Dubbed "the heart and soul of the organization" by Grateful Dead singer/guitarist Bob Weir, Lawrence "Ramrod" Shurtliff was the essential cog that kept the band going for more than a quarter century -- initially hired as the Dead's tour driver, he eventually presided over their sprawling counterculture enterprise, guaranteeing they remain true to their flower-power ideals despite their massive commercial prosperity. Born April 19, 1945, in Montana, Shurtliff spent the majority of his childhood in eastern Oregon -- in 1966 his older brother inducted him into the Merry Pranksters, the intrepid psychedelic confederacy that gathered around novelist Ken Kesey. While traveling through Mexico with Kesey, Shurtliff wisecracked "I am Ramon Rodriguez Rodriguez, the famous Mexican guide," and was henceforth known as Ramrod to friends and colleagues alike.
At Kesey's behest, Shurtliff arrived at the Dead's communal home in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. Hired as a truck driver, within a year he was named equipment manager, charged with the crucial task of overseeing the guitars of Weir and Jerry Garcia. However, Shurtliff proved his full mettle in 1970 -- the Dead's finances were in dire straits, and when a sum of money required by Garcia vanished from the band's office, Ramrod was charged to investigate its disappearance. Shurtliff returned with an ultimatum: either he or Dead manager Lenny Hart (the father of drummer Mickey Hart) had to go. The band selected Ramrod, and fortuitously so -- on closer inspection, the elder Hart had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from their coffers.
Though named a co-producer of Garcia's eponymous 1972 solo LP, Shurtliff rarely engaged in the Dead's creative process, instead focusing on supervising the band's tour itinerary, setting up and dismantling the enormous arsenal of equipment required for every show. He was also an unflappable problem-solver of great renown -- when Hart feared he was too high to play a New Year's Eve gig, Ramrod simply strapped him to his drum stool with gaffer tape. After the Dead incorporated their affairs in the late '70s, Shurtliff -- described by Garcia as their "highwater integrity marker" -- was appointed president of the board of directors, and his stewardship coincided with the most fruitful period of the band's long career. As the legions of Deadheads swelled in the wake of the group's 1987 chart breakthrough, "Touch of Grey," their tours emerged as box-office blockbusters, but Shurtliff still enforced the Dead's longstanding commitment to community, and they played more benefit gigs for charities and environmental groups than any other act of the era.
Garcia's passing on August 9, 1995, nevertheless brought the Grateful Dead's existence to an abrupt halt -- although the surviving bandmembers continued recording and touring in various capacities, the Dead as an official entity ceased to be, and in 2005 Shurtliff, one of just a handful of remaining employees, received his pink slip. A lifelong smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the spring of 2006 and died just weeks later on May 17 at a hospital in Petaluma, CA. Shurtliff was 61.