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Central Standard

Kansas City 'Deadheads' Take A Trip Back Along The Grateful Dead's Midwestern Route


For Mike McGonigle, it's a sticker on his car that gives him away as a Grateful Dead enthusiast.

"There are Deadheads amongst us everywhere," he says. "I constantly get people waving at me, I see other Deadhead stickers, and it's kind of a community of people that when you recognize it, you have a connection with those people."

In the 1970s and 1980s especially, there was a vibrant community of Grateful Dead followers here in Kansas City. They used to follow the band's tour route: going to shows, trading sandwiches for back-rubs, sleeping in cars and otherwise living the hippie dream.

Most of them have settled into mainstream society since those days, but this summer's 50th anniversary reunion shows have brought members of that community out of the woodwork — and back into contact with each other. 

In honor of what's shaping up to be the unofficial Summer of the Dead nationwide, we reached out to Kansas City Deadheads, asking them to help us paint a picture of the Midwest from the vantage point of that tour route.

First off, the term 'Deadhead' is one that not all of our respondents embraced.

Hampton Stevens, a freelance writer, says that just as a rich person is always someone with more money than you, a Deadhead is always someone who takes that musical obsession a little bit further than you do. From his point of view, the term also carries some undesirable baggage, relating to living in a bus and maybe not bathing very frequently. 

But McGonigle is fine with being called a Deadhead. To him, a Deadhead is anyone who loves and appreciates the music.

"Whether they were the hippie on the VW Microbus with hair down to their waist, or whether they were a clean-cut businessman, they were all Deadheads if they enjoyed the music," he says. "And that's what it's all about for me."

In 1979 alone, the Grateful Dead played four shows in Kansas City. "We were just lucky in Kansas City in 1979," says Mike McGonigle.

There was a show at Starlight in 1985 that a number of local Deadheads remember as especially powerful. The full moon behind the stage set a memorable mood.

"It could be really cool," says Stevens. "I remember one time, maybe, I don't know, Milwaukee to Cincinnati, who knows, but you were kind of on this trail and it was invisible to the rest of the world, so it would be some truck stop or some diner and just for whatever reason at 3 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon the entire place would fill up with people wearing tie-dye and long hair. And you could see the waitresses going, 'What is this?'"

He adds that "the hippie, even as a cultural idiom, was still a little bit strange and frightening to people."

"Well, and it was very surprising," adds McGonigle. "I remember Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisconsin, which is a town of about 10,000 people maybe? And for three days it became a town of about 60,000 as people moved into town and camped out in farmers' fields. And the local community I think initially reacted as you were talking about — 'What are you guys doing here?' — but then there was kind of an embracement. I think I went to three consecutive summers in Alpine Valley and in the second year it was so much different because the locals caught on, they realized, These people are OK."

Callers from the Kansas City metro also shared their experiences as Deadheads on KCUR's Central Standard.

Beth, who is about to turn 65, is a self-identified hippie who remembers an outdoor show in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1960s. It was pouring rain before the show started, but then the band came out and sang Here Comes the Sun. It stopped raining as if on cue, only to start again when the show was over. The magic of that experience stays with her today.

One caller from Lawrence went to a show at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas in 1977. He's in a band of his own now, and he wears the jacket he donned that fateful night whenever he performs onstage. The ticket stub is still in the pocket.

And no. We didn't ask about laundering.

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People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.