With The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary shows approaching, and HeadCount organizing a “Participation Row” non-profit village at the shows, we are running a series of interviews with key people from non-profits and various social good initiatives tied to the Grateful Dead. Today, we talk to Rex Foundation Executive Director and former Grateful Dead Manager Cameron Sears. Click here to view other interviews in the series.
Cameron Sears is the Executive Director of the Rex Foundation, a charitable non-profit organization founded in 1983 by members of the Grateful Dead and friends to proactively provide extensive community support to creative endeavors in the arts, sciences and education. Prior to this role, Cameron was a Grateful Dead crew member, serving as Manager, President, and CEO starting in 1990. In addition to his work with the Grateful Dead, Cameron manages Little Feat and served as Director Label Relations for Garageband.com.
When did you join the Grateful Dead organization?
I started working for the band in ’87 in the month preceding the release of In the Dark.
How did you land that gig? What were you doing before that?
I had been a fan for a long time and I had written them a letter because I was working to protect a river in California. I was a river guide for a long time, and a river that was near and dear to my heart, the Tuolumne River, was being threatened with another dam development. The Tuolumne was the birthplace of the Sierra Club and John Muir’s effort to protect the Hetch Hetchy Valley. There was an attempt to put another dam on the river that would have flooded a premier section of wilderness and whitewater rafting and kayaking.
So I wrote the band asking them to help with the effort financially, because I knew of their philanthropy. This was in 1984. I invited them to come on a river trip with me so that they could experience it firsthand. None of the band came with me at that first juncture, but a lot of the office people did, and I became very friendly with them. I ended up taking Bill Graham down the Tuolumne. Rex ended up giving us a grant. We ended up protecting the river. It was a huge effort, it was a major environmental victory for the river community.
I stayed friends with them through it for the next couple of years. We did more trips together and just had some fun and eventually they asked if I wanted to come help work with them as they were getting geared up for the release of the record and they needed a couple of extra hands, so I signed up.
Then starting in ’87 you were a crew member?
I was basically the road manager/tour manager. I started off as the assistant to Jon McIntire, who was then the acting manager. Jon probably left the organization, I wanna say, certainly by 1990. It might have even been a little before that. And that’s when I took the helm, you know – ’89 or ’90, something like that.
What are some of your highlights of your time managing the Dead?
Well, gosh. It was a remarkable time in the band’s history, obviously because of the growth that they had experienced. We were playing stadiums every summer. It was a very multifaceted organization in terms of the complexity, you know, we did all of our own ticketing, our own merchandising. Everything we did we had our hands on, so it was all you could do to just keep up with running Grateful Dead Productions.
I’m thankful I was able to work with an enterprise that was so interested in maintaining their own culture and desire to do things their own way, and not necessarily subscribe to the way the music business at that point or even at this point functions. And that ultimately became a template for how a lot of the acts approach their business today which you know is very gratifying on a number of levels.
I wanna also mention one other thing I was happy I was able to put together – and that was the return of the band to Boston Garden. Not that it was a great building necessarily, but being that – that was, you know, a place where I saw some of my first Grateful Dead shows and they had not been back for a long time. One year when we played it, they had a big Budweiser billboard on the top of Boston Garden and I think the header was “Nothing beats a Bud,” basically, and somebody had gotten to the top of that and said “Nothing beats the Dead” on top, and they had the Dead flags waving on top of the Garden. It was pretty cool.
Merriweather Post Pavilion, which banned concerts by the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead, hosted the Dear Jerry concert recently. Chicago is rolling out the red carpet for the Fare Thee Well shows. Do you think that the Grateful Dead fanbase has tamed with age, or society has kind of changed in ways that is more accepting of what Deadheads represent?
Well I think that the scene surrounding Grateful Dead has changed enormously since 1995. I mean it’s been almost 20 years since then and a lot of time has passed. A lot of the elements that we were contending with are no longer present. You know, the economy that was built up around the scene outside was basically disrupted when we stopped performing. I think some of them went and saw Phish, and they had similar issues to what we had, and then Phish took some time off. So, you know, I think some of the circumstances surrounding the situation have taken care of themselves largely – which is a positive thing in terms of people who were formatting the negative stuff at the shows. I think that the fans themselves have aged – how could they not, you know? 20 years have passed. So people have different objectives, different time commitments, so I think it’s mellowed significantly, which is good. It needed it. It wasn’t sustainable.
I’m personally a big Phish fan and of course I’m sure you know, Phish covered Waiting for Columbus in 2011 while you managed Little Feat. Did you see a bump in sales or an increase in interest in Little Feat after that?
A little bit. Frankly I thought we might have seen a little bit more to be honest. I think that’s largely due to all this digital interference, if you will. These measurable memorable events that take place – the long tail of them is pretty short. It resonates for a period of time and then it evaporates. So I would have hoped for a longer effect, I think it was actually rather short lived. But that said, I think it’s definitely a testament to the the musicality of Little Feat, who I still feel is one of the great underrated bands of all time. That people and musicians like the guys in Phish use them as an inspiration to form their own band, that’s really one of the great accolades that any band can receive. When another great band cites them as an inspiration, you know, to their own creativity. That’s awesome.
The Rex foundation was named after the late Rex Jackson, a longtime Grateful Dead staff member, he also is your wife’s father. Did you know him at all?
No, unfortunately Rex died tragically in a car accident in 1976 and he was obviously such a big figure in the inner family here that they felt that naming the foundation after him was a good way to remember him. It was probably 7 or 8 years after his passing that that was able to happen. But it was a fitting tribute to him because his legacy loomed large over the crew especially, but the band as well. And my wife is Cassidy, the song that Bobby sings on occasion is written in part about her. So the song, if you listen to it is kind of a life/death counterpoint in the sense that it’s talking about Neal Cassady on the one hand moving out, passing to the next plateau and a new being arriving and Cassidy being born. She was born out at Bobby’s ranch in 1970. He was working up the chord changes to the song while she was being born.
Rex started in 1983, and what is the story behind its origins?
The Dead have always been very charitable and philanthropic. Their first show as the Grateful Dead was a benefit. It’s just a part of the sociology of the time, and and they’ve remained true to that.
It predates me by a few years, but my understanding is that at the time the IRS had taken issue with some of the categorization of the benefits they had been doing and the donations they had been making as a result. It wasn’t because there was any nefarious goings on. It was more that they questioned the amounts and there had to have been a cleaner way to do it. The legal team at the time took it upon themselves to set up a legitimate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization through which it would have a separate Board of Directors from the Board of Grateful Dead Productions. It had to be kind of arm’s length, if you will, to be legitimate.
It also helped us with the notion of how to pick and choose who we do it for. We were getting requests constantly to do benefits, and you know, you’re put in the difficult position of having to choose: well, let’s see should we cure blindness or should we end smallpox? Or should we save this river, or should we build a music program in this school? Those are very hard questions to do if you’re just answering singular requests for benefit concerts to benefit specific things. I think the approach that the Rex Foundation represents, and many bands have gone on to mimic this, is that you raise you raise a chunk of cash and you can give a little to this, give a little to that, give a little to this other thing, find something really interesting or somebody turns you on to something you had never heard of, and say “God that’s just amazing!” You have a little bit greater ability to sprinkle the fairy dust in farther and farther fields, which is what we wanted to do.
So what are some projects that the Rex Foundation is working with or funding right now?
We’ve given grants to people who are working in Iran to try and make sure that they can document what’s going on there. We’ve given grants to people working in Jamaica to build schools. We’ve given grants to somebody who’s working to build a school in Mali. These are all just our most recent grants. We’ve also worked with, some people working with autistic young adults and using equine therapy, you know horses and animals, to help them.
We did a cool project on the Pine Ridge reservation with [Participation Row mainstay] Conscious Alliance where they’re working with young boys there to teach them to build hand drums and perform them with them, and then learn their native language and have a saleable item to generate income on the reservation, which is pretty cool.
One of my favorite Rex projects is what the foundation did for the Lithuanian National Basketball Team in 1992. How did that happen?
At that time they Dead were playing a large number of shows at the Oakland Coliseum and the son of the owner of the team, Mike Fitzgerald, was a big Grateful Dead fan and of course the building was a big Grateful Dead fan because we did a lot of shows there. One of the players on their team was a guy named Šarūnas Marčiulionis who was the [star] of the Lithuanian team. Between that connection and Bill Walton it was decided that we should help them. They were struggling to get to the games, and I think they were having lots of financial issues in Lithuania at that time, so I don’t think there was lots of funding there so we gave them a grant and you may recall that they had these wild tie dye uniforms and they ended up in the finals I think, didn’t they?
They got the bronze medal. Not just that, but they got to beat Russia, and they had just separated from the Soviet Union so it was kind of a big deal.
It was huge, that’s right, it was huge.
What are some of your favorite projects over the years?
Well you know we’ve had some great projects. We’ve given out close to twelve hundred grants, so that’s a lot, and close to, maybe now we’ve exceeded $10 million. One of grants we gave to a organization in its early stages was HeadCount. You can ask [Executive Director] Andy [Bernstein] how many grants he had gotten prior to the one we had given him but I would be surprised if there were very many. That was because we loved what they were doing. That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to do – give money to a group that’s fitting a need that has the ability to grow and become more vital and that’s exactly what HeadCount has done.
We recently gave a grant to a group of Thai monks that is going into the Khartoum Rainforest and ordaining the trees as monks so the timber companies won’t go in and cut anything down and kill a monk in essence.
We’ve given a grant to a group called the International Senior Lawyers Project that is made up of a group of retired attorneys that has gone around the world helping establish constitutional rights, and helping countries with newfound freedoms establish constitutions that protect those individual freedoms. For example, in Egypt they’ve been working there trying to redraft the constitution so that rights aren’t taken away. They’ve worked in Iran, they’ve worked in Afghanistan, places where constitutional law is not necessarily the first and foremost thing on people’s mind. Assuring freedom of the press for example. Things we take for granted a lot of regimes look down upon.
Another one I’d to plug is Project AVARY because that’s one where we gave early money to, maybe even the first grant they received, and their whole program is trying to help children. Specifically of incarcerated inmates, and dealing with the issues they cycle through and attempting to help break the cycle and give them some opportunities that might not have been accessible. That’s been something that’s been going on for over 20 years and that’s a great program.
What fundraisers does Rex have coming up for Chicago?
We’ve got a lot of things we’re working on with the band in conjunction with doing these shows. Dark Star Orchestra, who’s been a longtime supporter of Rex, who we love for everything they’ve done and what they do musically as well is doing an event at the Vic that is supporting us. We have our own show that we’re doing, these are both on July 2nd. We’re doing an event at the Chicago Theater with Keller Williams and the Infamous Stringdusters, playing Grateful Grass and Greensky Bluegrass, which should be a great show. We were approached by a group that does road races in the Chicago area, they’re doing a Terrapin 5k for us in Grant Park on July 2nd. There’s a PhanArt exhibition run by Pete Mason. He started off doing Phish stuff, and we’re involved with that.
We’re also really gratified that a group of Deadheads reached out to us with two agenda items. They want to reach out to the entire Grateful Dead community of fans and see if they can muster the largest single mass contribution Rex has ever received. They’re going out through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and trying to get people to donate to Rex using the code Not Fade Away or NFA. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is is that they want as many people who are in the stadium at the beginning of each second set to welcome the band back to the stage by singing the refrain to Not Fade Away. It’s such a fantastic statement of who this community is, and what the values are, and the notion of giving back and showing their love in so many ways. It’s really fantastic.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I think the Not Fade Away thing is great, I think it’s great that Participation Row is gonna have a presence there. I think this community and the Grateful Dead look to have a long lasting legacy of giving back and supporting, we’re thrilled to be involved with it in that respect. We continue to do that work, we want to continue to do it for a long time to come. We’ve been gratified by the support that fans have continued to show us. We’ve gotten bequests from Deadheads who have considered us as part of their estate planning. We get checks on a monthly basis from fans all around the world. We have a very small staff, we attempt to really put our money to work. One of the things Rex is known for is that we like to do an event driven model where we can bring people together, albeit on a smaller scale than Soldier’s Field, but we can share that communal space and enjoy music and know that we are contributing in a positive way to making things work better. That’s our aim and we’re going to keep doing it. I’d like to think that Rex could become the hip United Way, where we become a clearinghouse for these under the radar enterprises where people are finding a need.