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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Sep 18 1996
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The sweet, comforting scent of burning incense wafts through the door of Nickie's BBQ every Monday night. The aroma is Nag Champa, a fragrance favored at the weekly Grateful Dead night held at this intimate Lower Haight nightspot -- it smells like Deadheads. Outside, a long-haired man in tie-dye leans against the building smoking a hand-rolled cigarette -- he looks like a Deadhead. He regards us with half-lidded skepticism as we pass by, but the doorman, Bob Justin, welcomes us with a wide smile.

Nickie's is warm, dark, and fragrant. Sandalwood and marijuana blend with stale cigarette smoke and freshly poured Guinness; flickering candles and a string of old Christmas lights give a faint, rosy glow to the people swaying on the dance floor to a prized Grateful Dead bootleg. Several first-generation Deadheads stand in the corners of the room, leaning against the walls with their eyes closed, gently nodding in time. Other folks, young and old, lounge next to the bar; they suck down frothy pints of beer and chat about work, music, and relationships or the lack thereof. San Francisco 49ers jerseys mingle with gauzy yin-and-yang blouses; sandals bump into black leather boots; a handsome young man in a grease-monkey shirt with a Dead logo where his name should be ties one on with a graying, long-haired guy in baggy clothes. Tie-dye is present, but not predominant. It's the music that dominates -- a fact attested to by the number of clear-eyed people who sit at the bar tapping their feet and silently mouthing the words to each of the songs.

"We need to keep Jerry's spirit alive as long as possible," explains Melodi, the clean-cut, 24-year-old manager of a local medical office. "I listen to him every day -- on the way to work, at work, coming home. No matter how stressful my environment, the music has a way of releasing my tension. It takes me back to when he was still alive. It's important." Since Garcia's death, numerous Dead nights have cropped up around the Bay Area, but Nickie's was among the first and fans feel the difference.

"The owners [of Nickie's] are Deadheads," says Darkstar Dan, the night's DJ and promoter. "They used to go to shows in the '70s. So, when John DiDomenico approached me after Jerry's death, I knew it was about healing and getting together to fill that void. The club came from the right place."

Dan turns toward his decks where he creates musical synergy between two live Dead bootlegs. "Trading tapes is a great way to meet new people and share music. There's a huge network. Sometimes I get a tape that I just can't wait to share with a friend and I won't even know its original source. It just comes."

As it turns out, something is amiss in fuzzy Deadhead world this night. Several bright flashes of light illuminate the darkened dance floor, signaling that David Duprey, "Night Crawler" photographer, has breezed into action. But within seconds he is surrounded by several angry-looking women in long, flowing dresses.

"You know, that flash is really annoying," comments one with a pointed scowl. "Don't do it again."

After a brief apology and explanation, Duprey's second flash brings a young man stumbling across the room. "Hey, you didn't get a picture of me, did you?" he asks, a bit menacingly. Assurances are made and Duprey makes his way toward the bar.

"He must be a grower," suggests an amused bystander. Duprey continues to attempt to find a willing model.

"Nope, Deadheads don't like to have their pictures taken," says an older gent. He's unable to explain this phenomenon, and unwilling to pose. A violent warning -- which includes the phrases "ass," "camera," and "shove up" -- from a towering goon sends Duprey into the arms of an understanding pint. There, he receives solace and a bit of advice from a concerned man with a shorn head: "Walking into the Dead scene is like traveling through a foreign country: You have to understand the native customs."

"Oh, I don't know," counters Erika Arno, longtime bartender for the Dead night (and SF Weekly's editorial coordinator by day). "Most of the regulars would gladly pose for the camera. It's a strange crowd tonight. Normally, people have fun and hang out. Usually I lend my pen out at least once every five minutes." She nods to the end of the bar where a couple sit quietly nursing their drinks. "I watched them hook up a few weeks ago. They've been in every week since. I don't know why the crowd is so tense tonight."

I guess acceptance and cameras just don't go hand in hand.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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