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.

Widespread Panic recently agreed to give Gateway members a table at all of the band's shows. (According to a publicist, the group and its management were unavailable to comment on this arrangement.) The Gateway's founder, a twenty-something man named Clay, says that while he's frustrated that it took deadly events for the band to open the door to his group, he's happy to have the opportunity now.

"They're doing us a huge favor," he says. "It's outside the scope of rock and roll."

Clay, who started the Gateway in 1998, doesn't expect his group to be warmly received by everyone. He learned that lesson during his first concert appearance as a sober crusader, a Widespread show in Tennessee. "It was tough. [There were] wasted people who screwed with you," he recalls. "I felt like some weirdo, some preacher trying to spread the gospel on the streets of Birmingham." The response, he says, reflected the music of the band he travels to see ten to fifteen times a year. "[Widespread Panic's] music is a little bit meaner and nastier -- which I like -- and so is the crowd," he says. "It's not all bubbles and hula hoops, like you've got with String Cheese. People were pretty negative toward us from the beginning."

Clay says the animosity has mellowed over the past four years, though he still occasionally encounters the hostility of drug and alcohol users. "The Gateway is not anti-drug; that's not our position," he says. "We're just there to have a good time, and we feel like it's an environment where people might need a group like us." He also makes it clear that he and his associates don't hold Widespread Panic, or any other band, responsible for their audiences' behavior or consumption.

"The band has nothing to do with the world's drug problem," he says. "I've seen a lot of people try to find something in a rock-and-roll band. They're looking for meaning or God or whatever they're looking for, whether they know it or not. They're using the drugs too heavily and thinking this band can save them. That's just not the case."

Clay recalls the story of a friend who, while following Panic on the road, embraced the more dangerous side of the band's touring contingent. "Within a couple of years, she was all dreaded out and crazy, and she ended up killing herself," he says. "But it didn't have anything to do with the band. She was just searching for something and looking in the wrong places."

The Gateway and the Jellyfish loosely follow the practices of organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Both have volunteer staffs of officers, regional table coordinators and Web and newsletter editors; both host discussions online. The Gateway and the Jellyfish also use the model designed by Don, founder of the original group of sober fans, the Wharf Rats. A Deadhead now celebrating his 25th year of clean living, Don got the idea of organizing like-minded fans after seeing an AA bumper sticker in the parking lot of a Dead show in the mid-'80s and, later, meeting the members of an informal club, Grateful We're Not Dead, at a show in Chicago. The official Wharf Rats held their first meetings at shows -- always in an area midway between stage and the soundboard, "on the Phil Lesh side," Don says. "We had it in our head somehow that Phil was one of us. I'm not sure why we felt that."

The Wharf Rats identified themselves by carrying yellow balloons at concerts, a practice that's been embraced by other groups like the Gateway and the Jellyfish. (This system has created some confusion at concerts: Sober fans tell of being approached by people who think the balloons are filled with nitrous oxide. "I've had people ask me, 'Hey dude, can I get a hit off that balloon?'" Steve says.)

Interest in the Wharf Rats has not waned in the post-Dead years. The group has continued to meet at shows that feature former members of the band, including Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, with in-concert Rat meetings often drawing a couple hundred people. Some factions on the East and West coasts hold weekly meetings that are not tied to live shows. And recently, Dark Star Orchestra, the nation's leading Grateful Dead cover act, began bolstering its detail-minded concert re-creations by inviting the Wharf Rats to have a presence at Dark Star shows.

"The tour is very dangerous for people in recovery," says Don. "There are a lot of people who do use drugs. It stands to reason that there would be a proportionate number of people in recovery from drug abuse. It's a natural place for us to meet.

"I didn't get in to a lot of shows when I was using," he adds. "I would be the one who was so drunk or high I couldn't move. And I could never remember much of what happened. To the extent that I can enjoy the shows now and remember it, yeah, it's a lot better."

As part of his Gateway and Jellyfish duties, Steve meets recovering fans at their first sober shows and keeps them company. In April he attended the String Cheese Incident's performance at the Fillmore Auditorium with Jay, a new Jellyfish member.

"I'm new to recovery. I was afraid to go into an environment like a concert," Jay says. "There were lighters going everywhere. It seemed like this big wall of smoke descended on me." In the company of Steve and the Jellyfish, he says, "I felt a sense of belonging, a 'welcome home' kind of deal. We have our own little subculture inside the larger one, our own little family."

Jay got his first taste of jam-band music several years when he attended a Dead show high on cocaine. The combination was a bummer, he says. When he returned to the jam scene, free of a chemical influence, he worried that his interest in the music would decline. So far, though, that hasn't been the case. "I went to the [String Cheese] show, and now I'm addicted, so to speak," he says. "As goofy as it may sound, I find this music to be very spiritual in its effect on me."

That's no surprise to Steve, who constantly meets fans who are considering the sober lifestyle. "I tell them, 'Hopefully, you'll still be alive, and we'll be there for you.' You have to want to help yourself first. That's the only way to get clean," he says.

"Phil Lesh once told me in Denver a couple years ago that the Wharf Rats save lives," Don recalls. "That says it all. How many lives do you have to save for it to be successful? I've had innumerable people come up to me and get help they would not have otherwise had." Helping others, he says, "helps me stay clean and allows me the privilege of being there for somebody in need."

Steve also says his volunteer work helps keep him drug-free. Better still, the concert experience holds richer rewards now than it did before. "The music gets me high," he says, "I enjoy the shows now more than ever. I'm much more alert to what's going on. It's easier [to tell] when the magic isn't happening, when the band's not on.

"It's changed what I heard and how I felt about the music."

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Marty Jones