'I Had Never Seen Anything Like That': Fare Thee Well Producer Pete Shapiro's Journey to Deadheadism

Peter Shapiro
Mark Bonifacio/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Peter Shapiro photographed at Brooklyn Bowl on Aug. 9, 2011in Brooklyn, New York. 

Every Grateful Dead fan has their origin story -- here's Fare Thee Well producer Pete Shapiro's.

Pete Shapiro, 42, is a rock 'n roll renaissance man, with a broad, diverse portfolio of music biz endeavors that includes venues (Capitol Theatre, Brooklyn Bowl), festivals (Lokn'), publishing (Relix), rock docs (U23D), and, in his highest-profile endeavor to date, producer/promoter as the man who managed to re-unite the Grateful Dead for the Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary concerts which begin this weekend at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and culminates July 4th weekend with a three-day blowout at Chicago's Soldier Field that could be the biggest single band concert in history. Above all, Shapiro is a self-avowed Deadhead, and below, in his own words, is the tale of the Dead show that sent him down the Golden Road that led to Fare Thee Well.

My whole career started from going to a Grateful Dead show in March of 1993 at Rosemont Horizon (near Chicago) on a snowy night. During the show, my head went to a certain place, and then they brought on Ken Nordine to do a spoken word, and I went to another place, and had to leave. I found myself in the parking lot, it was snowing, and I walked into a drum circle. Here I was, an upper middle class kid from New York City in Chicago as a film student at Northwestern, and there I saw kids like me -- but they were not going back to school. And they were not going home. They were on the road, following the Dead. I stayed up all night, and I was at the door of the library at Northwestern at 8 am the next day. I started doing research on what documentary films had been done about this Deadhead culture, because I had been to concerts, but I had never seen anything like that. Here was a group of people living on tour with the band, a traveling circus, and I saw it with my eyes open real wide, ‘holy shit.’ Three months later, I was living in a van with a video camera, and another film student and I made a documentary film called And Miles to Go. I couldn’t even get the band to do an interview to be in my movie. That’s how far I’ve come!

I got [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author associated with the Dead] Ken Kesey, and [acid guru] Timothy Leary and [former Dead manager] Rock Scully, and John Barlow, their lyricist. A year later, I worked on another one called Tie-Died that went to Sudance, got released in theaters, centered around the Dead scene on the summer of ’94 tour. So I was pretty familiar with that whole scene, which led me directly to taking over ownership of a club in Lower Manhattan that was the heartbeat of the Deadhead scene called “Wetlands” in 1996. The guy who owned it was a Deadhead, and he passed it on to me, as I would continue the Dead-friendly mission of Wetlands. That’s how I got my start in the business. My parents said, “you’re crazy, what are you doing?” Larry Bloch, the owner, gave it to me. I paid him on a note, I didn’t have the money! I was 23, I thought, “listen if I can do a good job owning this club, 20 years later I’ll be in my early 40s and I’ll be a veteran, but I’ll be young!"

And here I am now, doing this shit 19 years, I’ve been owning venues ever since then. I got bit by the bug. And even though I’m tired, this shit’s hard, I love it.