Steve Parish

Skull & Roses is around the corner and in anticipation of the upcoming music festival, I had a conversation about the scene with Steve Parish, aka Big Steve, roadie for the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band, Jerry’s gear handler and JGB’s manager.

WALL OF NEWS: The Dead community has blown up, there’s so many different generations into the music now. Why do you think the Grateful Dead scene keeps growing? 

PARISH: Because when we started, we were the outcasts. We had a big music scene in the Bay Area, and we all worked for all these bands. We knew everybody. They all were starting to become famous, and they went and did stuff like TV and records. Now we had a different scene. We had this crazy psychedelic party at our shows, and nobody ever thought that was going to be the thing to last, but it did because we didn’t go for all the commercialism at the time that other people did. We stuck to our principles.  

When Jerry said that people could record the shows and he didn’t care, the record companies and radio stations wouldn’t play the Grateful Dead. The police were after us everywhere because we smoked pot, did drugs, and had long hair. Wherever we went across country in those days, there were rednecks everywhere that wanted to kill us, literally. We had to deal with all that. We were tough guys. Lucky enough, the crew guys were all rough and tumble, and we all had lives on the street, and so did Jerry and some of the other band guys. Now that made for a combination that was successful, and had we not done it our way, it wouldn’t have worked. We became this thing, and everybody does everything the way we did it. It became a reflection of that.

On my radio show, people that call me are in their twenties, some of them younger. They want to know everything about this magical thing that happened because every once in a while, in the history of the world, there comes a magic place that sparks up. Maybe it’s Paris in the ’20’s or Berlin in the 1910’s. Around the world it happens. When it hit San Francisco at that moment, we rose to the top of that through years of hard work and now it comes back because we never gave up. 

Who knew that we were going to start all this networking? The whole Silicon Valley, all those people were Deadheads, and all the doctors and lawyers, because we went to every college in the ’60’s and ’70’s. We played everywhere in this country, and all those people became the leaders of America. They’re everywhere now and they made sure that the Grateful Dead were instilled in everyone’s heart. It’s unbelievable. You meet them in Hollywood. You meet them in Washington. You meet them everywhere. Everywhere we went, they would come out. Senators, doctors of the highest order, so many beautiful, amazing connections that we had led to this day. Bobby says he’s going to go on because he’s determined to teach young people to move into the spots as people grow older and disappear. That’s an amazing thing, and there’s nowhere else you can get that.

A lot of young people want to know about Jerry. They ask me so many detailed questions about him because he was a charismatic person who touched a lot of people with his music, his soul, and his way of being.

WON: What do you think of the evolution of Skull and Roses?

PARISH: It became something now that I call the Deadhead Convention, where everybody comes, and you get to talk to people. You get to meet everybody. That’s so much fun, and all the cover bands. It’s incredible. Everywhere you go we’re influenced by the music and changed the jam band scene. The whole thing started from that, and these are legacies that I love. I’m proud that Skull and Roses happens spontaneously, just like everything that ever happened with the Dead. It was destiny, but yet spontaneity. It’s all magic. 

Assbites from Hell

WON: Tell me more about the Assbites. Are you going to play on 4/20 at Skull and Roses?

PARISH: Yeah, we’re playing. The Assbites was a band that we started 50 years ago, man. When we set up, Ram Rod would play guitar. Healy played guitar. I was on the drums. Rex Jackson was on bass. We just started learning together and playing. When we would set the band up, we tested gear, and then it became a thing where we played till the band came. The guys came in to do sound check, and they would take over, of course, but they always encouraged us. 

We only had a couple of songs we played. We were pretty rudimental, and they loved it. Years go by, now, 40, 50 years later, it was like a legendary thing because it was something people wanted to know about. Now the band is made up of AJ, who was Bobby’s roadie, I passed that to him–and Bobby named us the Assbites from Hell. It was his joke … We only do it basically at Skull and Roses and a couple other places because everybody’s out touring and working. 

WON: Who will play in the Assbites at Skull & Roses this year?

PARISH: Okay, so AJ, and Vadim is a drummer because I’m now a singer. I challenge myself because of the radio, but I still play drums too. We have two drum sets, and so we do double drumming and different things like that. And Mike McGinn, he’s been a sound guy that’s been with us, he used to help in the Grateful Dead as a peripheral technician on computers. I’ve brought Ralph Woodson, who is a great blues player and a wonderful guy. We got Bo Freeman on bass, who’s an incredible bass player and old friend.

WON: I heard that you and Strider Shurtliff, Ramrod’s son, are going to bring out some cool ephemera to Skull and Roses?

PARISH: Yeah. Ramrod and I, we always saved everything, and things came through our hands that no one else would ever imagine. The band didn’t care about any of this stuff, but we picked it up and took care of it. Ramrod passed away, so his son, Strider, we worked together on his stuff, and went through all of our things. We have amazing, rare items like posters, paperwork, and incredible passes, laminates that we collected for all the shows. There’s amazing art that goes with them. This is a tribute to that. The posters and all the beautiful pictures that we have given to us by the photographers. Everybody loved the Grateful Dead, the best photographers, the best poster artists all worked with us, and they would make us special stuff because they loved our whole scene, and we collected all that. Now in my later years of life, I’m thinking it would be a real nice thing to share it with Deadheads.

WON: Hell yeah. 

Thinking back to the Ventura shows in the ‘80’s, do you have any favorite moments from those days?

PARISH: Of course, every show is full of favorite moments. The first time we ever played there was incredible because there you are looking at the ocean. The stage is very tall, and it was such a unique place. And we went back there, and every time we did, we took over more. It seemed like the whole town turned out for the Dead, and it became a special thing. Then of course, we did shows there with Jerry’s band, and we tried all kinds of different things for awhile at Ventura.

Hell’s Angels were our promoters down there for Jerry’s band. I let them do that because they were good guys and friends of ours. The town is a little sensitive about the shows because it’s a city park, really, that fairgrounds. We respect it a lot and it has history in that area. It’s an old racetrack. We played a lot of those, and we know about how those things evolved to become sacred altars almost because of the Grateful Dead’s music and the way people were devoted to it. We had so many great shows there. 

WON: Steve, I’ve tried some Grizzly Peak flower and loved it. How did that opportunity come your way?

PARISH: It’s a beautiful thing. Of course, it came to me on tour. I knew right away that they were special because Grizzly Peak was a place that Jerry and I, and all of us, used to go and smoke weed. It was way up in the hills of Berkeley. It was a place you could overlook the whole bay, it’s a special spot. That just triggered me and of course, our whole lives were devoted to that. We were such pioneers in the cannabis industry. Nobody stuck their neck out like we did, smoking weed wherever we went all the time, we had the best come to us. We saw every change from going back when we were kids in the ’50s and ’60s, and how it evolved.

We always knew the medicine value of it. So, this is the greatest reward in the world. To see my name on a pre-roll that is doing so well, number one in California right now. What we had to go through! It was 10 years in San Quentin in 1968 if you got a joint. All that evolved for it to be legal. It’s a very satisfying thing to be involved with. They do a great job, and we’ll have a big presence there, get people to know our brand, and they can try it. Everybody that does, loves it. We’re blessed, we’re very blessed.

WON: Right on. You guys pioneered a lot for the scene and for people. For our freedom. 

PARISH: That’s right. It’s very sacred territory and it’s a sacrament to all the beautiful things of music and life and health and harmony. 

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.