Jerry Garcia: 1942-1995

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In any event, for my tastes I saw far too little attention paid  by both the Deadheads and the media  to just how much darkness made its way into Garcia and the Dead's music, and how strong and interesting that darkness was. For that matter, there was always a good deal more darkness in the whole '60s adventure than many people have been comfortable acknowledging  and I don't mean simply all the drug casualties, political ruin and violence of the period. There was also a willingness to explore risky psychic terrain  a realization that your best hopes could also cost you some terrible losses  and I think that those possibilities were realized in the Dead's music and history as meaningfully as they were anywhere.

In fact, the darkness crept in early in the Dead's saga. It could be found in the insinuation of the band's name, which many fans in the early San Francisco scene cited as being too creepy and disturbing a moniker for a rock group. It could also be heard deep down in much of the band's best music  in the strange layers and swirls that made parts of Aoxomoxoa such a vivid and frightening aural portrayal of the psychedelic experience, and in the meditations about death and damage that the band turned into hard-boiled anthems of hope on Workingman's Dead and other works of that period. And, of course, there was also all the darkness in the band's history that ended up delivering so many of its members to their deaths.

Not all darkness is negative. In fact, sometimes wonderful and kind things can come from it, and if there's one thing that was apparent to everybody about Jerry Garcia, it was that he was a good-humored man with generous instincts. But there was much more to him than that, and it wasn't always obvious on the surface. In a conversation I had several years ago with Robert Hunter about Garcia, Hunter told me: "Garcia is a cheery and resilient man, but I always felt that under his warmth and friendliness there was a deep well of despair – or at least a recognition that at the heart of the world there may be more darkness, despair and absurdity than any sane and compassionate heart could stand."

In his last interview with Rolling Stone, in 1993, Garcia had this to say about his own dark side: "I definitely have a component in my personality which is not exactly self-destructive, but it's certainly ornery. . . . It's like . . . 'Try to get healthy' – 'Fuck you, man.' . . . I don't know what it comes from. I've always dung to it, see, because I felt it's part of what makes me me. Being anarchic, having that anarchist streak, serves me on other levels  artistically, certainly. So I don't want to eliminate that aspect of my personality. But I see that on some levels it's working against me.

"They're gifts, some of these aspects of your personality. They're helpful and useful and powerful, but they also have this other side. They're indiscriminate. They don't make judgments."

Garcia, of course, made his own choices, and whatever they may have cost him, I would argue that in some ways they were still brave, worthy choices. Maybe they were even essential to the wondrous creations of his life's work. His achievements, in fact, were enormous. He helped inspire and nurture a community that in some form or another has survived for 30 years and may even outlast his death; he co-wrote a fine collection of songs about America's myths, pleasures and troubles; and, as the Grateful Dead's most familiar and endearing member, he accomplished something that no other rock star ever has: He attracted an active following that has only grown larger in size and devotion with each passing decade, from the 1960s to the 1990s. You would have to look to the careers of people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus to find the equivalent of Garcia's musical longevity and growth in the history of American bandleaders.

Most important, though, Garcia was a man who remained true to ideals and perceptions that many of the rest of us long ago found easy to discard – and maybe in the end that is a bigger part of our loss at this point than the death of Garcia himself.

My favorite Grateful Dead song of the last decade or so is "Black Muddy River." It's a song about living one's life in spite of all the heartbreak and devastation that life can bring, and in its most affecting verse, Garcia sang: "When it seems like the night will last forever/And there's nothing left to do but count the years/When the strings of my heart start to sever/Stones fall from my eyes instead of tears/I will walk alone by the black muddy river/Dream me a dream of my own/I will walk alone by the black muddy river . . . and sing me a song of my own."

Those were among the last words Garcia sang at the Grateful Dead's final show with him, at Chicago's Soldier Field on July 9. Not bad as far as farewells go, and not bad, either, for a summing up of a life lived with much grace and heart. It is a good thing, I believe, that we lived in the same time as this man did, and it is not likely that we shall see charms or skills so transcendent, and so sustained, again.

Thi story is from the Spetember 21, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone. 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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