On Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away. The void left in the lives of millions of fans, Deadhead and otherwise, has yet to be filled. Spousal Unit and I spent many years attending Dead shows — we even pledged our troth at one. We bathed our spirits in the music and legend of the band’s then-30-year history, we reveled in the communal atmosphere of the concert parking-lot scenes, and we are ever grateful for all of the lifelong friends we made while riding the bus.
We especially admired and loved Jerry Garcia, the supposed leader of the band. Despite his many demons, he told us stories, taught us lessons, and gave us myriad joy and sorrow as we watched him live his tumultuous life and listened to his heartfelt singing and his singular guitar riffs. The spouse and I are so lucky: We are among those who “get it,” the Dead-inspired love-peace-kindness-and-music philosophy that ruled at the band’s shows. If you grok it, you know what I mean. That inspired way of living and thinking still provides a strong foundation for our lives. It is the thing that keeps us going and gets us through times good and bad.
When Jerry passed away in the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 9, just eight days after his 53rd birthday, Jeff and I hosted a vigil in the musician’s honor. We took over Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Park — we didn’t need no steenkin’ permit, man — and decorated it with flowers and tapestries and candles. I spread the word via the Internet and progressive-freeform radio station WRNR. Then we waited to see what would happen.
At 9 PM, hundreds of people flocked into our tiny neighborhood park. With them, they brought guitars, drums, paintings and photographs, and Dead-show tapes. Even more importantly, they brought along their indomitable spirit, their gratitude and love. Police were on hand; they had gotten the word that the Deadheads were coming to Mount Vernon. But there were no problems, even if a front-page Baltimore Sun story erroneously reported that the aroma of burning marijuana was in the air. There wasn’t, as the local TV stations reported when I appeared on “live at 11” standup reports. The Deadheads kept it real and were on their best behavior. (In fact, neighbors later thanked us for keeping the junkies out of the park that night.)
So no, there was no bad behavior. But there were good vibrations a-plenty: love and music, drumming and singalongs, laughter and tears. And miracles — one grateful attendee thanked me by handing me a tape recording of the Dead’s final performance from a month before at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Our daughter, then 7 years old, was on hand. (Interestingly, we believe our son, now 9, may have been conceived that very night.) She had never attended a Dead show and was curious to know: Was this jovial vigil anything like a Grateful Dead concert?
When she asked the question — it was long past her bedtime, which I was about to say — I paused and instead scanned the park and all of the visitors who had come from far and wide to pay their respects. The August night was crisp and unseasonably cool. The haunting strains of Dead tunes swirled in my ears. The sight of people consoling one another and hugging and laughing brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips. “Yes,” I replied finally, “it was very much like this.” The memory of that night — and countless similar nights before it — will never die.
As always, thanks, Jerry… for everything.
Can you believe a decade has passed? My son will be 10 on his next birthday, so it must have. Sometimes it feels as if a lifetime has gone by. Today, though, it feels like yesterday. And missing Jerry, a man I never met, but who has touched my life at its very core, well, like the music, it never stops.
Garcia’s longtime friend and colleague, musician and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, shares his very personal reminiscences in this Aug. 3 entry from his infamous journal. Enjoy. And when you recall Jerry Garcia, remember him with love:
Ten years since old Jer kicked the bucket? Seems more like fifty. Nothing about his passing seems like “only yesterday,” rather as long ago and faraway as my childhood.
From the sublime to the vicious, everything that could be said has been said and said again. Yet, the essential mystery of who Jerry Garcia was remains. What can be said with fair assurance is that he was a source, an original way of seeing the world that agreed with others in a few broad and important outlines, but which in just as many other dimensions confounded all expectations.
I wouldn’t say he delighted, in any Whitmanian sense, in what appear to be his contradictions, nor that he had control of them; predictability was not his strong suit. Not even self predictability.
He could be alarmingly kind in situations where kindness was the last response to be expected – and altogether gruff where sympathy seemed the more natural response. You could almost say he had weather rather than climate.
Few would disagree that a key part of him remained isolated, unknown and unknowable. His art is the closest thing to an available roadmap of his singularities, amorphous clues, and clues only, to the nature of his true affections. Where he entered, he dominated, generally to his dismay. He knew he was not a leader, more a scout striking out in the wilderness of his intuitions, unwittingly summoning others to tag along through virtue of his magnetic personality and apparently deep sense of inner direction, but basically antipathetic to following or to being followed. Driving back and forth across the bay from Larkspur to San Franscisco on Workingman’s Dead recording sessions, our conversations would range wide, or, sometimes, nothing would be said at all. I remember once we got to talking about directions. He professed to having none and inquired as to mine. “For the time being,” I said, “I’m just following you following yourself.” “Then we’re both lost,” he muttered.
A persistent image I have of Jerry which seems strangely resonant with his coming and going: a brilliant sunny day on a boat bobbing above the abyss of Molokini where the floor of the ocean suddenly drops off a cliff and plunges to unknown depths, I watch him check his gear then sit on the edge of the boat and tumble over backwards into the water, which is clear to a depth of several hundred feet. I watch him dwindle in size as he descends further and further, spread-eagle and motionless, until he is only a speck to the eye, then disappears
altogether from view and there is no more Jerry, only ocean.
Aaman Lamba graciously shared a link to a marvelous unattributed drawing created in remembrance of Garcia. The lyrics come from the Dead classic “Uncle John’s Band.”
I’ll add a few more lyrics as a message to Jerry:
“Fare ye well,
Fare ye well,
I love you more than words can tell.”