Courtenay Pollock, tie dye man
This is an excerpt from This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans. Signed copies are available at perfectible.net
Courtenay Pollock’s journey to the Grateful Dead was a unique and magical happenstance. He worked with the Dead for more than a decade, among many other things creating magnificent tie-dyed backdrops for shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley three years running in the early ‘80s.
Courtesy of Courtenay Pollock
Courtenay Pollock: I had a head shop in Greenwich Village, New York, and the West Village on McDougall Street, and then I opened a boutique on Bleecker Street. Some guy came in selling some tie-dye scarves which were just random colors swirled together. I loved the look of them — it reminded me of something from my childhood, and the bright swirling colors that I used to paint in my art compositions. I decided that I was going to try my hand at it.
Around the same time, this beautiful exotic woman came into my boutique wearing a bed sheet. It was a tie-dye, a sunburst; she had put a hole in the center and pulled it over her head, and it was very fetching. I started figuring out how a sunburst was made, musing on a method to achieve that. At some point later, I had occasion to be in upstate New York. I got to sample some dyes and got some cloth together, and put into practice this method that I theorized, and it worked like a charm. And I had seen no other people’s methods, or read any books on tie-dyeing, or had no idea how other people created this. It’s not like I had to think outside of the box, because I was never in any box.
Photograph by Mary Eisenhart
From the get-go, it was geometric, psychedelic designs, and I realized I had come up with something extraordinary and that it was just a gift from the cosmos. I had long since understood that my mission in life was to bring joy and light. I just wanted to turn on the world.
At the end of the summer of 1970, our lease was up [on our commune in Vermont]. I threw the I Ching. In the first paragraph, it said “Fortune in the West.” So I got on a Greyhound bus headed west.
Photograph by Mary Eisenhart
When I ended up in San Francisco, I went to this little hole in the wall off Haight called the Switchboard. I’m saying, “I’m looking for a place to rent — rolling green hills, kind of like the place I had left in Vermont, which was a 500 acre farm on the river.”
The guy says, “You want to live in Marin County where all the rich rock’n’rollers live.”
I said, “Yeah, that sounds perfect.” Mr. Naive.
He said, “Well, that ain’t going to happen.”
And then this fellow says, “Somebody is calling from Marin County; wants to share his house.” They gave me the phone, and this guy says, “I’ll meet you at the Greyhound Station in San Rafael at 5 o’clock, and we’ll go out to the place.”
Five after five, this little blue Volkswagen pulls up and a little guy in a polyester suit and glasses gets out. He looks so painfully straight. I’m in patched jeans, tie-dyes, long hair, and a little wispy beard.
He started driving out to west Marin. He explained that he wasn’t happy with the straight world, and he was listing on the Switchboard in order to meet someone from the counterculture.
Photograph by Mary Eisenhart
We drive to Nicasio Valley, and there on one side of the road are rolling green hills, and on the other side are old-growth redwoods. We pull into this driveway and though these beautiful stately trees to this little cottage built around two giant redwood trees. They grew right through the house! It was a 150-acre private estate that he had lucked into. His friend was running the ranch across the street, which was also part of the estate, and had tipped him off about the cottage. It was two bedrooms, all the mod cons, stone fireplace, lovely little patio, under this wonderful stand of great old-growth redwood trees.
He said, “The rent is $80 a month.”
“No way I’ve got $80.”
He said, “No, no — your half is $40. The owners got a good break in their younger years and had good fortune, and they want to pass that good fortune on to younger people.” It was just an idyllic situation.
I got up in the morning and the house was empty — he’d gone to work. I put a bag of tie-dyes on my back and walked down Nicasio Valley Road looking for a freak ranch. I was looking up the driveways, and about a mile down the road I looked up this driveway and I got the feeling that yeah, there’s definitely freaks living here.
I go bang on this farmhouse door and this beautiful little elfin gal opens the door with a ring in her nose. “Hello, I’m new into the neighborhood, and would you like to see some of my tie-dye work?”
“Sure, come on in. I’ll get some coffee going.” She comes out with the coffee, and I’ve got tie-dye pieces hanging around the living area, and she goes, “Oh, these are absolutely beautiful. The guys will love these. They should be back up the road any minute. And here they are now!” These trucks pull in and these rowdies tumble out and rumble through the house; they stop in the middle of the room and look around, and they go, “Far out, man. You can do our speaker fronts.” And another says, “Yeah, I’ll make it happen tomorrow morning.”
“Who are you guys?”
They said, “We work for the Grateful Dead.” This was [crew members] Rex Jackson, Sonny Heard, and Joe Winslow.
It was Rex who put the wheels in motion, and Frankie — who was Weir’s partner at the time — was the little elfin lady with the ring in her nose. She said, “Weir should be back in a day or two, and we’ll make it official.”
The next day, I’m walking up from my house up towards the Rucka Rucka Stud Ranch, which is what they called their little ranch because they had horses in the field. Of course, the name was really based around them as the stallions rather than the horses. This car pulls over and someone says, “You want a ride?”
I say, “Yeah, sure.”
He says, “Where are you headed?”
“I’m going down to meet up with some friends. It’s only a mile down the road at the Rucka Rucka.”
He said, “Oh, that’s my place.”
I said, “You must be Bob Weir.” We got down to the ranch and he looked at some of my work, and he said, “Oh yeah, these are great. I’ll make sure it’s all in motion for you. You can come down and start measuring cabinets and getting the contract together. How are you doing for work right now?”
I said, “I’m just looking for opportunities,” and he said “Well, until we get your commission going, if you want to just do some stuff around the ranch, you’re welcome to stay here.”
I already had a place, but I did help out — stacking wood, feeding the horses, whatever. I started meeting the rest of the fellows, and probably three days later I was down on Front Street measuring cabinets for a gig that was coming up in a couple weeks.
And it’s been tie-dye ever since…