The Grateful Deadheads, Part 2

Between the two of them, Aunt Renee and Uncle Matt attended over 100 Dead shows.   According to Renee, “every show was different.”  The band was known for playing a unique set list each night while weaving songs together through improvisational riffs.  The spontaneity and originality of the performances created a special class of Deadhead denizen known as a “taper.”

At each show, the Dead dedicated a section of the audience to those fans who wanted to record the show.   As Jerry Garcia famously stated, “my responsibility to the notes is over after I played them.” The tapes were– and continue to be–circulated among the Deadhead community for free.  Of the more than 2,300 concerts the Dead played, almost 2,200 were taped.  Many of which are now available online at sites like

But there was something Matt and Renee spoke about with more nostalgia than the shows– the parking lot.  (They showed us an excellent documentary about the scene entitled Tie-Died.)  “The Lot” was the tent city that sprung up near where the Grateful Dead were playing and served as home base for the itinerant fans.

“The parking lot was as good as the show,” Matt told us while explaining why the couple sometimes chose not to see the Dead play, instead hanging with friends and strangers outside the venue.  Matt told us a story about partying in one of their motor homes. “On the table was a map of the united states.  Everyone would sit at the table, point out where they were from and we would have huge conversations about it…We got, like, 18 people in there one time.”

In the same motor home (or was it one of their numerous Volkswagen vans?) they decided they would hang out with whomever they encountered on the way to the next show.  At a rest stop, they approached an older couple that was down to party.  Matt and Renee ended up traveling to the next show, along Pacific Coast Highway 1 with a convoy of new Deadhead friends trailing behind.  Confused, I asked Renee how they knew the couple was cool.  She responded, “You know your people.  That’s how you can tell.”

Bouldering with Matt and Kaylie.

Lot regulars bartered or sold things to make it to the next venue.  Renee sold dresses she made and the couple frequently ran a grilled cheese business out of their vehicle.  They’d go to the store and buy as many supplies to make the sandwiches as they could afford– sometimes as many as 10 loaves of bread.  According to Matt, “we’d invest $25 and come out with $100, $125 in our pocket.”

Matt and Renee were quick to assure us that they never sold drugs.  They made more money running a free/pay-what-you-can kitchen than they would have by selling.  Deadheads believed in lending a helping hand.  “You would do a favor for someone,” explained Matt,  “and they would repay it.  6 shows later you would see them and it was, ‘hey! How have you been?’”

Most of their money was made off of locals who attended the Dead shows.  “We were polite to locals, but you could tell who they were,” Renee remembered.  They were the people who had money to burn and had no problem donating a $1 in exchange for a grilled cheese sandwich.  Especially when they were coming from the show either stoned or drunk.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.  When the Dead took a break, Matt and Renee would return home to work dead-end jobs to save money for the next tour.  Renee took a job at a fabric store only to get the discounted fabric to make the dresses she sold at concerts.  This extra cash helped prevent the couple from resorting to panhandling for gas money.  (Most of the time.)

Practically tripping over each other to tell the story, Matt and Renee recounted the time their van broke down in a small town.  They had to stay for a month, working jobs to pay for repairs.  When they finally had the money, the mechanic pushed the van to the front of the workload.  “The guy seemed to really want work on the van because he respected what we were doing,” Matt finished.

Matt and Renee no longer own a Volkswagon van. Instead, they have Truck Norris.

The police presented a serious problem for the Deadhead community.  Often, traveling with the Dead, Matt and Renee would see police lined up waiting to pick off anyone who looked “different.”  Which was one of the main reasons they never painted their vehicle.  Having a psychedelic looking van was a sure way to get pulled over and harassed, justifiably or otherwise.

Matt believes his experience on the road with the Dead was similar to what most people experience in college.  “Marketing. Business. We learned to be entrepreneurs.  We had to support ourselves.”  (Not to mention the wild parties.)

Finally, Matt and Renee ran out of stories.  Or I passed out due to the altitude and 6 beers.  It’s hard to tell.

The next day, TJ and I began the first major leg of our journey around the west.  As Matt and Renee were sending us off, they were envious.  Both wished they could join.  “You’ll have to tell us about Burning Man,” Renee demanded.  Just as TJ and I had been eager to hear about the possibilities of a life spent traveling, they were eager to reminisce through ours.

Swapping stories is an essential part of life on the road.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director


Part 2 of 3 in a series about The Grateful Dead and their loyal following.
Part 3 coming soon…
Part 1 available by clicking here.


  1. […] Dead and their loyal following. Part 1 available by clicking here. Part 2 available by clicking here. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]


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