Ed Perlstein still remembers his first Grateful Dead concert — Jan. 3, 1970, at the Fillmore East in New York City. After that, he says, “I was hooked.”
For the next two years he and the buddy who introduced him to the band saw as many of the Dead’s East Coast shows as they could, and in late 1972, Perlstein moved from New Jersey to the Bay Area to get closer to the music.
By 1975, Perlstein was on stage with Jerry Garcia and the gang, taking photos that would cement his lifetime connection to the Grateful Dead.
“Some of my most famous shots are from that day,” said Perlstein from his Petaluma home.
In the casual, free-flowing style of the era, he made his way into the emerging band’s larger family through a series a coincidental encounters. While living in Berkeley in 1972, he met Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, who invited him to see how records are made by watching Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders cut an album at Fantasy Records.
Perlstein also befriended a guy who was a friend of Mickey Hart’s, and before long they were taking road trips to Hart’s Novato ranch. They hung out together and “got to know each other pretty well,” he said.
Then Perlstein borrowed a friend’s camera, took a few lessons from pro photographer Bob Marks and set out for the free Dead / Jefferson Starship concert held in Golden Gate Park on Sept. 28, 1975, ready for his own turn behind the lens.
“I got there so early they built the back stage around me,” Perlstein said. Closer to show time, he climbed onstage and told the security guard, “I’m shooting for Mickey,” a statement that wasn’t too far from the truth.
He remembers being told, “Go ahead, you’re on. I sat on the front of the stage and shot the entire show.”
Perlstein continued to photograph the Dead and other bands for Bay Area Music magazine until 1983, when his daughter was born and he took “a real job” as a computer programmer. One of his last Dead concerts was May 15, 1983, at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre.
In 1987, he decided to come out of retirement to shoot Santana and the Dead at the Calavaras County Fair and found that times were beginning to change.
“By that time, they had roadies who kept a tight rein,” he said, with several layers of security guarding backstage access. Working photographers were restricted to the front pit and allowed only to shoot the first three songs.
“I’m happy I was able to shoot during a period when it was a lot looser,” Perlstein said. “Only a few are now afforded that privilege.”
Life took him in a new direction, from Berkeley to Oakland and San Rafael with the woman who became his wife. “We kept moving north,” he said, landing in Petaluma where they remain 30 years later. “I bowed out of the scene and lost contact.”
Although he stays in close contact with others who photographed the Dead, Perlstein’s only current link to the band is his body of work. His images continue to sell through Getty Images, and, through May 31, also are part of “The Art of Rock ‘n’ Roll” exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center and the IceHouse Gallery. Last year, he also was asked to supply 300 images to producers of an upcoming Grateful Dead documentary.