Excerpted from "So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead"
Three songs into the show, the house lights still on, the time had come for “Dire Wolf,” but with a perverse twist no one had anticipated. Twenty-five years had passed since the Dead had recorded that song at Pacific High studio. They’d played it innumerable times since, occasionally slowing it down a half step. But tonight, in the middle of Indiana, they again injected it with the crisp, merry gait of the recorded version, and even the song’s refrain harked back to its original impending-death inspiration. “Please, don’t murder me,” Jerry Garcia sang again, now in a voice weathered by age and abuse, as cops pivoted their heads, hoping to catch sight of the man who’d vowed to kill Garcia before the night was over.
Along with the likes of Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin, the Deer Creek Music Center had become a destination spot, a revered haven, for the Dead and their fans alike. Springing up amid cornfields and cow pastures a half-hour north of Indianapolis, the amphitheater was, like the band, an enclave unto itself. Out there the straight world never felt so distant. Although the Dead had played Deer Creek six times before without major incident, tonight began on a sour note. On their way from their hotel (north of Indianapolis) to the venue word filtered down to band and its management: a death threat had been called in to Deer Creek. Similar calls and warnings had arrived before, but this one felt creepier. An anonymous person had called local police claiming to have overheard the distraught father of a young female Deadhead. The information was unclear, but the implication was that the girl couldn’t be found and had run off on the road with them, and that the father was planning to attend the show and shoot Garcia.
Huddling backstage with the head of security, the band grappled with what to do. Verifying the threat was difficult, but Phil Lesh, the most immediately concerned because his family was there, made the case for canceling the show and heading out. “I was not going to stand up there and be a target,” he recalls. But Garcia brushed it off, saying he’d dealt with crazies before and wouldn’t let this one stop him. “Would you sacrifice yourself for the music?” Mickey Hart recalls of that night. “All those things run around in your brain. But I remember joking, ‘Jerry, could you move over six inches onstage? At least I’ll make it!’ We were screaming laughing. The decision was made and everyone came around. We were worried, of course, but we didn’t want some lunatic to shut us down.” Indiana state police made their way into the crowd and the stage pit; there they were joined by other Dead employees, including publicist Dennis McNally and Steve Marcus of Grateful Dead Ticket Sales, all nervously glancing around for . . . something. No one knew what the supposed shooter looked or dressed like, and no one even knew for sure whether the threat was real. But they weren’t about to take any chances.
Ironically, the show opened with “Here Comes Sunshine,” the twinkling kaleidoscope of a song that was dropped from the repertoire after 1974 but had returned starting in 1992. At one point in the show a piece of electronics gear began misbehaving, and keyboard technician Bob Bralove, who usually stood behind the keyboards or drum riser, was forced to walk to the front of the stage to fix it. He’d performed the task dozens if not hundreds of times before, but never before had he felt as if a bull’s eye was plastered on his chest. “You could feel it,” he says. “This was normally the place that was always safe and you felt the love from the audience. But all of a sudden I’m realizing I’m standing next to the guy they said they wanted to kill. It was very, very intense.” After tending to the repair Bralove quickly retreated back to the darkened part of the stage.
For years they’d defied the odds; so many times they’d been written off creatively, physically, or economically, only to return, sometimes as vital as before. But the last few months had made even those closest and most loyal to the Dead wonder whether they, Garcia especially, would be able to pull back from the darkness. During a set break Garcia called his loyal driver, Leon Day. “I had a threat on my life,” he told him. Day joked back: “I got your back—you got mine?”
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