Brian Rohan, lawyer who beat weed charges for Grateful Dead, dies at 84

I am all too familiar with the miscarriage of Justice in Progressive San Francisco.

The fighting and brawling San Francisco sense of Justice took a big hit this week with the passing of longtime true people’s advocate Brian Rohan, Esq.

Rohan was an aggressive courtroom advocate for people abused by the criminal justice system. He was never one to shy away from calling out a miscarriage of justice and holding those responsible accountable.

Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle – Sam Whiting  – March 28, 2021

The driveway of attorney Brian Rohan’s Larkspur home was often decorated with the psychedelic school bus belonging to Ken Kesey, in the mid-1960s. “Furthur,” as the bus was notoriously named, was the perfect billboard for the type of law Rohan practiced — “dope law,” as he called it.

And there was plenty of demand for his services. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who lived with Rohan during Kesey’s infamous 1965 trial for possession of marijuana; Jerry Garcia, who conveniently lived a mile away; the Beat bus driver Neal Cassady; and the chemist Owsley Stanley were all among his clients.

As the ’60s unfolded, Rohan was so connected and counted upon that his name was on the lease for one of the acid tests at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Rohan died Tuesday, March 23, at his home, in a different neighborhood of Larkspur. He was 84 and died in his sleep, after living with cancer for six years, said his daughter, Kathleen Jolson of Nicasio.

Brian Rohan in 2019

“He worked until the last day of his life, clutching his phone in one hand and his iPad in the other,” Jolson said. “He fought for his clients, he fought for his friends, and he fought for what he thought was right.”

Neil Hallinan, a third-generation defense attorney, keeps a picture of Rohan on his office, along with his father and grandfather.

“Brian was like a dad to me, a constant loving, loyal figure in my life,” Neil Hallinan said. “He was loud, foul-mouthed and fun, and you knew he would lay down on the tracks for you if you needed it.”

The fight started when he joined the criminal defense firm of the notoriously pugilistic Vincent Hallinan and escalated when he co-formed the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization during the Summer of Love, setting up a table in the Grateful Dead house on Ashbury Street to service live-in and walk-in clients.

Later, Rohan’s fighting spirit became legend when he punched powerful record producer David Geffen at Clive Davis’ 1977 Grammy Awards party, an act that earned the admiration of Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.

“Brian Rohan, the feisty San Francisco attorney … has been stewing for sometime because Geffen refuses to return his phone calls and besides that ‘has stepped on my clients’ … so Rohan grabbed him by his hand-stitched lapels, picked him up and belted him,” wrote Caen, “an act applauded by Jann Wenner, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s lawyer who said ‘I wish I’d done that.’ ”

It is one in a long line of literary credits for the outrageous and charismatic Rohan. His legal heroics are sprinkled throughout Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and earned coverage in David Talbot‘s “Season of the Witch,” Joel Selvin’s “Summer of Love” and Dennis McNally’s “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.”

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Every morning between 6 and 7, he called Selvin to see what the music industry news was. The last time they talked, Selvin said Rohan told him he was “improving.” He died the next morning.

“A feisty Irish drinker, he was no hippie, but his lifelong hatred of bullies made him a good attorney,” McNally wrote, “and he was in the right place having joined the San Francisco firm of the legendary socialist, atheist, and all-round noble rabble-rouser Vincent Hallinan.”

Brian Donald Rohan was born July 24, 1936, in Tacoma, Wash., where he grew up. At Stadium High School he was on the swim team, but his outstanding activity was debate. He also co-chaired the Senior Talent Show, a precursor of his career.

After passing the California bar exam, Rohan was invited to join the Hallinan firm, in 1963. At the firm he met Michael Stepanian, with whom he would later split off to form their own firm.

Rohan and Stepanian liked to take a lunchtime drive to West Portal Joe’s for hamburgers, a route that took them through Haight-Ashbury, which intrigued Rohan.

His greatest legal maneuver was getting Kesey, already famous for writing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” out of a jam that could have sent him away to prison for a long stay. Two felony charges for marijuana possession and one charge of international flight to Mexico were “magically reduced to six months on a county work farm,” said McNally, the official historian of the Grateful Dead.

It was Kesey’s recommendation that brought Rohan to the attention of the Grateful Dead.

“He wasn’t a business attorney, but they trusted him, and that was always the thing with the Dead,” McNally said.

It started with the Grateful Dead’s first album contract, which Rohan negotiated with Warner Bros. in 1966.

After the Human Be-In, in January 1967, the police swept down Haight Street and made around 100 arrests on charges of loitering and “being hippies,” McNally said. Rohan and Stepanian threatened to tie up the courts forever with this and got it brought down to one trial, which they won. All the other charges were dismissed.

They then got the members of the Dead off when police busted the band’s house on Ashbury Street, one of the most widely publicized arrests during the Summer of Love. Charges were dropped, and Rohan became part of the Dead family.

He also represented Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Janis Joplin and was a partner with Bill Graham in Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records, two short-lived labels.

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Bill Graham – 1980

“Brian Rohan was the smartest guy in the world and invented music representation for the San Francisco Sound,” Stepanian said. “He had extreme loyalty to his clients and would not allow one of them to be hurt by anybody. In a Shakespearean sense he had ‘a slight dram of evil.’”

Survivors include his ex-wife, Barbara Rohan; daughter Kathleen Jolson of Nicasio; sons Brian Rohan Jr. of San Anselmo, Chris Ray Rohan of Santa Rosa and Michael Lonan of Yuba City; and three grandchildren.

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Human Be In – Polo Fields Golden Gate Park – January 14, 1967. Timothy Leary dressed in White.

Top Photo – Brian Rohan with Grateful Dead at San Francisco Superior Court – June 1968