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San Francisco is alive with Grateful Deadheads for final shows. Is the city still a hippie mecca?

Deadhead Nathan Hubbard poses for a portrait outside Love on Haight on the corner of Haight Street and Masonic Avenue in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Deadheads from around the world have descended upon San Francisco for Grateful Dead spinoff band Dead & Company’s last-ever shows at the Oracle Park baseball stadium. 

Diehard Deadheads consider the Grateful Dead’s 1995 concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field to be the influential jam band’s last true performance before frontman Jerry Garcia died. But fans say Dead & Company’s finale in San Francisco, the same city where the Dead spent their pivotal early years living in the Haight, is a pilgrimage they cannot miss out on.

“A [Grateful Dead song] line says, ‘Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart.’ We live by that,” said Todd Cohani, referencing the band’s 1978 song, “Shakedown Street.” 

“It feels like a pilgrimage, like a return to your roots,” said Cohani, a New Jersey resident who lived in San Francisco 32 years ago.

READ MORE: Bartering With Business Hippies at the Last-Ever Grateful Dead Shakedown Street

Todd Cohani, left, and Marla Cohani, right, pose for a portrait outside the Grateful Dead House on Ashbury Street in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

San Francisco may have gained a slight touch of gray since the Grateful Dead band members lived together in a looming Victorian at 710 Ashbury St. to ride out the storied 1967 Summer of Love. The hippie era’s characteristic tie-dye aesthetic and psychedelic-fueled hedonism endure on a small stretch of shops on San Francisco’s Haight Street between Central Avenue and Golden Gate Park.

Some believe counterculture is dead in San Francisco, seemingly forced out by a booming tech industry, skyrocketing housing costs and 50-plus years of changing cultural attitudes.

“In those avenues of culture, there isn’t that same heartbeat, or same prioritization of being loving,” said Washington state resident Nathan Hubbard, who drove to the Bay Area for the Dead shows. “I hope that [San Francisco] goes back to the folk roots of everything, because there’s a realness in that, kind of like not wearing shoes or sandals when you’re on the beach. When things get too mechanical and just it’s so quick … I don’t know—there isn’t depth, and there isn’t intimacy.”

The Grateful Dead perform "Shakedown Street" in 1987.

The band’s free-spirited community, radical love and family ties will never fade away from San Francisco, some superfans say, even if the city looks and feels less hippified today. 

“I knew I could run away because of those Grateful Dead people,” said a man who asked to be referred to as Out Side, who was sitting on Haight Street’s sidewalk Thursday.

The man said he left the Midwest for a transient lifestyle in the Bay Area nearly three decades ago. “I met one hobo, I read one article in a magazine when I was a youngster about people living in their vans and they were Grateful Dead people,” he said. “I ran away. Otherwise, I would’ve gotten stuck.”

‘A Band for Seekers’

A man who goes by the moniker Out Side sits on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

On Thursday morning, Haight Street was crawling with Deadheads who had traveled to town for the final three Dead & Company shows, which started Friday. 

The Standard spoke to visitors who had traveled by any means necessary from West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Washington and New Jersey. Some said they found the band through acid trips and hazy years spent partying in the ’80s and ’90s. Two men had snagged tickets for all three sold-out shows, and one said he’d been to nine Grateful Dead-related concerts this year alone.

The staunch enthusiasm is partly for the music, but mostly for the community vibes—and maybe the psychedelics, multiple Deadheads said. 

“There are a lot of universal messages, in that it really is a band for seekers,” said Marla Cohani, who flew from New Jersey with her husband, Todd, to attend the shows. “It’s a band for people who believe there’s more to life than just kind of what we see on the surface. Even if you’re not on drugs—which I really wasn’t—the music still kind of took me to a higher realm.”

Jeremy Latham, left, and Chad Whalen pose for a portrait on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco on Thursday, July 13, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Deadheads say the band’s Americana lyrics cater to the wanderers of the world, and all of those roads lead back to the Grateful Dead’s birthplace in the San Francisco Bay Area. Formed in Palo Alto, the band played its first gig in 1965 as the Warlocks at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor in Menlo Park, and it quickly became a symbol of counterculture.

Murals of the late Jerry Garcia are plastered throughout Haight Street, and residents recall a time when the frontman played free shows around the neighborhood—often balancing precariously on the top of a flatbed truck. 

“I’m from Indiana, so I came in for the shows, and I can feel the vibe now that I’ve always wanted to feel,” said Carrie Smith, a first-time visitor who is celebrating her anniversary with her wife at the show. “My aunt came here, went back in the ’60s with her whole group and her commune. I wanted to be a part of that.”

The current revival band announced last year that its summer 2023 tour would be its last after eight years of performances. Featuring original Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart alongside pop music icon John Mayer, Dead & Company sold out all three Bay Area shows.

Heart of Haight Street 

Shin Kikukawa, right, points at a T-shirt while browsing through Grateful Dead merch at Love on Haight in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Haight-Ashbury may feel a little more corporate than yesteryear: High-priced vintage and curated thrift boutiques line the streets where tie-dye spots and hazy head shops used to be in abundance. Like other San Francisco neighborhoods, the area struggled during the pandemic.  

“It’s definitely changed, but working on Haight Street, we try to keep [counterculture] alive,” said Olivia Berlingerio, a staffer at the Love on Haight tie-dye emporium. “Just talking to the hippies on the street—they’re trying to keep that culture alive and to get everyone in on it.” 

The Haight staged an impressive comeback in 2022, especially compared to the city’s beleaguered Downtown. Despite all the changes and challenges hitting San Francisco, visitors still flock to the Haight for its cultural roots and freewheeling reputation. 

Staff at the Piedmont Boutique said Grateful Dead concerts have drawn in a swarm of customers this week, many of whom were sporting colorful rainbow tees and the band’s iconic skull symbol. 

“I think [the Haight] is phenomenal,” said Illinois native Chad Whalen. “It helps the little guy out, when we’re in shops here where people—not manufacturers but people—make clothes and stuff. You’re able to buy people’s artwork.”