The Grateful Living

Jerry Garcia's devoted followers keep the Deadhead life alive on a hillside in West Virginia

August 09, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

TERRA ALTA, W.Va. - It's an odd place for a business district, this quarter-mile stretch of gravel road on a rolling, 700-acre farm in the mountains of West Virginia. But tent after tent adorned with handmade signs - "Sunshine Octopus Creations," "Knot Just Hemp," "Grateful Dan Imports" - and the men, women and kids poring over their wares testify to the lure and staying power of a man none of them ever met but that all feel they knew like a brother.

It hardly seems like a decade since Jerry Garcia, good-time maestro and founding member of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack at age 53. The 3,000 or so fellow travelers here for the 20th Annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash are mourning Jerry the way Deadheads celebrated his music for 30-plus years - gathering to soak up tunes, trade tapes and stories, and thrill to the feeling that there's a life to be lived on the margins of "straight" society.

By the time you reach the top of the hill, you've seen endless Jerry Garcias. Bearded Jerry, grinning like a genial nutcase from a thousand T-shirts, stickers and signs. Guitar-picking Garcias on posters, friendly Jerry teddy bears, Jerry key chains dangling from belts. Even Jerry lookalikes - scores of middle-aged men clad in Garcia-style bushy beards, sunglasses and oversized T-shirts covering oversized bellies.

Who was Jerry Garcia? The question lingers as you reach the main stage, where his fellow Dead star Bob Weir will headline the weekend's bill. There, at the summit of Sunshine Daydream farm, a 20-foot Jerry portrait, eyebrows arched, gazes down on the gathering hordes. Even he seems curious to know what the legacy is that he left behind 10 years ago today, and whether it's built to last.

It's not hard to find Trip McClenny's house. Just wander down the hill, follow the dreadlocked security guards in orange tie-dyed T-shirts and hang a right at the gate, where three hippies are asleep under a cardboard sign that reads "Gate Crashers." You can hardly see the plastic cuffs around their ankles.

It's not that McClenny, organizer of the bash, is an ungracious host. The Olney native started staging the "JGBB" here seven years ago, on his land dubbed Sunshine Daydream, because he saw it as the one place he could assure the kind of friendly, caring vibe that Garcia and the Dead embodied.

"What Jerry exemplified, in his music and his life, were kindness and love for others," McClenny says. That was how the Dead managed to create Deadheads, as McClenny puts it, "a family of concertgoers who would travel the country. These were kind people who were out to help each other. If you were hungry, they'd feed you. If you didn't have a ticket to a show, somebody might give you one."

Like anyone who "gets" the Dead, McClenny, 39, first soaked in that vibe as a fan. He journeyed to Dead shows, selling sandwiches or beer to make ends meet and "living life the way the winds blew it to you. Sometimes you saw a great show, an enlightening or dramatic one. Other times, the magic wasn't quite there." Always, he saw old friends and made new ones.

McClenny spends his waking life keeping Sunshine Daydream ready for the half-dozen "jam band" fests he and his wife, Emily, stage each year. They seek only bands that give off the friendly Dead vibe. But it's harder than ever, he says, to guarantee traditional Garcia-style family values.

"The festival circuit took a dark turn in the early to mid-'90s," he says. "You started seeing nastier drugs, the crack, the OxyContin, stuff like that. It used to be you didn't need but one security guy for a thousand people. ... Now, there can be guns, knives, syringes." His 56 security people search every car.

Still, the vibe has been strong enough to prevail. What started out a mere party in the backyard of an Annapolis friend has outgrown that space and two others. McClenny never dreamed that Bob Weir, Garcia's sideman and fellow legend, would play in it. Yet this weekend, he's here, ax in hand.

Hundreds have pitched tents here for the weekend, paying upward of $120 each for their 21st-century slice of Dead-style living. The money, McClenny says, is nothing more than a necessary evil, the gate crashers just bad apples who refuse to get how the vibe works.

"I'm not a concert promoter," he says with a laugh. "I'm a party thrower. Later on, I'll be up on the hill, socializing and dancing with everybody. That's my family out there."

As the sun sets over the hillside in a scarlet twilight, thousands move to the beat of ekoostik hookah, a Dead-style jam band that expands rock songs into lengthy improvisations. As psychedelic images flash on a screen, women in flowing skirts dance, gyrating as if working hula hoops on every extremity. As the set ends, McClenny seizes the mike.

"Hello to all you freaks on the hill!" he hollers. "Hello!" they holler back. He leads the crowd in a few shouts of "Happy Birthday, Jerry!" - Garcia would have been 63 on Aug. 1 - then introduces the main attraction.

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