The inventory for tomorrow's (Saturday) Grateful Dead memorabilia auction is certainly impressive: Jerry Garcia’s gun, a Chevy Bel Air that used to ferry the band about, original handwritten lyrics, even an original Dead belt buckle worn by Owsley Stanley, the Dead's sound guy and 'King of LSD,' as Rolling Stone called him, who helped usher in the psychedelic scene.
The auction, to celebrate a half century of the Grateful Dead, is both live and online, and takes place tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday at Donley Auctions, in Union, Illinois (if you live nearby, or fancy traveling there tout suite).
There are over 700 items from collectors, former employees, band members, and friends, all going under the hammer—both in person and online, in true Dead fashion everyone is invited—and the prices will be ranging from just fifty to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Way back to 1965, the Grateful Dead began their long, strange trip as the soundtrack to the psychedelic movement and, ultimately, standard bearers for the jam band world and every college freshman with a tie dye and a bag of weed.
Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, the toured the world for decades with a thousands-strong caravan of fans—Deadheads—who travelled with them, a roving counter culture community.
When front man Jerry Garcia died in 1995, many thought the music went with him, and in some ways, it did.
The band is coming together for one final run of shows to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary with fellow jam-bander Trey Anastasio taking Jerry’s spot—two have been announced Chicago’s Soldier Field and rapidly sold out, with the old school mail order style presale of tickets deluging a post office box in the small California town of Stinson Beach with 60,000 brightly colored envelopes containing 350,000 ticket requests—with two more Bay Area shows hinted at below.
We caught up with a man who has been there and seen that with the band, Grateful Dead biographer and former publicist of 25 years Dennis McNally, to discuss the auction, the band’s fiftieth anniversary show, and why he, a long standing partner in crime with the band, won’t be attending.
700 items is quite a lot!
There were a couple of these collectors, very serious Grateful Dead collectors. And in the course of time, they got to know various members of the office staff, who had unique stuff, whether it was just swag or, you know, little unique things, like a gun that Jerry Garcia gave somebody.
Last year they said, “okay, we should do a big auction for the fiftieth.” So there’s a filing cabinet, and a desk, and the kitchen table, among other things. Some personal things of Jerry’s that he gave people around him.
Do you have anything in there?
I’ve offered some posters, and also some Jerry art, and the lyrics of “He’s Gone,” which (Robert, Dead lyricist) Hunter once gave me and my wife on our wedding day. It was a great present, I was flabbergasted!
Where does the money from the auction go?
Well, other than the auctioneer’s cut, and some charitable stuff with Mickey (Hart, Dead drummer), which goes 100% to Hidden Wings, his autism charity, the money goes to the people who owned the items.
You must be pretty excited for the ‘Dead Fifty’ final shows this summer.
Yes and no. I’m kind of excited on behalf of the fans who can go. Not to dismiss the talents of the guys that are going to be playing, which are, to put it mildly, considerable, but the Grateful Dead that I worked for, that I was part of, because employees were part of the band, that is no more. So that means less to me, personally.
The public response has been insane, though.
It is a comment on the power of that group! I just keep thinking of this fact: In 1985, the idea of buying a money order and filling out a 3x5 (how the Dead sold presale tickets for much of their career) was obsolete technology as far as buying tickets. And yet, it worked like a charm.
In 2015 it’s beyond obsolete. And yet, $90 million flowed into the Stinson Beach post office for tickets to go to these shows. It’s nuts.
And, as a sidebar, I will say that I’m getting (laughs) notes from friends who said they’d gotten rejected for tickets, and there were these very substantial money orders, postal money orders, which was the only thing they would accept and they go to the post office, and they’d have to go back five times (to get their rejected order refunded) because no post office keeps that much cash on hand. So you know, the whole thing is just out of time on some level.
But the point is that there’s still love for what this band was and is, and certainly what it meant, and I hope they have a fabulous time.
You’re not going to be there?
So what do you think of the choice to have Trey Anastasio from Phish take Jerry’s place?
I think as a business decision it was brilliant, you know? He has his own audience, and that can’t hurt. But besides that he’s a terrific player and has never made a habit out of imitating Jerry, which is good, but he knows the material, or will by show time.
Do you think this will really be the last show ever?
People keep asking that! Everyone’s natural cynicism comes out. Yes, I do think so. For any number of reasons. It’s not the Eagles, you know? How many final shows did they have? I am told, and this is speculation, but from good sources, that there will be two other shows before in the Bay Area, where the 49ers now play. The fact that they’re before is an indication they’re going to take (retirement) seriously.
What are the coolest things in the auction, in your opinion?
You know, I didn’t have an office at the Grateful Dead offices, I would just come in two or three days a week. I worked in what was called the band room, this little tiny room off the kitchen. My line of sight looked out on the kitchen table, and I’m a little sentimental about that table.
Jerry would come in, and he would sit down, and sip coffee, and people would line up bring him his mail and ask him to make decisions—which most of the time he would refuse to make.
And the other band members would come in, and doobies would be smoked and coffee would be drunk, and people would sort out the day and eventually he’d get up and go to Front Street, their studio. So that table has a lot of history for me, anyway.
There’s a great story… Rock Scully (longtime Dead manager) was beloved, but well known to exaggerate, shall we say, the truth. He once gave a sketch by Jerry, a cartoon, to my wife.
We later found out that it was a Xerox, and he’d made about six of them to give out as presents to people. And of course he misled her, but long forgiven.
Rock’s standard line for being late, because he was the latest person in the world, was the he’d stopped on the highway to assist a woman giving birth.
We figured after a while he personally contributed to the population explosion in Marin County.
So we all knew that you couldn’t believe everything that Rock said, in a literal sense. So it did not come as a deep shock when we found it was a Xerox, but in fact, it’s one of a very few Xeroxes of something no one has ever seen before.
The original went away in the course of time. So that’s kind of a neat thing.
There is also this drum set that Mickey Hart gave the then nine-year-old son of a staff member that the kid is now—he didn’t become a drummer, he’s restaurateur— and he wants to open a new restaurant. So he’s decided to give up the drum set, and see if he can use it to finance his new restaurant.
It’s amazing how even their cast off stuff is capable of influencing a life.
The potential is amazing. I mean, the lyrics to “He’s Gone” are quite valuable, I think. I’ll know Sunday, I guess, just how valuable people think they are! That’s gonna help put my grandchildren through college.
One of the questions I keep getting is “how can you part with this stuff?” We’ve had those lyrics on our wall for thirty years. It’s time to share them. It seems appropriate as we mark the anniversary this stuff sort of moves around.
Do you anticipate heated bidding then?
Deadheads are like people who like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, but the people who do, really like licorice.