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Jerome “Jerry” John Garcia, named for American popular music composer Jerome Kern, is largely remembered as the leader of the Grateful Dead, a band that boasted 30 years of successful music and a cult-like following, known as the Deadheads, rivaling that of any other band, then or today. Though Garcia fervently tried to deny the title of “leader” or “head” of the band, he was that and much more.
Garcia was born in San Francisco on August 1, 1942. After a traumatic childhood, losing two-thirds of his right middle finger in a wood chopping accident at the age of 4, and then his father drowning when Jerry was 5, he was moved around a lot by his mother. He was bored with and often in trouble at school. He “hated” piano lessons but was elated when he received a guitar for his 15th birthday, after much begging. "Actually," Garcia told Rolling Stone, "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."
He spent the following summer at the San Francisco Institute of Arts, where his instructor, Wally Hedrick, a prominent Beat artist, not only encouraged his artistic talent but his interest in the Beat Generation as well.
Still, Garcia, in his own words, “was a f—k-up....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."
At 17, Garcia dropped out of school and joined the Army, having been given a choice of that or jail, after stealing his mother’s car. He did not fare well in the Army either, and was unceremoniously discharged that same year.
Garcia taught himself how to play guitar and banjo by copying finger positions in books and learning songs by ear listening to the radio. He told the New Yorker in an interview, “I listened to records, slowed them down with a finger, and learned the tunings note by note.”
At 18, Garcia moved to Palo Alto and “lived” much of the time out of his car, while he played in the coffeehouses around Stanford University and gave lessons at a local music shop. His musical endeavors were in folk, country and bluegrass, and he played with many of the musicians he had met in the area.
In 1964, Garcia and two other musicians formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. But, having fallen in love with rock and roll when his brother introduce it to him at 15, it only took the arrival of the Beatles that same year for the band to switch to electric instruments and re-group as the Warlocks in early ‘65.
It was about this time that Ken Kesey, future author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a friend of Robert Hunter’s, future lyricist for the Dead and friend to Garcia, began holding his LSD parties, which came to be called the Acid Tests. The Warlocks were co-sponsors, participants, as well as entertainment for these parties. By ‘66, they were taking the parties on the road.
The music the band was now playing was dubbed “psychedelic rock.”
After learning of another band bearing the name The Warlocks, the story goes that Garcia picked up a dictionary and opened it to a page where the first entry he saw was “grateful dead.” And after some discussion, the Grateful Dead was born.
The band members of the Grateful Dead took up residence at 710 Ashbury Street, which soon became a vital part of the infamous Haight Ashbury district of the ‘60s, a place that in a sense united and in another sense passed the torch between the Beat and the Hippie countercultures of the time. Garcia became a popular spokesman among the people for the Hippie movement.
Garcia’s guitar playing style stemmed from the influences of jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock and folk. He was known for going into long and soulful improvisational jams, never playing a song the same way twice. However, he once said in an interview, “There's no such thing as improvisation. There's only composition. Only you do it quickly; you're composing on the spot.”
One of the Grateful Dead’s most recognized songs is “Truckin’.” It was one of their first charting songs, never making it past #64 on the pop singles chart, but staying there for eight weeks, nonetheless. It was written by Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter and epitomizes the band. It was named a “national treasure” in 1997 by the United States Library of Congress.
A band with a 30-year longevity and unmatched fan base was not enough for Garcia. Perhaps this was due to a very serious car accident in 1961, where he was thrown through the windshield and broke his collarbone, and another passenger in the car was killed. He once said, “That's where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life. It was like a second chance. Then I got serious."
Besides his work with the Dead, Garcia was also in recording sessions with other musicians and bands. He was the unnamed (for contractual reasons) producer of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. His arrangements, performance and even album title suggestion led them to credit him as “musical and spiritual advisor.”
Having taken up pedal steel guitar in the late ‘60s, Garcia is well lauded (though some think undeservedly) for his pedal steel performance on Crosby Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children” on their 1970 Deja Vu album. It is said that Garcia made a deal with CSNY that he would play pedal steel for them if they would teach the Dead how to harmonize.
In late 1969, Garcia helped form a psychedelic country rock band called New Riders of the Purple Sage. He played pedal steel with this group; a group that would go on to open concerts for the Grateful Dead. By ‘71, Garcia’s schedule got so full that he had to bow out as the pedal steel guitarist of the band, but he continued to work with them through the years, producing and performing when his schedule allowed.
Meanwhile, the Grateful Dead began exploring a country-rock sound of their own which was prevalent on two of their albums, both released in 1970, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Around this same time, Garcia started playing with yet a third band, a pickup band in a San Francisco club, first co-led by keyboardist Howard Wales. They released their first album, credited to Garcia and Wales, in 1971.
In 1972, Garcia released his first solo album.
Garcia’s club band, now co-led by keyboardist Merl Saunders, released another album, credited to Garcia and Saunders, and they also played on the next two albums of Saunders’s, released in ‘73 and ‘74. This band eventually took the name the Legion of Mary. They played regularly until they disbanded in the summer of ‘75.
In 1973, Garcia founded a bluegrass band called Old & In the Way. They were together for one year and produced one live self-titled album which was released in 1975. The band has lived on however, through fans. More of their recordings have been released since Garcia’s death.
The “Deadhead” following that would remain unequaled and ensure the longevity of the band through Garcia’s lifetime was also born during this period, by the simple, yet ingenious, message the Grateful Dead included in the liner notes of a live album from a European tour in ‘72. The message read, “DEAD FREAKS UNITE! Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we'll keep you informed.” This simple gesture broke down all the barriers that could ever exist between the band members and their fans and created a bond no band before or since has experienced. Still, there was something more magical to the band than just a well placed invitation.
The Grateful Dead, moving toward a more eclectic style of music, continued to put out albums at least yearly and maintained a heavy touring schedule. In 1974, they decided to take a short break from performing.
Garcia released his second solo album.
Even though they weren’t performing, the Dead put out another studio album in ‘75, and then Garcia put together another band, this time called The Jerry Garcia Band, better known to fans as The Garcia Band. The band became second in Garcia’s priorities after the Dead. The members changed through the years, except for Garcia, of course, and they performed and recorded when they could over their 20 years of existence.
The Jerry Garcia Band, like the Dead, employed extended improvisation and were innovators of jam band music. Their music had the same influences as the Dead. In all of his endeavors, Garcia did not shy away from doing covers. He especially enjoyed covering Bob Dylan.
The late ‘70s saw Garcia editing concert footage for The Grateful Dead Movie, composing and performing for another solo album and for The Grateful Dead, and reincarnating The Jerry Garcia Band with several different lineups, one as a jazz band called Reconstruction that played the Bay area for about nine months. The Dead toured extensively during this period and Garcia began using heroin and cocaine.
In the early 80s, only one studio album and a set of live albums were released by the Dead along with Garcia’s fifth solo album. Though the Grateful Dead continued to tour, Deadheads began to notice a sluggishness in Garcia’s playing in addition to weight gain. They spoke out through their electronic billboards and hotlines, enough so that the band confronted Garcia, who was now heavily into cocaine and heroin, in an intervention at his home. Garcia was arrested in January of ‘85 for possession of heroin and cocaine, before he had time to act on the promises he made to the band. He did not go to jail, just as he didn’t the two times he was busted in the 70s for possession of psychedelic drugs. Instead, he was ordered to attend rehab and give a benefit concert.
In July of 1986, Garcia, after a grueling tour, fell into a diabetic coma at his home. This served as a wake up call to Garcia, though most of the damage was already done. "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 told Rolling Stone. Garcia had to relearn the guitar, but was back on his feet performing with his bands later that year.
With renewed interest in the Grateful Dead thanks to the 80s-introduced radio format of Classic Rock, the release of what would be their final studio album, In the Dark, in 1987, brought the very long awaited first and only Top 10 single for the band, “Touch of Grey.” It hit No. 9 on the Top 100 and the album hit No. 6 on the Top 200 Billboard charts. The song struck a chord not only with ever faithful Deadheads, but with the adult baby boomers of the time.
In addition to heavy touring with the Grateful Dead as well as with the Jerry Garcia Band over the next several years, Garcia performed shows on Broadway and released live albums with the Jerry Garcia Band, and what would be the final studio album for the Grateful Dead. In 1991, Garcia teamed up again with mandolin player David Grisman, whom he had played with in Old & in the Way back in the 70s. The duo released an album of live recordings and the Jerry Garcia Band released a 2-CD set of live recordings that same year.
In 1992, Garcia collapsed from exhaustion and fell seriously ill, causing the Dead to cancel part of their tour. By 1993, however, he was back to performing with the Jerry Garcia Band, putting out another album with Grisman and fronting the most successful touring band in the U.S. that year, the Grateful Dead, making $45.6 million. He also quit smoking, became a vegetarian, shed 60 pounds, was more focused, devoted more attention to his family, created a line of neckties featuring his art, and was writing some of his best music.
By early 1995, Garcia’s health declined to the point that he would turn down the sound on his amplifier and he sometimes had to be reminded what song he was playing. He began using again to relieve his pain. In July of that year, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic, and only stayed for two weeks of the one month program. Not giving up, however, on August 8, he checked himself into the Serenity Knolls treatment center in Forest Knolls, Calif.
Jerry Garcia died in his sleep, early the next morning, of a heart attack. He was 53 years old. In December of the same year, the Grateful Dead announced the band's dissolution.
Captain Trips, Uncle Jerry and even Father Christmas were a few of the nicknames Garcia was given during his lifetime. He was a product as well as a pioneer of the 60s counterculture, an innovator of “jam” bands and an originator of the San Francisco sound. He was an intelligent, humble and honest man who stayed true to his beliefs, and he taught us that love and peace and fellowship and communion were worthy ideals to exemplify.
In his last interview with Rolling Stone in 1993, Garcia said, “I'm hoping to leave a clean 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.”
Fare-you-well, Jerry Garcia. Fare-you-well.
Image credit: Twitpic