The Deadheads have, in fact, been making inroads in this beachside community for ten long years. It was in May 1995 that Crazy Fingers first unraveled their noodly grooves at Fisherman's Wharf, the well-worn restaurant and tiki bar that's the gateway to Pompano Pier. Since then, the band, a rogue quintet that honors the musical anarchists known as the Grateful Dead, has amassed a following all over Florida -- Volkswagen-driving castaways and outlaw hacky-sackers who have no fear of crossing county lines to get a whiff of the Fingers' intoxicating sounds. These are the Deadheads you gotta watch out for. Guard your hemp jewelry. Hide your tofu dogs.
Luckily, the watchdogs of the Pompano Beach City Commission have warned the public about the hippies' Thursday-night barefoot commando raids on the pier. "It's a tough crowd," Commissioner Kay McGinn was quoted as saying of Dead Night in the May 8 issue of the Sun-Sentinel. The commission agreed that it's time for a change at the pier, and that after 18 years of local, family-owned operation, Fisherman's Wharf should make way for a quieter, gentler, hippie-free establishment. When the Wharf's lease expires in two years, the city will court other restaurants, including national chains. (Applebee's, please!)
Packing brass knuckles and a bar of Lever 2000, Beatcomber ventured out to the Wharf on a recent Thursday. You can never be too careful with these tie-dyed maniacs. We were hoping for backup, but McGinn didn't return calls to her office.
Drug-crazed freaks, whiskey-swilling bikers, vegan grad students, lawyers -- Deadheads can come in almost any form, all of them insidious, and none would hesitate to bleed you and steal your Birkenstocks. Or harass your daughter, apparently.
Commissioner Lamar Fisher recently recounted to Beatcomber that about a year ago, he and his family were walking through Fisherman's Wharf around 8 p.m. on the way to the pier. "It just happened to be what they call Deadhead night," he said. "There were comments made to my daughter -- you know, the whistling or the 'Wow' or the things of this nature, which obviously made her very uncomfortable."
Ah, more evidence that the Wharf is a viper's nest that needs to be cleansed.
"I have nothing against the Deadheads, however," he assured. The man has no idea how vicious they can be.
When Beatcomber arrived at the Wharf around 8 p.m., he was shocked to find a distinct lack of riff-raff and a rather innocuous, low-key crowd. He learned that Crazy Fingers doesn't start playing till 9, and those pernicious hippies usually start mobbing up around 10. Hmm. Fisher must've encountered some of their advance troops on that fateful night.
Steeling his nerves, Beatcomber waited for hell to break loose. By 9:30, all we observed were devilishly grinning dancers swirling like dervishes to Crazy Fingers' boogie-down version of "The Other One." Watching the blurry mass of long hair and twisting limbs on the dance floor, we had to wonder how anyone who reveres a dead, pot-bellied, gray-bearded, teddy bear of a guitarist could be considered "tough."
"It's typical," shrugged Jerry Webber, a clean-cut 33-year-old in a Phish T-shirt and khaki shorts. "Since this started, the people that live in the condos around here have hated it. I think they're very much mistaken in stereotyping the crowd here. Look at us -- we're not hurting anyone. But hippies have always been easy targets. They know this perception is already there about Deadheads."
Most people at Dead Night agreed that the music is a scapegoat for the corporate interests that want to see the Wharf disappear.
"I really think the commission is in the pocket of someone who wants to develop it," said Phil Ross, a 28-year-old bartender from Boca. (Like there's ever been an underhanded scheme to develop beachfront property in South Florida! Wacko conspiracy theorists, this lot.) "I come here every week, for years and years," Ross continued. "We see tourists; we're more likely to approach them and say 'Welcome.' We're not repelling anyone."
"The whole Grateful Dead thing is about people coming together, about family, and that's what we're doing here," explained Crazy Fingers drummer Peter Lavezzoli, one of the two remaining original members of the band. Since they formed in 1990, Crazy Fingers has weathered several lineup changes and kept on truckin', as well-loved for their spot-on renditions of time-honored Dead tunes as for their own jazz-rock originals.
Could this claim to "family" be true? Is it possible that the city commissioners' comments reflect the paranoia so common to uncomprehending outsiders?
The owners of Fisherman's Wharf, the father-and-daughter team of Paul and Heidi Kasden, seem to think so. "Scotty the bartender has been working here almost 30 years, since before we built the place 18 years ago." Heidi said. "Sixty-five percent of our employees live in Pompano. They're the people that voted for the commission. They're our family. Without them, what does it make it?" Good question. (Applebee's!)
Heidi produced a folder full of hundreds of signatures from Pompano locals giving full support for her family's restaurant. The Crazy Fingers message board (www.crazyfingers.net) offers many more.
To hold onto the space that they've maintained for almost two decades, the Kasdens must submit a letter of interest to the city commission. According to Commissioner Fisher, several more restaurants are expected to submit letters.
"Personally, I'm looking forward to a more family atmosphere," Fisher said.
Beatcomber was curious what the long-locked woman dancing with a snoozing baby on her shoulder and the posse of squealing kids were doing in this dangerous den. As the band played on from a small, diagonal stage facing a wall of open sliding glass doors, people leaned on the heavy wooden bar outside, beyond which families sat at tables on the open deck. Stars winked down from a cool, cloudless sky, and waves murmured in the distance. Unlike all the misbegotten, ill-conceived dive-bar-cum-music-venues in South Florida, the Wharf is the ideal place for this band and this crowd.
And the music never stopped. Faced with the possible eviction of their funky family reunion, these menacing Deadheads did the thing they love the most: They danced like nothing else mattered. Don't they know they're a menace to society?