This article appeared in the November 1996 San Francisco Focus
For the last ten years of Jerry Garcia's life, his health and lifestyle were major topics of discussion in the Grateful Dead world. From the innermost sanctum to the far edge of the parking lot and beyond -- the band, its extended family, the Dead's business organization, the businesses that did business with the Dead and the Deadheads, and the legendary community of Grateful Dead fans -- whenever two or more Dead-lovers engaged in conversation, news and gossip about Garcia were of primary interest.
Garcia nearly died from a diabetic coma in July 1986. Following his return to the stage, his health -- and the creative vigor of the Grateful Dead -- fluctuated greatly, alternating between periods of sweet creativity and deeply worrisome spells of forgotten lyrics, vocal problems, weight gain, and retreat from the intrepid musical explorations of the past.
Despite news reports of Garcia eating healthy gourmet food on tour, scuba diving in Hawaii, enjoying his burgeoning career in the visual arts -- and a giddy People magazine spread on his wedding to filmmaker Deborah Koons -- his music just kept getting harder and harder to listen to. Whatever the cause -- addiction to heroin (as the rumors had it) or a loss of interest in the Grateful Dead -- Garcia's failing command of his musical gifts was the subject of great concern and controversy in the Deadhead subculture, where rumor battled with hope and denial.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes, and despite occasional cancellations due to "flu" or "exhaustion," the Dead kept touring, season after season; as one former manager put it, the band had become "addicted to affluence."
As the producer of the Grateful Dead Hour (a nationally syndicated weekly radio program), a member of the online community of Deadheads on the Net, and the author of three books on the subject, I heard most of the rumors and some of the facts; I encountered concern, anger, and denial inside the Dead organization as well as out among the fans. I kept the radio show focused on the music and did what I could to control misinformation in the online world, but as time went by the tale of the tapes became undeniable. Listeners wrote in to request this or that favorite moment from a just-completed tour, and I often felt my heart sink as I evaluated those shows in search of presentable performances.
Giving up hope was not an option. As a friend, fan, and musical disciple, I was in it for the long haul. To the more optimistic among us, Garcia seemed indestructible, having bounced back so many times. The rest of the Grateful Dead seemed to grow in power as Garcia receded, and on those magical occasions when Jerry engaged us musically, he brought us all a few days' peace of mind. Although his stamina was failing and his performances often seemed uninspired, Garcia had immense reserves of good will to draw on: the famously uncritical majority of the audience continued to radiate unconditional love as long as Garcia kept showing up on stage.
This is not your garden-variety rock-star worship we're talking about here. An eloquent guitarist, an engaging vocalist, and a gifted composer/improviser, Garcia was charismatic, articulate, generous, well read, and a born leader. Beginning in the fabled ballrooms of the psychedelic sixties, he and his partners forged a complex and constantly evolving musical continuum, taking chances onstage with the support of an audience as committed to the long haul as the musicians themselves. The fierce intimacy among members of the Dead was shared by the audience, and built a profound sense of mutual belonging over three decades of peak experiences.
So what happened on the morning of August 9, 1995, wasn't just the death of a beloved guitarist: it was the end of a long, strange, intimate and deeply rewarding relationship. Only the most diligent denialists could have been surprised by the news, but it was a painful reckoning just the same -- maybe even more so because we knew it was coming and had tried so hard to wish it away.
The truth -- well, some of the truth -- about Garcia's life has begun to emerge since his death. In Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, Robert Greenfield (co-author of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, the promoter's autobiography) has assembled recollections from sixty-eight witnesses, including the people who did the often heartbreaking work of keeping Garcia's scene together over the years. Greenfield called, wrote and faxed the members of the Dead, but they never responded. What emerges in Dark Star, as Greenfield says, "is a sense of the arc of Jerry's life, separate from the band."
I was first seduced by Garcia's music in 1972, and by his personal charisma in various encounters over the years. So I was hurt and frustrated by his inaccessibility over the last decade or so. He gave me some exhilarating interviews in the early eighties, and he encouraged me to get more involved in the Dead scene as a writer and later as a radio producer. But although he supported me in the contract negotiations to syndicate the Dead's radio show, he refused to be interviewed. It was hard not to take it personally, and so it was with a sad sort of relief that I read Greenfield's concatenated dialog describing the depths of Garcia's struggle over those last years: it seems just about everybody was closed out.
Gans: Reading Dark Star, I got the impression that Jerry didn't enjoy touring with the Dead in the last few years.
Greenfield: The constant conflict in the band was, "Jerry, we're going on the road again." And he would say, "More money, man? Really, what for?" He had no financial incentive to go on the road with the Dead. The Jerry Garcia Band was selling out venues that the Dead had previously sold out. His artwork and ties were earning him money. And he had royalties from Cherry Garcia ice cream. He could have stayed home, made music, and painted. He had to ask himself, "What am I doing here with people who think I'm God, who are thirty years younger than me, who worship me but don't know me?" Jerry talked about it with Laird Grant, who was the Dead's first roadie: "This scares me," Jerry said. "I don't want this. It's too much weight."
Every time Jerry went out on the road with the Dead, it either broke up the relationship he was in or got him involved with heroin again. It's the basic conflict of a musician's life: the thing they do is often the thing that kills them.
Gans: I think the burden on Jerry was on all of them. Nobody wanted to pull the plug on this thing -- especially when it was raking in $50 million a year. The number of people on their payroll was one burden; the hundreds of other people whose income derived from the Grateful Dead was another planet's worth of weight; and then there was the happiness that the band brought to hundreds of thousands of people in the world.
Greenfield: Still, what's inscrutable about Garcia is his incredible artistic nature, and what drove him to heroin. Everybody who loved him, and everybody who knew him, liked him less when he was on heroin -- and told him so. [Famed LSD chemist] Owsley went right into his face and said, "You know, Jerry, you're not very nice when you're on this drug "
He didn't inject it; he always smoked this very pure form of it. And he constantly tried to get straight. His coma in '86 marks the end of his darkest period, when he really lived in a drug stupor. He told Justin Kreutzmann [son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann] that had it not been for the band, he would have been a guy on a street corner who would do anything to score. For the last ten years of his life, you get this back-and-forth: I'm clean, I'm up, I'm back in it.
Gans: And you can hear that in the music. Sometimes he was sharp and animated, and other times he was vague and disconnected.
Greenfield: This is a guy who carried a lot of emotional weight. At age four, his older brother Tiff chops his finger off. It's an accident; they're playing with an ax. So he's maimed -- a kid has to be sensitive about that. A year later, Jerry's on the beach when his father drowns. Jerry's mother loves him, but she's running a bar. She remarries, an ex-stevedore who can't really relate to Jerry or his brother. And Jerry is cast adrift. He's on his own from the time he's eight or nine, and he doesn't even finish high school. He joins the army at the age of sixteen, but he's such a bad soldier it's hysterical. "Private Garcia, you left the tank in the . . . " "Oh, I'm sorry." "Private Garcia, you were supposed to be back here three days ago." "I'm sorry." He apologized his way out of the army.
Now he's seventeen and living in his car in Palo Alto. You could make a good argument that everything recognized as a unique part of American culture lumped under the term "the sixties" came out of Palo Alto. Ken Kesey's at Stanford, and Robert Stone and all these high-powered writers are getting weird. And Jerry is part of this street scene. Jerry said to me, "The Kesey people were Apollonian and we were Dionysian." In other words, these people don't have any limits. And they're taking acid before anybody. They were living in a beatnik culture of coffee houses and literature. Jerry was quoting from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. He had sections of it memorized. This guy was a self-educated, full-blown intellectual who was dedicating his life to making music.
There was no place for somebody like Jerry to go at that point. No one who wasn't alive in the early sixties can imagine what show business was like. It was completely straight. It was all, you know, The Ed Sullivan Show. There was no Dylan yet. So there was not much Jerry could do.
I don't think people understand that Jerry didn't have to take LSD to become Jerry. This guy was fully formed by the time he got himself thrown out of the army. And everybody who met him knew this. When [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh met Jerry, he said, "I don't like him. He's too powerful." Jerry had so much charisma. People always looked at him. They always wanted to hang out with him.
A story I really like from that era is told by Sandy Rothman, a bluegrass musician who played with Jerry. Jerry was working at Dana Morgan Music, and a guy came into the music store, took a guitar off the wall and just started playing really fast and furious. Then all of a sudden he stopped. He put the guitar back on the wall and Jerry said, "What's the matter, man? Run out of talent?" He had this cutting edge. He was a very sardonic guy. Poked fun at every thing. Saw through it all.
Gans: Yet the public image of Jerry Garcia is this easygoing, soulful, gentle and generous man.
Greenfield: To the outside world, Jerry was the Dead. Everybody knew he was the leader. But he didn't want to be the leader. And that's where the famous Grateful Dead way of making decisions came about: "If everybody doesn't want to do it, we're not going to do it." But the reason they got to that concept wasn't so much the hippie social experiment but the fact that Jerry, the one guy who ran the show, who knew more about business than anybody, refused to make decisions on his own.
Marmaduke [John Dawson] of the New Riders of the Purple Sage said something I thought was hysterical: "Every hippie had to talk to Jerry. They either had a trip they wanted to lay on him or a trip they needed him to explain." And Jerry would do it. He would talk to a kid with long hair from Indiana with no shoes, even though there were twelve lawyers in the other room who needed to know if he was going to sign a record deal. There's something sweet about that. This guy was very democratic, with a small "d." He was not your typical rock star.
Gans: You spoke to a lot of the women in Jerry's life. What did you learn from them?
Greenfield: Every woman who was with Jerry understood that the Grateful Dead was the "other woman." He certainly had a lot of incredible women who were willing to give him their lives. But it wasn't enough.
The high point of Jerry's life -- creatively and personally -- was when he lived in Stinson Beach in the early seventies. He had the best house in town, he was living with [ex-Merry Prankster] Mountain Girl, they had two kids, and he was playing acoustic music with Peter Rowan and David Grisman. Everybody who met him during that period said, "Wow, this guy's got it wired." But then he started seeing another woman.
Jerry had so many faces, so many different personalities. I don't think anybody close to him understood him. Everybody was a little scared of him. You didn't want to get on Jerry's wrong side, because he could cut you so badly it would take a long time to recover.
His ability to intimidate was matched by his ability to inspire. John Perry Barlow [Grateful Dead songwriting partner] talks about being with the Dead at the funeral of Brent Mydland [the Grateful Dead keyboardist who died of a drug overdose in 1990]. They're acting like a bunch of high school basketball players between the halves. They're cracking jokes, playing grab-ass, and then they carry the casket into the hearse. Barlow, who goes in and out of the Dead scene, is just horrified by this behavior. But then he gets into the limo with Jerry, and as soon as Jerry's alone, he becomes the caring, sensitive guy. Barlow says to him, "You know, Jerry, I don't think I can do this anymore. What's happening is the Deadheads are becoming all sweetness and light, love and peace, good vibes and let's-help-each-other, and we're becoming really dark. I think I'd rather be out front in the audience than on stage." And Jerry says, "You know, man, I think I would, too. But I can't."
Gans: I have a friend who worked with the Grateful Dead many years ago. I was recounting my latest soul-wrenching attempt to do something reasonable with the Grateful Dead organization, and he said to me, "That's why I got out of there twenty years ago. I realized that Jerry was never going to control his people, and I couldn't stand to work in that sort of craziness."
Greenfield: The Dead hated to fire anybody. They almost never threw anybody out. You practically have to die to get booted out. When Pigpen died, Garcia said, "That's not Pigpen in that coffin. That's the Grateful Dead." But two weeks later they were back in the studio and out on the road. When it came to being survivors, they were experts.
Jon McIntire [manager from the late sixties to the mid-eighties] points out that the great contribution of the hippie culture was this projection of joy. The beatnik thing was black, cynical, and cold. It was amphetamines and black coffee, and nobody was nice to you. If you look at the way those people -- Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady -- treated each other, it wasn't so great. But Jerry was interested in doing something else. He was interested in creating art out of happiness, out of ecstasy, out of pleasure. When Jerry was doing that, he could bring everybody into that space. That's the basis of the Deadhead phenomenon.
Gans: Somewhere along the line, it seems,Jerry stopped enjoying it. I saw him being pretty surly with people at times in the nineties. When do you think it stopped being fun for him?
Greenfield: I would say the turning point comes when Garcia is given what he is told is a very pure form of opium -- which turns out to be Persian heroin. And he likes it. He really likes it. Garcia didn't do anything moderately. He didn't eat moderately and he didn't smoke moderately. But he didn't die from heroin. He was a diabetic who ate sugar all the time. He was someone with emphysema who smoked. So Jerry doesn't just smoke this form of heroin occasionally and feel good about it. He goes so far into this that it's amazing he survived as long as he did. He was so bloated he couldn't get his shoes on.
When Jon McIntire, who hadn't seen Jerry for a couple years, came to visit him, Jerry opened the door and said, "I've been a stone junkie for the past few years. What have you been doing?"
But even in that condition, Jerry could still get the drop on anyone. Barlow visited him during the same period and told Jerry that since he was almost dead anyway, he should just go ahead and finish the job. Garcia didn't say a word. Instead, he got up, walked down the hall, went into his room and put a sign on the door: "Do Not Disturb."