An unbeliever claims that only 10,000 people in the entire world are followers--cultists, really--of the durable and idiosyncratic rock band called the Grateful Dead. What gives the band its undeserved appearance of popularity, he adds with exasperation, is that Dead Heads, as these fans call themselves in what should be apology but probably is boasting, are so zonked on Dead music that they all show up for every concert, no matter where on the planet it is played.
"I don't know," says J.R., 25, an engineering student from the University of Massachusetts. "I missed some concerts this year." He is standing in a very chilly line outside the Civic Center auditorium in San Francisco, where in something like five hours the Dead will go onstage. J.R. is making what sportswriters call a great second effort to get serious about college, he says, his first effort having been stopped for no gain by, in part, too many Dead shows. The reward he gave himself for industrious scholarship this semester was to hitchhike across the continent, with little cash and no tickets, to attend all three sold-out concerts in San Francisco. He has managed to score tickets somehow and now is a happy man.
It can be argued that there are at least 37,351 Dead Heads, because that many attended an outdoor concert at Saratoga, N.Y., last summer. But even 37,351 is a statistical flyspeck in the megahyped world of rock music. The fact is that in almost 20 years of playing, the Dead have never managed to record a song that sold enough copies to make it as a hit single. They have had fair success with albums, but their ecstatic, visionary offshoot of rock spins with improvisation, and the necessity to nail things down in a studio version tends to fossilize the band.
What the Dead have managed, however, are those 20 years of playing, with most of the same early-'60s rebels and LSD voyagers who started the group. The original keyboard and harmonica player, Ron McKernan, known as Pig Pen, died of hard living in the early '70s, and the present keyboardist, Brent Mydland, is the only relative newcomer. Otherwise the Dead are still Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman on drums, Phil Lesh on bass, Bobby Weir on rhythm guitar and, first among equals, Jerry Garcia on lead guitar.
One of the striking qualities of the Dead Heads' obsession with the band is that although it is highly personal--the fans think they can sense how Bobby and Jerry feel during any given song--it is remarkably unintrusive. The Dead Heads don't seem to know or care what bandsman is dating or divorcing whom.