“Feeding the Dead” is a book you can sink your teeth into.
Written by former foothills resident Jim Stearns, the new memoir details how a small backwoods cooking crew grew into the permanent food catering service for one of the world’s biggest rock bands, the Grateful Dead.
Best known locally as a key figure in the Avery Ranch, a utopian community deep in the Stanislaus National Forest, as well as a co-founder of the High Sierra Music Festival and several other restaurant and music ventures, Stearns now lives in Homer, Alaska, with his wife, Alisa Mooy-Stearns, and their two daughters, Hannah, 14, and Hope, 7.
Stearns also has three adult children living in California.
After eight years with the Grateful Dead and before moving to Alaska, the Stearns family lived in Sheep Ranch in Calaveras County, where they volunteered at a soup kitchen in Angels Camp and were active in delivering meals to area shut-ins.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, they headed south for two months, helping to serve 1,500 refugees daily from an emergency kitchen in Houston.
In April 2009, their Sheep Ranch home burned to the ground, shortly after a new real estate and music venture involving the Tamarack Lodge on upper Highway 4 fell through.
“We were devastated financially and psychologically, so we decided to make a bold move and just take off and wander around looking for a place to live,” Stearns said.
After traveling the spring and summer of 2009, they arrived in Homer.
“We fell in love with it — it’s got great art, music and schools and has the highest per capita rate of Ph.Ds in the country,” Stearns said. “We figured we could always go back to California, but we love it here. It’s the liberal bastion of Alaska.”
Some 30 years earlier, Stearns had purchased a thousand acres of remote land in Tuolumne County, a private enclave in the midst of the Stanislaus National Forest.
That property became the Avery Ranch, where Stearns and his friends planned to live a simple life in the style of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
One of the two-dozen residents, Doug Vanderberg, happened also to be a great chef, and informal gatherings soon turned into small festivals.
Everything changed in 1987, when the Grateful Dead played at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp.
The band’s road manager, Cameron Sears, who knew Stearns from their days together with Friends of the River, asked him to house the band at the ranch for a few days.
Stearns agreed, not realizing what he was getting into until a fleet of Italian-made helicopters flew over the hill and started landing in the meadow.
“Once those helicopters came down, our lives were transformed,” Stearns said.
The Grateful Dead had gotten their start in San Francisco during the psychedelic ’60s, but by now had become international headliners accustomed to staying in five-star hotels.
Seeing the primitive ranch for the first time, keyboard player Brent Mydland wondered aloud, “’What the hell is going on?’ ” Stearns recalled.
“He said ‘This cabin for me and my whole family is smaller than my bathroom at the hotel we just stayed at in New York.’”
The ranch crew slowly won the band over, however.
“In many, many ways I know they enjoyed it once the initial shock wore off,” Stearns said.
He said the band — consisting of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and keyboard player Mydland — was forced to spend time together, a situation that would never occur again.
“It was a wild card for them — it was the only time they hung out together for the next eight years,” Stearns said, referring to Garcia’s death in 1995, although Mydland had died even earlier, in 1990.
“In every subsequent gig, everyone scattered to their own limos and hotels,” he said. “Even at the shows they had their own dressing rooms. This was a unique situation that reminded them what they used to be like when they were real people.”
A few months after the band left the area, Stearns received another call from Sears, saying the Grateful Dead wanted the ranch crew to go on the road with them and provide all catering and hospitality.
“My mind swirled,” Stearns wrote in the book. “I would say later that it was perhaps the worst and best thing that ever happened to me as an individual and to us as a community.”
Their first gig ended badly.
After as much planning as possible, Stearns and Vanderberg felt ready to feed the band and their massive crew backstage at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
A miscalculation in timing, however, proved disastrous, with a mob of angry stage hands howling for their food.
Stearns and Vanderberg were summoned to the production office, where they were verbally thrashed by two of the top figures in the Bill Graham organization, which was in charge of producing all the Grateful Dead shows.
One of them was none other than Peter Barsotti, widely considered legendary rock promoter Bill Graham’s right-hand man, who later purchased the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland and died of leukemia last year at age 64.
Barsotti apologized to Stearns for the outburst later the same day, telling him, “We had to deliver the message.”
Bettike Barsotti, Peter’s wife at the time, also ranked high in the Graham hierarchy.
“In the midst of a testosterone-driven world, Bettike was a breath of fresh air,” Stearns wrote. “Her genuine concern transcended all ego trips.”
Bettike died in a car crash in Groveland in January 2004 at age 51.
“Feeding the Dead” goes on to cover the joys and challenges of working in an environment filled with high pressure and gigantic egos both on and off the stage.
As part of the Graham organization, the Avery Ranch crew also worked at benefit shows for such causes as Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, earthquake relief and AIDS.
“From medical care for the poor to food banks and international issues, Bill was committed to social causes,” Stearns said. “We had heard all the criticism of Bill Graham … a heartless ghoul who would just as soon throw you out as let you in. But for all his bad reputation, he really had a big heart, and nobody knows about that stuff.”
Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991.
During the course of the benefits and a multitude of Dead shows, Stearns and crew crossed paths with legions of stars including Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Ozzy Osbourne, Tracy Chapman, the Eagles and many more, as well as such backstage visitors as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Stanley Owsley, Paul Newman, Al Gore and John F. Kennedy Jr.
All brought their own strong personalities, and Stearns is not shy in naming those who saw themselves as beyond the bounds of polite behavior.
Stearns noted that most of the stars did not act like “complete jerks” and recalled a pleasant incident with the iconic Bob Hope.
Stearns had been dispatched by Graham to meet Hope at his hotel and bring him back to the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland, about a 10-minute drive, as part of a benefit show for victims of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“Though the brief ride to the Kaiser was sprinkled with a few questions and some one-liner jokes,” Stearns wrote, “the statement I remember most was when I asked him how he got roped into this rock and roll benefit craziness and he said ‘If you have no charity in your heart then you have the worst kind of heart problem.’”
One star who always seemed to maintain a low key was Jerry Garcia, Stearns said.
“The thing that made him so special was that he was unimpressed with himself,” he said. “He wondered what all the fanfare was about. Even when the Grateful Dead was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he refused to go, so the rest of the band posed with a cardboard cutout of him.”
Stearns said his favorite Garcia story involves an accounting meeting held after one of their many shows.
“I threw my bill into the mix and said we went through 52 cases of Beck’s beer and 22 cases of Corona,” Stearns said.
Even Garcia was astonished, asking "We drank 52 cases of Beck’s?"
"I said ‘Yep’ and he said ‘I didn’t even get one.’”
One of the few times Stearns saw Garcia get angry was when someone tried to upgrade his hot dog order.
“He just wanted a ballpark frank, but my chefs were constantly trying to improve things, so they gave him applewood meat and organic mustard on a whole wheat bun,” Stearns recalled. “He said ‘This is b-------! All I want is a regular hot dog on a Wonder Bread bun and French’s mustard.’”
“Feeding the Dead” ends with several chapters of rock and roll trivia.
Among them are a selection of contract riders, along with Garcia’s will, eulogies of Garcia by fellow musicians, and Garcia’s own words on subjects from psychedelic drugs to religion, fame, the band and his famous neckties.
On marriage, Garcia is quoted as saying “Everybody ought to try it once or twice.”
Also included is a “Feeding the Dead Cookbook,” featuring many of Vanderberg’s recipes that kept the band and crew happy.
Vanderberg continues to live in Tuolumne and operate Celebration Catering.
Stearns, who is also the author of a novel, “Women and Gold,” continues to work on music events in Alaska, often in support of environmental causes.
Among other projects, he is the music and production coordinator for Salmonstock, a three-day music festival held each August to protect Bristol Bay and its watershed from a proposed $400 billion mining development.
“It’s the biggest conservation battle of the decade,” Stearns said.
“Feeding the Dead” is published by Wizard Works of Homer, Alaska, and sells for $22.95, available at feedingthedead.com, or $5.99 as an e-book. Copies also are available at Charley's Books in Jamestown.