A woman danced on the riverbank as Weir, garlanded in marigolds, sprinkled Garcia's ashes into the Ganges

Grateful Dead rock star makes his last trip out of sight of Deadheads, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi
Click to follow
The Independent Online
What a long, strange trip it's been for Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist of the rock band the Grateful Dead, and recently dead himself. After last Thursday's lunar eclipse ended, and dawn broke on the upper Ganges, Garcia's wife, Deborah, and another member of the band, Bob Weir, waded out and released Garcia's ashes into the swirling, jade-green waters of India's sacred river.

A few peacocks shrieked from bushes on the far bank of the Ganges but, to the relief of the widow and Mr Weir, the sprinkling of Garcia's ashes was carried out in utmost secrecy. Garcia, who died at 53 of a heart attack, had been a fuzzy-bearded rock icon since the late Sixties, when the Grateful Dead emerged as the most innovative and durable band of the San Francisco psychedelic counter-culture.

Garcia's wife was worried that if word had leaked out back in the United States and in Europe about the ceremony, thousands of fans, nicknamed "Deadheads", might flock to India and muddy up the private offering. Even in the 80s and 90s, Deadheads worshipped the band as though they were not mere musicians but tribal gods.

Like pilgrims, the Deadheads followed the band everywhere, going to hundreds of concerts. Often high on LSD, some Deadheads grew convinced that while listening to the band's spacy jammings they had religious experiences - or communicated with UFOs. Garcia regarded the Deadheads' adoration as "a little silly". It was a stampede to India by this type of fan that Garcia's widow and fellow band member had wanted to avoid last Thursday when they entered the icy Ganges near Rishikesh, where the river flowed out of the Himalayas into the plains.

The other band members who stayed behind in California had written farewell messages to Jerry. According to witnesses, Mr Weir and Mrs Garcia - the guitarist's fourth wife - poured some of Garcia's ashes on each message before setting it adrift in the currents. Mr Weir's own paper was blank when he sprinkled on his best friend's ashes. "May you have peace, Jerry, and travel to the stars," said Mr Weir, whose bare chest was garlanded with marigolds as he stood waist-deep in the Ganges.

Earlier, during the eclipse, Weir had picked up a guitar during the eclipse and began strumming a Grateful Dead tune, "Friend of the Devil", but grief welled up and he couldn't finish. He and Garcia had kept the Grateful Dead, one of the world's most successful rock bands, together for more than 30 years. Garcia's wife, a filmmaker, read out a poem.

A woman named Molly who had been one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, the pioneers of the "Acid-Test" happenings that turned on the West Coast to psychedelia in the Sixties, danced on the riverbank as Garcia's remains dissolved into the Ganges.

Garcia was cremated soon after his death last August but for Mr Weir that ceremony had been too public, too garish. "That was for Jerry the star. Not for my brother," he said. The idea of sprinkling Garcia's ashes in the Ganges came to him in a dream. Weir said he dreamt of a smiling and gnomish-looking Garcia who was wearing purple robes, floating above a river. Mr Weir next dreamt of himself doused with paint that made him invisible before his dead friend. "Jerry was too humble a guy to ever say put my ashes in the river, but I knew that's what he meant," Mr Weir told a friend. "Jerry wasn't saying anything in the dream, but he had that happy expression of his on his face." Weir took his suggestion to the other Dead members and to Garcia's wife, and they agreed.

Garcia - who gained the nickname Captain Trips because so many tripped- out hippies would turn to him for an interpretation of their acid-inspired hallucinations - once described himself as a Catholic who believed in reincarnation. During the band's early experiments with psychedelics, Garcia apparently had his share of bad trips. Among ex-wives and various other litigants trying to claim $38m (pounds 25m) from the dead musician's estate is one man who wants payment for the times that he chaperoned Garcia through fearful LSD trips.

After the immersion, Mr Weir, in his fifties, returned to Delhi. Waiting in a hotel for his flight back to the US, Mr Weir, with his short, grey hair, looked like a weary, middle-aged businessman who dreaded the gruelling flight ahead of him. He did not want to talk to the press about Garcia's last, strange trip. "There's nothing to say - the Grateful Dead is over," Mr Weir said.