Feeding The Dead
a book by Jim Stearns
I think it's pretty safe to assume that anybody who has spent any time on the road in a touring capacity (and lived to tell about it) has, at least once in their lives, heard someone tell them, "You should write a book!" I know I have, but every time I sat down to go through the dusty boxes of memories and add to my notes, I just as quickly abandon the project thinking, "Who the hell would want to read about this?!?" (Not to mention the fact that I'm no professional writer.)
Jim Stearns, on the other hand, happens to be an excellent writer. He also happens to be the guy whohired me to work for his catering company, which was, at the time, almost exclusive toGrateful Dead Productions. This was my first job in the music scene, not to mention a crazy and fun time in my life. But that's not what made Jim's book hard for me to put down, although being able to read about some of the crazy stories all these years later, and as seen through someone else's eyes was pretty cool.
Feeding the Dead doesn't waste any time pulling the reader into the story from the very beginning as Jim recalls the Grateful Dead's arrival at his ranch, and the excitement when one of the helicopters had troubles landing in the nearby meadow, sending the welcome committee on the ground running for safety among the trees. Of all of the books written about the Dead, I have only read a couple, so I can't detail what sets it apart from all of the rest. What I can tell you is that it is a fun read and will be enjoyed by not only deadheads, but anyone who is curious about some of the goings on in the backstage scene of larger shows.
On Stage Solutions has a very limited number of signed copies, so pick up a copy now. We will place another order once these run out, but since they are coming from Alaska, it will take a while to get them back in stock.
Feeding the Dead chronicles a surreal journey from the heart of the wilderness to the center of rock and roll madness. While traveling and working with the Dead, (along with R.E.M., Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, the Eagles and many others), the author's intriguing story exposes the politics, the relationships and the mechanics of what goes on backstage. JFK Jr., Al Gore, Paul Neuman, Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Stanley Owsley, Peter Coyote and other luminaries, dot this compelling narrative that reveals an interesting slice of the backstage mystery.
“Catering to the tastes of one of the most famous rock bands of all time, and serving meals to homeless hurricane refugees, are worlds apart from one another in most people’s minds. Not so for Sheep Ranch resident Jim Stearns. When a decade of catering for the Grateful Dead began, Stearns found himself in the right place at the right time. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he put himself there. When the Dead would come into a city, Stearns said the operation worked a lot like the Army. “You blow into town with nothing, get tents, set up and feed a thousand people,” he said. With a helping heart formed before he ever lived the fast-paced life, Stearns knew what he had to do as soon as the infamous storm slammed the South. “This is my gig,” he recalls thinking. “Who’s better at going into chaos and madness and doing this on a shoestring than we are?”
Jim Stearns and I recently reacquainted. I had no contact with Jim for 30 years. While not uncommon in today’s socially connected facebook world, it is worth reflecting on the real meaning of these reunions and the ultimate value of a connected universe.
Watching Jim promote Salmonstock, a music festival in Ninilchik, Alaska, reading his most recent book “Feeding the Dead” and some brief electronic communications got me thinking once again about how far the surface of my life has strayed from my original idealistic plans for life. This then became a metaphor for earth and life on it, as it too has seemingly strayed from its original purpose, or has it?
At the same time Jim’s “Salmonstock – 3 Days of Fish, Fun & Music” festival and “Feeding the Dead” reminded me that beneath the externals of my life, deep inside me, the core of my idealistic plans for life live on and simply manifested themselves in different ways than I had “planned”. I do not think I am unusual or different in this regard. What we somewhat derisively refer to as “childlike idealism” rings true to all at our rawest moments and it is those moments that we really know who we are. Idealism, wanting the world to be a better peaceful and beautiful place for all is really at the core of who we all really are. I once heard if you want to make god (or the universe, higher power, nature, whatever your preference) laugh, just tell it your plans.
Jim’s story as told in his books brings me – and will bring you -closer to the paradoxes of our lives with what could be a metaphor for my life and planet earth itself. The phrase that captures it for me is “rustic cabins and 5 star hotels”.
Sean Janssen summarized it best in a 2009 news article (some paraphrasing and additions):
In the mid-70′s Jim found himself serving a lot of people on a daily basis by accident. An environmentalist, in the early 1970′s he had been heavily involved with Friends of the River working to save on of America’s most scenic rivers, (the Stanislaus in California) from the ill conceived pork barrel New Melones dam project. In 1974, he bought some remote acreage in Tuolumne County, California that became Avery Ranch, where he planned to live a simple Henry David Thoreau sort of lifestyle.
A group of a dozen or so people were hanging out there for years, living what Jim described as a “hippie lifestyle,” and by 1977, “we’d just started building buildings.” Informal gatherings turned into festivals and one of Jim’s friends happened to be a great chef, whereas Jim could be a great organizer.
In 1987, when the Grateful Dead came to play a show at Frogtown, the band’s manager, Cameron Sears, who knew Jim from their Friends of the River days, asked him to house the band for a few days. He agreed, not realizing just how big a rock group he just invited over, until their sleek Italian-made helicopters came over the hill and started landing in his meadow at the ranch.
Neither the band nor Jim had really known what to expect of each other.
Keyboardist Brent Mydland first wondered aloud, “What the hell are we doing here?” Jim recalled.
Men used to staying at five-star hotels were looking at doing hard time in 200-square-foot rooms without power and some without restrooms, Stearns said.
Mydland first wanted to bolt.
“Slowly, we won them over,” Stearns said.
Jim’s story carries a simple message. Within all of us lives peace, love, music, a love for the earth and the yearning to be closer to it all in the way we once were. As in the case of The Grateful Dead, it is possible to “slowly win them over” and enjoy, preserve and cherish it.