Garcia lives on in hippie enclave of the Internet

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The Independent Online
AS A HUGE wave of grief for Jerry Garcia rolls across the Internet, it seems there is hardly anyone active in the San Francsisco scene in the Sixties who is still alive, and more or less sane, who is not roaming cyberspace.

Nowhere does this show more clearly than on the Well, a San-Francisco bulletin board which descends directly from the great LSD explosion of the Sixties, and which was brought almost to a halt by the news of Garcia's death. The Well, whose 10,000 subscribers include David Crosby, of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and the novelist and acid guru Ken Kesey, has long had a symbiotic relationship with Deadheads. John Perry Barlow, who straddles both worlds as a lyricist for the Dead and a lobbyist for the freedom of cyberspace, explains that the Deadheads needed a place to talk about their obsession when the band was not touring; the Well needed customers.

Some of this symbiosis is obvious enough: you need only look at the tributes to Garcia to realise how difficult it is for Deadheads to communicate their obsession to anyone who has not been there. A middle manager in a large British company wrote to say that her grief was sharp because she had only seen them 74 times in 10 years, and would now never make 100.

Another message said: "When I realised that I would never attend another Grateful Dead concert, I got quickly moist, and realised a part of my life was gone forever. So my colleague asked, "How many have you been to?" "Over 300," I replied, beginning to mist up, "but that wasn't enough."

But the affinities between the Dead and cyberspace go deeper and stranger than that. The idea of basing a community on shared access to a computer is after all a strange one indeed when closely examined. Now that the whole of the rest of the world is threatened with being moved in cyberspace, like it or lump it, the Deadheads, those despised left-overs from the Sixties, appear to have been pioneers. They were there first.

The crucial thing about Bullettin Board Systems like the Well is that unlike telephones or letters, they make communal discussions possible, or they appear to do so. A message on the Well can be read by thousands of people, and all of them can comment in their turn, and have their comments commented upon, and so on, to the point of dementia.

Many of the Grateful Dead discussion areas on the Well are taken up with practical minutiae: how to exchange tapes, for instance (my friend the middle manager has more than 400, acquired by trading over the Internet); or how to meet at concerts, in crowds of up to 50,000. But without such business to transact, not even the shadow of a community can exist.

Deadheads were interested in community to start with. For most of those who got the band like religion, the community with fellow-Deadheads was being part of a church. But they did not impose these ideas on cyberspace. On the contrary, when the ragged tribe of Deadheads hit the Net, they found another ragged tribe of hippies was running it anyway.

The original name of the Well was the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, and one of its founders was Stewart Brand, editor of the counter-culture bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue. One of its earliest managers had lived for 12 years on what was almost the only successful commune to grow out of the Haight-Ashbury hippie district of San Francisco - and his decision to go there, he explained in a message on the system last week, was precipitated by a Dead show in 1971.

None of these people would describe themselves as Deadheads in the religious sense. Indeed it was a great part of Garcia's charm that he wasn't a Deadhead either. But ... "I am not a Deadhead, but -" rapidly became an accepted category among mourning messages, and hugely moving they were too.

It was amazing the number of people who were not Deadheads who burst into tears when they heard the news. One lawyer described leaving his office hurriedly in Washington DC and seeing a strange woman in a suit, weeping. He knew. "I've just heard" he said; and hugged her.

All these experiences were collected from around America and displayed in hours. The speed of computer comunications also makes rumour mills grind with tremendous speed: it was customary to post set lists and long reviews the morning after every show the band played. The first reports of Garcia's apparent relapse into heroin addiction were posted last spring, as soon as he appeared on stage looking too stoned to function.

The night after Garcia died, the band's other guitarist, Bob Weir, went ahead with a scheduled gig with his private band in New England. Fairly full reports were circulating on the Net soon afterwards: how at the end of the set he threw his guitar on the stage and walked off, heart-broken and exhausted; how the audience stayed behind, chanting, as they did so often at Dead shows, the chorus of "Not Fade Away": "You know our love will not fade away", over and over again. That was the community whose echoes are still resounding across the Internet.