Jerry Garcia: Funeral for a Friend

Deadheads flock to San Francisco to honor Jerry Garcia

Grateful Dead Fans weep during memorial service for the band's leader, Jerry Garcia, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on August 13, 1995. Credit: Misha Erwitt/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

On Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia died in his sleep at Serenity Knolls drug treatment center, in the Marin County community of Forest Knolls, north of San Francisco. He was 53. In addition to his wife, Deborah Koons Garcia, Jerry Garcia is survived by four daughters: Heather, 32, Annabelle, 25, Teresa, 21, and Keelin, 7.

A preliminary coroner's report concluded that Garcia died of natural causes, and Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally specified the cause as a heart attack. But it was the continuing battle to end his heroin addiction that brought Garcia to Serenity Knolls less than two days before his death. He was found in bed by a counselor at the center; subsequently a staff nurse and Marin County paramedics administered CPR but failed to revive him. A long-term drug problem had debilitated Garcia, who also suffered from diabetes and heart problems in recent years. Still, he struggled to stay clean. Doctors at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic's detox unit had also been treating him for several years, and he had entered the Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., after the July 9 conclusion of the band's tour. According to Koons Garcia, he left that facility two weeks shy of the scheduled one-month stay.

For Jerry Garcia and, perhaps, the Grateful Dead, the last musical note came July 9 at Chicago's Soldier Field, the final stop on a problem-plagued summer tour. Whether the band will continue to carry the torch remains unclear. Garcia's passing could presage the end of the Grateful Dead, although the band has withstood several tragedies, including the deaths of keyboardists Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, in 1973, and Brent Mydland, in 1990. The band held a meeting Aug. 14, according to longtime Dead spokesman Dennis McNally; it announced only that its fall tour would be canceled. On the night of Aug. 9, Dead guitarist Bob Weir went ahead with a scheduled solo show at the Casino Ballroom, in Hampton Beach, N.H., where Deadheads massed in the parking lot before, during and after the show. "If our dear, departed friend proved anything to us," Weir told the capacity crowd, "he proved that great music can make sad times better."

A private funeral was held for family and friends Aug. 11 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Belvedere, an upscale suburb on a peninsula just north of San Francisco. McNally said that the church was chosen for its size and availability, not to invoke "St. Stephen," one of the Grateful Dead's most popular songs. At 3 p.m. vans shuttled more than 200 mourners from a parking lot in nearby Tiburon to Belvedere. "They kept the location so secret that even the people who were going didn't know where it was," says attendee Joel Selvin, who has covered the Grateful Dead for 25 years as a pop-music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.

The service began at 4 p.m. In attendance were band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Vince Welnick, as well as Garcia's widow, Deborah Koons Garcia. Garcia, dressed in a black T-shirt, sweat pants and a windbreaker, was displayed in an open casket. The Rev. Matthew Fox officiated. Fox, an Episcopal minister, married Garcia and Koons on Valentine's Day 1994, in Sausalito, Calif.

While the general mood at the funeral was solemn, there were moments of irreverence and laughter. Author Ken Kesey, whose LSD-fueled Acid Tests provided an early inspiration and audience for the Dead's music, told the crowd, "This guy is going to kick our asses if we get up there and we haven't carried the torches." Kreutzmann capped off his humorous comments by adding dismissively, "Anyway, funerals are for people, not spirits."

Others in attendance included Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, basketball legend Bill Walton and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter read a 58-line poem titled "An Elegy for Jerry," which ended: "So I'll just say I love you/Which I never said before/And let it go at that old friend/The rest you may ignore."

As the word of Garcia's death spread in the days before the funeral, the public mourned as though a president had passed away. The Internet and commercial computer networks were flooded with fans' online reminiscences and eulogies. Spontaneous memorial services and impromptu wakes sprang up in dozens of cities around the U.S. Over the course of a week, the informal Garcia tributes around San Francisco took on increasingly messianic tones. By early afternoon on Wednesday, Aug. 9, hundreds of well-wishers had begun gathering at the northeast corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, the intersection irrevocably associated with the birth of the 1960s counterculture. That evening, a crowd of nearly 2,000 mourners headed for the Polo Field the site of a Dead performance at the Human Be-In 28 years ago where they kneeled at a makeshift shrine and danced into the night to bootleg tapes of Grateful Dead concerts.

At 710 Ashbury St., a homeless fan named Johnny, wearing dark glasses and a cast on his right arm, watched over the three-story Victorian-style row house where the members of the Grateful Dead first lived together, "just to make sure no one walks away with a railing or something," he says.

On Thursday afternoon in Golden Gate Park, the constant beat of a drum circle mesmerized a group of dancers, who invariably danced the loose-limbed shimmy shake traditionally reserved for Dead concerts. Fans of all stripes comforted each other, as when a twenty-something Hare Krishna approached a quiet group of mourners who were genuflecting before a shrine built atop a traffic pylon. "I just want you guys to know that Jerry's going to have a good death," he said. "He once met with our leader."

"Whatever you believe, man," responded a reclining young woman in a granny dress without ever averting her gaze from a framed photo of Garcia that leaned on the shrine.

Joel Selvin, who had interviewed Garcia more than once over the years, professes that the humble guitarist would have been dismayed by the more extreme displays of devotion.

"Fame was a real onus to him," Selvin says. "It terrified him; it squashed him in a corner and probably contributed to the self-destructive behavior. His mission was to be a musician, to be an artist."

By late Friday evening, the numbers at the Polo Field had grown. Sleeping bags dotted the lawn, and fleets of Volkswagen microbuses lurked in the woods that surround the field.

"I didn't even come here expecting a big tribute," says Jennifer, 23, a fan who flew in from Boston on Thursday with little clothing and not even a blanket to ward off the night's chill. "I just came here because this is where it all began." The manager of a Ben and Jerry's in Boston, Jennifer simply assigned her duties to other employees and left, uncertain when she might return. "I was coming here at any cost because Jerry gave us so much," she says.

At a brief press conference held Saturday afternoon at the downtown offices of Bill Graham Presents, concerned-looking representatives from the offices of the Grateful Dead, the city of San Francisco and BGP announced an official memorial gathering to be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the following day at the Polo Field, in Golden Gate Park. In a statement apparently meant to placate the millions of Deadheads rumored to be heading for San Francisco from around the country and the world, Dead publicist Dennis Me-Nally insisted that there would be "no specific ceremony" and "no live music of any sort by the Grateful Dead or anybody else."

The faithful knew better. Orchestrated by BGP, the memorial took place on Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Polo Field. Beginning at 10 a.m., members of a local group called the Art Police led a Mardi Gras-style funeral procession around the lawn in the shadow of an altar arranged around a Gargantuan portrait of Garcia. The parade included a tie-dyed flag, a red, white and blue Chinese New Year dragon and a Dixieland jazz band.

At the dais the marchers were met by a drum circle comprising the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. When the drummers started pounding a familiar Bo Diddley beat, the tie-dyed crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Not Fade Away," a Dead concert staple.

"If the Grateful Dead did anything, we gave you the power," said drummer Mickey Hart from the podium. "You have the groove, you have the feeling . . . .  You take it home and do something with it."

In addition to the members of the Grateful Dead, speakers included former Jefferson Airplane member Paul Kantner, '60s counterculture guru Wavy Gravy (n Hugh Romney) and Deborah Koons Garcia. Garcia's 25-year-old daughter, Annabelle, referring to herself and her three siblings, said, "We love each and every one of you because you put us through college and we didn't have to work at Dairy Queen."

Afterward the memorial service transformed into a festive, open-air Grateful Dead theme park. Self-deputized vendors sat on blankets, hawking T-shirts, beaded necklaces and face paintings. Deadheads were invited to write tribute messages on large poster boards ("Thanks for all the killer shows," one wrote) and splash paint on a swath of canvas hung from a goal post. Major-league games of the unofficial Deadhead sport Hacky Sack, played with a small, saggy leather football, erupted spontaneously.

Somewhere in the middle of the approximately 20,000 Deadheads who joined together to pay homage to Jerry Garcia stood a tall metal rod topped by a large cutout of the number seven. "We used to arrange on [the Sausalito-based online service] the Well to meet at Grateful Dead shows," says Freddy Hahne, 45, who sat next to his 80-year-old mother, Grace, munching cheese and crackers. "And somebody once suggested to meet at light pole No. 7 – but when we got there, all the light poles ended at No. 6. There was no light pole No. 7, so we made one."

As the waft of marijuana and incense intensified, fans gathered at the altar and danced, some raising their arms and crying. A concert-quality sound system blared tapes of vintage Dead shows as a patient line of fans waited in the midday sun to add bouquets, pictures and candles to the shrine, which consisted of multiple flower arrangements and smaller Garcia portraits arranged on a set of wooden bleachers.

Living up to their reputation for rising to life's more rapturous moments, the Deadheads in attendance appeared to be, by and large, satisfied with the day's scope and mood. "I'm not going to be able to hear these crystal-clear tapes this loud ever again," says a beatific Josiah Sieber, 36.

When a flock of white doves was set free at the foot of the shrine at noon, the crowd oohed and aahed at the circling birds as if marveling at a miracle. The police later reported only a few minor incidents and no arrests.