Message from Garcia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was classic cosmic karma that any Deadhead would have recognized and appreciated.

The day the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack, I came home from work to find a piece of mail from the band's merchandising wing: a newsletter called the Grateful Dead Almanac, the "summer's endless bounty issue 1995."

Whoa. Not exactly a flier from Pizza-Boli. If a mailing could be said to have that ineffable thing known as karma, then this baby oozed it.

It also offered, on a more down-to-earth level, some insight into the enduring appeal of the Dead.

But first, a little background.

Twenty-two years ago, barely into my teens, I purchased "Europe '72," the band's triple-album set recorded during its 1972 European tour. The liner notes included an address to which fans could write to receive information about the Dead by mail. Of course, I sent in my name, just as my friends and I had often done to get free stickers and posters from motor oil and automobile companies.

Soon the mailman was delivering to our house in northeast Baltimore large envelopes bearing the famous skull insignia and California postmarks. Inside were info sheets on touring and recording dates, along with glossy postcard-size reproductions of the band's ornate album covers. Occasionally I received 45-RPM samplings from the latest Dead releases. And it was all free.

The mailings arrived on a steady basis until the mid-1970s. By that time I had lost interest in the Grateful Dead. So, apparently, had the group members themselves, who disbanded for two years.

During the past couple decades, the mailings have come sporadically; every year or so. I always think each one is the last. Yet somehow the stuff continues to find me, even after I have moved several times. What's more, I've never sent a change-of-address notification.

The latest piece, the Grateful Dead Almanac, awaited me last Wednesday evening, hours after the band leader's death, on an end table in my living room, emitting its karmic message from Garcia.

I had to laugh. Lapsed Deadhead though I am, I couldn't help but think the timing of the mailing was characteristic of this offbeat and mysterious band.

If you don't buy that, maybe this sounds more rational: Those mailings typified the smart marketing that has long been an important, if less trumpeted, aspect of the Grateful Dead's story. The Dead have always reached out to their fans in an inordinately respectful and caring way -- to the benefit of band and followers alike.

That extended to the "taper's gallery" the group set up at each concert site so Deadheads could do what's forbidden at other artists' shows -- openly make amateur recordings of the music. It's no coincidence that this approach has frustrated bootleggers. But it also has enabled fans to relive the concert experience on tape, and share it with fellow travelers.

Maybe the most renowned aspect of the band's fan-friendly philosophy was the amount of time the musicians spent onstage -- usually up to five hours per show.

The result over the years -- or, in a more '90s way of thinking, the payoff -- has been a fandom as loyal as any in the rock era, built largely through the band's constant touring. Albums of new Grateful Dead material have been rare in the past two decades, as if the group acknowledged that the Dead outside the concert hall was barely the real item. What better way to impart the sense of community so essential to the Dead experience than at the gatherings of tens of thousands of dancing fans?

A creation perhaps even greater than the music, this feeling of unity helps to explain why countless teens and twenty-somethings could be so devoted to these aging, pot-bellied ex-hippies.

The consensus view of the 1960s is that it was a time that severely wounded America; indeed, Jerry Garcia's death is in large part attributable to the drug culture that his band and others once promoted. But even some of the most disillusioned survivors of the '60s admit those years possessed an idealism and a togetherness, especially among the young, that the nation has not seen since. The Grateful Dead have offered a piece of that to their fans -- to the touch-of-gray Deadheads who fondly recall more innocent days, as well as to those members of the latch-key generation turned off by the vitriol of gangsta rap and retro-punk.

L A rock band and its followers could embrace a worse message.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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