High Desert Deadheads: Memories of the Grateful Dead Keep On Truckin’ Thanks to These High Desert Fans.
DESERT Magazine, June 2019
On the early evening of February 26, 1977, the Grateful Dead mingled backstage before their concert at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, Calif. Returning to the road after a long hiatus and nearing completion of two stressful, expensive projects – a self-produced movie and a failing record label – the band was at a personal and professional crossroads. As the crowd filed into the venue, an airy and ornate theater holding a capacity of 10,000, a tense anticipation hung over the scene, heavier than the marijuana smoke that rose like fat nimbostratus clouds to the ceiling. It was the band’s first concert of the year.
A teenage high school student from El Camino Real named Mark Chlebda wandered through the crowd at the Swing. With his brain marinating in psychedelics, he carried a stack of heavy cardboard posters, created for the show on his school’s printing press. While attempting to sell them for a couple of bucks, someone interrupted his sales pitch.
“Hey man,” the guy said, “You spelled San Bernardino wrong.”
Chlebda looked down, let out a string of expletives, and then just gave them all all the posters away – except for one. He needed something to write the band’s setlist down on, a common ritual of a Deadhead obsessive. The band took the stage and the crowd erupted in cheers.
Sitting in his Twentynine Palms backyard over more than 40 years later, Chlebda lights a cigarette and shakes his head, still amazed by those crazy, hazy days. After a lifetime of rambles, with stints in California, Chicago, southern New England and back West again, Chlebda speaks in the low tones of a Midwestern drawl, with just enough East Coast attitude to wake up the doves nesting in the rafters of his porch.
“The Swing was a trippy, old venue,” he said. “That night, there was all of this tension, this energy, and once the Dead started playing, a hush fell, everything got quiet. We all just stood in awe.”
Nearly 25 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia, high desert fans like Chlebda have kept the memory of the Grateful Dead alive through music, memorabilia and creative artistic mashups combing desert imagery and the band.
On his Highway 62 podcast, which streams “genre-free radio” on an underground website called the Flying Eye Radio Network, Chlebda highlights the Grateful Dead often, mixing in the band’s oeuvre with lots of punk, soul and roots music in between. For Chlebda, it’s all part of the human musical experience.
“I saw the Rolling Stones in 1975 and I thought nothing would be better,” he said. “But then I saw the Grateful Dead and these guys do everything! Rock, country, blues, jazz. It just smacks me right in the face, man.”
For Morongo Valley artist Rudy Jansen, the Grateful Dead serves as both a muse and a creative outlet. Working out of a rustic studio built by scraps of wood by the previous owner of his home, Jansen’s entire workspace is covered in stickers and graphics sent by other Deadheads from around the world. Jansen represents a 21st century Deadhead, an obsessive that connects with other fans, not only through face-to-face meetups, but via the Internet and social media. Yet even with his hyper-connected reach online, Jansen’s introduction to the music of the Grateful Dead was decidedly old-school.
“I’ve been a longtime fan of traditional old-time folk music,” he said, “and seeing the Dead’s songbook, I recognized stuff like ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Stagger Lee’ but they reworked those songs into their own thing.”
A writer and director by trade in the film industry, Jansen and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Los Angeles by way of Nebraska in 2013. The switch from modest Lincoln, Nebraska to the hustle of Los Angeles rapidly changed from exciting to exhausting and the couple found refuge in the high desert. I followed him gingerly up a set of rickety steps to a small tower room above his studio. With the afternoon sunlight piercing through the dusty windows, Jansen puts on a live Bob Dylan record and takes a long pull of beer. His careful and deliberate sentences are dressed up in humble, Midwestern manners.
Yet as an artist, Jansen doesn’t treat his work with any sense of preciousness. Every image and idea is up for grabs, regardless of its origin, and Jansen’s high desert/Grateful Dead mashups are a tribute to both. Via linocut and screen prints, Jansen’s work loosely follows the tradition of artists adding their own designs to well-known visuals, turning those images into something new, usually to highlight a local scene or a cause.
His first run of t-shirts was a mashup of the Dead’s iconic “Steal Your Face” logo with a desert scene of coyotes and cactus. Jansen donated the proceeds of the t-shirt sales to the Joshua Tree land management nonprofit Mojave Desert Land Trust. According to Jansen, “a bunch of LA Deadheads” taught him the basics of screen printing and creating t-shirts seemed like the most accessible product that would sell well.
“The idea was to do one t-shirt design and give back to the desert,” he said.
In many ways, Jansen’s approach is a continuum of what the Grateful Dead envisioned way back in the mid-1960s: that artists can reimagine traditional work through experimentation and make it their own. Now working under the name “Two-Bit Piece” on Instagram – the name comes from a line in the Grateful Dead song “Row Jimmy”, Jansen continues to combine visuals of the Grateful Dead with desert images, and has branched out to stickers and patches, in addition to the t-shirts. And while the Grateful Dead are typically associated with Northern California locales, Jansen feels the presence of the band in the high desert.
“Although the Dead never played up here, the nature aspect of their music lends itself to wild places,” he said. “The songs have those themes. Nature and the world, those themes match out here as well. The music, in many ways, has gone beyond the band. I kind of predict that, in time, Dead songs will become our next folk music standards.”
Those timeless themes involving the Grateful Dead: community, appreciating the natural world and sharing ideas, all bring up a constellation of memories for Mieka May. A high desert hippie incarnate, with an avalanche of wavy brown hair and a penchant for bohemian clothes, May had the unique experience of, as she describes it, “growing up on tour”.
Throughout the early 1990s, May traveled with her family in a converted bus, following the Grateful Dead around the country whenever the band was on the road. Her father, graphic designer Michael Ginsburg, designed freelance Grateful Dead stickers to sell at concerts, beginning in 1988. The operation provided both fun and profit, affording Ginsburg the ability to travel and make a living. His work eventually led to an official gig with the band; Gisburg created the large stage screens for the Grateful Dead, both the graphics and the animation, for the band’s huge stadium tours of 1990 and 1991.
“Both of my parents are Deadheads and we went to tons of shows while I was a kid,” she said. “We had a tour bus named “Ben” that was converted into a living situation with a VW van on top. The van loft was my room.”
As they traveled across the country, May watched the landscape of America change through a prism of stickers that plastered the Ben Bus windows. The country and the Grateful Dead were changing, as well. The conservative winds of the Reagan Revolution were slowly beginning to shift into something more open and accepting, as globalism made the world seem a lot smaller. The Grateful Dead were in a resurgence too, as a new generation of fans discovered their music. The intimate concert halls where the Dead learned their craft had now turned into stadiums.
One staple of these new Grateful Dead concerts included the parking lot scene before and after the shows. Dubbed “Shakedown Street,” these get-togethers connected Deadheads who cooked food, played music or sold homemade wares, usually in the hope of raising enough cash to get to the next show (or to fund some extracurricular stimulants). As an owner of the Flamingo Heights boutique, Moon Wind Trading Co., May believes that her unconventional upbringing turned out to be a gift, both informing her as a person, but also as a successful businesswoman. Her father’s stickers became, in a sense, a symbol of something much larger than their modest beginnings. It offered sharing, community and possibility.
“We would take the stickers with us on tour with the Grateful Dead and they were a huge hit,” May said. “Everyone had to have at least one. There are still some floating around that you can get at Moon Wind Trading Co. Today, I think of my store as a modern-day Shakedown Street.”
During their travels, May and her family saw the Grateful Dead perform at some of country’s most storied venues, such as Madison Square Garden in New York and Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado and those early memories shaped her in ways that still resonate through adulthood.
“The Grateful Dead lightens my heart,” she said. “It brings me back to my childhood and reminds me to loosen up, love life, be present and enjoy the ride. I’m so grateful for my upbringing into that micro-scene of the world.”
That sense of gratitude still radiates from May. You can see it in her shop and the art and goods she sells, many from local desert artists that she supports. After all of these years and all of those miles, the music has not faded away. She even has the stickers that started it all; Jerry Garcia’s image pulsing like a burning sun, another of a VW bug driving through a desert landscape – probably on tour. They are still available for a new generation.
And the fate of the Ben Bus? May’s family converted it into a nightly rental property, complete with electricity and furnishings, and it sits at their Monroe, Utah resort named Mystic Hot Springs. Even the galaxy of hippie stickers that decorate the bus have survived the long, strange trip.