The vending scene outside Dead shows started so innocuously. Before or after shows in the ’70s, if anyone was selling anything, it might be a handful of people peddling homemade T-shirts out of a backpack, or perhaps something small, such as pipes, stickers or low-key food items—brownies, cookies, etc. I remember buying my first Grateful Dead T-shirt—which depicted Garcia playing an acoustic guitar under the words “Grateful Dead” in nicely crafted American Beauty-like lettering—outside Manhattan Center in April ’71. In August of that year, I bought my first GD bootleg album outside Gaelic Park in the Bronx.
In ’72, “official” shirts started popping up inside shows—the initial wave of skull & roses Kelley-Mouse Monster Co. shirts, on light blue or white heavy cotton. I still have the tattered remains of my first skull-and-lightning-bolt shirt from that era (it wasn’t called a “Stealie” back then; that didn’t come into the lexicon until the design was used on the cover of the Steal Your Face live album in 1976). My shirt had that logo surrounded by marijuana leaves. Wow, what a rebel I was! (I’m joking.) I sure did love that shirt!
The first place I recall an actual vending “scene” outside Dead shows was the five-night 1979-’80 New Year’s run at what was then called the Oakland Auditorium (later renamed Kaiser Convention Center, a.k.a. “Kaiser.”). New Year’s shows were always a popular destination for out-of-towners, and unlike Winterland, which was located in a fairly depressed area of SF, the Oakland Aud. was adjacent to a small but lovely park—which turned out to be a perfect hangout spot.
We bought this beautiful tie-dye shirt, featuring part of Tim Gleason’s design
from the cover of Issue #2 of The Golden Road, in the parking lot of Red Rocks in September ’85.
That first year, a fair number of folks set up tents in the park, and having people there constantly over six or seven nights attracted vendors with crafts or food to sell. Suddenly, tucked in between the funky tour buses parked along the street outside the venue, there were trucks and vans equipped with stoves or grills selling hot food, and as the days went by, more people hawking wares from blankets on the grass—Crystals! Incense! Photos! Tie-dyes! I spent a lot of time out there before the first few shows, interviewing and photographing fans for a BAM magazine cover story published a few months later, called “Deadheads: A Strange Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender.” It was quite a mellow and beautiful scene, even with the periodic downpours that soaked everyone that year.
The crowds outside Oakland Aud. increased with each New Year’s run, and by ’82, Dead shows in other places were also attracting more merchants and, increasingly, people without tickets who wanted to hang out at what was slowly but surely developing into a hippie bazaar. The first couple of years at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the overflow was accommodated on a soccer field next to the venue, equipped with loudspeakers. Across the bay at Stanford, the sprawling, magical eucalyptus groves outside Frost Amphitheatre offered both parking and a great place to do pre- and post-show shopping—I fully expected to buy something from a Hobbit! Beginning in ’82, the Ventura County Fairgrounds provided camping for thousands of Dead Heads, and an enormous commercial scene sprang up there, as well. On the other hand, when we drove up to Eugene for shows at the Hult Center in the fall of ’83, there were very few people selling things; maybe because the venue was so tiny that not that many tickets went to touring Heads. Surprisingly, there were more outside the next stop on the tour, Boise, Idaho.
The number of people following the band for tours (or parts of tours) seemed to increase exponentially each year during the first half of the ’80s, and the scene outside of shows grew right with it, especially at outdoor places where the band played two or three shows in a row—Alpine Valley, Red Rocks, etc. But it wasn’t long before the parking lots outside arenas in more urban areas also started attracting large concentrations of vendors and the ticketless, who seemed content to immerse themselves in this tangential Dead world, dubbed “Shakedown Street” by many. Gone were the days when most of the craftspeople were hardcore fans looking to earn enough to go on tour and see more shows. Now, in addition to those good people, were many who followed the tour only to sell to the growing crowds outside the venues. Some clothing vendors set up huge booths with racks and racks of options, and food sellers had elaborate setups with multiple burners. Alas, the Shakedown scene also began to attract more drug dealers, who found a large and receptive audience for their wares among the curious shoppers, and that led to increased infiltration by Drug Enforcement Agency narcs and a large numbers of arrests—not good publicity for the band, to say the least.
And that was all happening before Garcia got sick in ’86 and the band hit the Big Time in ’87 following his recovery and “Touch of Grey” and all that. As we discussed a bit in a previous blog, that’s when Shakedown Street and the whole touring economy really exploded. Cities and venues found themselves completely overrun for days at a time, mostly with people attracted to the hippie city that sprang up like fast-growing mushrooms. A place such as New York City, where the Dead played Madison Square Garden, would barely show a ripple of the alien invasion more than three or four blocks away from the venue, but in Alpine Valley or Hartford or Atlanta or the Greek and Frost—oh, my God! By ’89, the Dead were banned from those last two wonderful spaces, and the group’s management was meeting serious resistance from many other municipalities.
In response, the Dead booked “guerrilla” shows in Hampton in October ’89 and Hartford in March ’90, where the concerts were announced just 10 days in advance and tickets were sold only to locals (supposedly). Camping and vending were formally banned on those tours, which seriously affected the Shakedown scene. The Dead also took the curious step of finally trying to enforce the copyrights on their logos (after mostly ignoring that issue), resulting in some bad blood between longtime low-level shirt and sticker makers and the Dead organization. The little guys (correctly) believed they were being punished for the transgressions of true bootleggers. But the crackdown did have the desired effect of keeping some of the hordes away—at least for a little while.
Here’s our good buddy Dick Latvala
at Cal Expo, date unknown, sporting a hand-drawn T-shirt depicting Blondie and
Dagwood outside a Dead show selling veggie sandwiches
and looking for tickets. Photo: Regan McMahon.
I feel as if I didn’t personally see the problem at its worst. At general admission shows, I was typically waiting in line hours before the show rather than wandering the lots looking for cool stuff. And after most concerts, I just wanted to get home or back to my hotel room (if I was on the road) to continue the party with my pals. At the few reserved-seat shows we had in the Bay Area—at Shoreline—the vending was mostly inside the venue and controlled. But whenever I did cruise the endless rows of booths and blankets outside shows, I enjoyed it immensely. It got harder to find my favorite T-shirt makers, but I often did anyway, and it was always fun to make that connection with those true artisans over the months and years. We always wanted to see the latest designs from Dennis Simms and the good people from Red Bear Designs, Spectrum Batiks and a few others. We still own a few of each’s shirts.
Most of the changes that were made at the beginning of the ’90s in an attempt to better control the scene outside, didn’t seem to stick. Shakedown kept on growing and was still pretty out of control until the end of the Dead. The nitrous oxide problem grew steadily the last few years (though I don’t think it had been taken over by organized crime yet), and the ticketless continues to descend on the lots wherever the Dead turned up. We won’t even get into the Tour from Hell in ’95, which presented one problem after another outside shows, though more from gate crashers than on Shakedown Street.
Garcia’s death put an abrupt end to the serious Shakedown scene. I gather some merchants accustomed to making their living on the road following the Dead decided to glom onto Phish, String Cheese Incident and other bands of that ilk, but it wasn’t the same. Still, as the years have passed, the scene outside some shows by The Dead and Furthur has grown again—and become a problem again in certain places (such as Calaveras in 2010 and Monterey in 2011).
I still don’t spend a lot of time there, and the people I used to buy shirts from have long since left that life. But sometimes it feels like a nice link to the past, seeing all those tie-dyes and Guatemalan clothes and hearing hippie girls calling, “Kind veggie burritos!” It wasn’t always good for the Grateful Dead world, but now it’s one colorful vestige of those days that has carried through good times and bad.
Let’s hear some of your Shakedown/vending/parking lot stories. I know you got ’em!