At the height of his powers, Rock Scully was the charismatic front man for the business of the Grateful Dead, a sophisticated, smooth-talking hippie who coped with promoters and cops and other agents of reality while the band created magic on stage. Actually, Rock had his own magic.
Raised partly in Europe – he used to tote his stepfather’s tape recorder for Voice of America interviews – he attended a Quaker college in Indiana and landed at San Francisco State in the middle 1960s, where he took part in anti-segregation demonstrations in San Francisco in late 1964. In the process, he got to know people like Luria Castell, Danny Rifkin, Chet Helms, and Owsley “Bear” Stanley.
Over the next year or so, each would find a place in the burgeoning San Francisco rock scene. Luria had joined with friends to start the Family Dog, which produced three shows at Longshoreman’s Hall featuring the new bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the Charlatans. When she went on vacation to Mexico, Helms would take over the Family Dog brand.
Danny Rifkin was the manager of a boarding house at 710 Ashbury Street, and Rock’s trusted friend. Owsley made LSD…and introduced Rock to another new band, the Grateful Dead.
Here’s what Rock said he felt at his first Dead show: "An hour or so into the set and something very odd starts to happen. It's the room, doctor. The room is breathing. Breathing deeply, like a great sonic lung from which all sounds originate and which demands all the oxygen in the world. We inhale and exhale with it as if to the great collective heartbeat of an invisible whale. We are all under the hypnotic spell of this ghostly pulse."
Later he would remark - in contrast to left wing political types - that “our revolution is on the molecular level.” Rock and Danny were simply destined to be the managers of the Grateful Dead. When the band settled at 710 Ashbury Street, they shared a desk in the front room – sitting on it; there wasn’t a chair – and conducted business with wit and flair using a superb good cop/bad cop routine. "I'd be the hippie and be sweet and nice to everybody," said Rock, although his routine often concluded, ". . . but I don't know what my partner, Danny, will say."
The Grateful Dead didn’t get rich under his management – Danny would frequently depart to travel, but Rock always stayed – but those early years set a pattern of creativity and growth that would be hard to top. Rock fenced with the record company and kept things going, and every once in a while would come up with a memorable coup, like the time in 1968 he convinced the band to be smuggled in a bread truck onto a shut-down Columbia University campus to play for the student strikers on the steps of the campus union building. It was an adventure only Rock could dream up.
There was a central sweetness to him, and a commitment to the hippie ideal of great trips. If he conned you, a friend of mine said yesterday on hearing the news, it was almost always in the service of a higher ideal and for the best of reasons.
Over the years, his eternal inability to conform to any schedule and his remarkably creative explanations for why he was so late would become wearing. It was calculated that he must have delivered a large proportion of the babies born in Marin County, having many times explained delays by saying he’d stopped to help a woman in labor by the side of the road.
Eventually, bad habits caught up with his charisma, and he left the band in 1984 and settled in Monterey. Later still, positively glowing with sobriety and cheer, he produced his autobiography, Living with the Dead. Some of the details might have been fuzzy, but it communicated the spirit of the old days remarkably well.
Rock Scully died from lung cancer on December 16, 2014.
“May the four winds blow him safely home.”
- Dennis McNally