James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Quote in the New Yorker

A posting on the New Yorker site regarding the Twelve Tribes, a religious sect (or cult) that follows around particular musical acts, proselytizing and recruiting in the parking lot, features a quote from me regarding an encounter I had almost 25 years ago with one of its members outside a Grateful Dead concert in Landover, MD. (A feeler from the writer came through a Deadhead-related mailing list I’m on, and jogged some particular and pointed memories I felt compelled to share.)

Here’s the article in question, by journalist John Clarke, which examines the Tribes’ current home, seemingly, outside Bob Dylan concerts. Below, however, appears the full text of the statement I gave him regarding my conversation with one of the Twelve Tribes members way back in 1990.

This isn’t much of a story, but I did engage one of the Twelve Tribes members at a Dead show c.1990, at the Cap Center in Landover MD, IIRC. I did so out of curiosity, and because he’d put a tract in my hands, which blew my mind because the content seemed so anti-Grateful Dead. Before, I’d always noticed their large bus, and had always assumed that these were members of the ‘family,’ i.e., the bus people who seemed to live on tour. The difference in their case was that it seemed a nicer bus, and included a role in the community that seemed to be on-site medical care for those in need—injured bare feet, a common problem. 
I examined the tract, which declared in pretty stark language (including via testimonials printed therein) that there was no spiritual payoff to the Grateful Dead game, ‘only more shows,’ and that to get right with Yahweh offered the only way out, and that the Twelve Tribes were there to accept any and all who wished for a way out of the spiritually-bereft purgatory into which they’d fallen. I handed the document back and probably had unkind words for the gentle hippy kid who’d given it to me, a smiling and clear-eyed guy who looked no different than most of the thousands of other Deadheads milling around the parking lot. 
As I walked away, I found myself disturbed and shaken. ‘What would be the answer to the answer man?’ is of course a key Grateful Dead lyric (from ‘St Stephen’), and I’ve always regarded those claiming to speak directly to or for God as being particularly manipulative and controlling and possessing of nefarious agendas. In short, the presence of The Twelve Tribes people presented what seemed to me a profaning of the enlightenment that the Grateful Dead experience had manifested within me, and so I viewed their seemingly predatory behavior as a vile cancer on the scene. But, it’s also a scene of relative freedom and inclusiveness, so I never went out of my way to confront them on their activities. I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know more about the cult-like activities, or whatever it was going on inside that bus—the operation seemed a bear-trap in set in otherwise peaceful woods, a trap designed to ensnare those in vulnerable psychological states. 
From then on I made sure to give that bus a wide berth, and have continued to do so in the decades since. I still always notice the red bus at various post-Grateful Dead shows (including Furthur and I think a Phish show or two), but remain wary of this mysterious religious sub-cult within the larger accumulation of music lovers. 

So, there we have it. No big whoop, really, only a random occurrence in my life that somehow, all these years later, gets ‘the author James McCallister’ ink in the Culture section of the esteemed New Yorker. Pretty cool.


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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

One Reply

  1. I remember seeing that bus at Dead shows in the early 90’s myself. I could have easily written what you wrote here as my own personal experience and interpretation. I think my first thought was something like ” wow, look at THAT bus!…. but wait a minute its way too clean!”. I probably also thought it was full or ‘narcs’ but then i read their leaflet and was like ‘whow, this is a bit disturbing, walk away Rich, walk away!”

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