Imagine, for just a moment, you’re holding a backstage pass for a concert by your favorite band. There in your grubby little mitts is the key to that storied sanctum only select fans are privileged to see. Cool, eh?
Yeah, right, like that’ll ever happen.
Homer resident Jim Stearns, however, can give you the next best thing. For the better part of a decade, beginning in the late 1980s, his company provided catering and hospitality services for the Grateful Dead and other rock icons.
Stearns has written an engaging account of his experiences called “Feeding the Dead.” Between its covers, Stearns illustrates how the illusions of the uninitiated can’t match the mad realities. It is a tale of bizarre requests by frazzled rock royalty often surviving stardom in a pharmaceutical fog, of navigating Machiavellian business hierarchies, of managing the staggering logistics of feeding musicians and hungry hordes of security and production personnel, all the while operating on far too little sleep.
After 30 years in the music business, Stearns finally called it quits a few years ago. A little more than three years ago, he and his wife, Alisa Mooy, now the Homer News’ advertising sales rep, and their two daughters settled in Homer, a place they found “nurtures its children.” It was tough at first, but Alisa insisted on staying put.
Stearns soon hooked up with Renewable Resources Foundation, then in the planning stages for the first Salmonstock festival in 2011, and has helped put on the concerts since.
“It was a timing thing,” he said.
During a conversation in a quiet room at the Homer Public Library, Stearns talked about “Feeding the Dead.”
In 1987, Stearns was owner of Avery Ranch, land he’d purchased in 1974 in the Sierras east of San Francisco. Others joined him in the remote mountainous location and a community grew. The ranch became a resort business. What began as parties became a business in 1981 devoted to putting on concerts for ranch resort clientele. In 1985, Stearns incorporated as Avery Ranch Inc.
Asked to host a Grateful Dead affair in 1987, Stearns agreed. Not long after, he got an offer he could not decline — cater for the Grateful Dead and go on the road. In short order, the small company grew from an annual income of $60,000 to $1 million.
“It was kind of heady. All of a sudden we’re saying, ‘My God, we’ve hit the big time,’” Stearns said. “We were a little helter-skelter trying to lasso this thing.”
The job came with no job description, schedule or handbook. The only “informal” guide was a mantra: “The Dead won’t micromanage your department,” they will simply “give you enough rope to hang yourself.”
Stearns credits “a tremendous group of very together people” for the company’s ultimate success.
Stearns said Avery Ranch Inc. was “low man on the totem pole.” Though hired by the Grateful Dead, Avery Ranch’s job meant working with legendary promoter Bill Graham of Fillmore East and West fame who produced the Dead concerts as Bill Graham Presents (BGP). As “the new pledges,” hazing was in order.
At their first Dead concert, the backstage security chief directed them to a parking lot a quarter mile up a steep hill — a serious hike. Their first breakfast was a near disaster, eliciting a colorful tirade from BGP officials. Stearns called it a twist on an old adage: “If you can’t stand the heat, get you and your kitchen out of here.”
They never again missed a deadline, he said.
On another occasion — an Ozzie Osbourne production by BGP — the hospitality crew arrived at the Oakland Coliseum and was told to set up their tent kitchen in the cold and foggy parking lot. When Graham arrived, he demanded to know why the kitchen was outside the arena. Soon after, Stearns said, Graham was apologizing profusely and “told us we were never to set up in the parking lot again.” After that, the relationship with BGP “gradually evolved” into one of “mutual respect.”
As time went on, the productions grew as the Dead became an entertainment phenomenon. The increasing production demands required high competence from Avery Ranch employees. That brought another issue to the fore: drugs, an omnipresent detail of rock culture. But stoned was no way to stay atop this job. There were simply too many things to think about.
“I learned the very first show we did that drugs were not going to work, personally,” he said. As for his employees, if he found you high, you were fired.
The Dead were usually the last to arrive at a concert site and the first to depart. The exact opposite was true for the hospitality crew. “We were first in, last out,” Stearns said. Twenty-hour days were not unusual. The wee hours often found the crew loading trucks like “zombies on automatic pilot.”
Producing major concerts meant several business entities working together, which sometimes proved problematic. Hierarchy within that milieu was inevitable.
“Necessary, but overdone,” Stearns admitted. He once eased concerns among his own crew arising from criticisms leveled at them by the Dead’s crew saying they had their jobs by virtue of having been there since the Dead had been setting up on flatbeds in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.
“They happened to have been in the right place at the right time,” he said. “These guys couldn’t get a job in a gas station.”
Stearns said BGP often “turned the screws” on others with whom they did business. Financial debates were common. Told what was wanted and how much they were going to get paid, Stearns would counter, “You can tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you what it will cost, or you can tell me what you want to pay, and I’ll tell you what you’re going to get. You can’t have both.”
By contrast, Stearns said, Graham, largely “hands-off” with BGP daily affairs by this time, was a generous and caring person.
The Dead themselves rarely cared about the minutia. For instance, they’d go through a gross of terrycloth towels a night. Asked what they wanted to do with them since they owned them, Dead officials didn’t care. Towels weren’t the only thing left over; truck loads of excess food were typically given away in Columbia, a small community not far from Avery Ranch.
Stearns said he had a good relationship with Grateful Dead members, but those relationships varied.
The rapid explosion of popularity made Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist, singer and songwriter, somewhat reclusive, a kind of defense mechanism, though he was always friendly, Stearns said.
“That was true throughout the rock and roll business. Some people handled fame well, some terribly,” Stearns said.
Stearns hung out with Bob Weir, who played mostly rhythm guitar and sang with the group, quite a bit, playing football and talking environmental issues. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Weir were friendly, he said. Mickey Hart (drums) could be great, and then be “a jerk.” Bass man Phil Lesh was “steady, friendly, cordial, and never got pissed off.”
At Dead concerts, while audiences were getting their money’s worth, Stearns was backstage.
As close in proximity to the stars as he was, he rarely saw shows from the audience’s perspective. He wasn’t experiencing what the Dead Heads were when the band was truly on fire.
“It took me five years to finally see them when they ‘hit it,’” Stearns said. “I went out there and relaxed and all of a sudden I got it. I realized why people spent fortunes and volumes of time traveling from show to show to get this particular experience. When the magic happened, it was other-worldly, stratospheric, ethereal. I mean stunning, wow! The whole building, everything kept lifting. That was what they were there for. They could go through 10 shows where nothing in particular would happen, but then, ‘it’ would happen again.”