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High Rollers: Our 1993 Deadhead Feature

Grateful Dead Fans (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the August 1993 issue of SPIN.


To a Deadhead, Las Vegas is the other side of the universe.  —Bill Graham

It’s a match made in heaven. —Sean, a 100-show veteran Deadhead from Burbank

For the third year in a row, Deadheads descended on Las Vegas, Nevada, that unlikeliest of hippie hangouts, for a spring weekend of Grateful Dead shows. There had been grumblings the year before—from casino owners and from a local politician (whose ’67 Porsche had been dented when a Deadhead jumped on the hood), but they were shouted down and the Deadheads were invited back. Most agreed with Sean from Burbank.

“It’s fun to be here,” said Kelly, a beautiful 21-year-old from Barbados who follows the Dead with her friends Moon and Molly. “It’s, like, here’s a town you’re allowed to party in — you’re meant to party.”

After the shows (the Dead and Sting, the opener this year, both received high marks) and the traditional veggie food and T-shirt bazaar in the parking lot, where many supported their touring habits, the Deadheads drifted back to their sleeping places of choice. A campsite at Lake Mead was filled with them, and Boulder City, south of Vegas, was a popular lowkey spot to spend the night, avoid the crowds, and beat the traffic to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Sam Boyd Silver Bowl Arena.

But most Deadheads stayed in Vegas proper, which welcomed them with cranked-up hotel rates. Some guests made sure they got their money’s worth; the (unverified) record may have been 35 people and three dogs in one a room at the Stardust. (They were ejected; at least one slept the rest of the night with his dog in the parking lot.)


(Credit: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)


When awake, they congregated—much to the proprietors’ dismay—on the wide sidewalk in front of Circus Circus, Slots of Fun (get it?), the Westward Ho, and McDonald’s. With wooden barricades, aggressive carding, and an occasional sidewalk hosing, the iron-pumping, well-armed casino security guards tried to keep the shaggy flock from taking over the casinos and scaring away the, uh, regular customers.

Not that the Deadheads were threatening —they are far more peaceful and much preferred by Vegas cops to metal or rap fans. But there’s something decidedly antiglamorous about the tie-dye, the dreadlocks, and the sweat’n’patchouli smell. Not to mention the “drum circles”—a dozen or more mostly male Deadheads jamming on bongos, picnic tables, walls, or sidewalks, with hands, feet, shoes, water-cooler bottles, you name it. To Deadheads, a drum circle is an invitation to join in, drumming, dancing, or spinning. To most passersby, it’s a casting call for Quest for Fire II, and a good reason to keep walking and find another casino.

A few Deadheads hit the tables; by Sunday’s show, Sean from Burbank had dropped a grand. But this kind of sum was alien to the serious, touring (and thus marginally employed) ‘heads, most of whom fed a few quarters to the slots but scoffed at serious gambling.

“My parents are Vegas junkies,” confided Aaron, 19, a touring Deadhead from Fort Wayne, Indiana. “They come here and spend $4,000 three times a year. My parents are fucked.”

But there was something about Vegas and luck and Deadheads—a karmic sense that Jerry Will Provide, kind of a hippie corollary to the strike-it-rich, big-bucks fantasy that brings over 21 million visitors a year to the city. Deadheads in town were full of stories about things just … “working out”: about being handed Dead tickets on their birthdays by total strangers, or, if they were really hungry, winning just enough in one slot-machine pull for a cheap casino buffet.


Deadheads (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)


Jo, a 47-year-old Moab, Utah, house painter new to Dead shows, had seen Friday’s show but had no ticket for Saturday’s and no money to scalp. She and her friend dejectedly packed up at their Lake Mead campsite—but Saint Jerry was watching.

“Just as we broke camp, I found a $100 bill in the bushes.” She bought a ticket for $50, and most Vegas visitors would have taken the remaining bushfall to the tables. But not Jo.

“I had everything I wanted, and I didn’t want to be greedy. If I had won any money, it wouldn’t have meant anything.” Jerry would surely have approved.

The ultimate example of Deadhead luck was the unidentified man walking through the parking lot, “looking for a miracle”— Dead-ese for holding up a finger, signifying that you need to buy a ticket. Lightning struck, he was thrown in the air. . . but he lived, with a few cuts and bruises. “You guys are miracle workers,” he told the Rock Medicine staff when he came to.

Now, people survive lightning strikes all the time, but maybe he did find a miracle; after all, a golfer peeing under a tree the same day was struck and killed. Which could mean nothing—or it could mean that Jerry watches over the Deadheads. And Jerry don’t golf.