OBITUARY : Jerry Garcia
Thursday 10 August 1995
More than any other musician produced by the Sixties he could suggest in his playing the presence of something indescribable, possibly unattainable, but still hugely worth striving for. He could be idle, uninspired, cliched, or simply too stoned to function on stage, but for hundreds of thousands of people none of this mattered beside the moments when he set off in search of some eldritch tranquillity and then brought it home for all of us to share.
Garcia was born in San Francisco in 1942. His father was a Spanish jazz musician, who named him after Jerome Kern, the Broadway composer, and died when his son was young. As a child, Garcia lost half the index finger of his right hand in an accident involving his elder brother and an axe (this eventually gave rise to the joke "What has 59 and a half fingers and can't sing? Answer: The Grateful Dead"). As an adolescent, "I was a fuck-up, a juvenile delinquent", Garcia said later. At 15 he discovered two forces that shaped his life: marijuana and electric guitars. He discovered acoustic guitars later, during a spell in the army, for which he volunteered at the age of 17 in an effort to change his life around. Two court martials and eight desertions later, he was discharged in 1960, having acquired a taste for folk music in the quiet periods of his army life.
He fell into the Bohemian scene of the period on the peninsula south of San Francisco. A photograph of the time shows him skinny and goateed, playing guitar alongside an early wife. The scene was full of musicians who would later take part in the great psychedelic explosion of San Francisco music, among them Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, as well as most of the future members of the Grateful Dead. But until 1965 the music involved was acoustic. Garcia taught himself banjo and became an expert on bluegrass music.
In 1965, a loose agglomeration of musicians around Dana Morgan's music store became a band of sorts, the Warlocks. As well as Garcia, there was Bob Weir, a rich kid run wild, who had been thrown out of numerous private schools, Bill Kreutzman, a young drummer, and Ron McKernan, known as Pigpen, a blues singer and harmonica player of huge power.
Originally Dana Morgan played bass, but Garcia ran into a Phil Lesh, a composer and trumpet player, and persuaded him to take over the role. After a fortnight's training, Lesh joined the Warlocks, as they called themselves. What he then lacked in technical skill he made up in acid- fuelled inspiration, for by that time the whole band had discovered the uses of LSD. The only exception was Pigpen, who referred the cheap wine and whisky which would kill him at the age of 27.
For a year, the band lived a double life. They played bars as a fairly straight R&B combo, and weekends they were the house band for the novelist Ken Kesey's Acid Tests: huge paying parties at which the idea was to get so high that you could climb right out of the old sublunary world. Somewhere in this period, they changed their name to the Grateful Dead, a name Garcia found in a collection of Scottish ballads.
As the Grateful Dead, their music became, for a while, like nothing else on earth. The band contained an extraordinary mixture of recovering folkies like Garcia and his song-writing partner Robert Hunter, musicians from the avant-garde like Phil Lesh and the keyboard player Tom Constanten; Mickey Hart, the second drummer, was originally a jazz musician, while Pigpen was an honorary Hell's Angel, soaked in drink and black dance music. In one set the band would pass through all these forms of music.
None of their early records captured this phenomenon until Live/Dead in 1969, which contained an hour of apparently continuous live improvisation, which started with the spacy jazz of "Dark Star" and ended with "Turn on Your Lovelight", 15 minutes of polyrhythms and blues, with Pigpen free- associating around old blues lyrics. After the final chord of "Lovelight", Garcia gives an exhausted triumphant yell: "Thank You. And leave it on!"
It was that cry which distinguished the Dead from all other bands in the eyes of their followers. Their concerts were designed as a spiritual experience, whose benefits would carry over into life beyond. The band lived communally for a year in the heart of the Haight Ashbury district and, though they eventually became hugely rich, they did so by touring rather than selling records. Live/Dead was followed by the delightful, tightly arranged, and largely acoustic Workingman's Dead and American Beauty in 1971. Those three records defined a whole sensibility. Phrases from them still echo clearly today. What a long strange trip it's been.
After those years the band became profoundly unfashionable in the wider worlds, and never troubled the top ten until In the Dark in 1987. Before that, they had not released a record for six years: during much of this time Garcia was in the grip of heroin addiction, followed by a diabetic coma, from which he emerged having lost all his musical skills, which had to be painfully reconstructed. It appears that he had relapsed on to hard drugs recently, for he died of a heart attack in a rehab clinic in Marin County.
When not on heroin he played and recorded prolifically. As well as the Grateful Dead, he had the Jerry Garcia band, which played rather straighter rock and blues than the Dead ever managed, and a variety of bluegrass and acoustic groups. He was a musician who really did not want to be much more. In conversation he could charm the most hostile interviewer with a sharp and sometimes lunatic humour, but he hardly ever spoke or even moved on stage and maintained a wry distance from the phenomenon that the Grateful Dead became. "We are like liquorice," he once said. "Either people ignore us, or they like us a lot."
Their liking was taken to an extent which no other band could claim. The band toured for about a third of every year; and were followed everywhere they went by a vast tribe half on a pilgrimage, half out there for a moving carnival. A hard core of two or three thousand would see every show the band ever played: perhaps ten thousand would follow them for weeks at a time; hundreds of thousands would try to catch one show on every tour. The band encouraged taping at their show, so long as the tapes were swapped and not sold. As a result a huge statistical subculture grew up: there is a computer on the Internet which will tell the enquirer every song they ever played, where and for how long. In the light of all that knowledge, attention and devotion, it is extraordinary to realise that there will never be another Grateful Dead show. The band survived the deaths of three keyboard players, but without Garcia it is unimaginable.
He had four daughters and married frequently: for the fourth time to Deborah Koons, a film-maker, who survives him.
Jerome John ("Jerry") Garcia, singer and guitarist: born San Francisco 1 August 1942; married four times (four daughters); died Novato, California 9 August 1995.
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