Don Bryant—Wharf Rats

One of the special things about Dead Head culture is inclusiveness. One of the inclusions is that while lots of Dead Heads party—as in consume psychoactive substances including alcohol—lots don’t. And specifically within the Grateful Dead audience the folks that wanted to enjoy shows soberly came together to form Wharf Rats.  

Skull and Roses will make an especial effort to make Wharf Rats welcome, and so we wanted to tell you the story of how they came together… which in good GD fashion is a very interesting one. Here’s Don Bryant…

I grew up outside of Boston, and I went to my first Dead show at Watkins Glen in 1973. I wasn’t a Dead Head.  I went to see the Allman Brothers more than anything else.  And, of course the Band played, and the Dead played, and I was very much into my drug addiction at that point.  So we got there early, early Thursday morning, two days before the show; and there is a great big party where I sort of overplayed my part.  I think we were with the first 50,000 people which eventually became 600,000 people and the best part of that whole weekend was the Friday sound check, where the Dead played for a couple of hours.  I guess they figured that there all these people there, let them in and listen to soundcheck.  And I was too high to get off the ground, having eaten peyote, snorted methamphetamine, and drunk myself to the point where I was essentially catatonic.  I could barely hear the music.  It was like having the radio turned down way low…

And then I didn’t go see them again until Boston 1977, and  Boston Garden, May 7th.  I had joined the military and I was freshly sober.  I ended up in the military in Korea, that’s where I stopped drinking.  I was in between assignments, so I was moving from Korea to Texas and the Grateful Dead were playing in Boston, so I went to see that show.  A great show.  You know, it was the night before Cornell.  They were really on.  I think it was every bit as good as they did the next night and that was the last time I smoked pot.  

So my story is I sat there and I was trying not to get high.  People were passing joints back and forth and halfway through the second set, I just couldn’t resist and I smoked down a joint and got high and enjoyed the rest of that show and that was the last time.  

I’ve been sober for 42 years.  Yeah. I didn’t become a Deadhead until Red Rocks in 1982; that’s when, you know, the bug hit me.  I was with a girlfriend and we went to Red Rocks and there is so much magic there and we were right down in front and it just hit me.  I realized that when Jerry was onstage and playing like that, there was nobody else in the world I would rather see on a stage.  That’s when I really took notice of the music and started  listening to a lot of Grateful Dead and started going to every show I could get to.  

In 1983 I got assigned to the 82nd Airborne and moved to Fayetteville, NC.  In the spring of 1984 the Dead played Hampton Coliseum.  I drove six hours from Fort Bragg to get to the show, took three steps out of my car, looked down on the ground and there was a plastic baggie rolled up on the ground.  It was a quarter ounce of mushrooms.  I had been sober seven years.  When I got back to the hotel, I pulled the bag out and looked at it.  I really wanted to eat some shrooms the next night.  I thought to myself, you know, is this my higher power saying go ahead, have one on me.  What I learned in Recovery is, if tempted, to ask yourself what will this drug do FOR you?  If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize, probably not anything good.  I knew that if I ate the shrooms, I’d smoke some pot, and then I’d drink some wine, and then I’d be off and running again.  You’ve heard the saying, one is too many and a thousand isn’t enough.  That sentiment is actually true for me.  I was never one of those people that had any control while using drugs and alcohol.  

I went to a noontime meeting the next day, and back in those days a lot of people in recovery meetings just automatically thought you were actually not really sober if you were going to these Dead shows.  They assumed at a minimum you were at least getting a contact high and that most likely you were puffing pot anyway.   The meeting ended and this kid, Tony Tipps, came up to me and quietly whispered into my ear, I’m here for the Dead shows too. Little did we know that we were Wharf Rats number one and two.  We stayed in touch, started going to more and more shows together clean.  You could go to a show and see recovery-related bumper stickers on an occasional car in the lot so that you knew there were other Dead Heads in recovery, but where were they?  We started collecting names and contact info of fellow Dead Heads in recovery.   

Every group needs a good woman.  After moving to Colorado, I’d become heavily involved with something called ICYPAA (International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous).  We went to annual conferences with a lot of sober kids, and at a great big ICYPAA party, spring 1986 in Miami, Tony met a beautiful young Dead Head named Kristin, who encouraged us to formalize our nascent group.  We worked on coming up with a name, and Tony came up with Wharf Rats, which I immediately agreed would be perfect.  Kristin and I then put a classified ad in Relix and Golden Road magazines, “Sober Dead Heads unite—take your 12 step group on tour—The Wharf Rats Group.” To that point we’d had a few dozen names, but now our group grew exponentially.  

Every day I would come home from work and there would be four or five or six envelopes in my mailbox that were other people that were interested in finding out about us and finding out how they could hook up with us at shows.  We decided we would have a linkup point inside the shows — behind the drums at shows where there was reserved seating, and for g.a. shows, on the floor about halfway between the sound board and Phil.  We had it in our mind, somehow, that Phil was in recovery.  We don’t know for sure, but it felt right at the time.  We just had this affinity for Phil and there are a lot of us right down there on the Phil side front of the rail even now.  At first, we didn’t have meetings – it was just a place for us to get together, socialize, and share.  So we became very close, and we soon shared hotel rooms and homes during tour, where the best restaurants and meetings were.  Our group became a little oasis, and Grateful Dead shows were no longer such a treacherous place for drug addicts and alcoholics in recovery.  

Our friendships grew and we became very tight knit.  What actually became a springboard for uniting the Wharf Rats was Akron in July 1986 at the Rubber Bowl, when Dylan and Tom Petty were opening for the Dead. It was the first time that we got together and went on tour together and there was about a dozen of us.   

We were having an unbelievable time sharing this gift of having fun being sober.  We were really getting high off the music.  And one of the things we did is we had a closed circle where we would just be hanging onto each other, arm in arm singing along with the band together.  Something really happened to us during the “Black Peter” at Akron.  We still sing those lyrics to this day, frequently when we close a Wharf Rats meeting.  So that was a very important moment, at least, you know, to my mind when we sang the verse, you know, “See here how everything lead up to this day. Like any other day.”  You know?  And we sang that and it struck a chord deep inside of all of us.  We consider that the beginning of the Wharf Rats group.   

During summer tour 1987, the Wharf Rat group became more organized. We met before the shows, traveled together en masse to the shows, and began to stay in touch continuously with a rather extensive contact list put together by one of the West Coast Wharf Rats, Gerry B. 

The first actual Wharf Rat meeting that I attended was at somebody’s house in their living room at Telluride that summer in 1987—it was the Harmonic Convergence weekend and a big pile of us Wharf Rats climbed up one of the mountains after the first show to camp out together. Not much sleep was had when we awakened to Baba Olatunji and Mickey Hart leading a sunrise drum ceremony through Telluride and onto the Concert field. We then descended the mountain and got together in somebody’s living room about 10:00 Sunday morning for a first actual Wharf Rat meeting.  

We began having actual Wharf Rat meetings during the set breaks in 1988 as opposed to just gathering.

The next big catalyst for growth was the 1987 ICYPAA in Boston. It was Labor Day weekend, which preceded the kickoff of fall tour in Providence RI. There was this huge effort amongst us clean and sober Deadheads to descend on the ICYPAA in Boston and then start off tour together. 

A lot of us got to Boston early and then went down to Harvard Square.  There was a street band playing, twin brothers, a duo who called themselves Double Dose. They played bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead tunes and we went down and started dancing like we do, like Wharf Rats do, totally into the music; and we kind of took over Harvard Square.  We just danced like fiends and the band got into it. The band wanted to know who we were and where we came from and they couldn’t believe we were sober. They’d never had anything like that happen before in Harvard Square.  We asked them to play on Saturday night at the convention even though none of us had a clue how to make that happen. It was from the grace of God (or Dead Heads in high places) that somehow we added some last minute music to the Boston ICYPAA convention schedule so we could have a Wharf Rat dance party. There were 5000 people at that Convention and hundreds piled into our party with Double Dose. That was the largest group of Wharf Rats ever assembled in front of music to that point, and we tore it up as Double Dose kicked it into high gear, playing what would later be called Slam Grass. The following day we piled into cars and went down to Providence to kick off fall tour.

Lots of people made great contributions to establishing the Wharf Rats as a fixture in the jam band scene, but none more than Caroline Thomas, from Manahawkin, NJ.  Caroline’s daughter was in recovery and Caroline was very interested in helping not only her daughter but all of the young people that she met. We adopted her and called her Mom, and so she volunteered to became the East Coast Wharf Rats coordinator.  She did more for our group than anybody I can think of. She started a newsletter, took over the contact list, and when we got permission to have a Wharf Rats table at each of the shows, it was Mom who covered those responsibilities for the first six years of our existence on the East Coast. 

Mom held down that east coast, where the band played upwards of 60 shows a year. She showed up at almost every one of those shows in the early days and made sure that there was always a Wharf Rat table to greet the Rats when they came looking for the Yellow Balloons, a piece of candy, and to check the latest set lists. We also kept a message board so that everybody could find each other in the show. She frequently had Wharf Rats in hotel rooms and invited them to her home during tour to reset and stay safe. She was like the only functional adult that we had, so Caroline coordinated and sorted out logistics with the Grateful Dead office. She passed last year, and we gave her a righteous send-off on an off day in Atlanta during the 2019 Dead & Company summer tour.

The Wharf Rat tables in the Midwest were covered by Wharf Rat Founders Tony and Kristin Tipps, while Tom Heckley covered everything west of Kansas, North and South for many years, no small feat.

A cat out on the West Coast named Tom Passadore had some connection at the Dead office, and he proposed that we be allowed to have a presence, like Green Peace and the Rain Forest Action Network.  And so we got our table inside the shows.  The Dead have always supported us….

Dennis:   I’ll tell you, we all liked the idea.  You know, it was an easy sell.

Don:  And as you know, I mean, Jesus, this thing just took off and every jam band has their own yellow balloon group.  I mean everybody from the Disco Biscuits to Pigeons, and Twiddle, everybody has a yellow balloon group now, and I’m really gratified about the whole thing.  I mean, it’s great to go anywhere and find people in recovery, and there are a lot of people that really need recovery; and, you know, you guys have been able to furnish us a spot and give us an opportunity to do what we do with very real amazing support every step of the way.  It has truly been the biggest joy of my life being associated with the Wharf Rats.

Pandemic Update

I live in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand is an interesting place, and it derives a lot of income from tourism; so for the first year of the pandemic, there were very few casualties, if you will, from Covid.  In fact, in the first year, I would say from March 2020 until March of 2021 there were fewer than a hundred people who perished according to official documents. 

I don’t really trust government figures, but it was interesting that in Thailand people were masked up and they were taking Covid very seriously right from the onset.  I was walking down Embassy Row on Sathorn Street in mid-January of 2020 and more than half of the office people who were outside during their lunch breaks already had masks on.  I was astonished and wondering what’s going on.  This was before any of the official announcements about Covid. Thailand has a proximity to China, familial and business relationships are plentiful, when news that Chinese were dying from some strange disease, Thai people just automatically masked up. They had been through SARS, Bird flu, Hong Kong flu, horrendous pollution, a bunch of other respiratory ailments in the past 20 years. Thai people, in general, do try to protect themselves; and I think that the concept of social distancing, disinfecting and masking was already ingrained in the culture when Sars Covid 2 began to appear. The result is everybody has worn a mask in Thailand since January of 2020 and continue to do so, soon thereafter they started social distancing, by the end of March 2020, they completely stopped international in bound air travel, they did all this precautionary stuff which resulted in a low death rate and very few COVID cases. 

The show must go on. My wife, my daughter and I flew to Tucson Arizona on 27 January 2020 for the Tucson Gem and Mineral show as had been our custom for the last twenty years.  I’m a gemologist.  We buy and sell our goods at the Tucson show. We have a wholesale/retail booth there where we sell gemstones, silver jewelry and tie-dyed ladies clothing all of which we manufacture in Thailand. I had been in the medical field for 23 years in the military as a Physician Assistant and had specialized in Tropical medicine and with the goings on in Bangkok, I had my eyes open for any evidence of illness. We spent our layover in a hotel room to avoid the airport lobby. We took care in our interactions with customers especially those we thought came from endemic countries. I looked for evidence of people with infectious diseases or any type of respiratory problems at the Tucson show, because people do come from the four corners of the Earth, virtually every inhabited place on earth. The Tucson show is the biggest trade show in the world dedicated to gems, jewelry and minerals. We take over the entire city.  It’s one of the places where one would expect to evidence of a pandemic, or the results of transmissible respiratory diseases as the show is three weeks long. So far as I know, there were no huge outbreaks, in fact, in Arizona, people didn’t start really start getting sick with Sars-Covid 2 until July 2020 so far as I know. So interesting.  Americans in February 2020 could not care less about the goings on in some far-flung corner of China. We flew back to Bangkok on 16 February, no masks, no muss, no fuss.

 I got back to Thailand and out came the medical texts. I studied anything and everything that I could find on Covid and with a little help from Chris Martenson over at Peak Prosperity, I determined that this pandemic was going to tear up the world in much the same way that a honey badger will tear up a garden patch. I came to that conclusion the evening of March 3, 2020 and on the March 4th  I was back on an airplane headed to Tucson to collect and preserve our goods which I feared might be jeopardized during a pandemic. It was just two weeks after returning to Bangkok. I got all my goods, my vehicle and my trailer that I had left in storage in Tucson, and I drove it to Boston where I knew it would be safer. Fortunately, I caught the Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers show along the way in Louisville KY, and then I flew back to Thailand on the 12th of March of last year just before they closed down the airspace…. I knew from my medical experience in the military what a novel virus would do to a population and what was about to unfold. I could see that the potential was that the whole world was going to come to a screeching halt. I told anybody that would listen but their eyes glazed over and they looked at me like I was crazy for being so concerned. So be it. I began to hunker down in Thailand, and I think that’s when you contacted me to discuss the origins of the Wharf Rats.  

I soon ended up moving to Ko Pha Ngan, which was a Covid free island in the south of Thailand near Koh Samui in the Gulf of Siam known mostly for its Full Moon parties which disappeared during the pandemic. The western part of the island is known for its conscious community, its yoga, veganism, ecstatic dance and endless sunset celebrations complete with drum circles. That is where I hunkered down for the pandemic, practicing yoga, meditation, some fasting and healthy living. I lived there for eight months in a beach side resort. Covid really did not touch us there. There was no Covid on that island. It remains an oasis of sanity in a crazy freaking world. I don’t think any Covid even got to the island until March of 2021. We were blessed and we knew it. When there were a few cases, the government immediately quarantined all of those people involved.  They tracked down all of the contacts.  They quarantined them and they eradicated any and all disease.

 I moved back to Bangkok at the end of May 2021 just in time for the Delta variant to take hold. Vaccines, were not easily available and Thailand had largely escaped the morbidity and mortality that the rest of the world had experienced throughout the pandemic. Suddenly, there were outbreaks in Bangkok of the Delta variant, talk of a Delta plus variant, and well, long story short, my entire family got Covid in July.  All nine of us—it’s an extended family, my wife and our three children and my wife’s sisters and their children.  Fortunately, we all recovered from most of all the symptoms using local remedies and in about a week. By two weeks were all better. 

There are Wharf Rats in Thailand. We are everywhere and people continue to seek us out. Phil Lesh once said to me, “The Wharf Rats save lives”. Especially these days, the ravages of addiction, diseases, hopelessness, social alienation from friends and family, let alone the justice system are bad enough, then you got fentanyl, where one bad buy puts you in the ground. That would be us who are out there dying…Wharf Rats…Yes…the Wharf Rats do save lives—sobriety and recovery is a continuous effort. It is not unlike the sentiments Bob Dylan expressed when he wrote the lyrics: “That he not busy being born is busy dying”. (“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”) We have myriad Zoom Wharf Rat meetings, live Wharf Rat meetings are coming back to life.  I am never that far away from recovery and people in recovery. 

  I came back to America with my daughter Amber to do the 2021 Summer/Fall tour for Dead & Company which just concluded.  I got back in time for the Hershey show.  That was my first show. We skipped some shows due to jet lag, jumped back on in Mansfield, then finished the entire tour. My daughter is studying in a medical school in China, so she studies at night from about nine p.m. until four in the morning, remotely as China is still closed to foreigners. Frequently, we would have to skip a show and go to a hotel room to let her study; but I got into 17 shows and she did a bunch so we had a blast, and, you know, it was amazing.  Dead and Company music is amazing.  

I vend when I’m on tour.  I bring ladies tie-dye clothing and jewelry from Thailand.  I’m in the lot early.  You know, vendors have a hard life.  We have to be there sometimes 6:30 in the morning to stake out a little turf and set up Shakedown Street.  And so that’s part of my deal. Typically, we have a roll of the yellow One Show at a Time stickers hanging off of the glass case and people who are Wharf Rats who want to self-identify as such on lot will come by my booth and they will get a sticker. We find each other that way. So, we are a little Wharf Rat scene right down there on Shakedown Street.  And there are quite a few Wharf Rats who are vendors, and that is another dimension to our Wharf Rat scene, clean and sober Rats on tour who vend. 

I have to say that we have attracted quite a few Wharf Rats into recovery, they see us out there, they knew who we were before we got clean, and it gives them some hope. Heroin addicts clean up their act. People at the end of their rope suddenly remember those yellow balloons and they know where to go for help. Fellowship, love, acceptance, understanding and some no-bullshit answers to the kinds of living problems that new people facing recovery are confronted with. We take our recovery with us wherever we go. Our presence in the lot and at the shows reach out to people that ordinarily might not find help elsewhere or that feel like they do not fit in to more conventional places. I have seen this. We also specialize in providing “some Traction in an otherwise slippery environment” for those already in recovery. Countless people have found comfort, friendship and recovery around the Wharf Rat table and have found their way into mainstream recovery through the door that the Grateful Dead have so graciously offered to us for over three decades. We in turn, are forever grateful. I have spoken with the Los Angeles Wharf Rats about the 2022 Skull and Roses festival. We love that festival and have been there each year. I know that there are a lot of people that love the Skull and Roses festival and I can assure you that the Los Angeles Wharf Rats will be there in force as well as many of us from other places. We will survive, we will get by and YES, we will have a table there. It’s a festival that we all love.