EAST COAST, WEST COAST – WORLDS APART!                                  

by Karen Bell

The Grateful Dead concerts and the Deadheads on the two opposite American Coasts couldn’t have been more contrasting or different and it was like visiting another culture or continent when going to shows on the other side of the country.

 The West Coast deadheads were mainly peaceful, laid back and included a large contingent of aging hippies, relicts from the Woodstock, Fillmore and the Winterland days as well as younger people who came from far and wide to integrate into this community. The atmosphere was mellow and familiar.  We were one big family and there were no police, no hassles, little alcohol and you wouldn’t find a scrap of garbage or a broken bottle left at the venue or campgrounds the following day. The air was filled with the aromatic scent of Humboldt’s best grass and the main hard drug being consumed would have been LSD.

 It was quite the opposite on the East Coast.  The venues were much bigger, alcohol played a major roll and many more aggressive drugs were being taken such as cocaine, crack, speed, mda, mdma etc.  The police were very everywhere and many of the high-strung, mainly younger yuppie deadheads, were aggressive and destructive and the following day the sites would look like a huge war zone.  Please don’t misinterpret me  - I had some wonderful experiences on the East Coast and some of my dearest friends from there were very decent and normal deadheads and wasn’t actually until after the commercial success of the album “Touch of Grey” that the East Coast Tours became overwhelmingly negative.  Thousands of young rowdies who didn’t necessarily even appreciate the music would come to the shows and used the opportunity to party, get drunk and experiment with drugs.  The gates were being crashed, people were getting injured and finally someone was even murdered at a show in the parking lot.  By the end of the 1980s, many of us had stopped going on the East Coast tours.  They had become too negative and this wasn’t what the Grateful Dead were about.



 Of course, we were spoiled living in the Bay Area and apart from the dozens of Dead shows in California and other Western states we also had the fortune of seeing loads of Jerry shows each year.  He played regularly at “The Stone” in San Francisco and later 3-day runs at the Warfield, Orpheum or Shoreline as well as some special events including festivals such as the Eel River where Jerry returned to his Bluegrass roots.  The Deadshows were played at venues such as the Henry J. Kaiser, the Civic Center, the Frost and Greek Amphitheatres, Cal Expo, Ventura, Long Beach, Laguna Seca and later Shoreline, only to mention some of them.

 I was part of a group of deadheads who always stood at the front during a show, at the barricade between the stage and the audience,  and we were referred to as “railrats”.  The West Coast shows had a system referred to as the Priority Line and about 30 of us would campout in this line beside the venue each night.  Jane, my housemate, would bring a foam futon sofa that folded out into a large mattress and she, myself and another housemate, Lisa would sleep on this at the front of the line before each show.  It was really very comfortable and kept us warm even if we were out in the rain under a tarp or in cold and frost which, believe it or not,  which we had also occasionally in California.  There were always the same people in the priority line and we would share food, drink and joints with each other and chat, listen to music and have an enjoyable night sleeping on the sidewalk or entranceway near the venue.  We also had frequent visitors which included normal deadhead friends as well as people such as Dennis McNally, Wavy Gravy, Calico, various Hog Farm members and several BGP employees who often checked on us making sure we were safe and had no problems.

 For those of you who are familiar with the Grateful Dead Movie you might remember seeing a clip with a certain black security officer known as Willie.  Well over a decade later, he was still involved in the scene and it was his job to come around early in the mornings and distribute the so called priority tickets.  If you were the 1st person in line you would get a small coloured ticket with a number on it and everyone else in line would get a number in accordance to the order they had lined up.  After receiving our priority ticket we would pack up our bedding and sleeping bags and could leave.  Often, when the shows were nearby we would go home, sleep some more, shower, have something to eat and pack for the show and the following night in the priority line.


Priority Ticket

 We were expected back at the venue by a certain time in the afternoon and would line up in the same order as the priority tickets had been distributed.  When the doors finally opened, the VIPS would first be admitted, then the persons with a physical handicap or wheelchair and thirdly, the priority line.  I was the “runner” and Jane or Lisa brought in all our belongings, including blankets, coolers and jackets.  This meant that I had no handbag or jacket that had to be searched and I only held my ticket in hand to enable that I would get through the security check as fast as possible.  There was only one other runner that was as fast, or slightly faster than myself,  and that was Sean from Santa Cruz.  We would charge through the gates and race towards the stage with security always calling behind us, “Slow down, don’t run” etc.  We would literally crash into the front barrier and lie down trying to take up as much room as possible.  Shortly afterwards, our friends would join us with all the blankets and baggage.

 My position at the stage often changed throughout the years.  In the beginning I was always in front of Jerry on the West-Coast and Bob on the East-Coast as my East Coast friends were Bob fans.  In later years it had become rather gooey and crowded in front of Jerry and because my best friend Lisa was a huge Phil fan I’d end up running to the left side of the stage.

 We always had room up front at Bay Area shows and could sit comfortably with our backs against the barrier both before the show and between the sets,.  Again, we often had visitors up front and during the break several housemates and friends would come visit us, we’d share hugs and usually have some kind of little picnic with Lisa and Leta from Oregon often bringing coolers with fresh strawberries, melons or fruit and sometimes there were snacks such as crackers, chips and salsa shared.  We also had more than enough room to dance when the band was playing and could hang all our bags and belongings over the railing or give them to our favourite security person or Dennis McNally, who often stood on the other side, to deposit somewhere.

 The West Coast shows were normally relatively laid back with a pleasant atmosphere.  Musically, however, they weren’t always the best performances but naturally we also had the occasional highlight, especially when they played at places like the Greek or Frost Amphitheatres.  Sometimes, after a mediocre concert, we joked that the Dead were just rehearsing with us to prepare for the upcoming East Coast tour.  Perhaps that was even true to some extent.

Of course, for us Zooites, the shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley were the absolute highlight each year.  The Arch St. Zoo was only several blocks away from the Greek and our home of 18 some persons grew into a dormitory for dozens of other visiting deadheads from both coasts.  It was quite amusing tiptoeing through the sleeping bodies on the floors throughout our house for up to a week before, after and during the shows and it was certainly a huge event.  Even perfect strangers would end up sleeping or showering at our house and we all assumed they must have been a friend of one of our many housemates.  By the time we would figure out they weren’t anyone’s guest it really didn’t matter any more as we had a new friend.

A large faction of West coast fans travelled to the shows in old converted school buses, VW camping buses or vans and they were an ingrown part of  the deadhead society.  They arrived early at the shows with their families, children and pets to spend more time together with good friends and they weren’t at all interested in the whole commercial aspect of the Grateful Dead.  Many of them didn’t even care if they actually got into the show and just being in the parking lot with their friends was enough.  I quickly realised that I wouldn’t make my fortune selling bumper stickers or T-shirts at shows in California as you could buy GD merchandise at any shop on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley or on Market St. and in the Haight in San Francisco.  The older heads were also content with their old faded tie-dyes and everyone already had a sticker on their vehicle, cooler or guitar case anyway.  I was lucky to sell 20 to 30 stickers before and after a show out west.

Many of the West Coast Venues allowed overnight camping, except perhaps Shoreline and the University venues where the campus police tried to keep us away.  We camped in meadows, wooded campsites or just in a great big parking lot and if there weren’t proper camping facilities (SF Civic Center) we just had to improvise and stay somewhere nearby.  BGP (Bill Graham Presents) did everything possible to take care of the Deadheads and help create a pleasant atmosphere.  Somehow, Bill Graham had an arrangement that kept the police off the grounds of most venues and a volunteer “Clean Crew” was organised to collect the garbage and this kept the hosting venues or towns happy and, hopefully, without a reason to complain.  Flyers were often distributed with list of hostels and cheap accommodation when we weren’t allowed to camp and all in all, everything was pretty low key and friendly.







The East Coast shows were always WOW - hot and full of energy and the Dead played many of their best shows far away from home.  The adrenalin would always boil over but the whole atmosphere just wasn’t as warm or personal as in the Bay Area and you were mainly left to fend for yourself in large busy cities with stressed citizens and an over population of police (who certainly didn’t think highly of deadheads).  Most of the venues and their surroundings weren’t at all pleasant and a large part of the audience had a very different mentality.  However,  the Dead performances in the east were polished and absolutely amazing and they would even occasionally play some old gem of a song which had hadn’t been heard on the West Coast for eons.  It was seeing the band, musically, at their very best that outweighed the other negative aspects of an East Coast Tour and the only reason I ended up making this journey several times.

 The eastern natives were certainly at a disadvantage not being able to see the band as often as those from California and this might explain the extreme euphoria that accompanied the East Coast shows.  It was, however, a completely different Deadhead culture, with both a positive and a negative side, and although there was more passion and excitement in the crowd,  it was also a culture with much more materialistic and egocentric values.  These shows simply overflowed with energy and it was almost as if an invisible electric current was transcending the audience while the music played.  You will notice on any good recording that the crowd was always much louder and more exuberant at East Coast Shows and the band certainly picked up these vibes which must have supplied fuel for their great performances. 

It’s difficult to accurately describe the different atmosphere between a show in East and one in the West but you just have to take a look at the two coasts and it’s residents to begin to understand.  The cities on the eastern sea board are huge, heavily built up, polluted and very heavily populated.  The traffic is outrageous and traffic jams are a daily chaos.  A city like New York never sleeps, it’s action 24 hours a day and between the sirens and the cars honking their horns in traffic there is hardly a quiet moment.  In comparison, with the exception of Los Angeles, the western cities are much smaller, less populated and thus less traffic and stress.  Many deadheads not living in the Bay Area were from very rural places in Northern California, Santa Cruz or Oregon and were accustomed to a much quieter life closer to nature.  This was reflected among the crowds at the deadshows - those from the West Coast enjoyed the shows in a mellow and more spiritual manner and those in the east preferred a big party with lots of action and beer.  It really was two different worlds.

 There was no such thing as a priority line out east and often you wouldn’t be able to line up in front of the venue until shortly before the doors opened.  If you tried to start a line too early you would likely be chased away by security or the police and when you finally were allowed to get in line, the regular befriended railrats would be joined by a host of young drunken teenagers.  When the gates opened, the race was on.  However, Sean and I were still the fastest runners around and had little problem getting to our preferred spots at the front.  My friends Jamie and Stacey, were the pack mules out east and would carry in our belongings and jackets.  There wouldn’t be as much room at the rail though and as the concerts progressed it would get rather cramped with people trying to push and elbow their way up front.  In fact, you will likely have heard a recording before where Bob begins a chant with, “One, Two three, take a step back”.  Most of these chants in later days were at East coast shows and often by the time the 2nd set would begin we were literally being crushed against the railing.  This, however, does support that fact that the band really were aware of the people near the front and even they did their share to watch out for our well-being.

 During the pause between the first and second set you didn’t dare leave your spot as you would never get back.  Even if you were friendly and polite trying to get through the audience, people would curse at you and block off any gap that would allow you to continue.  Unless, of course,  you ran into someone you knew.  On the West Coast almost everyone knew everyone or at least recognised one another and you could easily wander through the audience, visit the restrooms and return to the front without the slightest problem.  Everyone would sit down and relax between the sets, chat and have something to eat.  Here, in an eastern venue, apart from a small group of us, no one sat down and the break was a time where people tried to push their way up front and find a better spot for the 2nd set.  If one person left their spot, 10 others would fight to take it over.   If I really had to visit the restroom I would have a better chance trying to sneak out during Drums and normally I could get back to my friends up front before Space came to an end.

 In comparison to the pleasant aroma of marijuana that filled the Californian venues, the eastern ones often stunk of bad plastic-smelling opium and beer.  Alcohol was a major problem, along with speed, which was much more popular in the East,  and there was always a contingent of rather aggressive and intolerable idiots at the shows.  It was quite a shame and as this number of idiots grew, after the Dead became more commercial, it really was the beginning of the end.  It was these people who were crashing the gates, starting fights and leaving behind a path of destruction that caused many venues not to invite the Dead back in later years.  By 1990 and later,  GDP were distributing flyers and newsletters trying to encourage people to stop this chaos but it would never really be the same.

 Fortunately, this did not apply to all the venues and occasionally we still had a relatively friendly environment especially when we weren’t in the big cities like Richmond, Worcester or Philadelphia.  For example, the 1985 Fall tour included shows in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Rochester and the scene was still quite familiar and very enjoyable.  It wasn’t until the shows reached the larger auditoriums near more populace areas that the energy became different.

 The East Coast heads really had money though and were hot to buy any sort of merchandise they could get their hands on.  It wasn’t uncommon to sell 200-300 bumper stickers in a 20 minute period after a concert at the Meadowlands and before GDP began their own licensing of products we could make a small fortune during a concert run.  Of course, this became more difficult after the official Dead Merchandising began, but by dodging the security and police in the parking lots, you could quickly sell enough to pay for gas, a hotel room and a good meal.  This was an important aspect as camping wasn’t allowed at many venues and the weather was often cold and wet especially on the spring and fall tours.  It was very nice to be able to afford a hotel when you needed one.

 The other major culture shock for deadheads visiting from the west was the massive police presence at shows and of course the crime.  We never even locked our house door at the Zoo in Berkeley!  The first time I went into New York City, we hadn’t been parked longer that 20 minutes, and returned to find the window smashed in and our radio stolen.  We learned very quickly not to leave any valuables around and to make sure everything was properly locked.  There were venues and States where the police presence was horribly intimidating.  Massachusetts, topped the list as being a  “Police State” and it appeared like they just wanted to harass us and pulled over cars simply because they had a deadhead sticker on them.  We once pulled over on the shoulder of a highways near Foxborough to assist a VW bus that had overheated and the police came along and fined us for parking on the shoulder.  Of course,  they first spent about half an hour rummaging through both our vehicles, belongings and clothing and when they didn’t find anything illegal,  I think they just wrote the ticket due to their general dislike of deadheads.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear of dozens of deadheads being arrested at each show which was something that never happened in California unless someone really flipped out.  Several venues also had mounted police armed with batons and although I personally never experienced them being used tales did surface later of deadheads being beaten by the police on horseback.

 Sometimes, I’m glad I missed the later East Coast Tours but underlining what I stated earlier, the shows musically really were wonderful and well-played and the band certainly thrived on the abundant energy coming from the audience.  It was only a minority of rowdies and corrupt law enforcement officers that eventually poisoned the soup.

 After over 2 weeks of awesome shows, and taking into account the crappy weather, big cities, miles of driving, police and masses of exuberant yuppies and want-to-be deadhead idiots, it was always great to finally get back to the Bay Area and relax.  We knew our next Dead shows wouldn’t be such polished performances but we were simply happy to be back in “our” environment and together with our much mellower deadhead family!  However, the hot performances out East would always tempt us to return to the chaos in the future and many of us did.  My last East Coast Tour was in 1988 and after that I never had the time nor desire to return.  The negative energy was sadly beginning to dominate the beauty of the Grateful Dead experience and for me, personally, the magic was gone.  I became content just visiting the Western shows - although if I’m perfectly honest - my eyes would still light up with envy when someone else returned from an East Coast Tours and presented the setlists and recordings.!


Karen Bell

© August 2007