By Jim Harrington
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
OAKLAND, Calif. — There's an old joke that goes something like this, "How do you know that a Deadhead has stayed at your house?" Answer: "He's still there."
The Deadheads definitely are still in the house.
More than 15 years after Jerry Garcia, their spiritual leader, died and the Grateful Dead broke up, the colorful, iconic and oft-lampooned fan base remains one of the more loyal and potent commercial forces in popular culture. They flock to concerts by surviving Dead members such as Bob Weir and Phil Lesh and gobble up an ever-steady supply of archived concert recordings. Nowhere is this insatiable demand more apparent than in the latest release — "Europe '72: The Complete Recordings," due this month.
The mammoth 73-disc set — thought to be the largest such offering ever delivered from a single artist — captures every note the Bay Area band played on its first European tour. That's 22 full-length shows, representing more than 70 hours of music, packaged in a replica steamer trunk. The price: $450 a pop.
Keep in mind that the best material from the tour already was released in the Dead's classic "Europe '72" album, as well as on countless bootleg tapes circulated exhaustively among Deadheads. However, that didn't stop fans from lapping up all 7,200 units of the Rhino Records package within days. Now, people are reselling "Europe '72" on eBay and other sites at markups of several hundred dollars.
"I'm not surprised it sold out quickly — virtually instantly," said Dennis McNally, of San Francisco, the band's former publicist and author of "A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead."
"I think (Rhino Records officials) are kicking themselves for making it a limited edition."
It's not the first time Rhino has cashed in on the Grateful Dead, which began its long, strange trip 46 years ago. The retro-music label's "Road Trips" series has, since 2007, delivered 16 multidisc concert recordings for fans. There have also been films (including the recent arthouse hit "The Music Never Stopped"), a steady succession of books and a proliferation of cover bands, all dedicated to the Grateful Dead. Perhaps most telling, Garcia's life is celebrated by thousands each year during San Francisco's "Jerry Day" tribute/concert.
"I think what it really talks about is the power of the music," said Oakland's David Gans, radio host of the syndicated "The Grateful Dead Hour" as well as "Dead to the World," which is broadcast from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays on KPFA-FM. "This music is so important to people and so meaningful to people."
And a lot of these people have money to burn.
"There are a lot of Deadheads out there with disposable income," said Blair Jackson, of Oakland, who wrote the 20,000-word essay that accompanies the "Europe '72" box set. "The stereotype of the Deadhead has always been the guy in the parking lot selling veggie burritos. But there are many of what we call 'professional Deadheads' — doctors, lawyers, accountants. It's always been a false impression of the Grateful Dead that they are a band who's playing for a few burnouts."
Just do the math — 7,200 copies sold of "Europe '72," at $450 a set, equates to $3.24 million. Not bad for a batch of recordings that had been in the can for nearly 40 years. That figure will grow, since Rhino now is offering a music-only version of the set (minus the packaging), also for $450, as well as a two-disc sampler, "Europe '72: Vol. 2," for $16.99.
In addition to Rhino's less-ballyhooed archival releases, the 36-volume "Dick's Picks" have sold as many as 50,000 copies each.
Meanwhile, don't expect the flood to dry up any time soon. The band's archive, housed at University of California Santa Cruz, consists of recordings of more than 2,000 shows, the vast majority of which have never been officially released.
"They haven't even come close to hitting the bottom of it yet," Gans said.
It's this vault of music that makes the Dead different from other acts with a passionate fan base — think Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. The band has more to offer because it was valued primarily for its stage show — and its stage show kept changing night after night, set list after set list.
"It was really unpredictable," said David Meerman Scott, of Boston, co-author of "Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead."
"You couldn't figure out what was going to happen next. Because it was so unpredictable, it kind of drove the idea that every show was a unique artifact."
Added Gans, "You can listen to every record that Frank Sinatra ever recorded, but you aren't going to listen to bootlegs of every show he played at the Flamingo in 1965 _ because they were all the same."
However, there's more to the mystique than that.
"I think it's the state of mind that the music put us in," said Pam Lincoln, a longtime Deadhead from Los Altos, Calif. "I think it was just that generation. I feel like, 'Hey, these are my guys. I've been through what they've been through. They've been through what I've been through.' It was the '60s."
Lincoln's husband, John Henderson — who attended 166 Dead shows — says he was drawn to Garcia.
"I never met (Garcia). But he knew exactly who I was — he'd smile at me at every show. And I'm sure he did that to hundreds and hundreds of people."
Behind the numbers, you have a savvy band of charismatic musicians who worked tirelessly to give its fans what they wanted, and the band continues to reap the dividends.
"It's astounding," said Weir, the Dead's vocalist-guitarist. "I'm not one of those folks — I'm certainly not going to be wading through that (73-disc) collection myself. I have to wonder how much time they spend doing anything other than listening (to Dead)."
HOW TO BUY
The live recordings can be sampled and purchased at www.dead.net.
To listen to whole shows, go to www.archive.org/details/GratefulDead.
(c)2011 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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