Twenty five years ago this week, the world of the Grateful Dead was forever changed when Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at 53. From band employees to Deadheads, many were shaken, but few more so than Garcia’s fellow bandmates. Drummer Mickey Hart, who joined the Dead in 1967 and is currently part of Dead & Company, spoke with Rolling Stone about his memories of that day and what followed.
I always remember where I was when I heard. You never forget those kinds of things. Jerry wasn’t well to begin with, and he was winding down. He was living on borrowed time. Everybody was ready for it, but you can never really be ready for it.
It was the morning, and I went to my yoga instructor, who lived in a little shack over the hill from my house [in Sonoma County, California]. I used to walk over there through a redwood grove. He never played music; we always tried to make it a bit more zen. But as I approached his place, he was playing music. And it was Jerry Garcia Band music. That put me off immediately. Right then, I knew something was in the air. I knew something was really wrong.
I walked up to the front door and he was sweeping the floor, getting ready for a session. I said, “What’s with the music?” He said, “Haven’t you heard?” He didn’t have to say anything else. It was early and I don’t know how he found out about it. But I turned around and walked back through the woods. It could have been a rumor, but I knew it wasn’t. I just knew it. It felt like someone had hit me with a hammer.
I went down to our office in San Rafael. Phil and Bob were there, and [Robert] Hunter, Vince [Welnick], and [publicist] Dennis McNally. People in the office were crying. We hugged and then we went our separate ways. I was a wreck. Carter Beauford [of the Dave Matthews Band] was setting up drums in my home studio for some overdubs for an album I was doing. Carter played the session, and I didn’t want him to go home. I knew I had to be around music with other people. That was the day. It was beyond belief.
I didn’t go out of my house for a week. I couldn’t go out. After a couple of weeks, I decided to go to the gas station, get some gas. Do something. Be part of the world. I was pumping gas and this gal comes up, a hippie gal, one of us. And she says, “Don’t ever let the music stop!” I said, “Holy Christ, I just came out to pump gas and I run into this gal telling me about Jerry!”
When Jerry went into Serenity Knolls [the treatment center where he died], he was clean. I didn’t talk to him when he was there. We talked right before he went in. He never liked doctors and all that medical stuff. But he was weak, and he was trying to stay alive.
When he checked in, he was not strung out. He was just very sick from all that abuse. He died of something else — his heart gave out. It wasn’t like rehab. All his arteries were clogged up and he couldn’t get blood to his heart. Somebody there told me he died with a smile on his face.
About a year later, Bill Clinton called me up. He was on Air Force One and he wanted me to come down to a fund-raiser he was doing in San Francisco because he had a Jerry story. After the event, we’re in the back room. Al Gore was there. And Bill says that one day when he was at the Capitol Building, he saw this Senator. He said this guy was on “the other side” but was wearing a Jerry tie, and he said he told the guy, “I didn’t know you were a Grateful Dead fan,” and this guy was telling him that he was and had his flag at half-mast. It was quite an interesting story.
When we’re onstage with Dead & Company, I think of Jerry when we play all those beautiful slow ballads — ”Black Muddy River,” “High Time,” “Wharf Rat.” Those songs were so well crafted and they were elegant. They get to your heart. He really liked those slow songs. He loved placing Hunter’s words into those kinds of songs.
Is it important for kids in their twenties at our shows to remember him? I don’t think Jerry would think it was necessary. He would say, “Fuck it — it’s not about me; it’s about the music we made and the feeling we had and the people who grabbed hold of it.” He was a very modest guy. He never wanted to have his picture taken or even comb his hair. He wore T-shirts with holes in them. One time, Jimi Hendrix showed up to try to sit in with us at some small place. He showed up looking like a beautiful peacock. He sat down next to Jerry and I’ll never forget that image — there was Jerry and there was Jimi, looking so fine. Total opposites! It was the different sides of the music world.
I do the same thing every year on this anniversary. When he died, I planted three blue redwoods, one for each decade, on my property. They’re pretty rare. They’ve really grown in the last 25 years. They’re about 40 feet high now. That’s Jerry’s place, and that’s where we go to celebrate him. We have a barbecue and have some of the old friends over and tell jokes.
It’s all speculative right now, but we’re planning shows for next summer. If you take music seriously, you know Jerry Garcia. And as long as the songs are played, he’ll be remembered. That’s the bottom line.