Documenting the Grateful Dead Way of Life
Rock photographer Erik Kabik elevated his consciousness in a Dead show photo pit
Photography by Erik Kabik
Erik Kabik was 14 years old when he started to feel the pull of the Grateful Dead.
It was the summer of 1986, and he had gone to see the resurgent band play RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. “Triple billing,” the Las Vegas-based photographer remembers. “It was a really cool show.”
But, for him, it would prove to be more than that. Kabik didn’t know it at the time, but that show would launch an obsession with the Grateful Dead that would come to define his life. Soon he was following the group on tour between college classes, selling burritos in parking lots and finding his way into the photo pit to train his lens on the band that inspired him.
Today, Kabik is a veteran rock photographer who’s shot everyone from Willie Nelson to the Wu-Tang Clan, and whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and GQ. But his career started back in those Dead-head days, when he was just a kid in a tie-dye T-shirt, toting around a camera and dancing into the night.
In honor of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary tour this year — with sold-out shows at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara June 27–28 and at Chicago’s Soldier Field July 3, 4, and 5 — we asked Kabik to dig through his archives and tell us the story of his time following the band on tour. He did us one better: He got film developed.
Here is a selection of images — including some never-before-seen photos — of his time with the Grateful Dead.
I Was 8 Years Old
My parents took me to see the Grateful Dead when I was 8 years old actually, and I hated it. I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever experienced in my entire life, cause I was a Kiss fan. I went backstage and got to meet Jerry and the band and they all autographed my T-shirt and stuff. So I was first introduced to them at that point, but I wasn’t into it at all until I got a little older.
My parents used to have a catering business where they did the riders for rock bands that played at venues all around Maryland. Since I was like five years old, I was hanging out backstage, going to concerts, meeting the bands, getting autographs. I got to eat with them. I had dinner with the Police when I was a little kid; I hung out with Van Halen a couple times; got to meet the Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters. So I was always in that environment, ever since I was very young.
The Birth of an Obsession
I was there just kind of as a voyeur at RFK Stadium in 1986. I didn’t really understand what was happening, and it didn’t really hit me hard until the next year. ‘Cause after that show I started listening really heavily, and that’s when it got me.
The following year I saw them at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. At that show I just had one of those cathartic experiences where I was like, This is home for me, this is where I belong, this is definitely a place where I feel comfortable. I’d been to lots of concerts by that age — unlike a lot of my friends, I had been to hundreds of concerts—but I’d never seen anything like that, where people were that connected to the band and there was just this intense communication happening with the audience. They were long shows, and everybody was dancing and just in such great spirits. I felt hypnotized by it. And I was a sober 15-year-old kid there. I wasn’t ingesting psychedelics at that point.
Kabik moved across the country for college in Oregon, where he picked up photography and quickly switched his major from psychology to photojournalism. And he kept following the Dead, driving to meet the tour between classes, spending summers bouncing from show to show, selling burritos or 8x10 photos to make extra cash.
The Kid with the Camera
In those days you could bring a professional-style camera into a show. Anybody could. You could shoot from anywhere in the venue except for the pit. But I went right down to the pit. I knew what publicists were and I knew what tour managers were from my experiences backstage as a kid. So I was like, “Is the tour manager around?” And next thing I know the publicist is standing in front of me, Dennis McNally.
I told him my situation, that I wanted to take photos, and I’m shooting for my college paper up in Oregon and getting into photography. And he let me right in the pit. That really was where it started.
I talked to Dennis a couple years ago — and we hadn’t really communicated much after the Dead — and I was calling him to thank him, because he basically gave me career my letting me do that.
“Working for the Grateful Dead meant you were semi-obligated to break certain rules. As publicist, this meant that in addition to accommodating the New York Times, I made a lot of effort to be good to college kids. They were almost always sincere — about their art, as well as the Dead — and it was pretty much always worth it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that many of them would go on to serious success. Probably the outstanding example was the kid from Ashland — Erik, as I eventually came to know — who’s ended up a very successful guy in Las Vegas. Who knew? But in the traditional GD manner, when you put out the right energy, it gets rewarded, all the way around.” ~Dennis McNally, Grateful Dead historian and publicist for more than 20 years
If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve shot a lot more shows. I didn’t shoot every show; I wanted to dance and have fun. If I went in the pit and shot a couple rolls of film I was happy. I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” And then I could print up a couple shots and sell them at the next show.
I was doing that for those few years in the early 90s. I think 8x10s were $10. I probably sold a lot for $5, and I probably traded a lot of them too. Someone would come up some cool bead necklace that I liked or some tie-dye shirt, and I’d trade them for burritos or food or stuff like that.
The atmosphere at the shows was definitely focused energy. Everybody was into listening closely to the music and dancing. That was the whole thing. It’s not like you’re going to a concert to hear a band. We’re going in tonight and we’re going to dance for three hours and just immerse ourselves in the music.
Some of us got more intense than others about the style of dancing we would do. I hung out with the spinners. At Dead shows, the spinners were people who did dervish dancing, and it was sorta like meditating. Going to a Dead show, if you were hanging out in certain pockets of it, it was like you were going to this giant meditation group. It was more than anything I’d seen at another rock concert. People were definitely there elevating their spirit and consciousness through the music. And it was a way of life. I think a lot of people who were searching for different things maybe found them there, from all different walks of life.
The Grateful Dead started out with the Acid Test, so you can’t deny that part of their culture surrounded the craze of psychedelics and people in that scene also feeling that way. But I found going to shows sober was better for me. I didn’t really like doing drugs at shows, and when I found the dance that was part of it, too. I think for my group, that was how we got high — dancing. It didn’t require the drug experience, but I never looked down on it or frowned on it and understood that it was an important aspect.
I Wish I Had Done Them All Now
I saw about 150 Grateful Dead shows, and I saw the Jerry Garcia Band probably 45 times. Jerry Garcia was the center of the whole thing.
Jerry Garcia band shows really grew precious to me — they were like going to church. Grateful Dead was like going to a concert; going to see Jerry Garcia in San Francisco at the Warfield was definitely church.
The music was different. He did a lot of old Motown songs, and gospel music, and blues standards. So it wasn’t like that psychedelic rock Grateful Dead sound, it was a different kind of sound. It just had a different vibe, and it was like you were seeing Jerry doing what he loved on his days off from the Grateful Dead. Like you knew he just wanted to keep playing.
That’s the stuff I wish I had shot more. I shot two Jerry Garcia Band shows; I wish I had done them all now.
Erik Kabik is a veteran photographer based in Las Vegas who specializes in music photography. He’s shot everyone from Beyoncé to Willie Nelson, and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone and GQ, among many other publications. To see more of his photographs, visit erikkabik.com. Follow him on Twitter @Erik_Kabik
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