The Time the Grateful Dead Organized a Gospel Concert at San Quentin

Inmates and correctional officers sang side-by-side at a 1992 concert inside San Quentin State Prison, organized by the Grateful Dead. (Susana Millman)

It all started with a feeling.

The year was 1992, and Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin was driving a van past San Quentin State Prison with the Gyuto Monks. According to Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, "The monks saw the building and said, 'We sense a lot of pain over there.'"

When Rifkin told them it was a prison, they asked to pull over for a puja, or healing prayer. Rifkin later connected with prison chaplain Earl Smith to see about getting inside San Quentin, and he asked, "What's the single best thing we can do?"

"And Earl said, 'Convince these guys that they're not here isolated for the rest of their lives, and that they still have a connection to the rest of the planet and society,'" McNally recalls. "Eventually, this led to Mickey Hart learning about their gospel choir."

Mickey Hart at the concert inside San Quentin State Prison that resulted in the 1993 release of 'He's All I Need.'
Mickey Hart at the concert inside San Quentin State Prison that resulted in the 1993 release of 'He's All I Need.' (Susana Millman)

The resulting concert inside San Quentin is a key moment in Invisible Bars, a documentary by Bay Area filmmaker John Beck about the effect of prison on the families and children of the incarcerated. (It premieres on KQED TV on Tuesday, March 19, at 11 p.m.)

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"It was an opportunity to leave there without leaving there, because you were in another place," remembers Smith today. "We had a mix of staff and inmates doing what had never been done before. We had female staff members join the choir, and correctional officers playing the organ and drums."

He's All I Need, a recording of the concert, was released by Grateful Dead Records in 1993. In the middle of some songs, inmates and prison staff alike tell short stories about their life at San Quentin, and testify to the Lord's care. Looking back, "there was a magic about it," says Smith, now the team chaplain for the Warriors and 49ers.

"Prison air is toxic, in so many cases, and what happened in that time, there was a breathing of clean air," he adds.

Another thing happened that day: Smith suggested to Rifkin that the Grateful Dead use their resources to help the children of inmates, who are at greater risk of landing in prison themselves. That eventually led to the creation of Project Avary, a nonprofit that provides support and guidance for children of incarcerated parents.

It's the stories of those children shown in Invisible Bars. (Public defender Jeff Adachi, who died unexpectedly in February, appears in the documentary as well.) And it all started with that day inside San Quentin, over 25 years ago.

"Even when you know that they're going to let you out, when that door closes behind you, it is one cold feeling," says McNally today.

"But at least for a day, there was a light in the middle of their dark, regular days. They felt it. And the audience in the chapel was just seized by the moment and the music."

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