Jerry Garcia, cult figure of rock who rose from the counter-culture

David Lister
Wednesday 09 August 1995 23:02


Arts Correspondent

If the death of Jerry Garcia yesterday marks the end of the Grateful Dead, it will end a phenomenon which has involved a massive cult following for nearly 30 years.

Garcia, 53, was lead guitarist, singer and songwriter with the group and had fought against heroin addiction for 20 years. Yesterday, he lost the battle when he was found dead in his room at a drug treatment centre in California. A nurse had attempted to revive him. He was pronounced to have died of natural causes.

The Grateful Dead have been a perennial touring band, and to attend a concert was to watch not just a strikingly good band playing improvised rock and roll, country and jazz music. It was also to absorb an audience like no other. The Dead Heads, as they came to be known, followed the band across America and across the world, often leaving home as teenagers to do so, and getting temporary jobs wherever the band might be playing.

Thousands of concert-goers would come equipped with notebook and pen and note down every one of the band's ever-changing repertoire of numbers.

As the first chords of a song were played, there would be a yell, followed by the sight of thousands of heads bent over pieces of paper.

The Grateful Dead first came to notice at the Trips Festival in San Francisco in 1966, and were later to play at most of the key rock events of the decade including Woodstock and Altamont. They became cornerstones of the hippie counter culture in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where they lived. For three decades, whatever the prevailing fashion, they maintained an uncompromising allegiance to the hippie and drug culture of the Sixties.

In a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Garcia said: "To get really high is to forget yourself and to forget yourself is to see everything else. And to see everything else is to become an understanding molecule in evolution, a conscious tool of the universe. And I think every human being should be a conscious tool of the universe. That's why I think it's important to get high."

Garcia, by now bearded and extremely paunchy, was convicted of heroin possession in the late Eighties and had suffered repeated health problems. But the band, which last came to Britain four years ago, was still touring this summer and consistently topped the rock circuit in the United States both in terms of attendances and revenue.

It was extraordinary achievement for a group that never had mass appeal outside its own fan base, nor a single song that was widely known outside that same fan base. The Grateful Dead were known for their altruistic attitudes and they held annual benefits for a blindness charity in the third world as well as for ecology projects particularly reforestation.

In recent years Garcia lent his name to more material projects, as well having a brand of ice cream called Cherry Garcia named after him.

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