Alesha Wentley takes a piece of her imaginary long hair and spins it round and round her finger. Her hair is short now, but she is still a Dead Head. A Dead Head with a family and a minivan. Alesha was a spinner - one of the girls who dance to the heady music by spinning round and round in short dresses.
“The first concert I went to, I didn’t even want to go. A friend dragged me to go and I thought, who wants to see a band called Grateful Dead? Who’s grateful to be dead except maybe Hitler?” They didn’t have tickets, but back then security was not the ordeal it is today. The two of them stood outside in the cold, trying to figure out how they were going to sneak in. The sound of guitars wafted towards them and they followed as if sniffing the scent of baking bread.
Walking towards a small building they peeked in the dirty window and saw the band practicing. Walking around further they almost bumped into a security guard, who’d ducked behind the building to smoke some marijuana. He offered them some, and having never tried pot before, they puffed and immediately started coughing. The guard laughed and asked the girls if they wanted backstage passes.
Alesha held her hand out and grabbed the pass. Thanking the guard, they went into the stadium and felt like royalty as they were pointed closer and closer to the stage. Standing side by side they both swayed to the music and felt the tunes coursing through their bodies. The band jammed with their two drummers for over four hours. Most of the time Alesha and her friend stood and stared at the band, in awe of how close they were. Heading to the bathroom she passed an entirely new world - one of colors and bears and smoking and people dancing, many of them alone.
Afterwards the place didn’t empty out in an orderly fashion like most concerts. Wandering through the groups of people, many people eating, cooking, selling things, it seemed like a miniature city or community lived there.
“I fell in love with the Grateful Dead on that day. I had never heard music like that live, and something just clicked.” She explains that this was the “X Factor” - where the music transcends the body.
The year was 1980, and the Dead was on (perpetual) tour, just before their big Radio City Hall broadcast on Halloween. Alesha estimates that she has seen over three hundred Dead concerts. At first she would drive to wherever they were playing around her, taking a break from her “real” life to step into the fantasy alternative land that was a Dead show.
“When I put that dress on for the first time, with my short cowboy boots, it just felt so right to spin round and round. My dress would create this little belljar around me and the air would whirlwind, and I’d get so dizzy but kept on going and going.”
She was twenty one when she quit her job and became a groupie full time. Alesha followed the dead for almost four years. During this time she lived with the community that formed in ebbs and flows as people dropped in and out. They ate and lived very simply, somewhat of a commune that helped itself. “I ate a LOT of baked beans and potatoes cooked over the little tin fires we’d create. We slept in vans, tents, wherever. There were a lot of drugs going on, but I never got into that, other than a bit of pot here and there and I tried mushrooms once, but didn’t care much for it. We all knitted, sewed, and had our own crafts and art, which we’d sell to other ‘tourists’.”
Alesha ate dinner with the band more than once. “Gerry Garcia used to say that he was as much a deadhead as anyone out there. By the way he made some mean scrambled eggs!”
Her favorite songs are:
· Alabama Getaway
· China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
· Dark Star
· Eyes of the World
· Friend of the Devil
· Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo
· Morning Dew
· Shakedown Street
· Tighten Up
The Spinners, as the Spinning Girls (and other dancers) were known as, were called “The Family.” Alesha says she wasn’t really part of their little sub-group, because many of them used the dancing in their worship in what they called the Church of Unlimited Devotion.
She will admit to having a lot of partners in the free-love, hippie times. This faded as they got older and the hippie movement started to fade especially after so many suicides and overdoses, and the crowd gradually became more conservative.
“My favorite boy was a tall, skinny basket-weaver named Nicky who used to wear this green rainbow striped beanie hat everywhere he went. That hat was so filthy one day is just literally disintegrated into pieces and fell off. We spent maybe two and a half years together, dreaming about nothing and wasting our lives. But glorious years they were. I had a friend named Nancy, too, who actually died one night when she was high and choked on her own vomit.”
After Nancy’s death and the souring of her relationship with Nick (who for all Alesha knows is still following the band, or what’s left of it), the “community” felt more and more false to her. She treasures her time spent with the group, and feels that the bond and experiences she had helped mold who she is today.
"What a long strange trip it's been."
Thank you Alesha, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®