Music News

Coming Clean

It could have been a beautiful score.

"The guy in front of me was dancing around, and out of his pocket came a vial of my drug," recalls Steve. "It was sitting on the floor in front of me. I was looking at it."

For many years, Steve was the kind of music fan who deemed the attainment of a buzz as a crucial part of the concert experience, almost as important as whatever band was on stage. Normally, he would have seized the opportunity to pop a few of the pills that had fallen out of the stranger's possession. Rather than pocket the freebie, he lifted the vial off the floor and returned it to its true owner.

"I tapped the guy on the shoulder and said, 'You dropped something,'" he recalls. "He offered me some and I turned it down. That was a turning point for me."

About two months before that 1987 show by the Grateful Dead, Steve (who, along with the other individuals quoted in this story, asked that his last name not be used) turned away from drugs, but not from music. A longtime Deadhead who toured with Jerry Garcia and the band in their day, he's currently devoted to more contemporary jam-band acts like the String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Widespread Panic. He's also been clean and sober for fifteen years and is an active part of two small, organized groups of straight music fans who distance themselves from the chemical aspects of the neo-hippie counterculture. One of those groups, known as the Gateway, views Widespread Panic shows as chances to enjoy music while educating others on alcoholism and drug addiction.

"We're a program of attraction rather than promotion," Steve says. "We don't go looking for people. There's no recruiting drive. There are a lot of people who need what we offer, but we're for people who want what we offer."

Steve and other Gateway members will be on site during Denver-area concerts by Widespread Panic, which will take place at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in coming weeks. Fans of that band have come to recognize the Gateway group as part of the live-music landscape: Members distribute literature to interested concertgoers and provide safety-in-numbers companionship to addicts looking to avoid the mind-altering opportunities that abound in concert settings. They sometimes hold meetings between sets -- a practice that to some seems tantamount to presenting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the Great American Beer Festival.

"It's a slippery place; the temptation is around us all the time," Steve admits. "But if we want to get our fix of live music, we've got to be in that space. When I got clean, I didn't want to give up the shows. Now I can still do the music and stay clean."

That's just one of the positive aspects of attending a show with one's awareness intact. "I remember the shows now," he says. "When I was using, I couldn't read my set list the next morning. Now I still keep a set list, but I really don't need one. The next morning I can wake up and tell you what the band played last night and tell you how it was. There were plenty of Grateful Dead shows that I spent passed out on the floor. It was ugly."

The Gateway sometimes operates under the handle of Soberfans, a name derived from its Web address ( It was originally formed by a group of Widespread Panic fans who met to support one another during that band's shows. Different bands attract sober groups of different names, though many share members: Steve, for example, is also a member of the Jellyfish, a drink- and drug-eschewing collection of String Cheese Incident fans that centers around that band's concerts. String Cheese's management gives group members free tickets, as well as space to set up their table. The Jellyfish's outreach methods reflect the laid-back atmosphere of the shows themselves. "I'm not out there to say that drugs are bad," Steve says. "I'm out there to say that drugs took over my life and I needed to find a new way to live. But I also need to still do this music."

Steve and his Gateway partners have long sought a String Cheese-type arrangement with Widespread Panic. Like other jam bands, Widespread has developed a fan base that's characterized both by its mobility -- like devotees of the Grateful Dead, audiences often follow the band along entire tour routes -- and its penchant for mind-altering substances. The Georgia-based Widespread has seen its share of drug-related troubles this year: At an April show in Oak Mountain (an outdoor venue in Pelham, Alabama, known affectionately as the "Redneck Red Rocks"), a fan died after taking Ecstasy. During the same show, local law enforcement carried out Operation Don't Panic, an undercover effort that resulted in more than 200 arrests for drug and alcohol violations. That same weekend, a fan from Steamboat Springs (who had consumed alcohol, cocaine and Ecstasy in addition to smoking pot) hanged herself from a hotel balcony.