At the same time, Jerry Garcia and the other members of the Grateful Dead paid a considerable price for their singular accomplishment. By largely foreswearing studio recordings after the 1970s (the band has released only two collections of all-new music in the last 15 years) and by never returning to the sort of songwriting impetus that made works like Workingman's Dead and American Beauty so notable, the Dead lost the interest of much of the mainstream and important cutting-edge pop audiences of the last two decades. To the group's detractors, the Grateful Dead often appeared as little more than a 1960s relic, a band frozen in the sensibility of exhausted ideals, playing to a gullible cult audience that, like the group itself, was out of touch with the changing temper of the times. Or, as one critic put it, the Grateful Dead were a group of "nostalgia mongerers . . . offering facile reminiscence to an audience with no memory of its own."
Garcia and the Dead's other members heard this sort of criticism – and countless "dinosaur" jokes – plenty over the years, and it had to have cut deep into their pride. Perhaps the general pop world's disregard and outright ridicule, combined with all those years of restless touring, even took a certain toll on the spirits of the various band members. In any event, something began to wear on Jerry Garcia in the mid-1980s, and whatever it was, it never really let up on him. By 1984, rumors were making the rounds among Deadheads – who just may he the best networked community on the planet – that Garcia's guitar playing had lost much of its wit and edge, that his singing had grown lackadaisical and that, in fact, he was suffering from drug problems. The rumors proved true. Garcia had been using cocaine and heroin for several years and had developed a serious addiction. The problem became so acute that one day in January 1985, the other members of the Grateful Dead paid Garcia a visit and told him they were afraid he was killing himself. They also reportedly issued the sort of warning they had never before issued to a band mate: Garcia would have to choose between his involvement with the band and his drug use. But before Garcia could act on the Dead's ultimatum, he was arrested in Golden Gate Park on Jan. 18,1985, in possession of numerous packets of heroin and cocaine. Two months later a municipal-court judge allowed Garcia to enter a Marin County drug-diversion program in lieu of a jail sentence, and Garcia committed himself to overthrowing his drug habits.
The next year, though, following the Grateful Dead's 1986 summer shows with Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Garcia passed out at his home in San Rafael, Calif., and slipped into a diabetic coma. His body had simply been overwhelmed by all the years of road life and drug usage. He was in the coma for a few days, and when he recovered, it wasn't at first apparent whether he would fully regain his musical agility. But with the help of an old friend, keyboardist Merl Saunders, and with the support of the Dead, Garcia recovered his skills, and the Dead went on to enjoy a long-overdue commercial success with its Top 10 single, "Touch of Grey" – a song about aging gracefully and bravely.
Unfortunately, though, Garcia's health continued to be a problem, and according to some accounts, so did his appetite for drugs. He collapsed from exhaustion in 1992, resulting in the Dead's canceling many of the performances on their tour. After his 1993 recovery, Garcia devoted himself to a regimen of diet and exercise. At first the pledge seemed to work: He shed more than 60 pounds of his former 300-pound weight, and he often appeared renewed and better focused onstage. There were other positive changes at work: He had become a father again in recent years and was attempting to spend more time as a parent, and last year he entered into his third marriage, with filmmaker Deborah Koons. Plus, to the pleasure of numerous Deadheads, he had recently written several of his best new songs in years, with his longtime friend Robert Hunter, in preparation for a new Grateful Dead album.
These were all brave efforts for a man past 50 with considerable health problems and a troubled drug history. In the end, though, they weren't enough to carry him further. In mid-July, he checked into the Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for one more go at overcoming his heroin use. According to one report, he wanted to be clean for the Dead's fall tour and was planning to give away his oldest daughter, Heather, at her upcoming wedding. He checked out two weeks later so he could spend his 53rd birthday, on Aug. 1, with family and friends. A week later he went into a different clinic, Serenity Knolls, in Marin County. He was already clean, most sources report; he just wanted to be in sound shape. This time, Jerry Garcia did not walk out and return to the loving fraternity of his band, his fans and his family. Shortly after 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 9, a clinic counselor found him unconscious. In his sleep, it seems, he had suffered a fatal heart attack. According to his wife, he died with a smile on his face.
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were so active for so long and were so heartening for the audience that loved them that it seems somewhat astonishing to realize that the band's adventure is probably over – or that at least its most vital part is finished. Of course, anybody paying attention – anybody aware of the ups and downs in Garcia's well-being might have seen it coming. Still, endings are always tough things to be braced for.
"He was like the boy who cried wolf," says Barlow. "He'd come so close so many times that I think people gradually stopped taking the possibility as seriously as they otherwise would have. Or maybe we felt so certain that this would happen someday that we had managed, as a group, to go into a kind of collective denial about it. I am finding that I looked at this event so many times, and shrank back from it in fear so many times, that I erected a new callous against it each time I did so. Now that I'm here at the thing itself, I hardly know what to think of it. Every deposition of every imagined version of it is now standing in the way of being able to understand and appreciate the real thing.
"But this is a very large death," says Barlow. "There are a lot of levels on which to be affected here, all the way from the fact that I'm going to miss terribly the opportunity to spend time in conversation with one of the smartest and most playful minds I've ever run up against, to the fact that there will never truly be another Grateful Dead concert. . . . I never thought of myself as a Deadhead exactly . . . but that's been a pretty fundamental part of my life – of all our lives – for the past 30 years."
It is, indeed, a considerable passing, To see the Grateful Dead onstage was to see a band that clearly understood the meaning of playing together from the perspective of the long haul. Interestingly, that's something we've seen fairly little of in rock & roll, since rock is an art form, the most valuable and essential pleasures of which – including inspiration, meaning and fraternity – are founded in the knowledge that such moments cannot hold forever. The Grateful Dead, like any great rock & roll band, lived up to that ideal, but they also shattered it or at least bent it to their own purposes. At their best the Dead were capable of surprising both themselves and their audience while at the same time playing as though they had spent their whole lives learning to make music as a way of talking to one another, and as though music were the language of their fellowship and, therefore, their history. No doubt it was. What the Grateful Dead understood – probably better than any other band in pop-music history – was that nobody in the group could succeed as well, or mean as much, outside the context of the entire group, and that the group itself could not succeed without its individuals. It was a band that needed all its members playing and thinking together to keep things inspiring, Just as important, it was a band that realized it also needed its audience to keep things significant – indeed, it would probably be fair to say that for the last 20 years the Dead's audience informed the group's worth as much as their music did.
In the hours after I learned of Garcia's death, I went online to the Well, the Bay Area computer conference system that has thrived in no small part due to its large contingent of Deadheads. I wanted to see how the fans were doing and what they were saying in the recognition of their loss. For the most part – at least in those first hours that I scanned the messages – what I found were well-meaning, blithe comments, people sending each other "beams" (which are like positive extrasensory wishes) and fantasies of group hugs. They were the sort of sentiments that many people I know would gag at, and I must admit, they proved too saccharine for my own sensibility. Still, one of the things I had to recognize about the Deadheads years ago, when I did some writing about the band and its fans, was that this was a group of people for whom good cheer wasn't just a shared disposition but also an act of conscious dissent: a protest against the anger and malice that seems to characterize so much of our social and artistic temper these days. The Deadheads may sometimes seem like nails, but I'm not convinced their vision of community is such an undesirable thing. After all, there are worse visions around. Consider, for example, the vision of today's Republican Congress.
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