Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Something strange started to happen to rock and roll during the mid-1980s. Respected performers from the sixties, many of whom had become archival during the intervening years, began showing up on the charts again. Paul Simon won a Grammy Award for his Graceland LP, and Steve Winwood had a hit with “Higher Love.” Yes scored its first Number 1 single— “Owner of a Lonely Heart”—and the rest of the comeback list included such venerable names as George Harrison, Deep Purple, and the Band’s Robbie Robertson. The next thing you know, one pop music critic told some colleagues, the Grateful Dead will have a hit single. That brought a few chuckles.
But in 1987, the Grateful Dead—a 22-year-old group known for its fanatical devotees, despite a lack of commercial success since its West Coast origins in the psychedelic sixties—recorded its first hit ever with “Touch of Gray,” a song about aging that the group had been performing for at least six years. The album it came from, In the Dark —the group’s first studio recording in seven years—became the Dead’s biggest seller ever, raising the eyebrows of those who had written the band off long before. Only two years earlier, Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s spiritual leader, admitted to the Detroit Free Press that the group’s lack of commercial success was “of some concern to us. We make records at least partially with commercial intentions.” But in that same interview, he expressed a certain amount of resignation towards the band’s fate on the charts. “We’re just different,” he explained. “It’s hard to describe how, but we are, and a lot of people don’t understand that.” In fact, when In the Dark was released, Garcia told United Press International that the album represented “us on a good night. Not necessarily on a great night, though.”
So what happened? How did Garcia & Co. go from a formidable cult band to mainstream success? There’s no single answer, but definitely a few factors—not the least of which is Garcia himself. In the early 1980s, in the wake of the film The Big Chill, radio programmers came up with a new format called Classic Rock. Playing music from the first generation of FM rock radio, it attracted legions of 25- to 54-year-old listeners who were turned off by the heavy metal direction albumrock stations had taken and by the slick, disco-oriented approach of Top 40. They wanted their Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane and Doors—and they also got the Grateful Dead, whose music was long gone from those other formats.
That little musical reminder made what happened next all the more important. In July of 1986, about 15 months after going through a drug treatment program, Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma brought on by his drug
Full name, Jerome John Garcia; born August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Calif.; son of Jose (a bandleader) and Ruth (a nurse) Garcia; married first wife, Sarah (divorced); married Carolyn Adams; children: (second marriage) Annabelle, Teresa. Education: Dropped out of high school at the age of 17.
Interest in music began with piano lessons as a child; later studied guitar and banjo; played in various folk and bluegrass groups in California and worked as a salesman and teacher at a music store in Palo Alto, Calif., 1959-65; founding member of rock group the Warlocks, 1965, and the Grateful Dead, 1966—; has also worked as a solo performer, 1971—. Military service —U.S. Army, 1959.
use. “I didn’t feel any pain,” he told Rolling Stone. “I just felt tired…. One day I couldn’t move anymore, so I sat down. A week later, I woke up in the hospital, and I didn’t know what had happened.” The coma actually lasted five days, and it nearly claimed Garcia’s life. And although he recovered, it also put his career in jeopardy; after being released from the hospital, he had to take lessons to get his guitar playing back in shape.
This event touched more than the group’s most devout fans, a sizable group known as the Deadheads. Baby boom adults—coping with new roles as parents, partners, and providers—related to the tribulations of one of their generation’s cultural leaders as further proof of their mortality. Reacquainted with the Dead through classic rock radio, they started to care about the band again, going back and embracing what rock critic Mikal Gilmore called the Dead’s “ideals of humanity, benevolence, unity and even spirituality that most other Sixtiesborn bands long ago forgot and that most modern rock artists have forsworn in favor of more caustic values.” Then came In the Dark, an album that hit the issues of aging right on the head; “Touch of Gray,” with its chorus declaration that “We will survive!” became a veritable yuppie anthem and gave the Dead its place in the eighties rock pantheon. “We’re ready for anything now,” Garcia told Rolling Stone when “Touch of Gray” was well on its way up the charts. “It just took a while, that’s all. I swear, it’s like the Grateful Dead are the slowest-rising rock ’n’ roll band in the world.”
For Garcia, it was just another part of the “long, strange trip” he sang about in “Truckin’,” the Dead’s best-known song before “Touch of Gray.” Born August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Garcia was the product of music. His father, a Spanish immigrant named Jose, was a respected reeds player and swing bandleader in the Bay area, but he was blackballed by the local musicians union during the Depression because he was playing with two bands while other musicians had no jobs. He died in a fishing accident in 1952. Garcia’s mother, Ruth, a nurse, moved the family around the Bay area after that and continued to foster her son’s musical training. Garcia had started to play piano when his father was alive, but that was hampered by a lack of interest and a physical disfigurement—his older brother, Clifford, accidentally cut off half of the middle finger on Jerry’s right hand when he was four. He had, however, developed an interest in the guitar and decided to move on it when, for his 15th birthday, his mother presented him with an accordion. “I said, ’God, I don’t want this accordion. I want an electric guitar,’” he told Rolling Stone. “So we took it down to the pawn shop and I got this little Danelectro, an electric guitar with a tiny amplifier, and, man, I was just in heaven. I stopped everything I was doing at the time.”
That included schoolwork, which had never been his forte during his years of moving around. “I was a f—k-up,” Garcia—who began smoking marijuana when he was 15—told Feature, according to Blair Jackson’s book The Music Never Stopped. “I was a juvenile delinquent. My mom even moved me out of the city to get me out of trouble. It didn’t work. I was always getting caught for fighting and drinking. I failed school as a matter of defiance.”
When he was 17, he finally dropped out of school, but he took a curious route from there—he joined the Army. After basic training, he was assigned to Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco and began a tenure much like his time in school. “I treated the army like it was school or a bum job,” he told Feature. “I was a nothing. I had been court-martialed twice and had tons of extra duty and was restricted to barracks…. I had seven or eight or nine AWOLS, which is a pretty damn serious offense in the Army.” After nine months, he was discharged at the suggestion of the fort commander. There was an up side to Garcia’s time in the service, however. He picked up an acoustic guitar and became enamored with traditional American folk and blues styles, using his ample barracks time to practice. “I was stuck because I didn’t know anybody that played guitar,” he told Rolling Stone. “I used to do things like look at pictures of guitar players and look at their hands and try to make the chords they were doing, anything, any little thing.”
Upon his discharge, he traveled to Palo Alto to hook up with some friends and there he found a burgeoning coffeehouse scene supported by the student body of Stanford University. It was there that he met Robert Hunter, another Army vet who would go on to become the Dead’s chief lyricist. Also part of that scene were such future Bay-area rock stars as Janis Joplin, Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and future Dead bassist Phil Lesh, a trained jazz musician. There was also Ron “Pigpen” McKenna, a youth from San Francisco with a deep interest in the blues who would become the Dead’s first frontman.
Together and separately, they played at clubs like the Chateau, the Tangent, and St. Michael’s Alley in Palo Alto; the Boar’s Head in San Carlos; the Off Stage in San Jose; the Jabberwock in Berkeley; and at several coffeehouses along San Francisco’s North Beach area. Garcia—who was married briefly to a woman named Sarah—began playing banjo and indulged his interest in bluegrass with such ensembles as the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, the Hart Valley Drifters, the Wildwood Boys and the Black Mountain Boys. When not playing music, Garcia worked at Dana Morgan’s Music Shop in Palo Alto, where he sold equipment and gave lessons with future Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. And he hung out at the Palo Alto, Peace Center, where he and other musicians, whom he dubbed “the opportunistic wolf pack,” would talk with local teenagers, “preying on their young minds and their refrigerators,” as he told Rolling Stone.
Like the rest of the world, the Beatles turned the Bay area upside down when they hit America in 1964. “All of a sudden there were the Beatles,” Garcia remembered in Rolling Stone.’ “Hard Day’s Night,’ the movie and everything. Hey, great, that really looks like fun.” That coincided with the early consolidation of the Dead lineup. Joining Garcia, McKenna, Lesh, and Kreutzmann was Bob Weir, who came from an affluent family in nearby Atherton but who, like Garcia, didn’t take to school. They started as a jug band, but the Beatles’ influence shifted their interest to rock and roll and—as the Warlocks—they played their first show in a pizza parlor and honed their repertoire from British rock hits and standards from American blues performers like Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
LSD also became an influence around this time. Robert Hunter, the lyricist, was part of a government drug testing program at Stanford, where he struck up a friendship with author Ken Kesey. By 1965, the drug— soon to be made illegal by the U.S. government—was on the streets and in the hands of area musicians. “The whole world just went kablooey,” Garcia told Rolling Stone. “It freed me because I suddenly realized that my attempt at having a straight life and doing that was really fiction and wasn’t going to work out…. It was like a realization that just made me feel immensely relieved.” It would take time before LSD would really influence the music, but its impact would be substantial. “Over the years, I’ve denied that it had any influence in that way,” Hunter told Rolling Stone. “But as I get older, I begin to understand that I was reporting on what I saw and experienced…. Looking back and judging, those were pretty weird times. I was very, very far-out.”
Things became exceptionally strange when Kesey formed his Merry Pranksters, an anarchistic, communal society based in nearby La Honda. The Warlocks began hanging out with Kesey and playing at his parties, and before long the two entities co-sponsored the famous Acid Test gatherings, which Dead biographer Blair Jackson described as “a night of having the senses assaulted in more ways than most people thought were imaginable.” In Jackson’s book, The Music Never Stopped, Garcia described the affairs as “open, a tapestry, a mandala. Anything was O.K. The Acid Tests were thousands of people, all hopelessly stoned, finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of.”
Because these gatherings attracted people from all over the Bay area, the Warlocks’ audience began to spread and grow. Other bands were forming—including the Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society (with Grace Slick) and Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)—and throughout 1966, San Francisco was awash with concerts that would make any music fan’s mouth water, the biggest of which was probably the three-day Trips Festival in January of that year. Meanwhile, Kesey and the Warlocks took their Acid Tests on the road, rolling as far south as Los Angeles.
Somewhere along the line, the Warlocks, who had heard of another band by the same name, became the Grateful Dead. “We never decided to be the Grateful Dead,” Garcia told Rolling Stone. “What happened was the Grateful Dead came up as a suggestion because we were at Phil’s house one day; he had a big Oxford dictionary, I opened it up and the first thing I saw was The Grateful Dead. It said that on the page and it was so astonishing. It was truly weird, a truly weird moment.”
The Dead was perfectly positioned for 1967, a watershed year that saw the Bay area become a center for the international youth culture with the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park and the developing hippie populace of Haight and Ashbury streets. Record companies, looking for the next big thing to sell to teenagers, began signing local groups: RCA took the Airplane, while Columbia scooped up Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company. Because of its threatening name and skull-and-roses logo, there was some initial reticence to sign the Dead, but Warner Brothers finally offered a pact that was considered revolutionary at the time. “Basically, what we did was tear up the standard contract and write our own.” Garcia told Billboard, according to Jackson. “We entered the business at a time when it was taking a 360-degree turn.”
The Grateful Dead, released in 1967, got the band off to a slow start. Even Garcia told biographer Jackson that “it was mediocre performances of material we were able to do much better. It was uninspired, completely.” The two following albums— Anthem of the Sun in 1968 and Aoxomoxoa in 1969—were more experimental (and more drug-influenced), complex, and inaccessible. The Dead simply weren’t a hit singles band, and it had difficulty transferring the magnetic qualities of its live performances onto album. Appropriately, then, it was Live Dead, also released in 1969, that really showed what the Dead could do, with a 21-minute, improvisation-laden version of “Dark Star” and quintessential takes of several other tracks, including “St. Stephen” and “Turn on Your Love Light.” It was a big seller; and, not surprisingly, the Dead’s top selling releases in the future would also be live albums. “Our income doesn’t come from records,” Garcia told the Detroit Free Press. “It comes from [live] work. Making records is a different thing. It’s not playing for warm human beings. It’s a very artificial situation, with the overdubs and everything. In my mind, it’s never really been making music.”
But in 1970, the Dead turned out perhaps the best two studio albums of its career, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. With acoustic instrumentation and country-oriented material, these records carried a relaxed, easygoing ambience that marked a pleasant departure from the comparatively labored late sixties albums. “We were into a much more relaxed thing about that time,” Garcia told Rolling Stone. “We weren’t feeling so much like an experimental music group but were feeling more like a good old band.”
Hard times were ahead, however. McKenna died in 1973, the result of alcohol abuse. The Dead had a falling out with Warner Brothers in 1972 and started the misbegotten financial venture of its own record company. The group spent a considerable amount of money on a new sound system—comprised of 641 speakers and a deafening 26,400 watts—that proved to be underwhelming. There were personnel changes, and the group even announced a “retirement” from performing in 1974. “Basically success sucks,” Garcia told Boston After Dark, as reported by Jackson. “We’ve unconsciously come to the end of what you can do in America, how far you can succeed. And its’s nothing. It’s nowhere…. It means high prices and hassling over extra-musical stuff. It’s unnecessary, so we’re busting it.”
It turned out to be a short break, but it did give the group members time to work on projects away from the band. Garcia, who released his first solo album in 1971, came up with some of his best work during that period, captured on albums like Old & In the Way and Reflections. But it also ushered in what would be a long period of creative malaise that wouldn’t be broken until 1987.
Those circumstances would have caused the end of lesser bands, but the Dead had a secret weapon: the Deadheads, unquestionably the largest, most devoted, best organized, and most varied group of fans ever assembled for one band. In his 1985 hit, “The Boys of Summer,” ex-Eagle Don Henley sang of seeing “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” an indication of just how broad the Dead’s fan base really was. “My experience with the Deadheads is there’s a tremendous width to them,” Garcia told the Detroit Free Press. “There’s all kinds, from three-PhD holders to bikers.”
The group first began organizing its fans with the 1971 Grateful Dead album. Inside was a message from the band: “Dead Freaks Unite. Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.” The reaction was overwhelming, and by 1972 there were newsletters that kept Deadheads in touch with the band and with each other, making it easy for fans to follow the Dead from city to city and to trade the bootleg tapes they made, with full cooperation from the band.
By the early eighties, the Deadhead network was considerably more sophisticated. The group started telephone hotlines that were kept busy day and night, and the advent of personal home computers spawned a batch of Deadhead electronic bulletin boards. The group’s management also began offering ticket packages to guarantee Deadheads seats during the group’s tours. “We’re starting to pick up common and low-key ways to continue to do what the band wants to do, which is play and have a simple relationship to their audience,” explained group publicist Dennis McNally to the Detroit Free Press.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Deadheads were the first to sound the alarm about Garcia’s deteriorating condition during the mid-1980s. Calls to the hotlines asked about his health, noting that he was putting on weight and that his playing was sluggish. The concern was well-placed. Garcia—the friendly, graying, Smurf-like father figure of the band—was indeed using cocaine and heroin, scaring those around him. “I was very afraid that Garcia was going to die,” said Wyoming farmer John Barlow, the group’s other lyricist, to Rolling Stone. “In fact, I’d reached a point where I’d just figured it was a matter of time before I’d turn on my radio and there, on the hour, I was going to hear, ’Jerry Garcia, famous during the sixties, has died.’” The scuttlebutt even prompted Garcia’s bandmates, who Barlow said had drug problems of their own, to shift from the traditional laissez-faire attitude towards each other’s habits and confront him. “Just before I got busted,” Garcia told Rolling Stone, “everybody came over to my house and said ‘Hey, Garcia, you got to cool it; you’re starting to scare us.’ There was something I needed or thought I needed from drugs…. I don’t know what it was, exactly. Maybe it was the thing of being able to distance myself a little from the world…. But after awhile, it was just the drugs running me, and that’s an intolerable situation.”
Garcia never got a chance to act on his promise to the other Dead members to curb his drug habit. On January 18,1985, he was arrested in Golden Gate Park and charged with possession of cocaine and heroin. A month later, a judge agreed to let him undergo treatment rather than serve time in jail. But after an early summer tour in 1986, his weakened system fell prey to his diabetes, resulting in the coma. Like the arrest, Garcia called the coma “another one of those things to grab my attention.” But this was much more serious. “It was like my physical being saying, ’Hey, you’re going to have to put in some time here if you want to keep on living.”’ Garcia’s new regimen included a set of guitar lessons from a Bay area friend, Merl Saunders, and by fall Garcia was back to playing and full of resolve to complete the In the Dark album.
Since it became a hit, Garcia—who continues to live in Marin County with his wife, Carolyn, and their daughters Annabelle and Teresa—has been enjoying his new health and new fame. In 1987 the Dead toured with Bob Dylan and on its own, and in the fall of that year, Garcia played a two-week stint on Broadway with his own bands. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dead continued to tour, and Garcia took part in the Blues for Salvador benefit concert in San Francisco and worked with jazz artist Ornette Coleman.
But, he claimed in his infrequent interviews, the success of In the Dark had not modified his outlook on life or his musical ambitions. “No matter what happens,” he told Rolling Stone, “if all these things fail, fall completely to the ground and shatter into a million pieces, it’s not going to fundamentally affect us or what we do. We’re going to keep on playing. It’s just great to be involved in something that doesn’t hurt anybody. If it provides some uplift and some comfort in people’s lives, it’s just that much nicer. So I’m ready for anything now.”
With the Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead, Warner Bros., 1967.
Anthem of the Sun, Warner Bros., 1968.
Aoxomoxoa, Warner Bros., 1969.
Live Dead, Warner Bros., 1969.
Workingman’s Dead, Warner Bros., 1970.
American Beauty, Warner Bros., 1970.
Vintage Dead, Sunflower, 1970.
Historic Dead, Sunflower, 1970.
Grateful Dead, Warner Bros., 1971.
Europe’ 72, Warner Bros., 1972.
History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One: Bear’s Choice, Warner Bros., 1973.
Wake of the Flood, Grateful Dead, 1973.
Skeletons from the Closet, Warner Bros., 1974.
From the Mars Hotel, Grateful Dead, 1974.
Blues for Allah, Grateful Dead, 1975.
Steal Your Face, Grateful Dead, 1976.
Terrapin Station, Arista, 1977.
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been, Warner Bros., 1977.
Shakedown Street, Arista, 1978.
Go To Heaven, Arista, 1980.
Beckoning, Arista, 1981.
Dead Set, Arista, 1981.
In the Dark, Arista, 1987.
Hooteroll, Douglas, 1971.
Garcia, Warner Bros., 1972.
Live at the Keystone, Fantasy, 1973.
Compliments of Garcia, Round, 1974.
Old & In the Way, Round, 1975.
Reflections, Round, 1976.
Cats Under the Stars, Arista, 1978.
Run for the Roses, Arista, 1982.
Grushkin, Paul, Cynthia Barrett, and Jonas Grushkin, The Official Book of the Deadheads, Morrow, 1983.
Jackson, Blair, Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped, Delilah Books, 1983.
McDonough, Jack, San Francisco Rock, Chronicle Books, 1985.
The Rolling Stone Interviews, St. Martin’s, 1982.
Santelli, Robert, Sixes Rock: A Listener’s Guide, Contemporary Books, 1985.
Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1984.
Guitar Player, July 1988.
Musician, No. 36, 1981.
People, December 28, 1987.
Rolling Stone, July 16,1987.
United Press International, August 31, 1987; March 24, 1988.
Garcia, Jerry: 1942-1995: Musician
Jerry Garcia: 1942-1995: Musician
When Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995, at the age of 53, there was an outpouring of grief from longtime fans of the Grateful Dead. David Gates wrote in Newsweek, "If Garcia didn't get his threescore and ten, he still made more music, touched more hearts and lifted more spirits than seemed humanly possible." Although the band had never won mainstream success, a hardcore following known as "Deadheads" helped to make the group one of the top ten grossing concert bands during the late 1980s and early 1990s. While many fans referred to Garcia as the band's leader, he continually dismissed his leadership role.
Traded in Accordion for Guitar
Jerome John Garcia was born in Children's Hospital in San Francisco on August 1, 1942. His grandfather, Manuel Garcia, was an electrician who had immigrated from La Coruña, Spain, to San Francisco after World War I. His father, Jose "Joe" Garcia, was a bandleader, and had married Ruth Marie Clifford, his second wife, in 1935. "Jerry" Garcia, the second of two boys, had been named after his father's favorite composer, Jerome Kern. Both of his parents were also musicians; his father was a clarinetist, his mother a pianist. Joe Garcia owned a saloon and boarding house near the waterfront, and the family was prosperous for the first several years of Jerry Garcia's life.
The family's fortunes changed abruptly when Joe Garcia drowned on a fishing trip in northern California, leaving his wife to operate the family's saloon. For the next several years, Jerry Garcia and his brother Clifford moved back and forth between their mother's home and that of their grandparents, Tillie and Bill Clifford. Several months after his father's death, Garcia lost the top two joints of the middle finger on his right hand while helping his grandfather chop wood. He also had asthma, which often forced him to remain in bed, where he watched television and read comics like Tales From the Crypt. When his family moved to Menlo Park, 25 miles from San Francisco, Garcia started listening to KWBR, a rhythm and blues station, and developed a love of music.
When Garcia turned 15, his mother gave him a Neapolitan accordion for his birthday. He convinced her to trade it for a Danelectro guitar that he had seen in a pawnshop window. He had taken piano lessons earlier, but had shown little interest in formal training; now he practiced all the time. He attended Denman Junior High School and Balboa High School, and worked at his family's saloon washing dishes and stocking supplies in his spare time. He also enrolled in an art class at the California School of Fine Arts (later San Francisco Art Institute) on weekends. His teacher, Wally Hedrick, was instrumental in introducing him to the city's bohemian scene. Garcia was soon familiar with beatnik hangouts like the Coexistence Bagel Shop, where he saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti read, and City Lights Bookstore, where he bought a copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
At a Glance . . .
Born Jerome John Garcia on August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, CA; died on August 9, 1995, in San Francisco, CA; son of Jose (a bandleader) and Ruth Marie (a nurse; maiden name, Clifford) Garcia; married Sarah Ruppenthal (divorced); married Carolyn Adams (divorced); married Deborah Koons; children: Heather (first marriage), Annabelle and Teresa (second marriage), Keelin (mother, Manasha Matheson).
Career: Began playing guitar at age 15; joined a variety of bands, early 1960s; formed electric blues band, the Warlocks, 1965; co-founded Grateful Dead, 1965-95; recorded first solo album, Garcia, 1971; performed and recorded with New Riders of the Purple Sage and Old and In the Way, early-to-mid 1970s; recorded Reflections, 1976; toured with Jerry Garcia Band, 1970s-90s; recorded with David Grisman, 1990s; performed last show with Grateful Dead, July 9, 1995.
Developed Love of Folk Music
In 1959 Garcia and his family moved to Cazadero, 80 miles north of San Francisco, and he joined a band called the Chords at Sebastopol's Analy High School. His mother had hoped the move would improve Garcia's performance in school, but it didn't. After an arrest for stealing his mother's car, he was left with two choices: a sentence in jail or a stint in the army. He chose the army, and after basic training at Fort Ord near Monterey, California, he was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. During that time Garcia continued to play guitar and developed a love of folk music, a craze which was then sweeping the United States. As with school, however, Garcia got in trouble for being absent without official leave (AWOL) and was given a general discharge from the army in 1961. "They didn't say that I was pathologically antiauthoritarian," Garcia told Ben Fong-Torres in People, "but I guess that was out of kindness."
After his discharge Garcia moved to East Palo Alto, where he became involved with a bohemian crowd. He was in a car accident in 1961 with several friends and, while his injuries were minor, he was deeply affected by the death of his friend Paul Speegle in the accident. "He would still be undisciplined," wrote Dennis McNally in Long Strange Trip, "but now he would become obsessive. The guitar would become an extension of his hands, ears, and mind, and for years few would remember him without an instrument in his hands." In 1961 he also met Robert Hunter, a lifelong friend and future co-writer. They performed for a short time as Bob and Jerry, playing folksongs they had learned from the Anthology of American Folk Music. By 1962 Garcia had also learned the banjo, and he joined a number of bands including the Hart Valley Drifters and the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers.
Garcia married Sarah Ruppenthal in May of 1963, and they had a daughter, Heather. By 1964 he had formed the Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions with two future Grateful Dead members. Ron McKernan, nicknamed Pigpen after a character in the Peanuts comic strip, played harmonica and sang, while Bob Weir played a washtub bass and jug. At McKernan's insistence, Garcia and Weir would switch to electric guitars the following year and the band, re-christened as the Warlocks, specialized in electric blues. Bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzman also joined, and the band performed at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests in 1965-66.
Settled in San Francisco
After learning that another band was also called the Warlocks, the group changed its name. A number of names had been suggested when Garcia picked up a dictionary, opened it, and singled out the phrase "grateful dead." The name would stick for the next 30 years. Garcia left his wife and child when he moved into the band's communal house at 710 Asbury Street in San Francisco. There, Carolyn Adams, known as Mountain Girl, joined him and the couple eventually married and had two children, Annabelle and Teresa. Over the next two years, the band developed a reputation in San Francisco, performing frequently at the Avalon Ballroom and at the Fillmore. In 1967 the band recorded its self-titled debut for Warner Records.
Garcia's views about music evolved rapidly during this time period, primarily due to his first experience with LSD in April of 1965 when the drug was still legal. While Garcia would later have multiple problems due to heroin addiction, he believed his early experiences with marijuana and hallucinogenics were mind expanding. "All you have to do is take this little pill, and it's a different world," he told Fong-Torres. "As far as I was concerned, it was tremendously liberating."
In 1970 Garcia and Hunter's songwriting matured on two of the Grateful Dead's most enduring albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. A number of Garcia/Hunter songs—"Uncle John's Band," "Ripple," "Casey Jones," and "Friend of the Devil"—remained staples in the band's repertoire for the remainder of its career. "Workingman's Dead remains the crucial studio work in the band's entire oeuvre," wrote Joel Selvin and Gary Graff in Music Hound Folk. McNally wrote of American Beauty, "The songs were not only exquisite, their performances were illuminated by an inner light born of sorrow." Some observers believed that Garcia's emotional vocals on the latter album reflected his response to his mother's death in 1970.
Life With the Grateful Dead
For the next 25 years, much of Garcia's life would revolve around his membership in the Grateful Dead. The band toured frequently, sometimes playing more than 100 shows a year, and continued to record a steady stream of albums. Garcia, however, always remained involved in various musical side projects. In the early 1970s he played banjo in the group Old and in the Way with Peter Rowan and David Grisman, and steel guitar with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. He recorded his first solo album, Garcia, in 1971, and when the Grateful Dead wasn't touring, he performed with the Jerry Garcia Band. In 1972 the Grateful Dead left Warner Brothers and issued its own albums for several years, and then took an 18-month hiatus from 1974-76. In the late 1970s the Grateful Dead signed to Arista and recorded Terrapin Station, Shakedown Street, and Go To Heaven, and in 1978 they traveled to Egypt to perform near the Great Pyramids during a lunar eclipse.
During the 1980s a number of bad habits began to catch up with Garcia. "Hard drugs had become a day-to-day reality in Garcia's life," wrote Fong-Torres of People Magazine, who added that "the notion of mind exploration had been replaced with the simple, pathetic need for a fix." Members of the Grateful Dead confronted their lead guitarist at his house about his drug use in 1984, and he agreed to seek help. In January of 1985, while Garcia was on his way to a clinic, a police officer found heroin and cocaine in his BMW. Garcia appeared in court a month later and was assigned to counseling. By the summer of 1986, he was clean of drugs, but he continued to have health problems and feel sluggish; in August of 1986 he went into a diabetic coma. "I started feeling like the vegetable kingdom was speaking to me," he was quoted in Long Strange Trip. "It was communicating in comic dialect in iambic pentameter."
After a close call with death, Garcia was forced to relearn his motor coordination, including his guitar skills. By the fall of 1986, he had returned to touring with the Jerry Garcia Band and by December he was performing with the Grateful Dead. During the summer of 1987, the Grateful Dead released its first studio album in seven years, In the Dark, and was surprised when "Touch of Gray," a new song off the album by Hunter and Garcia, reached number nine on Billboard. The band went onto film a video for "Touch of Gray" that went into heavy rotation on Music Television (MTV), sparking a whole new generation of fans for the music of Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Garcia also began a relationship with Manasha Matheson, and they had a daughter, Keelin.
Inducted Into Hall of Fame
During the 1990s Garcia experienced several artistic triumphs. He attended numerous sessions at David Grisman's basement studio, resulting in several highly regarded acoustic albums. In 1994 the Grateful Dead was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On Valentine's Day Garcia married Deborah Koons, an old friend and filmmaker. Despite his successes, Garcia continued to battle both health and drug problems.
In 1992 Garcia collapsed from exhaustion. "His weight had ballooned, and he had no energy," McNally wrote. "On tour he would ask people to carry his rather light briefcase up the stage stairs for him." In 1995 he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, but left after two weeks to celebrate his 53rd birthday. A week later he entered a private clinic in San Francisco. At around four A.M. on August 9th, a security guard noticed that Garcia had stopped snoring. He was pronounced dead, and the cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
Garcia's legacy, like that of John Lennon or Elvis, is difficult to assess because it has continued to grow after the musician's death. In San Francisco the mayor flew a tie-die flag at half-mast, and vigils were held in cities throughout the United States. Bob Dylan, Ornette Coleman, and President Clinton paid tribute to Garcia. Grateful Dead Productions continued to release live recordings from the vault, and Grisman's Acoustic Disc label issued several posthumous albums along with a film titled Grateful Dawg. "Because he saw life as a long jam session leading to harmony or anarchy, he died—long after he might have, long before he should have," wrote Richard Corliss in Time. "But as a force for good music and good vibes, Garcia can go to heaven and keep on truckin'. Like the song says, he will survive."
(With the Grateful Dead) Workingman's Dead, Warner, 1970.
(With the Grateful Dead) American Beauty, Warner, 1970.
Garcia, Warner, 1971.
(With New Riders of the Purple Sage) New Riders of the Purple Sage, Columbia, 1971.
(With Old and In the Way) Old and In the Way, Rykodisc, 1975.
Reflections, Grateful Dead, 1976.
(With Jerry Garcia Band) Cats Under the Stars, Arista, 1978.
(With Jerry Garcia Band) Almost Acoustic, Grateful Dead, 1989.
(With David Grisman) Jerry Garcia/David Grisman, Acoustic Disc, 1991.
McNally, Dennis, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Broadway Books, 2002, pp. 25, 378, 556, 592.
Newsweek, August 21, 1995, p. 46.
People, September 1, 1995, p. 26.
Time, August 21, 1995, p. 60.
"Jerry Garcia," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 3, 2003).
"Jerry Garcia," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 3, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
The rock and roll industry has seen its share of bands and singers. What is remarkable about the Grateful Dead is that the band has been performing since the 1960s and its following endured for several decades. At the head of this long-lived group was singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia (1942-1995).
The band has become a benchmark in music history. According to Rolling Stone, the Grateful Dead was ranked 29th among the 40 highest-paid entertainers in 1989, with an estimated annual income of $12.5 million. "[A]fter decades of touring with a consistency and success unmatched by any other band, the Grateful Dead have a relationship with the Deadheads—the fans who follow the band with a near-religious Fervor—that is unique in the history of rock and roll," Fred Goodman wrote in Rolling Stone in 1989. "On the eve of the release of their 22nd album, Built to Last, the Grateful Dead stand as an American dynasty like no other."
Heading that dynasty, Garcia was as much a product as a shaper of his time. On August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Jerome John Garcia was born to a family of music lovers. His father, Joe Garcia, was a ballroom jazz musician and bartender who came to California from Spain in the 1920s. His mother, Ruth Garcia, was a Swedish-Irish nurse whose family immigrated to San Francisco during the gold rush. In a 1991 interview with James Henke of Rolling Stone, Garcia talked about his father. "He played woodwinds, clarinet mainly. He was a jazz musician. He had a big band—like a 40-piece orchestra-in the 1930s. The whole deal, with strings, harpist, vocalist. I remember him playing me to sleep at night. I just barely remember the sound of it. But I'm named after Jerome Kern, that's how seriously the bug bit my father."
When he was just five years old, Garcia lost his father in an accident. "He was fishing in one of those rivers in California, like the American River," Garcia recalled in the interview with Henke. "We were on vacation, and I was there on the shore. I actually watched him go under. It was horrible. I was just a little kid, and I didn't really understand what was going on, but then, of course, my life changed. It was one of those things that afflicted my childhood. I had all my bad luck back then, when I was young and could deal with it." The other childhood trauma was the loss of a finger on his right hand. "[T]hat happened when I was five too. My brother Tiff and I were chopping wood. And I would pick up the pieces of wood, take my hand away, pick up another piece, and boom! It was an accident." The shock, however, came when the bandages were removed and young Garcia realized his finger was truly gone. "But after that, it was okay, because as a kid, if you have a few little things that make you different, it's a good score. So I got a lot of mileage out of having a missing finger when I was a kid."
After his father's death, he lived for a time with his grandparents and then returned to live with his mother, who took over her husband's bar. Located next to the Sailor's Union of the Pacific, the bar was frequented by sailors who traveled around the world. "They went out and sailed to the Far East and the Persian Gulf, the Philippines and all that, and they would come and hang out in the bar all day long and talk to me when I was a kid. It was great fun for me," he told Henke. One sailor, an old sea captain, he remembers distinctly: "he'd tell me these incredible stories. And that was one of the reasons I couldn't stay in school. School was a little too boring. And these guys also gave me a glimpse into a larger universe that seemed so attractive and fun, and you know, crazy ."
Ironically, Garcia's first foray into music was boring as well. He took piano lessons for eight years and hated them. "I took lessons on the piano forever— my mom made me," he said to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone in 1993. "None of it sank in. I never did learn how to sight-read for the piano—I bluffed my way through. I was attracted to music very early on, but it never occurred to me it was something to do—in the sense that when I grow up I'm going to be a musician." And then Garcia's older brother started tuning in to early rock and roll and rhythm and blues. "When I was 15, I fell madly in love with rock and roll. Chuck Berry was happening big, Elvis Presley—not so much Elvis Presley, but I really liked Gene Vincent, you know, the other rock guys, the guys that played guitar good: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley." At that time, the electric guitar was a new phenomenon and as soon as he heard it, Garcia was hooked. He asked his mother for one for his birthday and started on the road he still travels. "I was just beside myself with joy. I started banging away on it without having the slightest idea of anything. I didn't know how to tune it up…. I never took any lessons. I don't even think there was anybody teaching around the Bay area. I mean electric guitar was like from Mars, you know. You didn't see 'em even."
The Birth of a Band
Lessons or no lessons, Garcia learned his way around the instrument and immersed himself in the radical music of the day. "Rock and roll wasn't cool, but I loved rock and roll," he explained to DeCurtis about his formative years. "I used to have these fantasies about 'I want rock and roll to be like respectable music.' I wanted it to be like art…. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art—'art' as opposed to 'popular culture."' Independent and strong-willed, Garcia took to spending time with a rowdy group of San Francisco teenagers. At 17, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in San Francisco. Garcia, with idle time on his hands, practiced acoustic guitar in the barracks, learned songs over the radio by ear, and copied finger positions from books.
After nine months, he left the army and took to living in his car, playing music, and absorbing the "scene" of San Francisco in the early 1960s. At about that time, he went to the Art Institute in San Francisco to study painting. "I wasn't playing guitar so much—I'd picked up the five-string banjo in the army," he told Bill Barich of New Yorker in 1993. "I listened to records, slowed them down with a finger, and learned the tunings note by note. By then I was getting pretty serious about music—especially about bluegrass." He and a friend toured numerous bluegrass festivals in the Midwest and absorbed the unique sound of the music. Although he made a little money giving lessons, he often lived in his car in a vacant lot in East Palo Alto, California. He began to meet other young musicians, like folk guitarist Bob Weir and blues-harmonica player and organist Ron McKernan. They formed the Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions in 1964. Once the Beatles invaded the United States, Garcia's band re-formed as an electric blues band, the Warlocks, in 1965.
At the same time, radical events were taking place in San Francisco. Ken Kesey, who was taking part in government-sponsored LSD tests, began throwing parties called the Acid Tests. It was at these energetic happenings that the Warlocks developed the sound that became known as psychedelic rock. "What the Acid Test really was was formlessness," Garcia explained to Rolling Stone's Goodman in 1989. "It's like the study of chaos. It may be that you have to destroy forms or ignore them in order to see other levels of organization. For me, that's what the Acid Test was—that's what it was a metaphor for. If you go into a situation with nothing planned, sometimes wonderful stuff happens. LSD was certainly an important part of that for me." Late in 1965 the band changed its name after Garcia picked "grateful dead" at random from a dictionary. Essentially ignoring the definition included, the band members chose to interpret the new phrase as signifying "cyclical change." In 1966 the band members moved into a house in San Francisco to live communally and performed at well-known music halls. In addition, the Grateful Dead also performed free concerts at Golden Gate Park to contrast the business attitudes that were beginning to pervade rock and roll and threaten their anarchist, hippie lifestyle.
Their first album, The Grateful Dead, was released by Warner Brothers in 1967. The band's early experience with a large studio corporation and extensive touring was not a happy one. "Their first four albums had not sold well, leaving them in debt to their label, Warner Brothers," Barich of New Yorker reported. "But they recouped with two straight hits in 1970, Workingman's Dead, and American Beauty, which were both primarily acoustic and were distinguished by the richness of the songs and the band's clean, crisp playing." The Grateful Dead used their success to leave the label, buy a small house, and begin handling their own business affairs. Barich continued, "In 1972, they tipped off their fans to their new free-form operation by inserting an apparently harmless message in the liner notes of a live album recorded on tour in Europe. "DEAD FREAKS UNITE!' the message read. "Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we'll keep you informed.' With one gesture, the Dead eliminated the barriers between themselves and their audience, and established a direct flow of communication." At last count, Barich noted, there were 90,000 Deadheads—as their fans are known—on the U.S. mailing list and 20,000 on the European one.
The Golden Years
Members of the Grateful Dead, Garcia included, survived the turbulent 1960s, the wrath of critics and fans alike—when albums and concerts did not hold up to expectations—drug abuse, the death of some band members, and several decades of changing musical tastes. Yet Garcia's band was still going strong in what he termed their "golden years," the 1990s.
Remarking on the appeal of the Grateful Dead to succeeding generations, Garcia commented to Henke in the 1991 Rolling Stone interview that "here we are, we're getting into our fifties, and where are these people who keep coming to our shows coming from? What do they find so fascinating about these middle-aged bastards playing basically the same thing we've always played? I mean, what do seventeen-year-olds find fascinating about this? I can't believe it's just because they're interested in picking up on the 1960s, which they missed. Come on, hey, the 1960s were fun, but shit, it's fun being young, you know; nobody really misses out on that. So what is it about the 1990s in America? There must be a dearth of fun out there in America. Or adventure. Maybe that's it, maybe we're just one of the last adventures in America."
When speaking with Barich of New Yorker, Garcia offered another angle from which to understand the band's success: He thinks that the band affords its followers "a tear in reality'—a brief vacation from the mundane," Barich wrote. "The Dead design their shows and their music to be ambiguous and open-ended … they intend an evening to be both reactive and interactive. A Deadhead gets to join in on an experiment that may or may not be going anywhere in particular, and such an opportunity is rare in American life." In addition to the limitless possibilities of their music, the Grateful Dead also offer a spiritual release for both band members and fans. Garcia explained to Henke in 1991: "I thought that maybe this idea of transforming principle has something to do with it. Because when we are on stage, what we really want … [is] to be transformed from ordinary players into extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. And the audience wants to be transformed from whatever ordinary reality they may be in to something a little wider, something that enlarges them. So maybe it's that notion of transformation, a seat-of-the-pants shamanism, that is something to do with why the Grateful Dead keep pulling them in. Maybe that's what keeps the audience coming back and what keeps fascinating us, too."
Success came at a price, however. In July 1986, Garcia went into a diabetic coma for a day. He has struggled with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and weight problems as well. In the early 1990s, the guitarist had trimmed down and began following a better diet and healthier lifestyle. He branched into the clothing business with a line of ties based on his drawings—even though Garcia never wore a tie. Despite valiant efforts to improve his health, too much damage had already been done. On August 9, 1995 Garcia died of heart failure in Forest Knolls, California.
From the creative mind of a San Francisco child who hated school and homework grew one of the most influential bands in decades. Despite his abhorrence of school, Garcia was a scholarly man and perhaps that has been an intrinsic part of his appeal. "I owe a lot of who I am and what I've been and what I've done to the beatniks of the 1950s and to the poetry and art and music that I've come in contact with," he said to Henke in 1991. "I feel like I'm part of a continuous line of a certain thing in American culture, of a root."
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