He was the unlikeliest of pop stars and the most reticent of cultural icons.
Onstage he wore plain clothes – usually a sacklike T-shirt and loose jeans to fit his heavy frame – and he rarely spoke to the audience that watched his every move. Even his guitar lines – complex, lovely and rhapsodic, but never flashy – as well as his strained, weatherworn vocal style had a subdued, colloquial quality about them. Offstage he kept to family and friends, and when he sat to talk with interviewers about his remarkable music, he often did so in sly-wit-ted, self-deprecating ways. "I feel like I'm sort of stumbling along," he said once, "and a lot people are watching me or stumbling along with me or allowing me to stumble for them." It was as if Jerry Garcia – who, as the lead guitarist and singer of the Grateful Dead, lived at the center of one of popular culture's most extraordinary epic adventures – was bemused by the circumstances of his own renown.
And yet, when he died on Aug. 9, a week after his 53rd birthday, at a rehabilitation clinic in Forest Knolls, Calif., the news of his death set off immense waves of emotional reaction. Politicians, newscasters, poets and artists eulogized the late guitarist throughout the day and night; fans of all ages gathered spontaneously in parks around the nation; and in the streets of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury – the neighborhood where the Grateful Dead lived at the height of the hippie epoch – mourners assembled by the hundreds, singing songs, building makeshift altars, consoling one another and jamming the streets for blocks around. Across town at San Francisco City Hall, a tie-dyed flag was flown on the middle flagpole, and the surrounding flags were lowered to half-mast. It was a fitting gesture from a civic government that had once feared the movement that the Grateful Dead represented but now acknowledged the band's pilgrimage across the last 30 years to be one of the most notable chapters in the city's modern history.
Chances are Garcia himself would have been embarrassed, maybe even repelled, by all the commotion. He wasn't much given to mythologizing his own history. In some of his closing words in his last interview in this magazine, in 1993, he said: "I'm hoping to leave a dean field – nothing, not a thing. I'm hoping they burn it all with me. . . . I'd rather have my immortality here while I'm alive. I don't care if it lasts beyond me at all. I'd just as soon it didn't."
Garcia's fans and friends, of course, feel differently. "I think that Garcia was a real avatar," says John Perry Barlow, who knew the late guitarist since 1967 and co-wrote many of the group's songs, with Bob Weir. "Jerry was one of those manifestations of the energy of his times, one of those people who ends up making the history books. He wrapped up in himself a whole set of characteristics and qualities that were very appropriate to a certain cultural vector in the latter part of the 20th century: freedom from judgment, playfulness of intellect, complete improvisation, anti-authoritarianism, self-indulgence and aesthetic development. I mean, he was truly extraordinary. And he never really saw it himself or could feel it himself. He could only see its effect on other people, which baffled and dismayed him.
"It made me sad to see that, because I wanted him to be able to appreciate, in some detached way, his own marvel," Barlow says. There was nothing that Garcia liked better than something that was really diverting and interesting and lively and fascinating. You know, anything that he would refer to as a 'fat trip,' which was his term for that sort of thing, And he wasn't really able to appreciate himself, which was a pity because, believe me, Jerry was the fattest trip of all. About the most he would say for himself was that he was a competent musician. But he would say that. I remember one time he started experimenting with MIDI; he was using all these MIDI-sampled trumpet sounds. And he started playing that on his guitar, and he sounded like Miles Davis, only better. I went up to him the first time I ever heard him do it, and I said, "You could have been a great fucking trumpet player.' And he looked at me and said, 'I am a great fucking trumpet player.' So, he knew."
Jerome John Garcia was Born in 1942, in San Francisco's Mission District. His father, a Spanish immigrant named Jose "Joe" Garcia, had been a jazz clarinetist and Dixieland bandleader in the 1930s,and he named his new son alter his favorite Broadway composer, Jerome Kern. In the spring of 1948, while on a fishing trip, Garcia saw his father swept to his death in a California river. "I never saw him play with his band," Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1991, "but I remember him playing me to sleep at night. I just barely remember the sound of it."
After his father's death, Garcia spent a few years living with his mother's parents, in one of San Francisco's working-class districts. His grandmother had the habit of listening to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts on Saturday nights, and it was in those hours, Garcia would later say, that he developed his fondness for country-music forms – particularly the deft, blues-inflected mandolin playing and mournful, high-lonesome vocal style of bluegrass's principal founder, Bill Monroe. When Garcia was 10, his mother, Ruth, brought him to live with her at a sailor's hotel and bar that she ran near the city's waterfront. He spent much of his time there listening to the boozy, fanciful stories that the hotel's old tenants told, or sat alone, reading Disney and horror comics, and poring through science-fiction novels.
When Garcia was 15, his older brother Tiff- who years earlier had accidentally lopped off Jerry's right-hand middle finger while the two were chopping wood – introduced him to early rock & roll and rhythm & blues music. Garcia was quickly drawn to the music's funky rhythms and rough-hewed textures, but what captivated him most were the lead-guitar sounds – especially the bluesy mellifluousness of players like T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry. It was otherworldly sounding music, he later said, unlike anything he had heard before. Garcia derided he wanted to learn how to make those same sounds. He went to his mother and proclaimed that he wanted an electric guitar for his upcoming birthday. "Actually," he later said, "she got me an accordion, and I went nuts – Aggghhh, no, no, no! I railed and raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy."
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