the choices of Chicago and of Anastasio were not made in the spirit of providing the truest Grateful Dead experience for the fans but, rather, to fulfill the highest possible financial gain for the promoter, Peter Shapiro in association with Madison House, and their corporate cronies. Centrally located, Chicago offers the best combination of logistical convenience and the big-city trappings that are needed to attract an audience who can afford “secondary market” ticket prices. And the addition of Anastasio piles on the interest of an auxiliary audience of “Phish-heads” to the mix, thereby increasing the available pool of wealthy spectacle-loving (as opposed to music- or Grateful Dead-loving) ticket buyers who can chunk down $600 to $3,500 for tickets that were originally priced from $59.50 to $199.50.

All of this reveals a brilliant, even diabolical, marketing strategy. Choose a central location and a musical line-up that attracts the widest, wealthiest possible audience; create huge buzz through the Grateful Dead mail-order process to establish unfulfillable demand; and then let our friends at Ticketmaster, StubHub and other players in the “secondary market” (talk about euphemisms; we used to call it scalping) have at it. And here’s the kicker: Now Shapiro and Madison House are planning to create an entire industry around this weekend, including after-show concerts, audio and video recordings, and even a “pay per view” cable TV event. In short, get hundreds of thousands of people excited about an event they can’t get tickets for, sell their tickets to people who can pay aftermarket prices, and then charge the “losers” to watch it on TV.

One of the most fundamental truisms of life is that we are remembered for the most recent thing we did. It’s worse than a pity — it’s an outright tragedy — that perhaps the most beloved band in history has put itself in a position to be remembered for participating in what may go down as the biggest money grab in music history. On June 7-9, 1977 the Grateful Dead played three shows at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco to close out their legendary Spring 1977 tour, a period many Deadheads believe was the best in the band’s history. On June 7, having already purchased tickets for the closing night but with the thought in the back of my mind that there was a show that evening, I suggested to my sister, Janet, that we drive up to San Francisco from Santa Cruz to see if we could get in. About five minutes prior to the 8 p.m. showtime, we arrived at Winterland, walked up to the box office, purchased two tickets for $5 each and entered just as the band was playing the opening to “Bertha.”

That was the Grateful Dead. And that’s the Grateful Dead I want to remember, not a cover band that happens to have some of the original members, and certainly not a musical spectacle that serves big-moneyed interests, such as Ticketmaster, StubHub, eBay, the City of Chicago and whatever other corporate entities are in on this colossal rip off. The Grateful Dead built their brand on their commitment to the quality of their music and to their fans. They became famous and enormously successful for innovations such as their focus on touring and live performances, rather than selling records; building their fan base by allowing fans to tape and freely share their performances; and by creating their own ticket agency, rather than allowing corporate middleman entities to control their scene, as has happened with these “Fare Thee Well” shows.

In a 1967 interview with the Grateful Dead, conducted by CBS’s Harry Reasoner, Jerry Garcia said, “What we’re thinking about is a peaceful planet. We’re not thinking about anything else. We’re not thinking about any kind of power; we’re not thinking about any of those kinds of struggles; we’re not thinking about revolution or war or any of that. That’s not what we want. Nobody wants to get hurt; nobody wants to hurt anybody. We would all like to live an uncluttered life, a simple life, a good life, you know. And, like, think about moving the whole human race ahead a step or a few steps, or half a step, or anything.”

With each passing day since these shows were announced, it has become clearer that the “Fare Thee Well” concept bears no resemblance to the Grateful Dead. There is nothing peaceful or forward-thinking about misleading people with hope in their hearts, and thousands of loyal fans have been hurt in the process. As difficult as it is to articulate the Grateful Dead philosophy, it’s not difficult for anyone who loved the band to come to the conclusion that this is not the Grateful Dead.

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