Brian Rohan, the San Francisco “dope lawyer” who represented celebrity clients like Grateful Dead and author Ken Kesey, has died at 84. He passed away at home in the Bay Area after a six-year-long battle with cancer, confirmed his daughter Kathleen Jolson.
“My father grew up very straitlaced, and he was fascinated by what he saw in the Haight. He was looking for somebody to help, and he saw that nobody was there to protect the kids flocking to San Francisco,” Jolson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He worked until the last day of his life, clutching his phone in one hand and his iPad in the other. He fought for his clients, he fought for his friends, and he fought for what he thought was right.”
Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1936, Rohan spent his high school years rocking the debate team and co-chairing the senior talent show. After graduating, he went to Stanford University but later transferred to University of Oregon. Years later, he was readmitted to Stanford and graduated, and quickly moved on to UC Hastings College of Law. Once he passed the California bar exam, Rohan was invited to join Patrick Hallinan’s firm in 1963 where he met Michael Stepanian, who he would later partner with to form their own law firm.
Rohan’s first big case arrived in 1965 when he helped Kesey, who was already famous at the time for penning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, dodge two felony charges for marijuana possession and one charge of international flight to Mexico. Instead, Kesey got a comparative slap on the wrist — six months’ work on a country farm. The case caught the attention of the Grateful Dead, who made Rohan their go-to attorney for illegal drug charges.
The Grateful Dead’s relationship with Rohan officially started in 1966 when he helped them organize their first album contract with Warner Bros. Several months later in January 1967, the police arrested nearly 100 people on charges of loitering and “being hippies” after the Human Be-In. Rohan and Stepanian brought the case to trial and won, getting all other charges dismissed. When the police busted the band’s house on Ashbury Street in one of the most publicized arrests of the Summer of Love, Rohan got all charges dropped against the musicians.
According to Dennis McNally, the official historian of the Grateful Dead, Rohan instantly became part of the Dead family. But it didn’t stop there. Rohan co-formed the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization that same summer and often set up a table in front of the band’s house. It was there that he offered service to live-in and walk-in clients alike who needed help, regardless of their celebrity status, an act that spoke volumes about him as a person.
As a music lawyer, Rohan represented numerous other artists, including Janis Joplin, Santana, Aerosmith, Boston, Jefferson Airplane, and Kris Kristofferson. For a while, he was also a partner with Bill Graham in two short-lived labels, Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records.
There’s too many colorful memories of Rohan to recount, but arguably the most entertaining one occurred at Clive Davis’ 1977 Grammy Awards party. After years of having his phone calls for clients ignored by David Geffen, Rohan bumped into the legendary producer at the event and literally punched him as retaliation — reportedly earning the applause of “Jann Wenner, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan’s lawyer who said ‘I wish I’d done that.’”