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Garcia, Jerome John (“Jerry”)

Garcia, Jerome John (“Jerry”)

(b. 1 August 1942 in San Francisco, California; d. 9 August 1995 in Forest Knolls, California), lead guitarist, vocalist, and guiding force behind the Grateful Dead, one of the most popular and influential rock bands in history.

Garcia’s link with music began when his Spanish immigrant father, Jose “Joe” Garcia, and his mother, Ruth Clifford, named him after the Broadway composer Jerome Kern. Garcia and his younger brother spent their early childhood in San Francisco. Joe Garcia was a professional musician who played the clarinet, but his career was cut short around the time his first son was born due to a dispute with a local musician’s union. He quit playing professionally and supported his family by opening a bar in downtown San Francisco.

In the summer of 1946, Jerry Garcia suffered an injury that would later become a world-famous trademark. While helping his brother chop wood at the family’s summer cabin, Garcia’s middle finger on his right hand was cut so badly it had to be amputated. A much worse accident was to occur to the Garcia family in 1948: while fishing in deep water, Joe Garcia lost his footing and drowned. Ruth took over running the bar and the brothers were sent to live with their maternal grandparents. Attending the Monroe School, the Garcia brothers continued to live with their grandparents until Ruth remarried in 1953 and took the boys to live with her in suburban Menlo Park, where they attended Menlo-Oaks Middle School.

After a move back to San Francisco, Garcia attended James Denman Middle School and then Balboa High School, two notoriously rough schools. His fifteenth birthday marked the beginning of his interest in playing guitar. He became obsessed with the instrument and practiced constantly. Garcia’s early role models were the giants of early electric guitar: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Bo Diddley. A teacher at Balboa recognized Garcia’s artistic ability and encouraged him to take classes in art. By 1958 he was enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts.

After another brief move out of San Francisco and enrollment in Analy High School, Garcia dropped out and joined the army when he was seventeen. He was unable to adapt to military life and went AWOL eight times before receiving a dishonorable discharge at the end of 1960. At the age of eighteen Garcia began the bohemian life he had been yearning for, moving to Palo Alto and immersing himself in Beat culture and folk music. This was an important period of his artistic evolution; he met most of the people who would become prominent in the San Francisco music scene and worked diligently on his guitar playing. One of the more important friendships he made during this period was with Robert Hunter, a musician and poet who would eventually team up with Garcia to become the Grateful Dead’s primary songwriting team. Garcia’s interest in bluegrass turned into an obsession, and he soon made a name for himself as a banjo player in several local blue-grass combos. Garcia’s eclectic interest in several different American musical genres—early rock, blues, folk, country, and bluegrass—formed the background for what would become the repertoire of the Grateful Dead.

In 1963 Garcia met Sara Ruppenthal and the two formed a folk duo called Jerry and Sarah. They were quickly married and their only daughter was born the same year. To support his family, Garcia gave guitar lessons in a music store where he met one of the future drummers of the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann. On New Year’s Eve 1963, Garcia met the sixteen-year-old Bob Weir and they soon formed an ever-evolving jug band with a local blues-man named Ron (“Pigpen”) McKernan. They called themselves Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. But in 1965, after seeing the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, the band went electric and called themselves the Warlocks. They soon recruited classically trained Phil Lesh on bass.

The Warlocks played in area clubs and quickly established a small following that appreciated the band’s diverse range of music and wild improvisations. In the fall of 1965 the Warlocks started to perform at LSD-fueled parties hosted by the novelist Ken Kesey, author oí One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Kesey had volunteered for tests conducted by the federal government on the effects of various psychotomimetic drugs including LSD-25. Kesey believed LSD was the key to a new universal consciousness. A group of others interested in experimenting with LSD, or “acid,” gathered around him and called themselves the Merry Pranksters. They gave acid to anyone who would come to their gatherings, which eventually became known as Acid Tests. The Warlocks became the house band for these hallucinogenic revels, and the experience established the band’s approach to performing: they never played with a set list and instead relied on improvisation to move them through the music. After discovering that another group was calling themselves the Warlocks, the band searched for another moniker. While flipping through a dictionary, Garcia came across the words “Grateful Dead,” the appellation for a series of folktales. The name stuck.

Throughout 1966 the Grateful Dead’s popularity grew throughout the Bay Area on the strength of their live performances. Along with other bands such as Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead became nationally recognized as leaders in the new form of popular music called acid rock. The band played constantly and in the summer of 1966 released its first single, “Don’t Ease Me In”/“Stealin’.” The venues for their shows grew in size until they were performing at the Fill-more, one of the seats of the acid rock explosion. Garcia and most of the band members moved into a large Victorian house at 710 Ashbury Street, and the place soon became a focal point for the area’s music. The Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was quickly recognized as ground zero for the counterculture and the music it produced.

During this period of the Grateful Dead’s growth in popularity, Garcia’s relationship with Sara deteriorated. He moved into 710 Ashbury alone and was soon in a relationship with Carolyn (“Mountain Girl”) Adams, a Merry Prankster. Adams and Garcia formed a long-lasting relationship and married on New Year’s Eve 1981, evidently for tax purposes. They had two daughters and would divorce years later.

As the Grateful Dead became one of the more popular rock acts in the area, Garcia established himself as a leader of a band that professed no leaders. He guided the band to bluegrass, folk, and country tunes, and his guitar playing became the cynosure of the band’s constantly evolving improvisations. Garcia’s impact on local music was epitomized by Jefferson Airplane’s reference to him as a “Musical and Spiritual Adviser” on the back of their seminal album of the period, Surrealistic Pillow (1967). The Grateful Dead’s own self-titled first album was released in 1967.

The notoriety of the band put them under official scrutiny, and at the end of 1967 police raided their home at 710 and arrested Weir and McKernan for marijuana possession. But legal troubles did not stop the band from having an incredibly prolific period inside the recording studio and on the road. The band added a second drummer and another keyboardist to record their second album, Anthem of the Sun, in 1968. The next year saw the major surge in the band’s popularity. They released the albums Aoxomoxoa and their first live recording, Live/Dead. The band formed a close relationship with concert promoter Bill Graham, who saw to it that the Grateful Dead played to packed houses across the country.

The band became popular and influential; and the dedicated fans who followed them from venue to venue eventually became known as Deadheads. In 1970 Garcia and the band were arrested in New Orleans for drug possession, an incident made famous in the song “Truckin”’ on their 1970 album American Beauty. From 1969 to 1974 Garcia and Hunter teamed up to produce the songs that would become the heart of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. Although the Dead’s touring schedule remained relentless, Garcia always seemed to find time and energy to release solo records and perform in side bands, including the long-lived Jerry Garcia Band.

In 1972 Garcia released his first solo effort, entitled Garcia. In 1973 he began to play in a bluegrass band called Old & In the Way. After the Grateful Dead encountered logistical and monetary problems, the band went on a touring hiatus after recording the album Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel in 1974. During this break the band released the album Blues for Allah in 1975. They hit the road again a year later. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw Garcia at his most prolific, but at the same time he was developing a drug habit that would plague him for the rest of his life. In addition to using cocaine, Garcia became addicted to a smokable form of heroin known as “Persian.” Meanwhile, in addition to the constant touring with the Grateful Dead, Garcia released several more solo albums, including his personal favorite, Cats Under the Stars (1978). He also oversaw production of The Grateful Dead Movie, released in 1977.

The early 1980s saw the greatest growth in popularity the band would ever experience, and by mid-decade they were playing in football stadiums to accommodate their fans. However, as the decade wore on, Garcia’s drug use affected his performances. In 1985 he was arrested in Golden Gate Park when drugs were discovered in his car. The next year saw his first major health scare: he lapsed into a three-day-long diabetic coma. Garcia made a quick recovery but the band was forced to take its longest tour break in ten years. Decades of poor diet, chain smoking, a harsh road schedule, and drug use had reduced Garcia’s physical condition to such a level that many doubted that he would return to touring. As it turned out, 1987 became one of the Dead’s most prolific years, and Garcia’s return was heralded by the band’s first studio album in seven years, In the Dark. The album did something no other Dead album had ever succeeded in doing: it broke into the Top Ten and received a great deal of exposure on radio and MTV. During this year of enormous growth in the Dead fan base, Garcia played a series of solo shows on Broadway, and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. unveiled a new flavor of ice cream: Cherry Garcia. The end of the year also saw the birth of Garcia’s fourth child with his companion Manasha Matheson.

In 1989 the Dead released their last studio album, Built to hast. The Dead continued touring, but in 1992, Garcia had another health scare as he turned fifty: he was diagnosed with exhaustion and an enlarged heart. The band took a break, and Garcia went on a self-described health kick. In 1994 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Grateful Dead, but Garcia was unable to attend the ceremony. In the same year, Garcia married his third wife, Deborah Koons. In 1995, after beginning the Dead’s summer tour, Garcia checked himself into Serenity Knolls rehabilitation center to treat his recurring drug addiction. On 9 August he was found dead after suffering a heart attack in his sleep.

The reaction to Garcia’s death was worldwide. President Bill Clinton made a public statement about the loss to American music, and flags in San Francisco were ordered to fly at half mast while a tie-dyed flag was raised at City Hall. The man who had epitomized the counterculture was recognized in death as one of the most original, influential, and important contributors to modern American music. Garcia’s ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay and in the Ganges River in India.

Garcia described growing up in San Francisco in Harrington Street (1995), a slim volume illustrated by his drawings and paintings. The standard biography is Blair Jackson’s comprehensive Garcia (1999). Other valuable biographical work on Garcia includes Sandy Troy, Captain Trips (1994); Garcia (1995), a collection of articles put together by the editors of Rolling Stone; and Robert Greenfield’s “oral” biography Dark Star (1996). Garcia’s music and the cultural impact of the Grateful Dead have inspired an industry of writing that is cataloged and assessed in David Dodd and Robert Weiner, The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads: An Annotated Bibliography (1997). A history of the band is combined with appraisals of their influence on contemporary American culture in John Rocco, ed., Dead Reckonings: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (1999). Important work on Garcia and the band include Charles Reich and Jann Wenner, Garcia: Signpost to New Space (1972); Blair Jackson, Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped (1983); David Gans, Conversations with the Dead (1991); Sandy Troy’s One More Saturday Night (1991); Blair Jackson, Goin’ Down the Road (1992); Rock Scully and David Dalton, Living with the Grateful Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead (1995); and Oliver Trager, The American Book of the Dead (1997). Tom Wolfe wrote about early Grateful Dead performances at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Obituaries of Garcia are in the New York Times (10 Aug. 1995) and San Francisco Chronicle (10 Aug. 1995).

John Rocco

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