Lawrence Shurtliff

The Grateful Dead's 'Ram Rod'
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The Independent Online

Lawrence Shurtliff, roadie: born 19 April 1945; married first Patricia Luft (one son; marriage dissolved), second 1968 Frances Whelan (one son); died Petaluma, California 17 May 2006.

In 1967 Lawrence Shurtliff had turned up at 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead's communal home off San Francisco's Haight- Ashbury intersection. Ken Kesey, the author of Sometimes a Great Notion, published three years earlier, had instructed the Montana-born Harley motorcyclist that the Dead needed "a good man". He never left and became, as Dennis McNally, their biographer (A Long Strange Trip, 2002) and press officer, described him, "the Dead's heart and soul". The Dead's guitarist Bob Weir called him "the heart and soul of the organisation". For Jerry Garcia, their lead guitarist, he was their "highwater integrity marker".

Early in 1970 the Grateful Dead's mortal coil was unspooling. They faced a series of crises eventually channelled into their new-direction masterpiece Workingman's Dead released that June. That January most of the band had been busted for drugs in New Orleans. They were barely keeping their heads above water financially and, being prone to overindulgence in the studio, massively in debt to the record company.

Things were far more calamitous than anybody suspected. Jerry Garcia had worked on the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) and needed the money pronto to buy the house he and Mountain Girl, one of Ken Kesey's original Merry Pranksters, were renting. When it arrived, she rushed to the office but it had vanished. Shurtliff was called to sort matters out. He laid down the ultimatum that either their manager and drummer Mickey Hart's father, Lenny Hart, or he go. Garcia decided. Shurtliff was indispensable. Hart was history - wisely it turned out because he had embezzled a six-figure sum at least.

Like Weir's lyricist partner, John Barlow, Shurtliff was a "jack Mormon" (reneged Mormon) for most of his years, having been born, Weir explains, in Montana's "Mormon corner". He had been one of Kesey's intrepid band of psychotropic-psychedelic adventurers - described in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Noms de prank - Merry Prankster nicknames - were the norm. As with many matters Pranksterish, generous measures of absurdity and irony were involved. This Oregon-raised son of the soil, with nothing remotely swarthy or Zorro-ish about him, was "Ramon Rodriguez, famous Mexican guide". Hence his nickname, "Ram Rod".

By 1968 he had gone from driver to equipment manager, looking after Garcia and Weir's guitars, and on to co-producing the 1972 Garcia solo album before volunteering himself in the late 1970s to look after Hart's drums ("Mickey inherited him," says Weir, "greatly to Jerry's and my woe upon occasions because then we inherited [the roadie] Steve Parish - the antithesis of Ram Rod - who doesn't play guitar") and acting as crew chief. The last time I saw him in 2002 at Hart's baronial spread, he remained as sanguine as ever. "He brought cowboy simple," explained Weir, two days after his death:

I don't want to call it an aesthetic. And boy, did that ever work for us! Cowboy simple, to be New Agey about it, was a sort of an American Zen. He was unflappable and not given to excesses of any sort. He was up to the job, no matter what.

Larry Shurtliff was not a band member or a lyricist. But as McNally wrote, he was "the last essential piece in the early Dead's evolution". Typically, when the Dead went legit - company incorporation - in the late 1970s, they elected him president of their board of directors. He presided over an era that saw them go from counter-cultural penury to prosperity beyond a 1967 hippie's "furthur-outest" hallucination.

During his presidential term from the late 1970s until Garcia's death in 1995, the Dead played more benefits than any other musical ensemble in history. As well as community, charitable and environmental actions, the Dead supported arts projects and individuals ranging from the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax to the British composers Robert Simpson and Havergal Brian.

Ken Hunt