Doc explores what it really means to be a Deadhead

A Deadhead poses in front of Grateful Dead posters at a Haight-Ashbury apartment in January 1980 in San Francisco. Ed Perlstein/Redferns

‘Box of Rain’ looks at the community that evolved around the Dead and their music.

Photo: A Deadhead poses in front of Grateful Dead posters at a Haight-Ashbury apartment in January 1980 in San Francisco.Ed Perlstein/Redferns

10 May 2-22 | Nicholas G. Meriwether | SFGate

More than 25 years after the Grateful Dead’s last concert, interest in the iconic San Francisco band shows no signs of waning. For those curious about how a band with only one top-10 hit could exercise such an enduring appeal, a new documentary streaming on Vimeo offers a fresh look at why.

Directed by Bay Area filmmaker Lonnie Frazier, “Box of Rain” provides an affectionate, thoughtful view of the world Grateful Dead fans made.

With an array of narrators, including well-known authorities such as writer Peter Conners as well as the director and her friends, the film presents a range of perspectives on the ways that fans of the band — nicknamed Deadheads — view their experience with the band, music and scene.

The results cast a wide net, commenting on both well-known Deadhead practices like dance, dress and touring, as well as more sub rosa activities, such as drug use.

The film does not dwell on the darker aspects of the scene. Indeed, much of the power of “Box of Rain” derives from Frazier’s own experience, which she decided to make the main focus mid-way through the project.

The film opens with her escape, as a teenager, from a toxic home environment into a Deadhead scene that embraced her, showing her how to reclaim her humanity. The community helped her build a new life using values and ideals from what she calls her new family in order to create a fulfilling life and career.

“It was such a freeing experience,” Frazier recounted to SFGATE in a recent interview. “I say that in the film: It completely altered the way I’ve lived my life, and the things I’ve been able to do as a career. I’m not sure I would have had the same courage to do those things if it hadn’t been for the Deadhead community.”

American psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead pose on the corner of 20th and Connecticut in Potrero Hill, San Francisco, circa 1965.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The idea for the film emerged at a gathering of Deadheads about 10 years ago. Discussing the recent death of a friend, one participant commented that she was especially sad at the thought of never hearing her friend’s Grateful Dead stories again.

It was a real community need, Frazier realized. She went to work, but after recording only a few interviews, she recognized that these stories represented something larger. The documentary emerged organically, and when friends and fellow fans understood the project, they offered their help, turning the project itself into a reflection of the community and its values.

That spirit infuses the film, making it an important addition to the growing Grateful Dead filmography. Many of those are documentaries, including the band’s own monumental effort “The Grateful Dead Movie” capturing the band and the scene at a peak, right before they retired from the road in fall 1974 for 18 months.

It was supplemented by several other insider accounts, capped by Amir Bar-Lev’s sweeping, authorized retrospective “Long Strange Trip,” released in 2017. Those films include fans, but there have also been several fan-focused efforts, from Brian O’Donnell’s “Deadheads” (1991) and Andrew Behar’s “Tie-Dyed” (1995) to Brent Meeske’s “The End of the Road” (2005).

“Box of Rain” adopts a long view of the scene, from its mid-’80s heyday before the hit “Touch of Grey” ended the halcyon days of the band’s below-the-radar status, to the post-Garcia era that continues today.

That span defines the film’s goal, which is to explain how a scene often dismissed as nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll hedonism actually offered participants something far more substantive, positive and life-affirming. Frazier experienced that stigma herself: When colleagues found out she was a fan, “so many people only had negative things to say. And at some point I thought, ‘I can do something about this, if I show people what I found, what I saw in the Deadhead community.’”

Watkins Glen Rock Festival, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., with the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band performing. Some 600,000 rock buffs streamed in for a one-day concert inside a race track.NY Daily News via Getty Images

The gulf between that stigma and the reality Frazier experienced is an important theme in the writing on the band but less so in film. “The Music Never Stopped,” inspired by a chapter in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book “An Anthropologist on Mars,” is an exception, but Frazier’s film both draws on and contributes to the growing work on the Dead scene that recognizes its more singular qualities. Peter Conners’ “Growing Up Dead” is one example, a literary memoir that also informs his testimony in the film, but it confirms a long-running theme in Deadhead lore as well. 

One interview subject told writer Linda Kelly that “my very first Dead show was very spiritual. I felt safe, like it was a good place to be, I felt taken care of.”

Another young woman told Kelly that “The Grateful Dead made me realize that music could be spiritual and that you can find the good in the people around you. That you can open up and not get hurt. And that life can be fun, even when things are down, if you smile and let yourself have fun.”

The Grateful Dead celebrate New Year’s Eve with a balloon drop at the Oakland Auditorium on Dec. 31, 1979.Clayton Call/Redferns

Those anecdotal affirmations are finding support by a growing body of academic work. Deadhead resilience is a topic that psychiatrist Adam D. Brown, a professor at the New School, is studying. His work builds on Fordham University psychologist Mark Mattson’s studies of Deadhead memory, which demonstrated its affirmative power.

Their work adds to Deborah Baiano-Berman’s assessment of the Deadhead scene as a moral community. The connection between individual healing and community health is critical and fragile, as current events, both domestically and internationally, remind us. 

But “Box of Rain” tells a story that is accessible, not just timely. Frazier’s experiences confirm that. “I remember meeting people who lived on the road, and created beautiful artworks and selling them in order to fund their journeys,” she said.

But she also met lawyers and CEOs who treasured their time at shows. “I’d never seen anything like that, where people came from so many different walks of life, and had that experience together that everybody valued, but then went back to their own thing afterwards with no judgment, and no criticism.” That lesson feels especially relevant today.

Deadheads pose in front of Grateful Dead posters at a Haight-Ashbury apartment in January 1980 in San Francisco.Ed Perlstein/Redferns

“You can focus on the drugs, you can focus on dropping out of society,” Frazier said. “But in the end, these people built a community that was all about love and all about support, and being genuine. And I just thought that was so unique.” 

The film has already earned accolades, including Best U.S. Documentary at the Austin International Art Festival in 2021. “Box of Rain” will likely find its greatest audience among fans, but it offers other viewers a persuasive and often moving account of why the scene exercised such a powerful appeal, and continues to do so today, more than a quarter-century after Jerry Garcia’s death.

Nicholas G. Meriwether is director of planning and museum development at the Haight Street Art Center. He curated the current exhibition “Psychedelic Renaissance: Posters from the Family Dog and Bills Graham Presents, 1965-1967,” which runs through May 15.

James Porteous

James Porteous is an author, photographer and researcher. Clipper Media News is a daily publicatioin featuring news and views you can use.

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