Here's a tip about Arizona for visiting Deadheads: Local authorities are very uncool about pot smoking at big rock concerts. Here's another tip: Don't plan on enacting your usual tailgate-Woodstock ritual this weekend.
The preceding public-service announcements were brought to you because the Grateful Dead, one of the world's oldest rock bands, is scheduled to play concerts at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Compton Terrace, a large outdoor amphitheatre located about fifteen miles south and east of downtown Phoenix. (See related feature in Sun Tracks.)
The group's fans call themselves Deadheads. Trailing scraps of tie-dyed fabric, energy crystals and reefer nubs, Deadheads travel far and wide to follow their beloved combo. They are gentle people, but prone to dope smoking and erratic dancing. They also tend to scarf mushrooms, peyote and LSD. And they do it with little regard for public opinion or pesky legalities. They do it because it is their "bag."
According to a spokesperson for Evening Star Productions, local promoter of the shows, both concerts are likely sellouts. Tickets for Saturday's show were gone two weeks ago, and only a few thousand general-admission seats remained for Sunday's event as New Times went to press. Compton Terrace holds about 22,000. It's estimated that some 6,000 tickets for each show were bought up by traveling Deadheads, through the band's mail-order ticket service. Most of those fans will arrive from out-of-state expecting a mind-bending good time. When the Dead last played Compton Terrace three years ago, hundreds of Deadheads arrived two days before the actual concert and set up a camp just outside the amphitheatre's gates. For most of the band's 25-year history, the pre- and postconcert Deadhead party "scene" has been a major component of the Grateful Dead Experience. "You'd go to any particular city, and it would be like a flea market outside the shows," says Tony Victor, local music promoter and longtime Deadhead. "Tee shirts, clothing, jewelry, crystals. They all have their little booths, selling stuff. People trading, people looking for tickets."
Victor followed the band through Europe this fall, along with about 4,000 other American Deadheads. Even in Germany, the group's upcoming Arizona stand was a hot topic. "In Europe there was a lot of excitement," Victor says. "People--the travelers--really like Compton Terrace. Maybe because it's in the middle of nowhere. . . . Everybody I talked to was really psyched to come to Compton Terrace and see the show."
Hence the need for the above warnings. Interestingly enough, the first warning--the one about the marijuana--may not be necessary, due to the second--the one about the preshow party. Steps have been taken to ensure that local law-enforcement meanies interested in flashy drug sweeps have fewer sitting-duck targets. "The news this year is that there ain't any party before or after," says John Dixon of Evening Star. "No vending. No camping. That's a story that has to get out."
Deadheads who do arrive at the site early--the parking lot will open at 9 a.m. before each concert--will be handed a letter explaining the new no-preparty philosophy. The letter, which also contains recommendations on local campgrounds, motels and restaurants, concludes with the suggestion that concertgoers "please get in your car and leave" right after the shows, Dixon says.
The tough-love approach is not Evening Star's idea. And a spokesperson for the amphitheatre is quick to say that Compton Terrace digs the Deadheads. The lockout isn't even the result of local pre-emptive paranoia over the possibility of an undercover dope sweep like the one that ruined last spring's Paul McCartney concert for several concertgoers. Strangely enough, it's the Grateful Dead's idea.
Burned by unfavorable publicity after concerts in several American cities, the band has been trying to discourage its best fans from doing the camp-in, swap-meet, do-your-own-thing thing at concert sites. According to Bob Barsotti, a concert manager for Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco (the company that produces the Dead's tours), the policy is old news. "It's been almost two years now, and things have mellowed considerably on the outside prior to shows," Barsotti says. "It was becoming such a great scene outside, it was attracting thousands upon thousands of people who had no intention of going to the concert. The traveling road show was making it so that people with tickets couldn't get parking. Shows were starting late because people couldn't get to the show. It was creating lots of problems logistically, and the police started to complain about the various problems that occur when that many people are gathering in parking lots at night."
To Deadheads, Barsotti says, change comes slowly. "They didn't like it at first, but they realized that the whole scene was starting to come into jeopardy," he says. "We were losing cities that would allow the show to go on."