Fringe America mourns its Dead

The death of Jerry Garcia stirs a liberal force neglected in the Land of the Free - but thriving in cyberspace

AS BOB DYLAN, Ken Kesey aand other luminaries of the Sixties counterculture attended Jerry Garcia's secret funeral in the California town of Belvedere, the outbreak of mourning across America last week for the benignly dissolute guitarist of the Grateful Dead provided a reminder that the country is not as consumed by prissy, tedious moralising as Washington's policy makers appear to believe.

President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, guided in their judgements by the pollsters, have spent much of 1995 pandering variously to the anti-smoking, anti-abortion, anti-flag-burning, anti-drinking, anti-sex (pro-family values) nannies who populate Middle America. What Garcia's death revealed is that Fringe America remains a social force to be reckoned with. The outpouring of grief from coast to coast even suggested that warily conventional as most Americans appear to be, many carry a hippie within.

"We need magic and bliss and power, myth celebration and religion in our lives", Garcia said in an interview a couple of years back. "Our roots are in that strictly good-time thing - basic hippies, without any kind of motive or purpose."

The Grateful Dead, who have been in business as long as the Rolling Stones, cut their musical teeth in the acid house scene of the mid-Sixties. At the 2,000 concerts they have played since there have been two constants: the music has remained unchanged and so has the attitude to drugs, freely consumed backstage as well as front. Garcia's songs celebrated cocaine and preached a hedonistic message of live and let live.

The one cause he espoused was preservation of the environment. Typically self-deprecating, he once remarked about the band's efforts to support the battle to save the rainforests: "Somebody needs to do something. It's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."

Perhaps he was looking at his pot-belly as he said it. An inveterate smoker, drinker, acid-head, and cake-eater, Garcia was jolly, bespectacled, white-haired, wild-bearded - a Father Christmas on drugs. His tribe of loyal devotees, the Deadheads, spanned three generations. It was not uncommon at Grateful Dead concerts to see teenagers mingling in the audience with fiftysomething executives wearing beepers. What bound them was a free- spirited rejection of sanctimony and convention.

On Wednesday night, within hours of the news of Garcia's death, tens of thousands of mourners gathered at spontaneous memorial vigils across the land, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Deadheads young enough to be Garcia's grandchildren bemoaned his loss. "The Dead are the closest thing to a religion that I have", said one teenage girl in Washington. A man in his thirties who said he had been to 180 Dead concerts knelt outside the San Francisco house where the band was formed and, as a solemn drumbeat sounded, told a television reporter: "It was great place to be a human being. It was the purity and the simplicity of it. It was pure love, and it just poured out of Jerry."

The mayor of San Francisco ordered that all official city buildings fly their flags at half- mast, and the Republican Governor of Massachussets, William Weld, revealed himself to be as avid a Deadhead as any when he called a press conference to announce he had spent two hours listening to the band's songs. "Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead have been exemplars of artistic generosity and a uniquely American brand of freedom ... Jerry's death is a loss both to my generation and my children's."

And then there was Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democratic elder statesman from South Carolina of patrician demeanour, who declared: "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach." Last year, it turns out, Mr Leahy invited Garcia and the rest of the band to the Senate for lunch.

Lesser Washington figures were no less pained. A sober-suited female government employee reported that her office ground to a halt upon receipt of the news that Garcia had died. On Friday she squealed with delight when she picked up a rumour through the Deadhead computer net that her hero had died because of an overly abrupt withdrawal from drugs. "He died because he went off drugs! Isn't that just fabulous?!"

Mr Clinton, who spent the week denouncing cigarette-smoking, could not resist the urge to get on his moral high horse when asked to comment on Garcia's death during an MTV interview on Friday. He described Garcia as "a great talent" and "a genius" but dwelt at length on Garcia's drug habit, urging young people "to reflect on the consequences of his self- destructive behaviour".

A question, however, is begged by the sense of loss with which large numbers of Americans have responded to Garcia's death. Have Mr Clinton and most other politicians got it all wrong by targeting their electoral appeal to conservative America?

The sad truth, probably, is that, with the exception of closet anarchists like Leahy and Weld, the free spirits who loved Jerry Garcia and all he stood for belong to that vast chunk of the US electorate, 50 per cent of them, who are too consumed by the "good-time thing" ever to take the trouble to vote.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine