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.”
During this same period, the Beat scene was in full swing in the Bay Area, and it held great sway at the North Beach arts school where Garcia took some courses and at the city’s coffeehouses, where he heard poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth read their venturesome works. “I was a high-school kid and a wanna-be beatnik!” Garcia said in 1993. “Rock & roll at that time was not respectable. I mean, beatniks didn’t like rock & roll. . . . Rock & roll wasn’t cool, but I loved rock & roll. I used to have these fantasies about ‘I want rock & roll to be like respectable music.’ I wanted it to be like art. . . . I used to try to think of ways to make that work. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art – ‘art’ as opposed to ‘popular culture.’ Back then they didn’t even talk about popular culture – I mean, rock & roll was so not legit, you know? It was completely out of the picture. I don’t know what they thought it was – like white-trash music or kids’ music.”
By the early 1960s, Garcia was living in Palo Alto, Calif., hanging out and playing in the folk-music dubs around Stanford University. He was also working part time at Dana Morgan’s Music Store, where he met several of the musicians that would eventually dominate the San Francisco music scene. In 1963, Garcia formed a jug band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Its lineup included a young folk guitarist named Bob Weir and a blues aficionado, Ron McKernan, known to his friends as “Pigpen” for his often unkempt appearance. The group played a mix of blues, country and folk, and Pigpen became the frontman, singing Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins tunes.
Then, in February 1964, the Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and virtually overnight, youth culture was imbued with a new spirit and sense of identity. Garcia understood the group’s promise after seeing its first film, A Hard Day’s Night. For the first time since Elvis Presley – and the first time for an audience that had largely rejected contemporary rock & roll as seemingly trivial and inconsequential – pop music could be seen to hold bold, significant and thoroughly exhilarating possibilities that even the ultra-serious, socially aware folk scene could not offer. That became even more apparent a year later, when Bob Dylan – who had been the folk scene’s reigning hero – played an assailing set of his defiant new electric music at the Newport Folk Festival.
As a result, the folky purism of Mother McCree’s all-acoustic format began to seem rather limited and uninteresting to Garcia and many of the other band members, and before long the ensemble was transformed into an electric unit, the Warlocks. A couple of the jug-band members dropped out, and two new musicians joined: Bill Kreutzmann, who worked at Dana Morgan’s Music Store, on drums, and on bass, a classically trained musician named Phil Lesh, who, like Garcia, had been radicalized by the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. We had big ideas,” Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1993. “I mean, as far as we were concerned, we were going to be the next Beatles or something – we were on a trip, definitely. We had enough of that kind of crazy faith in ourselves. . . . [The] first time we played in public, we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went fuckin’ nuts! The next time we played, it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said, ‘Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won’t bother anybody. Just let us set up in the comer.’ It was pandemonium immediately.”
It was around this time that Garcia and some of the group’s other members also began an experimentation with drugs that would forever transform the nature or the band’s story. Certainly this wasn’t the first time drugs had been used in music for artistic inspiration or had found their way into an American cultural movement. Many jazz and blues artists (not to mention several country & western players) had been smoking manjuana and using various narcotics to intensify their music making for several decades, and in the ’50s the Beats had extolled marijuana as an assertion of their nonconformism. But the drugs that began cropping up in the youth and music scenes in the mid-1960s were of a much different, more exotic sort. Veterans Hospital near Stanforrd University had been the site of government-sanctioned experiments with LSD, a drug that induced hallucinations in those who ingested it and that, for many, also inspired something remarkably close to the patterns of a religious experience. Among those who had taken the drug at Veterans Hospital were Robert Hunter, a folk singer and poet who would later become Garcia’s songwriting partner, and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey had been working on an idea about group LSD experiments and had started a loosely knit gang of artists and rogues, called the Merry Pranksters, dedicated to this adventure. Kesey’s crew include a large number of intellectual dropouts like himself and eccentric rebels like Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) and Carolyn Adams (later known as Mountain Girl, who eventually married Garcia and had two children with him).
The Pranksters had been holding parties at a house in the nearby town of La Honda, Calif., to see what would happen when people took LSD in a setting where there were no regulations or predetermined situations. At Kesey’s invitation, the Grateful Dead – as the Warlocks were now called – became the house band for these collective drug experiments, known as the Acid Tests. The Dead would play for hours as the Pranksters filmed the goings-on – everything from freakouts to religions revelations to group sex. The Acid Tests were meant to be acts of cultural, spiritual and psychic revolt, anti their importance to the development of the Grateful Dead cannot be overestimated. The Dead’s music, Garcia later said, “had a real sense of proportion to the event” – which is to say that sometimes the groups playing would seem to overshadow the event, and at other times it would function as commentary or backdrop to the action of the event itself. Either way the band did not see itself as the star of the party; if there were stars, they were formed from the union of the music and musicians with the audience and the spirit and shape of what was happening from moment to moment – which meant that there was a blur between the performers, the event and the audience.
Consequently, the Acid Tests became the model for what would shortly become known as the Grateful Dead trip. In the years that followed, the Dead would never really forsake the philosophy of the Acid Tests. Right until the end, the band would encourage its audience to be involved with the music and the sense of fellowship that came from and fueled the music.
By 1966, the spirit of the acid tests was spilling over into the streets and clubs of San Francisco – and well beyond. A new community of largely young people – many sharing similar ideals about drugs, music, politics and sex – had taken root in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district, a run-down but picturesque section of the city adjacent to Golden Gate Park, where the members of the Grateful Dead now shared a house. In addition, a thriving dub and dance-hall scene – dominated by Chet Helms’ Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham’s Fillmore – had sprung up around the city, drawing the notice of the media, the police and various political forces.
The public scrutiny would in part eventually make life in the Haight difficult and risky. But there was also a certain boon that came from all the new publicity: The music and ethos of the San Francisco scene had begun to draw the interest of East Coast and British musicians and were starting to affect the thinking of artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan – the same artists who only a year or two before had exerted such a major influence on groups like the Grateful Dead. For that matter, San Francisco bands were having an impact not just on pop and fashion styles but also on social mores and even the political dialogue of the times. Several other bands, of course, participated in the creation of this scene, and some – including Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company – would make music as inventive and memorable as the Dead’s. In addition, nobody should underrate concert promoter Bill Graham’s importance to the adventure; he was an often acerbic character, but he would emerge as an invaluable and scrupulous caretaker of the community that he served.
Still, it was the Grateful Dead who became known as the “peoples’ band” – the band that cared about the following that it played to and that often staged benefits or free shows for the common good. And long after the Haight’s moment had passed, it would be the Grateful Dead – and the Dead alone among the original San Francisco bands – that would still exemplify the ideals of fraternity and compassion which most other ’60s-bred groups had long relinquished and many subsequent rock artists repudiated in favor of more corrosive ideals.
The San Francisco scene was remarkable while it lasted, but it couldn’t endure forever. Because of its reputation as a youth haven, the Haight was soon overrun with runaways and the sort of health and shelter problems that a community of mainly white, middle-class expatriates had never had to face before. In addition, the widespread use of LSD was naming out to be a little less ideal than some folks had imagined: There were nights when so many young people seemed to be on bad trips, the emergency rooms of local hospitals could not accommodate them all. By the middle of 1967 – a season still referred to as the Summer of Love – the Haight had started to turn ugly. There were bad drugs on the streets, there were rapes and murders, and there was a surfeit of starry-eyed newcomers who had arrived in the neighborhood without any means of support and were expecting the scene to feed and nurture them. Garcia and the Dead had seen the trouble coming and tried to prompt the city to prepare for it. “You could feed large numbers of people,” Garcia later said, “but only so large. You could feed 1,000, but not 20,000. We were unable to convince the San Francisco officials of what was going to happen. We said there would be more people in the city than the city could hold.” Not long after, the Dead left the Haight for individual residences in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
By 1970, the idealism surrounding the Bay Area music scene – and much of the counterculture – had largely evaporated. The drug scene had turned fearful; much of the peace movement had given way to violent rhetoric; and the quixotic dream of a Woodstock generation, bound together by the virtues of love and music, had been irreparably damaged, first by the Manson Family murders, in the summer of 1969, and then, a few months later, by a tragic and brutal event at the Altamont Speedway, just outside San Francisco. The occasion was a free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. Following either the example or the suggestion of the Grateful Dead (there is still disagreement on this), the Stones hired the Hell’s Angels as a security force. It proved to be a day of horrific violence. The Angels battered numerous people, usually for little reason, and in the evening, as the Stones performed, the bikers stabbed a young black man to death in front of the stage. It was completely unexpected,” Garcia later said. “And that was the hard part – that was the hard lesson there – that you can have good people and good energy and work on a project and really want it to happen right and still have it all weird. It’s the thing of knowing less than you should have. Youthful folly.”
The record the band followed with, Workingman’s Dead, was the Dead’s response to that period. The record was a statement about the changing and badly frayed sense of community in America and its counterculture, and as such, it was a work by and about a group of men being tested and pressured at a time when they could have easily pulled apart from all the madness and stress and disappointment. The music reflected that struggle, particularly in songs like “Uncle John’s Band,” a parable about America that was also the band’s confession of how it nearly fell apart, and “New Speedway Boogie,” about Altamont. “One way or another, this darkness has got to give,” Garcia sang in the latter song in a voice full of fear, fragility and hard-earned courage. Workingrnan’s Dead and the record that followed it, American Beauty, made it plain how the Grateful Dead found the heart and courage and talent to stick together and make something new and meaningful from their fraternity. “Making the record became like going to a job,” Garcia said. “It was something we had to do, and it was also something we did to keep our minds off some of these problems, even if the music is about those problems.”
In a conversation I had with Robert Hunter in 1989, he revealed something else that he thought had influenced Garcia’s singing in that period and made it so affecting. “It wasn’t only because of the gathering awareness of what we were doing,” he said, “but Jerry’s mother had died in an automobile accident while we were recording American Beauty, and there’s a lot of heartbreak on that record, especially on ‘Brokedown Palace,’ which is, I think, his release at that time. The pathos in Jerry’s voice on those songs, I think, has a lot to do with that experience. When the pathos is there, I’ve always thought Jerry is the best. The man can get inside some of those lines and turn them inside out, and he makes those songs entirely his. There is no emotion more appealing than the bittersweet when it’s truly, truly spoken.”
With Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the Grateful Dead hit a creative peak and turned an important corner. For one thing, the two records sold better than anything the group had issued before, and as a result the band was able to begin working its way free of many of the crushing debts it had accrued. More important, the Dead now had a body of fine new songs to perform onstage for its rapidly expanding audience. With the next album, a double live set, Grateful Dead (entitled Skullfuck, until Warner Bros. balked), the band issued an invitation to its fans: “Send us your name and address, and we’ll keep you informed.”
It was the sort of standard fan-clubpitch that countless pop acts had indulged in before, but what it set in motion for the Dead would prove unprecedented: the biggest sustained fan reaction in pop-music history. (According to The New Yorker, there are currently 110,000 Deadheads on the band’s mailing list.) Clearly the group had a devoted and far-flung following that – more than anything else simply wanted to see the Grateful Dead live. One of the aphorisms of the time was “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead show,” and though that adage sometimes backfired in unintended ways – such as those occasions when the band turned in a protracted, meandering and largely out-of-tune performance – as often as not, the claim was justified. On those nights when the group was on – propelled by the double drumming of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and the dizzying melodic communion of Garcia and Weirs guitars and Lesh’s bass – the Grateful Dead’s verve and imagination proved matchless.
It was this dedication to live performance, and a penchant for near-incessant touring, that formed the groundwork for the Grateful Dead’s extraordinary success during the last 20 or so years. Even a costly failed attempt at starting the band’s own autonomous record label in the early 1970s, plus the deaths of three consecutive keyboardists – McKernan, of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, in 1973; Keith Godchaux, in a fatal car accident, in 1980, a year after leaving the band; and Brent Mydland, of a morphine and cocaine overdose in 1990 – never really deterred the Dead’s momentum as a live act.
By the summer of 1987, when the group enjoyed its first and only Top 10 single (“Touch of Grey”) and album (In the Dark), the commercial breakthrough was almost beside the fact in any objective assessment of the band’s stature. The Grateful Dead had been a top concert draw in America for several years and in fact had probably played before more people over the years than any other performing act in history. But the nature of the band’s success went well beyond big numbers and high finances: From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, the Grateful Dead enjoyed a union with their audience that was unrivaled and unshakable. Indeed, the Dead and their followers formed the only self-sustained, ongoing fellowship that pop music has ever produced – a commonwealth that lasted more than a quarter-century.
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.
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.