Ungrateful Living Dead 

In a case that makes Clear Channel look decent, aging rockers go after the late Bill Graham's memorabilia vault.

I'm coming off a bad four-day acid trip where some serious role reversals took place: Radio oligarch Clear Channel Communications — among the most maligned corporations in the Bay — looked as if it was helping to free the music. Meanwhile, file-sharing demigods the Grateful Dead acted like huge, corporate dicks, suing a Web site that introduced a new generation to their music for free, and licensing inane board games that even Deadheads can't tolerate.

Wait a minute — that was no acid trip.

In the next few weeks, the Dead are scheduled to go to court against concert memorabilia megasite Wolfgang's Vault, while simultaneously counting the cash from their first-ever licensed board game — Grateful Dead, The Game.

After listening to vintage Dead streams at WolfgangsVault.com and playing the game, I am convinced these hippies need to be euthanized before they do any more damage to their shredded reputations. These aging jam-band hypocrites have predictably lost touch with their audience and now attempt to burn the biggest bridge to a future one.

Now, I've never been a Deadhead. Their music was too inaccessible, their mythos too Byzantine. But I respect the band's musicianship — which is evident when you use the Vault to stream the Dead's 1988 New Year's Eve show at the Oakland Arena. Garcia, Weir, Lesh, and the gang were on point that night. They anticipated and complemented each other's improvisations, and there's an immediacy of the recording.

Bay Area megapromoter Bill Graham had a fun habit of clandestinely taping the soundboard output for thousands of his shows, and the Dead at the Arena was just one of them. Wolfgang's Vault streams five thousand such concerts at any given time — from the Doors to Led Zep to Hendrix — to lure fans to its site. Millions have come for the tunes, and a fraction stay to buy vintage posters, T-shirts, or backstage passes — some of the huge memorabilia stockpile Graham collected during his more than forty years of promoting.

After Graham, born Wolfgang Grajonca, passed on, Clear Channel ended up with his production company and swag vault. In 2002, it sold the Vault for $6 million to Bill Sagan, a Midwestern entrepreneur who'd reportedly made a fortune in medical insurance claims adjustment. Sagan began reselling the swag, but drew the ire of the Dead and others with the site's new streaming feature, introduced late last year. On December 18, the bands filed a complaint — prelude to a lawsuit — seeking a permanent injunction against Wolfgang's Vault, and potentially millions of dollars in damages.

Plaintiffs' attorney Ashlie Beringer contends that the bands didn't know Bill Graham was taping their sets, and that Clear Channel may not have had the right to unload the archives without permission from thousands of artists. If Sagan isn't stopped, she says, there's no telling what he could do with the Grateful Dead's name: "Taken to its logical conclusion, he purports to have the rights to list the trademarks and rights of publicity of this original material and to copy it to anything he sees fit — wrapping paper, afghans, wallpaper, mugs, baby clothes, ties — Happy Meals could be next."

While she acknowledges there is no direct precedent for her clients' case, Beringer says numerous general precedents support their complaint. Meanwhile Sagan's lawyers, who maintain their client has all rights to what he lawfully purchased from Clear Channel, call the lawsuit frivolous and a shakedown. They recently asked for a one-month extension to answer the complaint; the case is expected to move forward by early February.

Leo Stoller, a trademark expert who often appears on TV and testifies as an expert witness in trademark cases, says you needn't be an attorney to know that you can market and resell things you buy from an estate sale. "I predict that the plaintiff's case will be thrown out on a Mr. Graham motion for summary judgment," he says. "It is an old-fashioned attempt to grab headlines by some antique rock stars who should be glad that there are a few fans still willing to pay Mr. Sagan for their old has-been goods."

And you know you're a has-been when you get your own board game. Bay Area-based University Games released Grateful Dead The Game this past November to local stores such as Games of Berkeley and Dr. Comics & Mr. Games, as well as online retailers. UG president Bob Moog says reps from Grateful Dead Productions — a California corporation that, according to the Marin Independent Journal, fired its last seven employees in San Rafael and sold out to Warner in 2006 — approached his company with the board game idea.

Moog balked, given the market size for such a game. He thought Deadheads would be too old to buy, but the Dead team convinced him of the current generation's interest, and the game sold out its initial five-thousand-unit run in three weeks. It took six months to put together the Monopoly-style game, wherein you race around the board answering trivia questions to obtain as many Dead concert tickets as you can.

Press Play recently demo'd the game at a San Francisco pub with one certified Deadhead — a fortysomething dude named PJ who had witnessed more than 175 shows — and his friend Wade. After two hours, we were cheating in an attempt to just finish the damn game. Requirements to hum parts of the Dead's songs became laughable. They all sound the same! Also, many of the questions seemed too obscure, or a judgment call, PJ said.

The game manufacturer concedes as much. "It was very difficult to confirm the correct answers about the Grateful Dead," Moog says. "You can use public sources, but they often disagree. You can use band members, but they often don't remember. Or we would poll a network of Deadheads. Truth is what popular opinion says it is with the Dead."

If truth is a popular construct, then the hippies had better be careful. Wolfgang's Vault reaffirms the talent of these antiques for the Internet generation. Using the Vault, I discovered that Carlos Santana could really wail — I just thought he was that annoying guitarist for Matchbox 20. I also listened to my first Dead set ever. Not bad, even if it did sound a lot like Phish and the String Cheese Incident.

If the old bands succeed in burning this bridge to Gen Y, and all we're left with is board games (not even videogames?), then they deserve the truth of postmodern popular opinion, which goes something like this: Everyone sells out, everyone loses touch, and everyone eventually dies — some less than gratefully.

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