CORVALLIS, Ore. - The death last summer of Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia won't spell the end of the "Deadhead" movement, according to an Oregon State University professor who has studied the band's legendary legion of followers for nearly a decade.
The band itself, she points out, is only part of the phenomenon.
"Being a Deadhead is a way of life," said Natalie Dollar, an assistant professor of speech communication at OSU. "There is a spirituality and a commitment to a certain lifestyle that won't go away just because Jerry died.
"The 'tourheads' may find new bands to follow," she added. "But the core of the Deadhead movement is still very much alive and it will survive."
Dollar, who has been studying the Deadhead movement since 1987, is in the midst of a new research project looking at the post-Garcia era. Dollar, a veteran of numerous Grateful Dead shows, said Deadheads are difficult to characterize because there are so many layers to the movement.
Her studies have shown that the typical Deadhead is well educated, with an above-average income, and prefers life outside of the mainstream. There are ties to nature, spirituality and, of course, music.
But it is the sense of "place" that Deadheads get from being connected that is a key to the strength of the movement, Dollar pointed out.
"The most obvious manifestation of Deadheads' sense of 'place' comes at a show," Dollar said, "and that is gone forever. But not all Deadheads are the same. Some tourheads attended every show. But some Deadheads went to five shows a year, others went just once a year, and some haven't gone in years.
"A show provided a sense of reaffirmation, a place where you have the support and the sheer numbers of people who believe in the same things you believe in," Dollar added. "For some, it was not unlike going to church."
Dollar said that sense of place still remains, largely through the Internet, where loyal Deadheads still dissect lyrics, recall favorite shows from 25 years ago, and ponder the future.
What has changed, Dollar said, is that the reaffirmation of the movement no longer will come from Grateful Dead tours. It will come from different places for different people, which likely will further splinter the Deadheads.
"A lot of Deadheads who miss the shows will probably latch onto other tours," Dollar said. "There has been a lot of talk about the Furthur Festival this summer. It plays at 32 cities, mostly in outdoor amphitheaters, which cater to the natural setting Deadheads prefer."
Former Grateful Dead band members Bob Weir (with Ratdog) and Mickey Hart (Mickey Hart's Mystery Box) will perform on the tour, as will Bruce Hornsby, who "gained a huge following" when he played with the band. Two other bands in the Further Festival, Los Lobos and Hot Tuna, are favorites of many Deadheads.
Dollar said some Deadheads may adopt these and other new bands to follow. The group Phish is frequently mentioned on Internet chat groups, and in Dollar's surveys, as a possible successor. "They look like Deadheads," Dollar said, "but the comparison ends there." Other candidates include Widespread Panic, Blues Traveller, the Dave Mathews Band, and Zero.
There is also talk of finding a successor to Garcia, an option Dollar said is unlikely.
"Most Deadheads say forget it, that it's sacrilegious," Dollar said. "And I don't think the band members really want to replace Jerry."
A number of Deadheads - indeed, the core of the movement - may turn to other activities, Dollar pointed out.
"To achieve that sense of place - and to cope with the loss of Jerry and the band - a lot of Deadheads are actively creating places to gather," Dollar said. "They are going to the woods, camping, hiking, and traveling. They are gathering more at potlucks and picnics. They are listening to local music and getting involved in community and spirituality.
"These are things that were important to Deadheads before, and they're even more important now," she added.
Studying Deadheads has not been easy. Many resist approaches by scholars and researchers because they resent "the exploitation factor," Dollar said.
"It is a difficult group to study," Dollar said, "because so many Deadheads are touchy about their involvement and what they perceive as an intrusion into their spirituality.
"And there are so many different kinds of Deadheads," she added. "They may eventually go their separate ways, but one thing my research has shown is that Deadheads are working hard so that way of life won't disappear."