August 9, 2009

Jerry Garcia (August 1, 1942-August 9, 1995)

Jerry Garcia died fourteen years ago today.

I was at work when I heard the news. A friend called me on the phone and told me she heard it on the radio. I was stunned but incredulous. After all, there had been rumors and scares in the past, notably the coma of 1986 and, more recently, the cancelled fall tour in 1992, but Garcia always pulled through. I logged onto the Usenet, but there was no word. Only minutes later, there were hundreds of messages piling up. TV news reports in San Francisco were confirming Garcia’s death by heart failure at the Serenity Knolls rehab clinic in Forest Knolls, California. Oh, no…it was true…

I went outside to the courtyard and wept. Just the day before, I had received mail-ordered tickets to the first three Boston Garden shows scheduled for September of 1995, including a second row seat for the 17th. The following day, like a one-two punch, I received my tickets to the following three nights.

I had been in deep denial about Garcia’s obvious morbidity. In retrospect, I had simply gotten lucky; several of the shows I saw in the later years were especially good ones, leading me to believe that the music would never stop. They’d written a batch of strong new songs in 1993 and, while 1994 was mostly uneven, 10/1 was one of the best top-to bottom concerts I ever witnessed. The March 1995, shows at The Spectrum in Philadelphia were also pretty spectacular with the breakout of “Unbroken Chain” on 3/19. Sure, the performance of the ridiculously complicated tune was shaky at best, but the rush of elation that surged through the crowd as they recognized the never-before-played-live song was a hyper-extraordinary event, perhaps the highest moment in my circa. one hundred show “career” as a Deadhead. Heck, even the Albany shows on that otherwise disastrous 1995 summer tour were surprisingly good. But now that heartfelt performance of “Black Peter” on 6/22 felt eerily prophetic.

I was devastated. Thinking about that day still makes me sad. Yet the widespread period of public mourning was surprising and touching at the time -- even president Bill Clinton made an official statement. Deadheads were no longer a fringe subculture; they were everywhere, even heads of state. But with Garcia’s death, the Grateful Dead were, um, dead and an era had ended. Like many other Deadheads, I had planned my life around Grateful Dead concerts for years. Spring tour, Summer tour, Fall tour – Liz and I even spent three days of our honeymoon at Cal Expo in not-so-lovely Sacramento, California in 1994. It may sound pretty pathetic to say this, but The Grateful Dead was something to live for. Jerry’s absence on this god-forsaken planet leaves an unfillable void that only grows larger by the day. As might be expected, Bob Dylan summed it up best:

There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player.
I don’t think eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great – much more than
a superb musician with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He is the very spirit
personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up to the
spheres. He really had no equal. To me he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he
was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without
being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated,
hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really

Well, yes. By way of example, here is a heart-wrenchingly poignant performance of “So Many Roads” from the very last Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 9, 1995:

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