Psychedelic Sobriety: A Wharf Rat's Journey Back To The Dead Zone
Andrew Smith, Tennessee Tech, presented at the Southwest Southwest Pop Culture Association, Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus, 19 February 2020, Albuquerque, New Mexico
For my second one [Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus], I decided to present and even inaugurate the festivities.
It is such an honor to be here. I met Sarah last year, my co-presenter [for this session], and we both were happy to know there were other religious studies nerds in the caucus. Religion only slightly overlaps with my topic for today.
Most of you are familiar with the Wharf Rat movement, but maybe, have never heard a paper on it. As far as I can gather, there maybe has never been a paper of this kind on the Wharf Rats, although there have been a handful of articles and essays.
The title of my talk is “Psychedelic Sobriety: A Wharf Rat's Journey Back To The Dead Zone.” That actually will also factor into [the rest of] the talk, because it will show you how finding the Wharf Rats helped me rediscover the music and mythology of the Grateful Dead.
But I am going to start the way we do in my 12-step tradition—and just, if I don’t say it elsewhere in the talk, the Wharf Rats are not a 12-step organization, though there is a lot of overlap therein.
So I will say, “my name is Andrew, and I am a Wharf Rat.” [audience: “Hello Andrew.” Andrew: “Thank you. I love that.”] If I were at a meeting back home, I might say that I am an alcoholic, but I also qualify for other anonymous groups. My disease is me, and my disease is more, more, more, more, more.
Just so you know my chronological credential, I was born in 1967. I believe that my conception may have occurred on the day of the “Human Be-In,” but I was conceived in Chicago, not San Francisco. But I was born in October 1967, and I share a [birth]day, October 9th, with John Lennon [he was 1940] and Gandhi. It is a special day. It [I] was [born] the day Che Guevera died.
If you Google the Wharf Rats, you learn the basic arc of our history: Deadheads got clean and sober in the early 1980s, yet somehow managed to stay on tour, in part, by providing support at shows.
I learned the phrase—“I am clean and sober music fan” at Bonnaroo in 2009—when I was barely sober, and I will tell you a little bit more about that story [here in a moment] in the talk.
[Here is a screen shot of a Wharf Rat newsletter from 2013. I am going to read you the Wharf Rat statement of purpose in case you have never heard it before.] “The Wharf Rats are a group of concert-goers who have chosen to live drug and alcohol free. Our primary purpose at shows is to make ourselves available to anyone who feels we may have something they want. We don’t tell others how to attend their show.
We offer clean and sober support, strength, fellowship, and hope. We are not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous nor any other twelve-step group. We are a group of friends sharing a common bond, providing support, information, and some traction in an otherwise slippery environment. Look for the yellow balloons, signs, and the Wharf Rat information table.”
So I meant to bring a yellow balloon. Didn’t bring that. But like all Deadheads, Wharf Rats are really into their swag and their merch. So I do have a bumper sticker: “You Don’t Need Dope To Dance.” I am wearing a Wharf Rat t-shirt, and I brought another one with me just to show: the movement has lots of swag. I have one other show-and-tell I will share [with y’all] in just a moment.
I sort of have a circuitous route to the Wharf Rats and to the Grateful Dead, so you are going to get to hear a little bit of my story, and this presentation is by necessity a bit autobiographical.
But you do know that the name Wharf Rats has a narrative history in the song “Wharf Rat.” And the line in the song “My name is August West” reminds us of our identification at meetings, and the saying “I’ll get a new start, live the life that I should” has become a motto for the Wharf Rat movement.
[Shows picture.] This is me at 15 in Germany, getting my first drunk. At a wine tasting. Nobody told me you sip and spit; nobody told me you only have half the glass. So I bottomed all six of those glasses. My hosts in Germany thought it was really cute to get the American drunk.
That was my first sign that I have what some in recovery call an allergy to alcohol. That was in my jock days, but a few years later, I was a full-blown hippypunk, that’s where the story will pick up.
Back in the 1980s, I only dabbled in the Grateful Dead as a scraggly vegan “hippypunk” who first loved the bands U2 and the R.E.M. before getting high, and once I was high, I went for the desert psych of bands like the Meat Puppets or even the neopsychedelia of Camper Van Beethoven.
That’s a just few of the 80s bands that I adored. There’s one band, the second part of their name is the surfers, in my new religious life, I cannot even say the first part of their name. But they are a very psychedelic punk band.
Fascinated by the pure origins of American folk rock, I probably resented the Deadhead label though, and stopped short of “getting on the bus,” even though I was utterly fascinated by Deadheads and the Dead and by what one friend called her encounter with “the acid god.”
The attraction of potent mind medicines and the encouragement of long-haired mentors got me to two Grateful Dead shows, only two: my first was in Alpine Valley in the summer of 1987, and again, at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena in spring of 1988.
I remember, already when the drugs were starting to take effect before I got into the building at the Joe Louis show, seeing kids I knew from church camp in Ohio, at the Dead show, and it really messed with me. But I think it was a suburban rite of passage in the Midwest, for many of us, in the 80s, to go to our first Dead show. Of course that was 1987, I will make a point about that in a moment.
We caught the middle of three on that Wisconsin run, a sunshiny Saturday afternoon show, having driven through the early morning from Detroit, where I was working for the season as a salad chef in an upscale vegetarian joint.
So 1987 was a very meaningful year for me. I was at Antioch College, the now almost defunct Antioch College.
I had already walked 200 miles down the Florida coast as part of a mobile anti-nuke caravan; I had lived for a brief spell in poverty with Catholic Worker-style soup-kitchen protestants in Atlanta, Georgia, and then I had followed the first leg of U2’s Joshua Tree tour, through the American southwest, some of it for credit at that legendary Antioch in Yellow Springs.
I do not have a lot to say about Yellow Springs, other than the fact that there were Deadheads everywhere.
[shows picture]. This photo that I rummaged through my storage unit [just on Monday] to find, to bring to show you today, shows what I was, which was the peace punk.
On the left you’ve got the stealie on the back of a jean jacket; I think putting it on the back of jean jacket was a big thing in the 80s. But you’ve got a DC reggae punk band the Bad Brains and the peace sign on the woman’s jacket. I don’t remember any of these folks’ names, but these were my classmates, at my first year at Yellow Springs.
This of course was the summer for “Touch of Grey,” and while I resist thinking of myself as a come-lately bandwagon middle-class MTV-head, that essentially includes a little bit of what I was, even if days after my first Dead show, seeking more hippy cred, I also attended my first Rainbow Gathering in the North Carolina mountains.
For a first time show, summer tour at Alpine Valley was magical and transcendent. Writing about the scene for my primitive fanzine, Babyfish, I recalled: “The hippies are swimming in the golf course hazards, they’re sun-bathing under trees, and fornicating on the fairways. What was once a parking lot has undergone a profound transformation into bohemian marketplace.”
I’m sure you all know this scene. “The gypsies are peddling incense, bells, tie-dyes, hand-woven colorful bracelets, LSD, crystals, stickers, and all forms of tribute to the cause of the phenomenon.” Nothing quite like your first show, nothing quite like your first Shakedown Street. The music had not yet started, and the drugs had not yet kicked in.”
Of everything in that amazing set, looking back and listening on Archive-dot-org, I get chill-bumps knowing that my first show would include a Tennessee Jed, seven years before I would ditch my Midwest roots for middle Tennessee. But also, a late show “Wharf Rat.” 19-year-old me at the very beginning of a two-decade drinking and using career, I got a “Wharf Rat” at his first show, a prophetic sign of something to come, far far far down the road.
They say that even Jerry Garcia was clean and sober on that tour, and I cannot describe the feelings that knowledge now brings to me. Not a seasoned tape-collector or setlist scientist like some of you who can study the exponentially dense collection of extant recordings, but I hone in on just these two tapes from my own Dead shows for my sacred rediscovery.
But if someone told me (and someone probably did tell me back then) that the Dead’s actual music only “worked” for audiences when we were high, I probably believed this myth. Truth be told, I was under the influence of LSD and other drugs and alcohol at my only two Dead shows.
So are the narrative arcs and mystic architectures of the psychedelic experiences inherent to the Grateful Dead, is that now lost to the Wharf Rat, in our faded flashback memories? Can a person fully embody the Deadhead experience, especially the live show, without drugs, not even one over-priced beer?
Part of the purpose for my talking to you this afternoon is to show you how we Wharf Rats do it. I am going to get there in just a moment, and I have some testimonies from fellow sibling Wharf Rats.
For twenty-years, I drifted away from the Dead and fell deeper into alcoholism and other addictions. When I landed a teaching gig and a more stable income, my return to hardcore music fandom found me returning first to U2, but then also to the Americana and indie-rock scenes, with My Morning Jacket, out of Kentucky, being one of my favorite contemporary groups of this century.
Living in Tennessee took me to Bonnaroo by 2006, catapulting me headlong into the modern festival scene. Spring break 2007, I followed the Jacket, first to Georgia and the 40 Watt Club, and then Florida, where I found a spot on the rail for the Jacket’s headlining set at a now-defunct festival called Langerado. And then, after one song, I blacked out, from too much absinthe and shrooms, which meant that I could never remember the show, much less the setlist, which was very awkward, because I was supposed to be covering it for an online fanzine.
Being an alcoholic and addict meant that I could not do what others did freely. I cannot indulge in certain compulsive behaviors or use substances, even the sacraments, safely. What started out a good time, becomes a bad time, with frequent blackouts, wrecked automobiles, depleted bank accounts, and destroyed romances. They later told me in meetings: alcohol was your friend, then alcohol was your best friend, then alcohol was your only friend, and then, it tried to kill you.
Fast forward to 2009, and you find me, a real rock bottom alcoholic, and hardcore music fan volunteering at Bonnaroo, with only forty days dry, after decades of drunkenness. Some yellow balloons called me to a circle of folks sitting in the grass in a patch of field, tucked behind a smoothie vendor.
These were my people, recovering alcoholics and addicts -- and they were still heads. They gave up the drink and drugs -- but not the dance. Sobriety support meetings at shows? Yes, please. Listening to their shares, which were as much about drugs as about drinks, this lit up parts of my brain long dormant.
Sobriety was a commitment and a lifestyle. The bottle was but a symptom. So no more marijuana and mushroom maintenance for me.
Who were these people and where did they come from?
These were the Yellow Balloon meetings, which I soon learned, had spun-off and descended from the Wharf Rats, a group of Deadheads who got clean and sober on tour, way back in the inebriated 80s, fans who initiated the set break support meetings, so abstinent fans could stay on the bus and continue to boogie.
So perhaps, if the Deadheads could spawn a movement as meaningful and strong as 12-step meetings at major music festivals and on jam-band tours with spin-offs like the Phellowship, the Grateful Dead itself might be worth a closer look.
Over the next few years, this is from 2009 until now, I started collecting Grateful Dead books, records, stickers, posters, and more, diving deeper and deeper into the canonical mythology of the collected songbook, which is why all of us come to an event like this.
When Dead and Company formed in 2015, I finally got on the bus. I finally became the full-blown Deadhead they thought I was all along, just by looking at young me. Long before seeing or even hearing my first Dead song back in the 80s, I was told I was a Deadhead. Now you will find me catching as many shows as often as time and finances afford.
Over this last decade of my sobriety, as I have dug deeper and deeper into my Dead fandom, and I have also discovered, this is really a topic for another afternoon, there are safe modalities for mind-altering experiences, which include exercise, yoga, prayer/meditation/contemplation, even participation in traditional religion, the psychedelic breathwork techniques developed by Stan Grof, and many many more.
Most of all, a Dead show is a spiritual experience unto itself.
For years, I was a fan of the poet Rumi, and I have always been a whirling dervish at heart, so I have developed quite my own spinning practice. Now the “official” spinners maybe have faded away, but spinning has not. So you will find me with the spinners at the show.
The Dead-flavored live music excursions are now for me what they have always been for many, an all-encompassing, transformative, physical, ecstatic, and spiritual experience.
It’s my audacious claim that the sober deadheads can receive a psychedelic epiphany at shows, enjoy some of the best sober support meetings around, get home safely, and remember the setlist detail the next day. Not only is there life after active addiction, it can be a miracle every day on the shakedown street of the spirit with china cat sunflowers and scarlet begonias all around.
In preparing this talk, I sought out testimonies of some of my fellow Wharf Rats, and a few weeks ago, I created a private Facebook group to conduct some primary research and oral history. [If anyone is thinking about doing this, I even put a little “IRB-style” disclaimer in the Facebook group for everybody.]
Our small group of Wharf Rats, we had combined at least 100 years of sobriety -- but more than 1000 Dead shows combined between us.
To be a Wharf Rat, is to live in the paradox of being in Recovery from addiction within the context and culture where, for many of us, our addictions once thrived.
Years ago, one of the first years that my Anniversary Coin was Wharf Rat-themed, I posted a picture of my coin online, a non-Wharf Rat said, “Why do you have a Steal-your-face on your sobriety medallion? Like what is that about man? Aren't the Dead the defining celebration of everything you are allegedly recovering from?"
[So the t-shirts and stickers are not even as cool. I am going to pass this around, so everybody can feel how special this is. This is my ten year coin, that I picked up last May. I had it given to me by my spouse at a Wharf Rat meeting at Bonnaroo in 2019, for my ten year. Spread the love of that around.]
So I wanted, for the last part of my talk, to share some of the testimonials from other Wharf Rats on this question. Because I think to be a Wharf Rat is to go hard at this paradox of being a Head, unapologetically being a Head, and being sober at the same time.
So these words that follow are from my sister-brother-sibling Wharf Rats online:
-“For me the spiritual and transformative power of music has always been a constant. Additionally, ‘the scene’ was more about brotherly and sisterly love, personal expression, and collectively creating a slice of utopia in an otherwise dystopic world. None of that requires substances, and in fact getting all f-ed up can actually run counter to that. It is when my connection to music has waned are the times I get in spiritual trouble.”
-“To me the Grateful Dead embody the single-minded purpose of folks from far and wide coming together to embrace a single moment together. What could be more spiritual than that?”
- “While I had fleeting moments of bliss and magical experiences, the majority of time I still spent in my head with my thoughts which were mostly negative. Fast forward to sobriety and the Wharf Rats, I today listen to more psychedelic music than ever before which I connect with on a deep and spiritual level. While my ego ran the show before and I was concerned with what others thought of my appearances, etc, that is not so much the case any more as I can often ‘dance as if no one is looking.’ Moreover, I hear subtleties and nuances in the music I never even knew existed before. And perhaps most importantly I can connect with people on a grand scale, while before I was a lonely person in a room full of people who felt like I was somehow fraudulent and did not belong or fit in.”
[My friend who wrote that, I think he is talking about imposter syndrome. If you have heard of imposter syndrome, we professors have that a lot. If you are a professor and a recovering alcoholic, imposter syndrome is really a thing.]
-“I hear the music, I dance like crazy, and it has become a form of meditation for me.”
-“It went from having to use drugs to enjoy the music to having the music get me high.”
-“The joy of music, the gift of being transported, a place to talk to God. I’ve had more psychedelic experiences clean than ever before using. Music is therapy for me.”
[And one person described the scene at the table.
So if you have been at a big show, recent shows, at Dead and Company, it is out where they have Participation Row. So that is where you can register to vote, for [pause] Bernie or whoever [laughter], where you can sign a petition, you can buy a charity guitar signed by somebody in the band, and all the other kind of non-profit swag, etc. So they have the Wharf Rat table set up there. So at a show or at festival or wherever, at the yellow balloons, we also give out candy and chocolate, very important to maintain your sugar levels when you are abstaining at a show, like that.
This person says that a “wook” comes up to the Wharf Rat table and asked to borrow a pipe. [laughter] So then they explained, the Wharf Rats explained to the “gentleman wook” that we are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, so we do not have any drug paraphernalia at our table. Sorry.
He’s like, “Oh so you are like a subculture within a subculture.”
When I was young and using actively, of course being a young alcoholic and drug user is a form of rebellion. So in a subculture where that is part of our rite of passage, it is kind of cool to be the sober kids, kind of rebelling against that part of our rebellion.]
The scene is fabled to us, like this, could have been a threat to us in our active addiction, to our health, to our mental health, to our spiritual well-being, to our physical health, not to mention the legal problems that some of us active users got into during the height of the drug wars, this same place, this scene is now a place for us for healing and hope. So I’m a Deadhead, I’m a Wharf Rat, I’m Andrew, that’s all I’ve got, thanks for hearing my story.