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
Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.