A 12-foot-tall rooster is dancing with two Himalayan lions around the Oakland Coliseum. A 100-foot-long green-eyed, fire-belching dragon suddenly appears. The rooster crows, the lions roar, the dragon burps flame, and 15,000 Deadheads wonder Is it live, or is it the mushrooms?
No, it's not a psychedelically induced mass hallucination. The rooster and pals are giant puppets, part of the Grateful Dead's Chinese New Year concert in late January one of the group's final warm-up gigs before launching this month into their first full-scale tour in nearly a year. The puppets represent the ancient Asian gods of creativity, intellect, and redemption, but to the tie-dyed hordes of fans packed into the Coliseum, the symbolism stretches far beyond any event on the Chinese calendar. They're celebrating not just the new year but the much-awaited rebirth of a legend a mythical, mystical, living entity that with the collapse of spiritual catalyst Jerry Garcia, came close to dying a half year ago.
The band guitarists Garcia and Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, new keyboardist Vince Welnick and their followers often describe themselves as a family, which helps to explain the phenomenal come-together, thick-as-blood appeal the Dead have demonstrated during the last 28 years. ''In the old days, we were just hippies,'' Garcia says backstage in Oakland. ''We were just a local band. But now the Deadheads have become something. Everybody knows one. Everybody has a cousin or a brother who's a Deadhead.''
Like any family, no matter how dysfunctional, the Dead have deep roots. Theirs is a genealogy reaching back to the primordial stage of American rock, the San Francisco Epoch. From there it stretches down to the present on the strength of more than 10 million albums sold and nearly 2,100 concerts. But, like any family worthy of the name, the Dead have had to weather long, strange trips through life and death. Founding keyboardist Ron ''Pigpen'' McKernan died of alcohol-related causes in 1973; his successor, Keith Godchaux, was killed in a car crash in 1980; and his successor, Brent Mydland, died of a cocaine and morphine overdose in 1990. But nothing threatened the very existence of the family as much as Garcia's critical illness last summer.
On Aug. 3, just as he was about to take his freewheeling brand of country-blues-folk-rock out on another tour, Garcia, 50, collapsed in his Marin County home. The official explanation at first was exhaustion. The truth, however, was more frightening. Garcia's mega-calorie diet (his six-foot frame mashed the scales at 300 pounds), his three-pack-a-day (unfiltered) smoking habit, and his earlier pharmacological binges (cocaine, heroin, nearly every hallucinogen known to humankind) had done major damage. His heart had enlarged under the strain of his weight, and his lungs had become congested. With Garcia's history of obesity-related diabetes he lapsed into a 24-hour coma in 1986 and with the news that the Dead had canceled their fall tour, rumors began flying that the legendary Captain Trips was making that the legendary Captain Trips was making his last one.
Garcia felt no warning symptoms before the collapse, no pain. ''I just used to get exhausted by the end of a show,'' he says simply. Recuperation began, primarily with dieting and detoxification. Grains, fruit, and vegetables replaced meat and dairy products; 60 pounds fell. Garcia started working out three times a week at home, cut his smoking habit to three cigs a day, and now restricts his chemical intake to an infrequent, special-occasion mushroom. Not exactly Cindy Crawford's regimen, but a big change for Garcia all the same.
Maybe the most important part of the rehab was a trip to Hawaii with Weir and Lesh just before Christmas. ''We got a chance to remember that we're old friends in addition to being colleagues,'' says Garcia. Another old friend along for the trip was Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and when he and the guitarist sat down together in Hawaii, Garcia was able to break through a long-standing writer's block.
''I hadn't written anything in almost two years,'' he says, ''so for me this was something I'd been saving up. I felt like I'd turned a corner.'' The new songs are being introduced on the Dead's current tour (running from March 9 to April 2) and will probably be included on a studio album planned for later this year, their first since 1989.
''I feel much younger,'' says Garcia, now looking Slim-Fast fit. ''I have a lot more vitality.'' The proof can be seen at the Chinese New Year concerts. For the first time in years, Garcia is actually moving on stage, delivering his famous liquid guitar solos with an energy he hasn't shown since Nixon was in the White House.
''Everything is better,'' he says. ''Maybe it's just in the air it's the '90s and it's time to change, but we're all feeling like we're on the verge of the golden age of the Grateful Dead.''