Garcia: An American Lifeby Blair Jackson
He was there when Dylan went electric, when a generation danced naked at Woodstock, and when Ken Kesey started experimenting with acid. Jerry Garcia was one of the most gifted musicians of all time, and he was a member of one of the most worshiped rock 'n' roll bands in history. Now, Blair Jackson, who covered the Grateful Dead for/b>/b>/b>/b>
He was there when Dylan went electric, when a generation danced naked at Woodstock, and when Ken Kesey started experimenting with acid. Jerry Garcia was one of the most gifted musicians of all time, and he was a member of one of the most worshiped rock 'n' roll bands in history. Now, Blair Jackson, who covered the Grateful Dead for twenty-five years, gives us an unparalleled portrait of Garciathe musical genius, the brilliant songwriter, and ultimately, the tortured soul plagued by his own addiction. With more than forty photographs, many of them previously unpublished, Garcia: An American Life is the ultimate tribute to the man who, Bob Dylan said, "had no equal."
With this biography, however, it seems like no detail of the guitarist's life is hidden anymore. A lengthy and meticulously researched tome, Garcia never glosses over even the smallest of facts. And therein lies the problem. Unless you're a Deadhead, Blair's intensive detailing-the kind normally reserved for literary and political biographies-makes this a bit of a slow read, especially at the beginning. And while this does help explain Garcia the man, the book only starts to get interesting when we meet Garcia the musician. If you can make your way through the slow opening, however, this is one of the better- and certainly most authoritative-books about the Deadheads' spiritual and musical leader.
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Praise for Blair Jackson and Garcia
“A fascinating and comprehensive biography.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A definitive portrait.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A well researched and solidly written biography of one of the most important musicians in American history.”
—The Newark Star-Ledger
“Garcia is distinguished by a passion for and an intelligence about the music . . . pioneering work.”
—The Toronto Globe and Mail
“Thoroughly researched . . . spellbinding.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Insightful . . . a moving tribute.”
“An intelligently written biography.”
—Wisconsin State Journal
“A fascinating look at one of the more complex and influential personalities to emerge from the 1960s maelstrom.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Blair Jackson has written about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for nearly thirty years. From 1984 to 1993, Jackson and his wife, Regan McMahon, published the Dead fanzine The Golden Road in their spare time. Jackson’s books include Grateful Dead: The Music That Never Stopped, and Goin’ Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion. He currently works as executive editor of the professional audio trade magazine Mix. He lives with his wife and two children in Oakland, California.
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following works:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1968 and copyright renewed © 1996 by Tom Wolfe. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
Ice Nine Publishing Company: Lyrics by Robert Hunter “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” © 1967 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Dark Star” and “That’s It for the Other One” © 1968 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “China Cat Sunflower,” “Cosmic Charlie,” “Doin’ That Rag,” “Mountains of the Moon,” “Rosemary,” and “What’s Become of the Baby” © 1969 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Attics of My Life,” “Black Peter,” “Box of Rain,” “Candyman,” “Casey Jones,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Dire Wolf,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Ripple,” “Truckin’,” and “Uncle John’s Band” © 1970 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Bird Song,” “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Wharf Rat,” and “The Wheel” © 1971 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Brown-Eyed Women” © 1972 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and “Stella Blue” © 1973 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Scarlet Begonias” and “Ship of Fools” © 1974 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Blues for Allah,” “Comes a Time,” “Crazy Fingers,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “Help on the Way,” and “Mission in the Rain” © 1975 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Cats Under the Stars,” “Lady with a Fan,” “Palm Sunday,” “Reuben and Cherise,” and “Terrapin Station,” © 1977 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Fire on the Mountain” and “Stagger Lee” © 1978 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Althea” © 1980 Ice Nine publishing Company. “Midnight Getaway” and “Run for the Roses” © 1982 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Black Muddy River” and “Touch of Grey” © 1987 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Built to Last,” “Foolish Heart,” and “Standing on the Moon” © 1989 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Days Between,” “Lazy River Road,” and “Liberty” © 1993 Ice Nine Publishing Company. “Down the Road” © 1996 Ice Nine Publishing Company. Excerpts from Dead Heads newsletter. By permission of Ice Nine Publishing Company.
Ram’s Horn Music: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan. Copyright © 1973, 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission of Ram’s Horn Music.
Sony/ATV Music Publishing: “Sing Me Back Home” by Merle Haggard. Copyright © 1967 Sony/ATV Songs LLC. (renewed). All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee.
Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc.: “Morning Dew” by Bonnie Dobson and Tim Rose. © 1967, 1968 (renewed) Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” by Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, and Jim Capaldi. © 1968 (renewed) F.S. Music Ltd. and Island Music Ltd. All rights o/b/o F.S. Music Ltd. administered by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. All rights o/b/o Island Music Ltd. administered by Island Music Inc. “Like a Road Leading Home” by Don Nix and Dan Penn. © 1971 Irving Music, Inc., Deerwood Music and Dan Penn Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc., Miami, Florida.
A Hopeful Candle Flickers
was walking across the little parking lot outside the Grateful Dead’s San Rafael, California, headquarters on a beautiful late-January morning in 1993 when Jerry Garcia came roaring into the lot in his giant dark gray BMW. The tires screeched and the car came to an abrupt halt at an odd angle, blocking three other cars. Garcia bounded out of the driver’s seat with a big smile on his face, then ran around to the other side of the car to assist his passenger, an attractive woman who was also beaming. He took her by the hand and came over to me, saying, “You’ve got to meet Barbara Meier!”
Now, this was an unexpected development. I had interviewed Garcia many times over the years—that morning would be our ninth since 1981—and we’d chatted on a number of other occasions in more casual circumstances at the Dead office and at the band’s recording studio, Club Front. In all that time, I’d never seen him quite so giddy, and he’d certainly never introduced me to a girlfriend before.
As the three of us walked up the back stairs and into the kitchen of the century-old house that served as the band’s main office, Garcia protectively put his arm around Barbara and breathlessly told me the tale of how they had been lovers when they were teenagers, but her parents had forced her to break up with him. “I guess they knew I was trouble,” he said with mock seriousness, followed by a little laugh. Barbara and Jerry had reconnected recently and were now, obviously, quite in love.
In the kitchen and surrounding office rooms, Garcia introduced Barbara to every person he saw, repeating bits of the marvelous story of their reacquaintance thirty years after their young love had been cruelly snuffed out. In no time the kitchen was crowded with people from the upstairs offices who’d come down to see what all the laughter and gaiety was about. Visits from Garcia, while not unusual, were rarely this boisterous, and his good mood was clearly infectious. Several others on hand, all of whom knew Garcia better than I did, also seemed stunned by the sight of him holding court in the kitchen, laughing and being so openly affectionate with Barbara.
These were heady times, particularly in contrast to the dark days the previous August, when Garcia collapsed from exhaustion and serious heart and lung problems just a few days after his fiftieth birthday. Coming almost exactly six years after a diabetic coma nearly killed him, the episode was another omen, another reminder of the preciousness of life.
As he had after his 1986 meltdown, Garcia took the warning seriously for a while. He became a strict vegetarian, adopted a strenuous workout regimen, lost sixty pounds, stopped using hard drugs and cut back his cigarette habit. His guitar playing and singing improved along with his health, and at the Dead’s December 1992 concerts his fans couldn’t help but be encouraged by his ebullient demeanor onstage.
So things were looking good that morning in January 1993. Once the commotion in the kitchen had died down a bit, Garcia and I adjourned to a nearby office for our interview, which was to be about Pigpen, his beloved bandmate, who had died two decades earlier, at age twenty-seven, of liver disease aggravated by years of drinking rotgut wine. Garcia had enthusiastically agreed to share his memories of Pigpen for an article I was writing, and when Jerry was excited about anything, he was an interviewer’s dream—the stories poured out in rich detail and were punctuated by his frequent chuckles and guffaws. His eyes twinkled, and you could feel the intensity of the memories as the anecdotes flowed from him.
That morning, once we were alone, he still wanted to talk about Barbara, so we did for a while longer. Finally, though, it was Garcia who got the ball rolling, saying, “Okay, man, let’s talk about Pigpen.” He leaned forward in his chair as I explained my approach to the article, which I hoped would be an upbeat memoir of the fallen singer as told by his friends. “Here’s my dilemma, Jerry,” I said. “I want to write a positive story about Pigpen, but it seems as though no matter what I say in the main body of the article, it has to end in tragedy because that’s how his life ended.”
Without any hesitation Garcia replied, “Yeah, yeah—gotcha. I know exactly what you mean. But here’s the thing about Pigpen: He was not a tragic figure. The fact that he died was a tragedy, but he wasn’t tragic in the sense of being a doomed personality—brooding and suicidal, or any of that. He was more like a pixie; like an elf. And those of us who knew him and loved him got so much from him during the time he was with us, we can’t be too sad about him not being around anymore. And of course he’ll always be with us, just like anyone who’s been important in your life and then moves on.”
And so it is with Jerry Garcia’s story. It must end in tragedy—a life cut short with devastating suddenness. But in the words of Bob Bralove, one of the Grateful Dead’s technical wizards, “Jerry isn’t a tragic figure because his accomplishments are so vast that it’s hard to look at him as anything other than an incredibly positive force. He changed lives; he changed my life. His death may be a tragedy, but his death in no way overpowers his life. He died young, but he did so much in his time here.”
Indeed, Garcia packed a lot of living into his fifty-three years. He was a perennial noncomformist and outsider, always fording unpredictable tributaries that branched off the American mainstream. Had he been born ten years earlier, he almost certainly would have become a beatnik; as it was he rode in the wake of the Beat wave and learned more than a few life lessons from reading Kerouac, Ginsberg and other rebels and malcontents. In his late-teen and early-adult years Jerry learned that he wasn’t really cut out for school, the military, marriage, fatherhood or steady employment—all traditional avenues to the American dream. But he had a passion for playing music, and that love would eventually take him to the pinnacle of American celebrity. Along the way, he and his friends helped shape a part of America in their own image by obliterating traditional notions of freedom and liberty, and by questioning and ignoring the mores and social structures that had evolved through generations since colonial times. The hippie counterculture of the late ’60s would have flowered without the Grateful Dead, but Garcia and the Dead came to symbolize the best and worst aspects of that libertine movement, from the communal spirit and healthy disrespect for the capitalist paradigm to the dangerous hedonism and unconscious self-absorption.
That Garcia became a true icon—and likely will remain so for decades, if not centuries, to come—is both surprising and ironic. Surprising because he had few of the traits we normally associate with entertainment stars. Ironic because he constantly tried to disavow his celebrity, insisting that he was just a guy who played guitar and wrote and sang songs. Which is why people loved him: There were flashier guitarists and better singers, but there was something about the way he played and sang that affected hundreds of thousands of people deeply enough that they wanted to hear him as often as they could. His fans offered him the ultimate gift: total artistic freedom. They supported every move he ever made and followed him down every twisting, turning road, every strange left turn, every cul-de-sac and lonely byway.
No modern popular musician ever worked so deeply in so many different styles as Garcia did. A true musical omnivore, he was equally enthralled playing old English ballads or completely formless improvised pieces. He thought nothing of playing Chuck Berry and Hoagy Carmichael songs in the same set, or of juxtaposing a Miles Davis tune with some ageless sea chantey. His guitar style was the sum of a million influences, yet it was distinctive enough that his playing was instantly recognizable, no matter what the genre. There was nothing he liked more than playing music in a band in front of dancing people. He didn’t care if the group was acoustic or electric or if the audience was large or small—it was all about hearts and souls coming together through music; ecstatic communion and transformative epiphanies. “Magic is what we do,” he once said of the Grateful Dead. “Music is how we do it.”
He wrote melodies to another man’s words and rarely spoke onstage, yet the people who came to see him play night after night felt they knew him intimately, as one knows a family member. A few put him on a pedestal and believed he was a god. But he had the frailties and the life of pain that are an unmistakable part of mortal territory.
He was well-read and street-smart; quick, funny and articulate when he wanted to be; hipster and prankster, skeptic and optimist, pragmatist and dreamer, philosopher and fool. A keen and voracious intellect, he was interested in almost everything, could speak knowledgeably about most things, yet he made his most profound statements with his fingers.
“I’ve prefaced interviews in the past by saying that I can’t really do anything but lie, all talking is lying, and I’m lying now,” he said in 1975. “You can go hear me play—that’s me, that’s what I have to say; that’s the form my thoughts have taken, so I haven’t put that much thought into really communicating verbally. It’s all open to misinterpretation, just like the songs are.”
And so is a life as portrayed in a book. The biographer chooses what to emphasize and what to ignore, chooses the voices that tell the tale, and interprets events that were lived by others. Objectivity is a fiction; writing is as subjective as listening to music. And writing a biography is by definition presumptuous.
I should state up front that I am not a dispassionate observer when it comes to Garcia and the Grateful Dead. I am a fan; a Deadhead. I first saw the band in the spring of 1970 when I was a junior in high school, and over the next twenty-five years I went to more than 350 Dead concerts, and dozens more by Garcia’s various solo groups. I’ve been writing about the band since I saw my first show, though as often as not trying to explain the ineffable and mysterious qualities that make them so special ends up being an exercise in futility—like capturing lightning in a bottle. I suppose I persisted through the years because I felt that Garcia and the Dead were badly misunderstood and had never earned the sort of critical respect I always felt they deserved. Instead, they were routinely dismissed as lazy, aimless hippies playing for an army of burnouts and would-be flower children bent on recapturing the lost spirit of the ’60s. But take away the colorful hippie following and the counterculture baggage that is so much a part of their history, and what’s left is one of the most extraordinarily creative ensembles in twentieth-century music.
“The fact that they had so many periods of Olympian greatness is truly amazing,” says David Gans, a musician and longtime chronicler of the Dead. “That’s the stuff of jazz careers. Only a handful of the greats ever delivered as many peak seasons; certainly in the rock ’n’ roll domain, there just hasn’t been anybody who has sustained that level of inventiveness for so long.”
And Jerry Garcia is surely one of modern music’s most underrated figures. For my money, no popular guitarist ever took more chances, visited more uncharted realms or played more soulfully. But his genius as a musician and songwriter was always overshadowed in mainstream culture by the force of his personality. From his “Captain Trips” persona in the late ’60s to the smiling, grandfatherly figure he became late in his life, his iconic self was much easier for many people to grasp than his nimble-fingered instrumental flights or his wrenching ballads where every note sounded like a deep human cry. It will be fascinating to see how future generations judge Garcia without the distraction of his wit and intelligence, not to mention the Deadhead carnival.
This book is neither hagiography nor exposé. I am much less interested in the sordid details of Garcia’s personal life than I am in exploring and illuminating his splendid creative gifts. The Forces of Light win the battle in this book—not because I’m a starry-eyed revisionist, but because Garcia’s musical legacy is larger than his life and will endure long after all of us have joined him in the sweet by-and-by.
Another Time’s Forgotten Space
a Coruña is a small, picturesque seaport on Spain’s rugged northwest Atlantic coast. This isn’t the sun-drenched Costa del Sol glamorized in postcards and guidebooks—that’s hundreds of miles to the south on the Mediterranean. Geographically and climatically, the north coast has more in common with the rocky and rainy parts of western Ireland or Cornwall or Brittany than it does with most of the generally dry Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times the region was populated by small Celtic tribes who had migrated there from central and northern Europe. The Romans conquered the territory, which they called Galicia, in the second century B.C. The city now known as La Coruña was a small but important trading post for the Romans for several centuries. The collapse of the Roman Empire left the area vulnerable to invasion from outside forces, and over the course of several hundred years, hordes of Visigoths, Normans and Arabs swept through and controlled the area for long stretches.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century foreign invaders had been banished from the Iberian Peninsula and the various Christian kingdoms that had sprung up began to consolidate under more centralized rule. Galicia was always a bit isolated from the rest of the land, both politically and culturally (the inhabitants, known as Gallegos, spoke their own language, which has much in common with Portuguese), and even physically to a degree— Gallegos tend to be fairer-skinned than their neighbors to the south.
As a trading center, La Coruña has absorbed cultural influences—and sailors—from ports far and near, and it has also served as a point of emigration for thousands of Spaniards heading west to the Americas. The Gallegos themselves emigrated west in huge numbers, beginning with the first New World settlements at the end of the fifteenth century, for Galicia has historically been one of the poorest regions of Spain and the sea has always held the promise of a better life wherever mighty sailing ships could go. Even today there are more Gallegos and their descendants in Buenos Aires, Argentina, than there are in all of Galicia.
If you were to scour the streets and alleys of La Coruña, you might well encounter a Garcia who can trace the lineage of Jerry’s family back many centuries. But in the United States, where two branches of the Garcias settled in the second decade of this century, we must rely on the memories of the lone surviving sibling from the original transatlantic voyage, Leonor Garcia Ross—still spry at ninety—and on family lore passed along to Jerry’s brother and cousins.
Though Leonor considers La Coruña the family’s ancestral home, the Garcias who emerge from the family’s oral history in the mid-nineteenth century actually came from a nearby coastal fishing village called Sada, on an inlet called the Ría de Betanzos. Jerry’s great-grandfather Manuel was a solidly middle-class entrepreneur who ran his own drayage business in the area, carting goods for merchants in a large wagon pulled by six workhorses. He had four children—two boys and two girls—and though tradition dictated that at least one of his sons would join the business and eventually take it over, the eldest son (Jerry’s grandfather), also named Manuel, was not interested in his father’s trade. “He was an adventuresome type who wanted to go to sea,” says Jerry’s cousin Daniel, “so he became a seaman and traveled all over, leaving for months at a time. In fact, he bought my grandmother a dry-goods store to keep her occupied, because he was away so much of the year.” On his rare stays home, Manuel and his wife, Aquilena (who was from a comfortably middle-class La Coruña family), managed to start a family: Manuel (Daniel’s father; it was traditional to name the eldest child after the father) was born in 1901; Jose (Jerry’s father, named after his mother’s father, Jose Lopez) was born in 1902; Leonor came along in 1908; and in 1912 Lena (short for Aquilena) completed the brood.
Eventually Manuel’s wanderlust subsided, and by the time World War I swept across the continent he had decided that what he really wanted was to settle down with his growing family in America. Although he’d traveled extensively to ports in Europe and South America, “Like so many people around the turn of the century, he believed that America was the place to come for economic and other reasons,” Daniel says. “He was in New York a few times, but he made trips to San Francisco and he liked it better there.”
“He thought the climate in San Francisco would agree with my mother more,” adds Leonor. “It was much more like La Coruña than New York, which was so terribly cold in winter. And also, because San Francisco was still being rebuilt after the  earthquake and fire, there were more job opportunities there than in New York. My father’s sister and her husband moved to New York first, and I know my father visited them there, but he didn’t like it much.”
And so, in early 1918, Manuel Garcia traveled alone to San Francisco, rented a furnished apartment on Filbert Street, half a block off tree-lined Washington Square in the bustling, mainly Italian North Beach section of the city, and quickly landed a job working for one of the railroads in the area. When he felt sufficiently settled, he arranged to have Aquilena and the four children—then ranging in age from six to seventeen—join him there. In the late fall of 1918, they sailed by steamship to Havana, then on to New York, where they were “processed” at Ellis Island before traveling by train to California. “We brought quite a few things with us on the boat,” Leonor remembers, “but this cousin of ours, Antonio Dalmau, wanted to come with us, and he was slightly crippled—he’d had polio as a child—so when we got to Ellis Island they wouldn’t allow him into the United States and they sent him back. It was sad. And he had a trunk of my mother’s with all her prize possessions in it, as well as his own things, and it was sent back to Spain with him. We lost a lot of family mementos; we never saw any of it again.”
The trip across America by train in the cold of December seemed long and hard, and Leonor says that when the travel-weary family arrived in Oakland and looked across San Francisco Bay to their new home, her mother exclaimed, “Oh my God, do I have to go to sea again?” Fortunately, the voyage took only about an hour, and according to Daniel Garcia’s telling of the tale, Manuel “picked them up and had a hot meal waiting for them on the table at home.”
“We lived in North Beach the first three years,” Leonor says. “During that period, North Beach was like a Little Italy; almost everybody was Italian, though there were also a few Spaniards. In fact, my father got upset because he thought we were learning Italian instead of English. None of us spoke English when we got here, of course. In Spain, the second language you learned was French, which didn’t do any good here. But my brothers went to both regular school and night school and they learned English much faster than I did.”
“My grandfather was very much for education,” Daniel says, “and my father took well to it and went into engineering. My uncle Joe [Jerry’s father] didn’t like school that much; he was much more interested in music. My grandfather had insisted that they both learn an instrument. My father studied piano and was quite good at it. And Uncle Joe studied clarinet [after initially learning piano basics]. They had a teacher there in North Beach who was a real Italian maestro and he drilled them on the scales and gave them good fundamentals of music. They continued to play for a while, but my dad kept on with school and my uncle hooked up with a group of musicians and ultimately left the area.”
In 1922 the family left North Beach and moved across town to the outer Mission district, settling in a house on Precita Avenue, which in those days was nearly at the city’s southern border; beyond was sparsely developed ranch land, although that would change in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Today the Mission is mainly populated by Mexican and Central American immigrants, but “it was totally different in the ’20s,” Daniel says. “The area was settled by Irishmen and some Spanish; there were no Mexicans at all. They came later. San Francisco was a very ethnically divided city in those days; no one mingled with anyone else much. It was even that way when I was a boy in the ’40s.”
It was always Manuel Garcia’s intention that he and his family become fully integrated into American society. He applied for U.S. citizenship almost immediately after arriving in California. In the early 1920s he landed a job as a steam engineer for Pacific Gas & Electric and ended up working there for more than forty years. “My grandfather was a patriot from the word go,” Daniel says. “Spain could sink into the ocean as far as he was concerned. He was a great believer in Roosevelt and the New Deal and [in the ’30s and ’40s] he used to keep a picture of Franklin Roosevelt on the wall; in those days a lot of Americans did that. Those were days of fierce patriotism. He loved America.”
He came to speak English well (though with a heavy accent), but his wife “didn’t want to learn English,” says Jerry’s older brother, Tiff Garcia. “My father, on the other hand, would not teach us Spanish. He was totally into America and wouldn’t speak Spanish, even to his mom. I remember she’d be speaking to him in Spanish and he’d be saying back to her, ‘No, you mean the key, the car, the stove.’” To solidify his own American credentials, Jose Garcia became Joe Garcia to both his family and friends; on city and county documents his name was listed as “Joseph” Garcia.
According to Leonor, her brother Joe became consumed by music in his late teens, “and he was very, very good in no time at all. All the kids in the neighborhood started taking lessons from him, and he decided, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’ My father had future plans in mind for all of his kids and he had wanted Joe to be a machinist, but very early Joe said, ‘No way I want to be that,’ because once he started playing the saxophone that’s all he wanted to do—just like Jerry and the guitar. Joe decided he wanted to be a musician, and after a while my father came to accept that.” (Jerry once described himself as a “black sheep of a black sheep,” but actually Joe Garcia’s parents and siblings were supportive of Joe’s music career.)
Leonor remembers Joe playing clarinet and saxophone in small groups at Sunday picnics in city parks and at dances in various ethnic halls around town. He also worked in local clubs, playing jazz mainly, but also the popular music of the day—standards, show tunes, vaudeville pieces—and during Prohibition, like many musicians, he took his share of jobs playing speakeasies. While still in his mid-twenties, Joe traveled across the country as part of an orchestra sponsored by the then-thriving Orpheum Theater chain. In fact, it’s likely that he even played San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater—site of numerous Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows in the ’70s and ’80s. (Leonor says Joe definitely played a couple of blocks down Market Street at the Warfield Theater, another venue later used by both the Dead and the Garcia Band.)
“He was hip for his day, apparently,” Jerry said in 1984. “I’ve looked at some of the arrangements that his band played. I remember poking around and looking at them and I thought they were pretty hip. I would have liked to have been able to experience his music because he was a musician who was interested in American music, also. He was a genre player, like I am; an idiom player.”
As the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, Joe Garcia settled for two or three years in Los Angeles, where he played in a small combo known as Lada’s Lads, and also worked for an orchestra that played music for films; “talkies” were suddenly all the rage, and music for the movies became a growth industry for a while. Joe worked on several films for a studio run by screen great Mary Pickford, and, Daniel Garcia relates, “My dad was in the movies one day in San Francisco watching a film and the camera panned to the band, and my uncle Joe was in the front row. My dad jumped up and shouted, ‘That’s my brother! That’s my brother!’ He was so impressed that Joe was in a movie.” Adds Leonor, “We were all so proud of Joe, and he was very excited because he got to meet Mary Pickford. That was a big thing back then!”
While working at a nightclub in L.A., Joe fell in love with a young blond dancer named Sunny (Leonor doesn’t remember her real first name or her last name) and the two were married for a brief period. Daniel Garcia recalls his father, Manuel, referring to the woman as a “floozy”; Tiff says with a smile, “I like to think she was like Carmen Miranda, but she probably wasn’t.” Whatever the case, Joe wanted to start a family, Sunny wanted to remain a dancer, and they soon divorced. Joe headed back to San Francisco, where he lived for a period in the family house on Precita Avenue and worked hard to reestablish himself as a band leader in an increasingly depressed economy.
“It wasn’t just the economy, though,” Daniel says. “My father said that one of the things that killed the music business was ‘canned music.’ Records started to become very popular and people stopped going to live performances as much.” Still, Joe Garcia’s band was a fairly popular group around the city in the early ’30s. “One of his main ‘instruments’ was actually the baton, since he was a band leader,” Tiff Garcia says of his father. “He had a case for all his batons, plus he had all sorts of reed instruments—saxophones, clarinets. Even after he stopped playing professionally, he kept all his instruments around the house, and he’d play them pretty often.”
Sometime in 1934 Joe met the woman of his dreams, a twenty-four-year-old nurse at San Francisco General Hospital named Ruth Marie Clifford. Ruth also had deep immigrant roots stretching back even further than the Garcias’: Her grandfather Patrick Clifford was born in Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century and emigrated to California, where he married another Irish expatriate named Ellen Callahan. Ruth’s father, William Henry Clifford, was born in San Francisco in 1883. In his twenties he got involved in the laundry business and married nineteen-year-old Tillie May Olsen, whose ancestors had sailed to California from Sweden around the time of the Gold Rush. Shortly after they were married, Bill and Tillie bought a newly built home on the fringes of the Excelsior district. The house at 87 Harrington Street, where Jerry would spend much of his youth, was built in 1908. In June 1910 Jerry’s mother, Ruth, was born at that address. She lived there until she married Joe Garcia.
By the time Joe and Ruth became serious about each other, Joe was already having some doubts about continuing on in the music business. “He wanted to have kids and have a stable family, and you couldn’t do that as a musician,” his nephew Daniel says. Joe and Ruth were married on April 29, 1935, and moved into a small, one-story four-year-old house at 121 Amazon Street, about a mile south of Harrington Street in the Crocker-Amazon district. Then (and now) the area was a bright, clean, ethnically diverse middle-class section of the city—in those days it was Spanish, Italian and Irish, with some German; today it is mainly Hispanic and Asian. All three of Joe’s siblings lived nearby, and he always kept in close contact with them. Ruth quit her job at the hospital and became a housewife, as was typical in that day, but she always kept her nursing license up to date, and indeed, she would return to that profession twenty-five years after she married Joe. In April of 1937 Ruth became pregnant with her first child, news that was greeted with great excitement in the Garcia clan. (Before this, the four children had produced just one grandchild for Manuel and Aquilena—Manuel Jr.’s daughter Anita, who was born in 1932.) Unfortunately, also around this time an incident occurred that forced Joe Garcia to quit playing music professionally. In Jerry’s recounting of the story in a 1971 interview, “I understand there was some hassle: He was blackballed by the union or something ’cause he was working two jobs or something like that—some musicians’ union trip—so he wasn’t able to to remain a professional musician.” Tiff Garcia is shaky on the details as well, but Aunt Leonor says she remembers the particulars of her brother’s exit from the music world very well:
“He’d been out of work for a little while, and then he was offered a good job: There was a big, new nightclub being opened in San Francisco out at the beach [perhaps the Nut Club], and they asked him if he and his orchestra would like to play, and of course that was a big break, so he said sure. They told him they wanted to put him on the radio to show people what a great orchestra he had, but they told him, ‘We won’t pay you the first time you play; we just want to see how it turns out.’ Joe was very ignorant about this kind of stuff and they did play for the radio for free and then when the club opened they played there for free the first time, too. When the musicians’ union found out he’d played for free they suspended him for six months and fined him something like $1,500, which was a lot of money in those days. Joe was shocked. He didn’t know he had done anything wrong. So he said, ‘To hell with this,’ and he quit playing and he and a friend opened up a bar down at the waterfront, a seaman’s bar with a hotel upstairs—a dollar-a-night kind of place. It did really great, and he stayed with that for quite a long time; he was in that business until he died. I think he liked it, too—not the same way he liked music, but he was happy there.”
Joe and his partner opened their business in the summer of 1937. The bar/restaurant, called Garcia’s, was at the corner of First and Harrison Streets in downtown San Francisco, on the site of what is today the beautiful and stately WPA art deco–style Sailors Union of the Pacific building. In the ’30s and ’40s that section of the city was a rough area whose (low)life centered on the nearby docks. In fact, Rincon Hill, where the bar was located, had been the site of bloody battles between striking maritime workers and local police just three years earlier. Run-down seamen’s hotels and cheap restaurants dotted the area, and, sailors being sailors, there was plenty of nefarious activity to be found. The cheery, well-scrubbed boulevards and cedar-shaded parks of the Crocker-Amazon district must have seemed paradisiacal in comparison.
Joe had only been in the bar business for about six months when, on December 20, 1937, his first son, named Clifford Ramon (after Ruth’s maiden name and Joe’s middle name), was born at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. By all accounts, the Garcias had a very happy home life. Though the bar business was extremely time-consuming, Joe and Ruth managed to keep in close touch with their many relatives in the area, and large family dinners involving various Garcias and Cliffords were common. “The Cliffords were lovely people,” Leonor remembers. “We all got along very nicely and they were very fond of my parents, so we’d get together quite often.”
On August 1, 1942, Joe and Ruth’s second son, Jerome John Garcia, was born at Children’s Hospital. He was named after the great American composer Jerome Kern, whose bright, tuneful songs and music for the Broadway stage and Hollywood musicals made him a legend in his own lifetime. There’s no question that Joe Garcia would have encountered Kern’s sumptuous melodies during his own musical career; Kern’s music was an integral part of American popular culture from the late ’20s (when he wrote his best-known musical, Showboat, with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II) until his death in 1945.
During the first few years of Jerry’s life the family lived together in the small Amazon Street house. Clifford, who was forever branded with the nickname “Tiff” after his toddler brother’s mispronunciation of his name, went to Epiphany School, in the shadow of the majestic Church of the Epiphany about six blocks up Amazon, while Jerry stayed home with his mother; or if she was helping out downtown at the bar, he might spend the day with his mother’s parents over on Harrington Street or at one of his aunt’s or uncle’s houses. Tiff recalls going on a couple of family vacations when Jerry was still very young—to Las Vegas by train, and on a tour of some of California’s missions by car.
The whole Garcia clan often got together on Sunday afternoons down in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, where Manuel, the family patriarch, had moved during the late ’30s. “He was a very bright guy,” his grandson Daniel says. “He spoke broken English, but boy, he could talk about any political issue, and those were the kind of discussions that were held around the table when Jerry and I and all of us were little kids. I think it’s part of the reason Jerry was an articulate guy. There were hot and heavy discussions, arguments even, between my grandfather and my dad and Uncle Joe. That was before dinner. Then after dinner there would inevitably be singing. Mostly it was songs from the flapper era—the ’20s and ’30s. We’d all be sitting around a big supper table, all the cousins and the aunts and everybody, and we’d sing for hours. It was a big deal. We’d sing American songs mainly—George M. Cohan, show tunes, popular tunes from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s.”
Tiff and Jerry both took piano lessons when they were young—Jerry was four or five when he started—“but we both hated it,” Tiff says. “Even though I was older, Jerry was better than me, but neither of us liked to practice, so we never got very good.” Ironically, years later Jerry composed some of his most memorable songs on the piano, though he never did become more than a rudimentary player.
Although Joe Garcia’s days as a professional musician were over, he still played music whenever he could. He entertained the seamen who frequented his bar with the mellifluous strains of his saxophone and clarinet, and he also played regularly at home and at family gatherings. Ruth played piano fairly well, but her taste ran toward Chopin rather than popular music. She listened mainly to classical music on the family phonograph. Joe liked swing music—Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others. “There was always music in the house,” Tiff recalls, “either records or my dad playing. He had played clarinet mainly with his group, but I feel like I saw him playing saxophone more at home. There are pictures of me and Jerry with his saxes and clarinets.”
Jerry once said he had only fleeting memories of his father, but the sound of the clarinet wafting through the Amazon Street house was ingrained in his memory: “The clarinet is a wonderful instrument. It has a nice, sonorous quality. I remember the sound of the clarinet more than the tunes. The clarinet had that lovely wood quality, especially in that relaxed middle register. And that sound is very present in my ear. Sounds linger in my ear; I can recall ’em. Some people can recall smells. I can recall specific sounds—I can hear a sound and all of a sudden it will transport me to places.”
“I was in awe of Uncle Joe,” cousin Daniel says, “He would take out the saxophone and play for us and we’d sit there completely mesmerized.” Daniel remembers his uncle as “a very mild, kind, decent guy. I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. In a way Jerry reminded me of him. But Jerry’s mom was that way, too—very nice and sweet and kindhearted.”
Tiff says that both of his parents could be stern disciplinarians, too: “My dad once burned my hand to teach me a lesson because I accidentally set fire to the neighbor’s house. Actually, I set fire to some papers under a garage, but the guy happened to be a cop. Big mistake.”
The family was nominally Catholic. According to Tiff, “We went to church every Sunday, and later, when we moved down to the Peninsula, we went to church there. But my parents never came, my grandmother never came. They’d just push us out the door and say, ‘Go!’ Sometimes we’d go and sometimes we’d cut out and go get a milkshake.” In later years, Jerry recalled being alternately spooked and transported by the impenetrably mysterious Latin mass that echoed through all Catholic churches until 1962, when the Vatican II council authorized switching to the vernacular.
In 1945, when Jerry was three, the Cliffords and Garcias bought a small parcel of land and built a summer house in Lompico, an undeveloped, heavily wooded part of northern Santa Cruz County, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of San Francisco in those days. Ruth’s handyman father, Bill Clifford (known as Pop), and Joe Garcia built the redwood cabin on West Drive over the course of a couple of summers. In the early years it had no electricity. “We used lanterns, and the kids all bunked together,” Daniel says. It was hard to beat the location—just steps up the hill from Lompico Creek, which was dammed in the summer to create a swimming area, and Lompico Lodge, which was the main gathering place and watering hole for the summer revelers.
It was behind the Lompico cabin, in either the summer of 1946 or the spring of 1947, that one of the formative incidents of Jerry’s early life occurred. As Tiff tells the story, “Jerry [who was four] and I were chopping kindling outside near the fire pit—they didn’t call them barbecues back then. He would put a piece of wood down, take his hand away and I would chop. He’d put another one down, I’d chop it in half. These are long sticks, redwood branches. We got into a rhythm, him pushing the sticks with his finger and taking it away as I chopped, but in a split second we got confused and wham!—I hit his finger. It wasn’t cut clean off but we couldn’t get him to surgery fast enough and so they had to amputate it.”
“My mother had my hand wrapped in a towel, and I remember it didn’t hurt or anything,” Jerry recalled, “it was just sort of a buzzing sensation. I don’t associate any pain with it. For me, the traumatic part of it was after the doctor amputated it, I had this big cast and bandages on it. And they gradually got smaller and smaller, until I was down to, like, one little bandage. And I thought for sure my finger was under there. And that was the worst part, when the bandage came off. ‘Oh my God, my finger’s gone!’ But after that it was okay, because as a kid, if you have a few little things that make you different, it’s a good score. So I got a lot of mileage out of having a missing finger when I was a kid.”
And so the middle finger on Jerry’s right hand was amputated down to the second joint, thereby creating what would in his later years become another iconic symbol: the unmistakable Jerry Garcia handprint, seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and car window decals. “It was a total accident, of course,” Tiff Garcia says, “but deep down I felt I was responsible. I was the older kid and I was the one who actually did it. I don’t think Jerry ever held it against me, though.”
In the summers, Jerry, Tiff, their mother and various cousins and aunts would typically spend weeks on end in Lompico, while the working men in the family—Joe and Manuel Garcia, Pop Clifford and his son, Bill, who was a San Francisco fireman—mainly came down on weekends. In the last week of August 1947, Tiff went down to Lompico to spend some time with his cousins, while five-year-old Jerry accompanied Ruth and Joe on what was to be a weeklong fishing vacation up in the wilds of Humboldt County before Jerry started kindergarten. Joe loved outdoor leisure sports like fishing and golf; Tiff says their garage at home was filled with his father’s sports equipment.
On Sunday, August 24, Joe, Ruth and Jerry began the long but scenic drive north to Arcata, about 275 miles up the coast from San Francisco. They probably spent the night somewhere off Highway 101; the next day they made it to Arcata, where they were planning to stay for the week, and then drove about 30 miles inland to an area near the tiny logging town of Willow Creek so Joe could fish for steelhead in the clear, sparkling waters of the Trinity River. That part of the Six Rivers National Forest is breathtakingly beautiful, with dense forests covering the foothills of rugged mountains that range from 3,000 to 5,000 feet near Willow Creek to 7,000 feet or more in the nearby Trinity Alps. The Trinity River is rocky and wild, its currents unpredictable.
At about 5:30 in the afternoon on the twenty-fifth, Joe Garcia was in his waders, fishing in the river, when he slipped on a rock and was swept into the raging waters. Although he was a good swimmer, he was no match for the fierce current, and within a matter of moments he was pulled underwater into a deep hole and pinned there. A couple of youngsters playing on some nearby rocks saw Joe go under and immediately went for help. Three vacationing fishermen rushed to the scene and managed to pull Garcia from the water, but only after he’d been underwater ten to fifteen minutes. By coincidence, shortly after the three men brought Joe’s seemingly lifeless body onto land, a Humboldt county medical officer happened by, and for the next five and a half hours he attempted to resuscitate the victim, even using a pulmotor brought in by ambulance from Arcata. The struggle was futile, however, and at 11:15 that evening Joe Garcia was pronounced dead. He had turned forty-five ten days earlier.
(Though in a few interviews Jerry claimed to have witnessed his father’s drowning—“I actually watched him go under; it was horrible”—Tiff, based on what his mother told him, questions that. The detailed newspaper account of the drowning the following day in the Humboldt Times makes no mention of either Ruth or Jerry being on the scene; indeed, Jerry is misidentified in the story as Joseph Garcia’s “small daughter.” This is not to minimize the impact of the death upon Jerry, however.)
The next day, Joe Garcia’s body was shipped from the Chapel of the Redwoods in Arcata down to a mortuary in San Francisco. That same day, Tiff says, “My grandfather [Pop Clifford] had to drive down to Lompico from the city in his old Model A panel truck laundry wagon to tell us, because we didn’t have a telephone. He never took that wagon out of town, so we knew something was wrong when he pulled up in that. It was crushing, to say the least. It was the first death in that generation.”
“That was the biggest tragedy we’d ever had in our family,” Leonor says. “We couldn’t believe it. It took us all a long, long time to get over it.” Adds Daniel Garcia, “My father and his brother were very, very close so this was just devastating.”
Though Jerry was only five at the time, he said in 1984 that his father’s death “emotionally crippled me for a long time. I couldn’t even stand to hear about it until I was about ten or eleven. The effect it had on me was really crushing, maybe because it affected my mother a lot and I sensed that. And also, it was something I wasn’t allowed to participate in, and I think now that that was a real problem. They tried to protect me from it. That was the reason I was sent to live with my grandparents after my father died.”
Without warning—like some monstrously cruel twist of fate in a nineteenth-century English novel—everything changed for the Garcia family. Tiff briefly moved in with his uncle and aunt—Bill Clifford, the fireman, and his wife, also named Ruth—while Jerry stayed with his mother in the Amazon house. Tiff was taken out of Epiphany School and moved to a nearby public school, Guadaloupe. That’s also where Jerry spent his first six months of kindergarten. Manuel Garcia (Joe’s brother) and his family lived right near Guadaloupe, so Jerry and Tiff would usually go there after school, and then later someone would drive them back home.
“Then my mom sold the house on Amazon, so she could get into the bar business, buy out the other partner, and Jerry and I ended up moving in with my grandmother and grandfather [Pop and Tillie Clifford, known in the family as Nan or Nana],” Tiff relates. “We lived there at 87 Harrington Street, and my mom lived across the street in a cottage that my grandmother and grandfather also owned. So we lived close to my mom still, but we didn’t see her much, except on weekends. She’d take us out for dinner, or make us dinner, or we’d go out somewhere, but my mom never drove—in fact, I got my driver’s license before she did. She tried to drive after my father died, but she crashed up a couple of cars; she was a terrible driver. So for Jerry and me, our main role models for a long time were my grandparents, which was not bad.
“Before my father died we used to visit my grandmother every weekend and we spent a lot of time there, so it wasn’t that new a thing to be there year-round. In fact, it was kind of nice because we got to go out after school and play, and my grandmother worked late and my grandfather would read the paper and drink his beer—he was the type who made his own liquor during Prohibition. He was very dapper, with a vest and a chain watch. My mom was a whole lot like him; she was very neat.”
According to Leonor, most of the Garcia side of the family disapproved of Ruth’s decision to stay in the bar business. “She had been a nurse making good money, so we thought that would be better for her,” she says. “We thought the bar was kind of a rough place for a woman to be, but she wanted to stick with it, and she did for a few years. We didn’t see as much of her or the children after Joe died. Mostly they were with their grandparents, the Cliffords.”
Tiff says that shortly after he and Jerry moved into Harrington Street, Ruth bought them the first television on the block “and also this big freezer, with a complete food program. I guess she felt a little guilty that we had to stay with our grandparents. But she was only paying twenty-five dollars a month rent for the house across the street.”
In Jerry’s posthumously published book Harrington Street, a slender but beguiling collection of paintings, drawings and writing about his youth up until about age ten (he described the book as “auto-apocrypha, full of my anecdoubts”), he talks about how Bill and Tillie Clifford seemed like such a mismatched pair. She was vivacious, spunky, “a ball of fire; she was really hot.” Pop was “so dull. He was such a quiet person. This was one of the Irish guys that didn’t have the gift of gab.”
Tillie was a bright, active, very independent woman. Bill had been a laundry worker most of his adult life—he was a laundry driver mainly—and he supported his wife, but it was Tillie who made a mark in that business. She helped organize the laundry workers’ union in San Francisco, and she spent more than two decades as its secretary-treasurer. She traveled extensively in that position, attending and occasionally speaking at labor conventions. She was modern in another way, too, Tiff says: “She had a boyfriend for like twenty or thirty years that she would travel with when she took trips; he’d go along and he was a single guy and didn’t have a family. My grandfather knew, but the guy never came to the house. It was a discreet situation.”
Outwardly at least, Tiff and Jerry’s years at their grandparents’ house were fairly normal. They attended Monroe School on Excelsior Boulevard, the same school Ruth Garcia had gone to when she was a child living on Harrington Street. It was Jerry’s third-grade teacher at Monroe, Miss Simon, who first “made me think it was okay to draw pictures,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Oh that’s lovely,’ and she’d have me draw pictures and do murals and all this stuff. She was very encouraging, and it was the first time I heard that the idea of being a creative person was a viable possibility in life. ‘You mean you can spend all day drawing pictures? Wow! What a great piece of news!’ She enlarged the world for me.”
“Jerry and I used to like drawing together,” Tiff says. “I was really into drawing structures, and Jerry was more into drawing characters. When we were growing up at my grandfather’s house we used to draw on these laundry pads we had all over the house. We’d draw a little house, then get a razor blade and cut the window out of the house and go into the next page and cut another little slot for the door and so on and make these flip books.
“We also used to make instruments out of my grandfather’s antique cigar cases, which he used to keep his tools in. We’d make little ukuleles that were actually playable. We didn’t know chords or frets or anything. But we’d string them with fishing line. We went through periods where we’d make dozens of them. We were always fashioning our own little toys. My grandmother had a rumpus room under the house on Harrington Street and with my cousin [Daniel] we’d all sing and bounce around the room, and have parties.”
It’s not surprising to learn that thoroughly modern Tillie Clifford played the oh-so-’20s banjo-ukulele—“Four strings, short neck, strung like a banjo,” Tiff says. “She didn’t actually play it in our time. In fact when Jerry got into bluegrass, I gave it to him. He probably traded it somewhere along the line.”
Jerry often said that one reason he eventually got into playing country music was that Tillie listened to broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, but Tiff firmly says, “She wasn’t into country music. Jerry is fantasizing all this. We knew about it because of her tours she would take and when she’d go to these conventions. She’d bring back memorabilia from these various places. She’d been to the Opry, but she didn’t listen to it on the radio.”
Of course in the early ’50s everyone heard country-pop crooners like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Vaughn Monroe, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were going strong still. There was also a fellow in the Bay Area named Rusty Draper: “He had a kids’ show on in the afternoon when TV first came out,” Tiff says, “and in fact, one of the first 45s Jerry ever bought was a song [Draper recorded] called ‘Gambler’s Guitar.’ It was sort of countryish and it had some riffs in it, little guitar solos, and I think that’s part of what got him and myself interested in that kind of music.”
Down at the bar, the jukebox was mainly filled with a mix of big band music and sentimental ballads—a reminder of Joe Garcia’s days around the place. Sometime in the late ’40s, the Sailors Union of the Pacific bought the corner lot where the bar and hotel were located so it could erect its moderne granite-faced meeting hall. “So they made a deal for my mom to have the property across the street, which at the time was an abandoned Curtis Candy Company factory, with a hotel on top called the Claremont Rooms. It had been a funky old seamen’s hotel. Jerry and I used to go upstairs and clean out the rooms for my mom and we’d look at all the girlie magazines they’d leave.”
“It was a daytime bar, a working guy’s bar, so I grew up with all these guys who were sailors,” Jerry said. “They went out and sailed to the Far East and the Persian Gulf and all that, and they would come and hang out in the bar all day long and talk to me when I was a kid. It was great fun for me.”
In late ’40s–early ’50s San Francisco, kicks were easy to find for kids. The streets were relatively safe, so Tiff and Jerry roamed the city freely, taking advantage of the long leash their grandparents gave them. “You could take a bus or streetcar downtown, or ride your bike,” Tiff says. “The trolleys had stopped going on Mission Street, but they were still on Market. They had trolley buses that we used to climb on the back of. We went all over the place: we’d go out to Sutro Baths [a defunct indoor swimming pool next to Ocean Beach in San Francisco], and Playland [an amusement park] was out there. You could go down there and spend all day. Sometimes we’d go to Fleishacker’s—it was such a beautiful pool; it was like a lake. We’d go to the zoo [also out at the ocean], too.”
Closer to home there were inexpensive movie theaters and plenty of small parks and playgrounds to keep the kids busy. Jerry spent much of his playtime in the late ’40s and early ’50s with his brother and older cousins Daniel, Diane (the daughter of Bill and Ruth Clifford) and Dave Ross (Leonor’s son). Hanging with the big kids undoubtedly exposed Jerry to many things other kids his age hadn’t experienced, but the influence wasn’t always positive.
“I remember there was a police station over in the Ingleside district, next to Balboa Park, below City College, where they used to board horses; there was a big corral in the back,” Tiff says. “This must have been ’48, ’49. Jerry, myself and my cousin Diane were in the back there and we noticed all these broken windows and a lot of rocks around, so we started breaking windows. We figured there were so many broken ones, what difference would it make? We were bored. And it was fun—until the cops came running out from all over the place and rounded us up. I don’t remember them having weapons—Jerry liked to say they did, but I don’t know—but they scared the shit out of us. So my parents had to pay for some of the damage and we were in big trouble at home. It was a big deal to me at the time. I was very impressionable. You know—first run-in with the law, twelve years old.”
Daniel Garcia remembers another run-in with the SFPD around the same time: “Right around the corner from Harrington Street, on Mission, there was a barbershop that had one of those turning barber poles out front. It had some kind of keyhole or something at the bottom and Jerry, Tiff and I put a cherry bomb in it. Obviously we didn’t realize the power of it because it blew this thing off the wall. Glass came down; it was a mess. Of course the barber came out and he chased us down the street and then the cops came by and picked us up and put us in the back seat of the car. Then, while the cop was talking to Tiff, Jerry opened the door and jumped out and ran away, and I did, too. [In Tiff’s version of the story Jerry even kicks the policeman before running away.] We went down to Tillie’s house and Jerry was wheezing like crazy from his asthma; he even turned a little blue. It was scary. He couldn’t run for more than half a block without wheezing. I remember that well because we used to run away from stuff that we did.”
Jerry’s asthma flare-ups were infrequent, but fairly debilitating when they occurred. The typical treatment in those days consisted of getting a shot of the bronchial muscle relaxant epinephrine and then staying in bed for a few days. “He liked to say he had a sickly childhood, but that’s bullshit,” Tiff says. “He had asthma once every couple of years, and it would last for maybe a week or two. And every time he got sick, he got something. I remember he got his first 45 record player and some records when he got sick.”
But Sara Ruppenthal, Jerry’s first wife, says that Jerry once “told me a story of being sick in bed with asthma. His mother came to visit and then left before he was ready for her to leave. There’s this image of him looking out the window as she leaves, and having a massive asthma attack—making that connection between the abandonment and the illness.”
Though by all accounts Ruth Garcia tried to be a good mother to her children, the fact is she was not around much during these formative years; the bar took up most of her time. Then, in 1949, Ruth married a carpenter-piledriver named Ben Brown, who’d been working on the Sailors Union construction project, and she saw the kids even less for a while. “It only lasted a year or two,” Tiff says. “But they were friends for a long time after that. He was a drunk, but he was an okay guy.”
In 1953 Ruth married her third husband, a merchant seaman named Wadislof “Wally” Matusiewicz, in a modest ceremony in Reno, Nevada, that was attended by both Jerry and Tiff. (In fact, the two kids got stuck in a hotel elevator during this trip and had to be rescued by the fire department.) Wally had grown up in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of Polish immigrants (which didn’t stop seamen from dubbing him “Russian Wally”). He was seven years younger than Ruth and had never been married before. When they got married, Ruth and Wally jointly decided that Ruth should take a greater role in the lives of her children, so Wally took over most of the day-to-day operations of the bar.
“Then Union Oil decided they wanted to put their office building where the bar was,” Tiff says, “so the business moved across the street again, to another corner. There was a seamen’s hotel there, too, and on the ground floor there was the 400 Club. The original 400 Club had been a bawdy seaman’s bar, but my mom turned that into a typical ’50s nightclubish-type place with the emphasis on the little restaurant. It had red Naugahyde stools and a solid mahogany circle bar. It was classy, a nice place considering the other one she had. So my mom had the daytime bar business there with a little restaurant. At the time, she had the biggest day business of any bar in the city. They were selling beer at six in the morning. You had to peel some of these guys out of the bar at night. They’d go up to a hotel room upstairs. People would rent these rooms for months at a time.
“When I was in the service [in the late ’50s], my mom turned the top floor into this real flashy apartment—three bedrooms with a total view of downtown and the Bay Bridge. She had a doberman pinscher named Rusty and you could see him running around the roof as you drove over the bridge into the city.”
With the 400 Club booming, the family made the same radical move as hundreds of thousands of other middle-class American families in the early ’50s—they bought a ranch-style home in the suburbs; in this case in the town of Menlo Park, about thirty miles south of the city in San Mateo County.
“We moved to the Peninsula [as the area is known] in that furious rush to get kids out of the city—sort of a half-hearted attempt by my mom,” Jerry recalled. “I was being a kid in San Francisco. I later became a hoodlum [there]. . . . The thrust of her thinking was to get out of the city, so we went to Menlo Park, a real nice place which was just bursting out of the ground at that point. Everything was new there.”
The Matusiewiczes’ nice, if nondescript, home was on a quiet cul-de-sac off Santa Monica Avenue, half a block east of Middlefield Road, one of the main arteries that cuts through the Peninsula. Across the street were the sprawling grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary, and close by was the Golden State Dairy. Santa Monica Avenue has no sidewalks, so the overall feeling of the neighborhood is sort of rural-suburban. Certainly it was a much different world than the Excelsior district of San Francisco, which was the point, of course.
“The house was right out of Sunset magazine,” Tiff says. “We moved down there and none of us knew anybody. Still, we were pretty excited. We got all new clothes, new furniture. We had a new beige Cadillac. My mom really set this guy Wally up! He’d been a first mate in the merchant marine, but when he married my mom he became a bartender.
“But it was a culture shock, big time. There was nothing familiar. My mom was on this fetish about getting her family back together. She had a new husband, she had her kids back, she had a successful bar business. She wanted to be a housewife, really. My mom even started making some of our clothes, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She did all this drudgery and loved it.
“My father’s side of the family was really crushed when we moved down there. We still went up to visit my grandparents on weekends, and as soon as I got my driver’s license I’d go up almost every weekend.
“Before my mom took me to the Peninsula, I was raised, if I can call it that, by my grandparents, who left me largely unsupervised,” Jerry said. “I think that probably ruined me for everything—or made me what I am today. They were both people who worked and they were grandparently. They didn’t have much stomach for discipline, so I was pretty much unsupervised and I was used to having things exactly like I wanted them. I was used to getting up and doing things, doing what I wanted, coming in when I wanted and going where I wanted and not asking anybody if they cared. I was much too much that person by the time my mom tried to get us down to the suburbs. It was really too late. But the change did me a lot of good for other reasons.”
Jerry moved to Menlo Park when he was ten and was there through early adolescence, from part of sixth grade through eighth grade, which he had to repeat because of poor grades. “I was too smart for school,” he said in 1984, a chuckle in his voice. “I knew it; I don’t know why anyone else didn’t know it. I went to school; I just didn’t do any work. It’s not that I had anything against school or even learning. The point was I was reading things and I had my own education, my own program going, and I was really, really bored with school. I already had things decided for myself. I had things I wanted to do, I had plans, and I had my own interests and my own rate of learning and I couldn’t see slowing down or stopping and wasting my time for schoolwork.”
Alienated though he was from the day-to-day of school life, “I had incredible luck with teachers,” he said. “I had a couple of teachers that really opened up the world for me. I was a reader, luckily, because I was sickly as a kid. I spent so much time in bed because I was sick, so I read; that was my entertainment. That separated me a lot from everybody else. Then when I got down to the Peninsula, I had a couple of teachers that were very, very radical, absolutely far-out. I was lucky.”
In interviews, Jerry often cited a teacher at Menlo-Oaks Middle School named Dwight Johnson for broadening his outlook on life and learning. “He’s the guy who turned me into a freak,” he said. “He was my seventh-grade teacher and he was a wild guy. He had an old MG TC, and he had a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle, the fastest-accelerating motorcycle at the time. And he was out there. He opened lots and lots of doors for me. He’s the guy that got me reading deeper than science fiction [Ray Bradbury was Jerry’s favorite writer]. He taught me that ideas are fun.”
It was through the influence of teachers like Dwight Johnson, too, that Jerry was admitted to what he called “a fast-learner program” in school, sponsored by Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. “So I had the advantage of this elaborate accelerated program at school and a couple of far-out teachers who were willing to answer any questions and turn me on to where to go—‘If you want to find more, this is what you read.’”
When he wasn’t devouring George Orwell’s 1984 (a favorite of his) or more complex tomes by European philosophers, Jerry was engaged in typical adolescent stuff. Through Wally he developed what would become a lifelong interest in comic books; in those days he collected the ghoulish, “ultra-horrible” EC comics—Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and such—as well as Mad Comics (a forerunner of Mad magazine). Tiff was still a major influence in Jerry’s life, although he was nearing the end of his days at Sequoia High in Redwood City, and before he graduated he joined the marine reserves.
“I had a driver’s license so whenever we could we’d go up to the city and visit our friends,” Tiff says. “I remember Jerry and I hot-wired a car that was in my stepfather’s charge; a little MG roadster. We drove it up to the city from Menlo Park. My car [Tillie Clifford’s green ’42 Chevy coupe] wasn’t working so we used this one. I didn’t even know how I was going to do it—I undid a couple of bolts under the dash and I grabbed a bunch of tin foil and I zapped it up there, and it worked, although I singed my hands. We were mischievous in that way.”
On those weekends in the city, Jerry spent much of his time palling around with his cousin Daniel, who recalls, “We spent a lot of time at the movies; that was something we both loved. We used to go down and see every movie that came out about a musician. I remember going down and seeing The Glenn Miller Story on a Sunday afternoon with Jerry. We always had no money, so we’d go through Tillie’s pocketbooks to try to scrounge enough money to go down to the Golden Gate Theater, which was a movie theater in those days.
“I also remember going down to the Fox Theater on Market Street and Eleventh when they had the debut of Rock Around the Clock [in 1956] and that place was jumpin’! Jerry and I and two girls went to see it together. We came out of that movie with the burning desire to be rock ’n’ roll musicians. I remember him telling me, ‘We can do that; we can play like that.’ I remember that very clearly.”
Jerry was already falling in love with rock ’n’ roll by the time that Bill Haley and the Comets movie came out. Again, Tiff was his main influence—Tiff began listening to local R&B radio stations in the early ’50s, so by the time the first true rock ’n’ roll records came out, the Garcia brothers were primed. “I remember going out with a friend to this record store on Mission near Geneva called the Record Changer, and buying this record, ‘Crazy, Man, Crazy,’ which was Bill Haley’s first release out here—before ‘Rock Around the Clock,’” Tiff says. “I bought it on 78 and Jerry bought it on 45. He got a pretty good 45 collection, because my mom, being in the bar business, used to get all these 45s from the jukebox. We had tons. Most of those weren’t rock ’n’ roll, but there was some good stuff in there.”
Besides Tiff and Daniel, Jerry’s other early rock ’n’ roll buddy was a kid named Laird Grant, who lived a few blocks away from Jerry in Menlo Park. Like Jerry, Laird had moved to the suburbs from San Francisco—he’d lived in the outer Mission district, not far from Harrington Street. The two, who became lifelong friends, met when Jerry was in seventh grade at Menlo-Oaks.
“I met him because he hazed me,” Laird says. “That’s something that went around a lot back then, though it was usually a college thing; occasionally it trickled down. The bully kids—and I wouldn’t say Jerry was a bully, but he hung out with some kids who were, and he was rougher than your normal, average kid—would haze other kids. So there they were, smearing me with lipstick and shaving cream, and there may have even been some perfume involved, and one of the guys was trying to pants me. They’d do that and then throw your pants up in a tree. Jerry was one of the guys and I thought, ‘There’s gotta be more to this guy than this.’ After that we started hanging out together and we found out we actually had a lot in common. We hung out together because we realized that all the rest of the kids weren’t the same as we were.”
Tiff didn’t feel like he was fitting in very well either in school or at home, so after he graduated from Sequoia High in 1956, “I was really anxious to get out of the house because I felt like there was some kind of tension there,” he says. “My mom and Wally would argue—nothing too heavy, but I didn’t like it. It hadn’t felt right to me since we moved out of the city, so as soon as I was eighteen I was ready to get the hell out of the suburbs. I wanted to go back to the city. Instead I went into the marines. The Korean War was over by then, but you still had the drill instructors who were Korea veterans; a tough bunch, boy. Mean. But I thought if I was going to be in the service I was going to be in the tough one. I wasn’t going to be in the army or navy.”
Laird spent a fair amount of time at the Matusiewicz house (and later, at the bar) and he remembers Wally this way: “He was kind of like Popeye. He had a set of forearms on him—man, the last thing you wanted to do was piss this guy off because he’d reach out and grab you with a couple of canned-ham hands. He could get pissed off and rant and rave, but I never saw him raise a hand on anybody. He could go off—BAM!—like a firecracker, and then two minutes later he was cool.”
“Wally was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed guy,” adds Daniel Garcia. “He had a temper but he also had a great sense of humor. He used to get pissed off all the time because Jerry and Tiff wouldn’t do enough work around the house.”
And with Laird Grant in the picture, Jerry spent even less time at home than before. The Peninsula was their playground, and they darted around constantly—on bike, on foot and in buses, day and night. One of the duo’s favorite late-night activities was to sneak out of their houses and break into the nearby Golden State Dairy. “People at the dairy would be packing up the trucks for morning with ice cream and chocolate milk and all that stuff,” Laird says. “It was really easy to climb up these pine trees, throw a jacket over the cyclone fence and climb over into the place. We’d get chocolate milk and ice cream. The ice cream trucks were hard to get to, but we could always get chocolate milk.”
In 1957 the family—minus Tiff, who was taking abuse from D.I.s down at Camp Pendleton in San Diego—moved back to San Francisco. They settled briefly in the Westlake district, on a steep hill overlooking the Pacific—“in the fog zone,” as Tiff calls it—before moving back into Harrington Street, and then into the large apartment Ruth had created above the 400 Club. Jerry was enrolled at James Denman Middle School, a notoriously tough place then and now. “Denman was sort of like an intermediate penitentiary,” says Daniel, only half-joking. “Then they’d parole you to Balboa [High] next door, which wasn’t much better.”
Jerry said that Denman and Balboa in the late ’50s were “razor-toting schools. It was a matter of self-preservation. Either you were a hoodlum, or you were a puddle on the sidewalk. I was part of a big gang, a nonaffiliated gang. At that time in the 1950s, San Francisco was broken up into two loose groups, called the Barts and the Shoes. The Shoes were the white-shoe, Pat Boone– looking types, out on the Avenues among the upscale people. The working-class neighborhoods were where the Barts were—Black Bart greasers would be another expression for them. The city was divided bilaterally like that, and there would be incursions into other neighborhoods where you’d beat everybody up, or everybody would beat you up. It was a state of war, and I didn’t last long in that. I spent a lot of time in Mission Emergency Hospital, holding my lip together, or my eye, because some guy had hit me with a board.”
Jerry Garcia, in fights? “It might have happened,” says Tiff, who was in the marines at the time. “It probably did a couple of times. Hey, it’s colorful. And there was definitely trouble to be found. When he left the Peninsula and came back to San Francisco and went to Balboa, it was a big change for him. It was going from the suburbs to the city, no doubt about it. I mean, when we first moved down to Menlo Park, I had a reputation for being a bad guy just because I was from the city. Thirty miles back then seemed like it was halfway across the state; it was just a different world. If we had stayed in the city back then, we probably both would have wound up in jail.”
Daniel Garcia’s perspective is a little different: “Jerry liked to think of himself as a tough guy, but he was anything but. He had more of his mother in him than you’d think. He was a very benign guy, in fact. I can never remember being in a fight with him, and I was in plenty of fights. Tiff could knock your lights out at the drop of a hat. But Jerry wasn’t a tough guy. He went to a tough school. Jerry was a clean-cut guy, if you want to know the truth. We were into music and we smoked cigarettes and that’s about the wildest thing he did. I don’t remember him drinking booze; that wasn’t part of our lives at all. And I don’t remember Jerry dating at all at that time. We were too shy to go to dances.”
On August 1, 1957, Jerry turned fifteen, and that’s when things really started to change for him. That birthday was the joyous occasion when his mother, finally recognizing the musician inside Jerry that was straining to be heard, broke down and got him what he’d always wanted: an accordion. Wait a minute! It’s a story Jerry told with relish to any interviewer who asked him about it: “I went nuts—‘Aggggh! No! No!’—I railed and I raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was beside myself with joy.” In another interview he said, “I [had] developed this deep craving to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with rock ’n’ roll; I wanted to make that sound so badly.”
“The accordion came from one of the people who owed my mom money; that’s how she got it,” Tiff says. “There was an electric mandolin there, and a couple of other instruments my mom had taken on from other people. So it was like, ‘Here, Jerry, want this?’ It wasn’t that big a deal. Jerry liked to sensationalize that story a bit, but that’s okay; it’s basically true.”
“I went over to Jerry’s one day and there he was fiddling with this guitar, an inexpensive, used guitar,” Daniel remembers. “He was plucking it but didn’t really know what to do with it. He knew how to hit a few notes, but he couldn’t form a chord yet. He couldn’t have had it more than three days. And I was so impressed that very day he and I went down to that hockshop on Third Street and I bought my first guitar for $25. He helped me pick it out—a lovely little acoustic guitar. So we started to learn it on our own and from a few books. We learned together and we played a lot together.”
Jerry recalled that his stepfather taught him how to put the guitar in “a weird open tuning, and I learned to play a lot of stuff before somebody showed me how to tune it [normally] and some real chord positions and things like that.” Jerry didn’t take any lessons; didn’t even know anyone who played electric guitar: “I mean, the electric guitar was, like, from Mars, you know. You didn’t see ’em even,” he said. “I was stuck because I just didn’t know anybody that played guitar. . . . That was probably the greatest hindrance of all to learning the guitar. . . . I used to do things like look at the pictures of guitar players and look at their hands and try to make the chords they were doing: anything, any little thing.”
His idols were the hot electric guitar pickers of the day—Chuck Berry, who pretty much defined rock ’n’ roll guitar in 1956–57, Gene Vincent and his guitarist Cliff Gallup, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and though he didn’t know his name then, James Burton, who played on most of Ricky Nelson’s records. Also, “At the time, the R&B stations were still playing stuff like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, these funky blues guys,” he said. “Jimmy McCracklin, the Chicago blues guys, the T-Bone Walker–influenced guys, that older style, pre–B. B. King stuff. Jimmy Reed actually had hits in those days.”
Jerry had always loved to sing—it was a singing family, after all—and he and Tiff and Daniel used to try to sing doo-wop and R&B tunes they heard on records and the radio, just like thousands of other kids across America in the ’50s. In fact, street-corner harmony became something of a national obsession among young people for a while. It didn’t require any instrumental proficiency, and everyone, it seemed, knew the songs of the day.
“I remember teaching Jerry harmony to a commercial for S&W Foods,” Daniel says with a laugh. “Their slogan, which was sung, was ‘S&W Foods / S&W simply wonderful / S&W foo-oo-oods.’ It had this big Broadway ending and the last two lines were harmonized. So that was one of the first songs I used to illustrate harmony. That and some of the songs the family used to sing, like ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘In the Evening by the Moonlight,’ an old Stephen Foster song. Jerry and I spent a lot of time harmonizing on that.”
* * *
Two other seminal events in Garcia’s life occurred shortly after he got his first guitar—he discovered pot and he went to art school.
“I was fifteen when I got turned on to marijuana,” Jerry said in a 1972 interview. “Finally, there was marijuana: Wow! Marijuana. Me and a friend of mine went up into the hills with two joints . . . and just got so high and laughed and roared and went skipping down the streets doing funny things and just having a helluva time. It was great, it was just what I wanted . . . that wine thing was so awful, and this marijuana was so perfect.” In the late ’50s scoring pot was fairly difficult, but he and Laird Grant occasionally managed to buy skinny little joints for fifty cents apiece. More commonly they dabbled in pills of various kinds—uppers and tranquilizers of indeterminate origin and potency; the gamble was part of the adventure.
Jerry’s mother might not have known about his occasional weekend pot and pills escapades, but she did know that Jerry was doing badly in school and was getting harder to discipline at home. He kept his own hours, ignored most of his schoolwork and sometimes disappeared for the weekend with friends without warning. Ruth’s occasional attempts to crack down on his bad behavior were largely unsuccessful. He wasn’t exactly hostile to her; it was more his style to figure out ways around her attempts to control him by being charming for a while and then going back to doing what he wanted.
And he wasn’t completely rudderless. After all, he spent hours diligently trying to learn how to play guitar, and in the summer of 1958 he suddenly became serious about studying art, too. “I was thinking I was going to be an artist, ’cause when I was a child, that’s where I showed the most talent,” he said. “As I grew up, most of the encouragement I got was, ‘Well, be in the arts. You’re obviously gifted.’”
A teacher at Balboa spotted Jerry’s interest in art, and that summer, “He and a friend of his named Mike Kennedy came over to the Art Institute [then called the California School of Fine Arts] as part of a program that the Institute had to provide summer instruction for high school students who had been referred from their own school because they had some real aptitude in that area,” says Wally Hedrick, an artist who was teaching at the school then. “I remember these two guys walking in one morning and they became part of the class and immediately both of them began to paint up a storm. They were really quite good for their age. Of course at that time, to me, Jerry Garcia was just another student. During subsequent semesters he took more classes, not only with me, but other faculty members.
“At that time there were two major directions the school was going, stylistically,” he continues. “One of them was abstract expressionism. But Jerry was more taken with the so-called California figurative style, which hadn’t been named at that time, but several people on the faculty were sort of known for starting it. He studied with at least one of them—Elmer Bischoff. But even before he did that, I think the idea of the figurative style was more evident in his work. I was on neither side, so whatever happened was fine with me.
“Jerry never became a full-time student, but he did become a personal friend and we’d invite him over to our parties and various social activities.”
The California School of Fine Arts was a vital bohemian hub in a city that was exploding with creativity of every kind in the 1950s. The wild, rapturous brushstrokes of the CSFA’s abstract expressionists found their musical analog in the soaring bebop flights of sweaty saxophonists blowing hard and free in a dozen big and small nightclubs around town. In the bold, imaginative forms and striking colors that burst or oozed or coolly glided off the canvases of the school’s great figurative painters, there was the same vivid sense of life and rhythm and release that flew like hot sparks off the pages of Beat poets working on broken-down Royal typewriters and ink-smeared notebooks and napkins at North Beach hangouts like Vesuvio’s, Caffe Trieste and the Place. Then there were the “Funk” artists at CSFA, whose constructions and contraptions and mixed-media whatevers had some of the bite, wit and absurdity of hipster word jockeys like Lord Buckley, Ken Nordine and the incomparable Neal Cassady.
Wally Hedrick, Jerry’s mentor at CSFA, had been in the thick of the city’s bohemian renaissance since he arrived at the school as a promising painter at the dawn of the ’50s. As early as 1953 he experimented with a sort of proto–light show machine that projected splashes of color while he played music on a keyboard. The following year, he and Deborah Remington turned a former auto repair shop on Fillmore Street into a combination gallery/ performance space called the Six Gallery. It was there on October 13, 1955, before an audience of about a hundred cognoscenti and illuminati, including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat paterfamilias Kenneth Rexroth and scores of others, that Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of “Howl.”
By the time Jerry arrived at CSFA in 1958 some of the early Beat energy had dissipated or moved elsewhere, but there was still very much a scene in North Beach. Laird Grant remembers, “We’d hang out in front of the Anxious Asp, the Green Street Saloon, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, Coffee & Confusion, and we’d go to parties here and there—there was a lot of action around; this is still before they drove the beatniks out.” Jerry, Laird and their friends also devoured the latest books by Beat writers—a dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was eagerly passed around as if it were some secret mystic text.
* * *
In the winter of 1958 Jerry’s mother had bought a vacation home for the family up on Austin Creek near the Russian River town of Cazadero, about sixty miles north of the city. Tiff Garcia, who visited the house only a few times while he was on leave from the marines, says the house was “rustic but modern. It had a nice big living room, a lot of windows; it was in a really pretty area.”
Daniel Garcia recalls, “We used to go up to Cazadero and sit in the family room and smoke Bull Durham cigarettes and play our guitars for hours. Hours and hours until my fingers literally bled. We’d play Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, everything.”
The family still went down to Lompico for part of each summer, too, though for shorter periods, and Tiff remembers a time at the Lodge there in the late ’50s when “Jerry and my cousin Danny and I played some Wilbur Harrison tunes up on the dance floor. They were playing guitars and I think I was beating on a cymbal and a box. It used to be the place for the kids to hang out, and for adults there was a bar, so they would go in there and get blasted. It was really quite a busy place; crowded.”
Daniel says that he and Tiff and Jerry practiced and played together on a number of different occasions: “I seem to remember we called ourselves the Garcia Brothers among the bunch of us. Jerry and I played lead guitar and we’d argue about who was going to play what. Jerry used to kid me—‘Hell, I play better with four fingers than you guys do with five.’ Tiff would play bass sometimes. Mostly we played by ear and copied records.” Daniel also says that in Lompico he and Jerry would practice their guitars at a nearby dam “and a couple of times we’d even get a little group around us and people would actually clap when we were done, which surprised us.
“When we were first learning, we used to go up to Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park and practice out there. We also practiced a lot at my mom and dad’s house, because they’d put up with it.”
Jerry’s younger cousin Dennis Clifford recalls a big Garcia-Clifford Thanksgiving bash in ’58 or ’59 where Jerry entertained the families with his guitar playing. “I know he was self-taught,” he says, “but he was really pretty good.” Daniel Garcia also remembers a “family reunion at [Aunt] Lena’s house in San Francisco where Jerry and I played. Boy, we knocked ’em dead! They hadn’t heard us before and we played ‘Donna’ by Ritchie Valens.”
During this period Daniel and Jerry also wrote a few simple songs together. “I still have a book where we wrote down the fingering and lyrics,” he says. “They were typical love songs. One was called ‘Fly Trap’—‘words by J. Garcia and D. Garcia.’ But mostly we played standard stuff—‘Church Bells May Ring,’ ‘Whispering Bells,’ Everly Brothers songs.”
Sometime in the middle of 1959 Ruth decided that it would be in Jerry’s best interest to get out of the city, so they moved up to the house in Cazadero full-time and that fall Jerry was enrolled at Analy High School in Sebastopol, a thirty-minute bus ride away. Jerry was not pleased about this turn of events, though he acknowledged once that “things were just getting too intense for me in San Francisco. Then I started cutting school up there at Analy, and I’d steal my mother’s car and I’d go down to the Peninsula—I had a girlfriend down there [in Redwood City].”
When the fall semester ended at Analy in late January 1960, Jerry decided he’d had enough. He was unhappy in school, unhappy at home and had no notions of getting a job, either. After bumming around for two months, splitting his time between his girlfriend’s house and various friends’ pads in San Francisco, he made a decision that obviously came more out of desperation than rational analysis: he joined the army, enlisting at a recruiting office in Oakland on April 12. Since he was still only seventeen at the time, his mother had to sign the papers; now both of her sons were in the military. At least it was peacetime.
To say that Jerry Garcia wasn’t exactly “army material” would be putting it mildly. He related more to the rebellious Brando in The Wild One than to John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and he wasn’t about to leave Kerouac and Chuck Berry behind just because his hair was short and he wore a khaki uniform. By his own admission, he was lazy and “pathologically anti-authoritarian,” but no doubt the military has made “men” out of tougher cases than his, and he was always such a genial and enthusiastic fellow that he probably convinced the recruiters, and maybe even himself, that this was the best move for him. Tiff says he tried to talk Jerry out of enlisting—after all, he knew both the military and his brother—but, as Jerry put it, “I wanted so badly to see the world; it was the only hope I had. The only reason I wanted to go into the army was to go someplace—Germany, Korea, Japan, anyplace.”
From mid-April to July of 1960, Jerry did his basic combat training at Fort Ord, a scenic if slightly desolate base near Monterey, on the Pacific Coast 125 miles south of San Francisco. He wasn’t a total washout as an army man: at Fort Ord he earned decorations for carbine sharpshooting and for “Basic Missileman (Surface to Air Missile)” training. Clearly, though, he had things other than soldiering on his mind. There was his girlfriend, whom he visited in Redwood City whenever he could, and Laird Grant helped make sure that Jerry’s time at Fort Ord wasn’t too dull:
“I’d go on base and we’d go to the PX and get a bunch of beer and put it in my ’47 Cadillac convertible and drive around and throw beer cans at the sentries,” Laird says. “I had a whole bunch of crazy people that were dressed in weird costumes, people from Redwood City, like his girlfriend. I drove around with a leopardskin vest and cutoff patent leather shorts and a top hat with a dead mole on top of it.”
In July and August of 1960 Jerry was in an advanced individual training program at Fort Ord learning how to be an auto maintenance helper. He had always been interested in cars, but Laird Grant says, “The army said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and he said, ‘I want to do electronics,’ but instead they gave him motor pool! He told me, ‘If I’d asked for motor pool they would have given me electronics!’ That’s the way the army was in those days—if you were interested in something, they weren’t interested in you being interested in it. They want to mold you their own way.”
When Private Recruit (PV1) Garcia completed his service school training in late August, the army gave him his initial base assignment: not to some exotic foreign port of call, but to Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco’s Presidio, “a beautiful, lovely spot overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and all that, and these neat old barracks, and almost nothing to do.” Jerry said of that period, “Once you’re out of basic training, being in the army is like having a bad job. I didn’t take it seriously. They’re very tough about showing up for the morning roll-call trip—reveille. And if you’re not there, that’s called AWOL. You pile up nine or ten of those and it doesn’t look good on the record.
“In the army you get involved in these soap opera scenes,” he continued. “I had this friend who I had met when I was in base training at Fort Ord. This guy had married the oldest sister of the girl I was going with [in Redwood City]. He was one of those incorrigible guys, one of those guys with a ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ tattoo; that kind of guy. A great guy but a total fuckup. So he was doing stuff like robbing banks and getting into tremendous big trouble, and the family was asking me to help out, because I was the way this guy had gotten into this little working-class family and [I] put him together with the sister he’d married. So [one time] I was hung up with this guy and he was threatening to commit suicide in a hotel room in Redwood City. So of course I was late the next morning to roll call. I thought it was more important to sit there and bullshit with the guy. It was stuff like that; things that I didn’t have that much control over. I didn’t do it on purpose, certainly, but the way it works is these things pile up.”
The flip side to Garcia’s relationship with this acquaintance who was, in Jerry’s words, “trouble incarnate,” is that he was a good fingerpicking guitarist and “I was totally fascinated by it.” Garcia had brought his second electric guitar, a Sears Silvertone, into the army with him, but “I was just a three-chorder then” (a slight exaggeration; by all accounts he played competent rock ’n’ roll guitar), and learning the rudiments of acoustic fingerpicking opened up a new world for him. “That’s how I got into fingerpicking the acoustic guitar, country music, the banjo, folk music, the traditional stuff, all that,” he said in 1971.
The episode in the Redwood City hotel may or may not have been the incident that actually led to Garcia’s being convicted at a Summary Court-Martial on October 19, 1960. That military court found that “On or about October 15, 1960, [JG] broke restriction to battery area.” It’s unclear how long he was illegally off-base, but cousin Daniel Garcia recalls a time during this period when “U.S. marshals came to my house looking for him because he’d gone AWOL. You can’t walk away from the army; they take a dim view of that. It scared the hell out of my mother, as you can imagine.”
According to Jerry, not long after the court-martial, “My company commander asked me in one day and said, ‘Hey Garcia, would you like to get out of the army?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’” What might have gone on behind the scenes to expedite Jerry’s departure from the service—did his commander simply want this insubordinate bad egg out of the army?—we may never know; that sort of information is sealed in his military records.
Thirty-five years later, Daniel Garcia is still incredulous that getting out of the military could have been that easy: “You can’t just say, ‘I don’t want to be here, bye-bye.’ Half the army would leave. It doesn’t work that way. It’s nearly impossible to get out of there unless you’re a Section 8, and you have to prove that you’re really a nutcase to get that.” Actually, there is another criterion, which might have been used in Jerry’s case: “Failure to Adapt,” which includes the category “Not suited to the military lifestyle.” Indeed.
“You’ve got to remember that this is the guy who could fall in the proverbial bucket of you-know-what and come out like a rose,” Daniel says. “If he and his brother and I would get in trouble, Jerry would get out of it and Tiff and I would get in trouble; it never failed. We once stole some Silly Putty from a department store and his mother found this big stash of it in his room and I got in trouble because he told his mother I had given it to him. But you couldn’t stay mad at him too long because he was such a likable guy. He was always getting out of scrapes like that, and the service was probably just another one for him.”
And so, on December 14, 1960, Jerry’s dubious military career came to an end, and he was out on his own for the first time—eighteen years old, with no plans, no family attachments (at last!), no commitments and no job prospects; finally free. Better take a page out of On the Road for this one:
“It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. ‘Whooee!’ yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!”
Recall the Days That Still Are to Come
e’ll probably never know precisely what was going through Jerry’s head when he got out of the army, but one thing is certain—he made a conscious effort to disconnect from his family. Tiff had only sporadic contact with him over the next few years, his cousin Daniel didn’t see him at all for a couple of years and he completely ignored his mother and grandmother. Pop Clifford had died in February of 1960, and later that year Ruth split up with Wally and moved back into Harrington Street to be with Tillie, whose health and mental faculties had become somewhat precarious. Ruth sold her liquor license at some point, and later the building that housed the 400 Club was torn down to make way for a new entrance onto the Bay Bridge. Ruth returned to her first career—working as a pediatric nurse at San Francisco General Hospital—and Wally went back to being a seaman full-time for the Pacific Far East Lines. He and Ruth remarried and divorced again but continued to live together on and off at Harrington Street. Early in the afternoon of February 12, 1962, Wally was driving Ruth to work when he suffered a massive heart attack. Ruth had to wrestle the car to the side of the road and then drive Wally to San Francisco General, where he was pronounced dead at 3:20 P.M. After a funeral a couple of days later (which Jerry did not attend), Wally’s body was shipped to Jersey City for burial.
“I broke off all communication with my family when I went into the army,” Jerry said, “and they didn’t even know that I was out of the army. . . . I just didn’t want to say anything to anybody. . . . I just wanted to be goofing off. I didn’t want to get a job or go to college or do any of that stuff. So there was nobody after me to do it. I heard from people who had heard from [my family]. They knew I was okay.”
Jerry said that he migrated back down to the Peninsula after his stint in the army because “that’s where my friends were. I had a girlfriend in Redwood City when I was in the army and I met some people, this older couple, who lived in Redwood City—very nice people from Salt Lake City—and they moved down to Palo Alto and they offered me a place to stay when I was discharged. I thought, ‘Oh gee, that would be great.’ So I went to Palo Alto and I hung out there in the good graces of these nice people from Salt Lake City who put me up.”
Located about forty miles south of San Francisco, Palo Alto is a genteel suburban city of about 59,000 (it had about 52,000 in 1960) with a nearly perfect climate and block after block of American-dream houses and Edenic yards brimming with an exceptionally large variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. There are long, wide roads lined with white-blossomed magnolias, and great grassy parks dotted with willows and rhododendron. It’s probably best known as the home of Stanford University, itself an incredible California dreamscape, not to mention one of the best schools in the world. There’s lots of old and new money in Palo Alto; it’s filled with professionals who have chosen to bring up their children in more idyllic surroundings than the big city offers.
Of course there’s more to Palo Alto than that neatly manicured portrait. And that’s hardly the world that Jerry dropped into when he dropped out of the military.
Like most progressive university towns, Palo Alto has always been home to a sizable bohemian element—artists, dancers, musicians and freethinking literary types either connected to Stanford in some way or attracted by the surrounding creative-intellectual milieu. There’s always a lot happening on and around campus, so it’s hardly surprising that the area was a magnet for bright, curious teenagers and young adults. And in those days it was easy to live cheaply by renting rooms in any of dozens of old clapboard Victorians near campus, or by moving away from the downtown area altogether: Menlo Park to the north has more affordable housing, and in Palo Alto the farther west you move from Stanford’s towering eucalyptus groves, date palms and golden-stoned buildings, the more you encounter ordinary middle-class homes that were built in the late ’40s and early ’50s to accommodate an influx of baby boom families. And then, east across Highway 101 as you approach the shores of San Francisco Bay, there’s East Palo Alto, mainly black and poor, a thousand miles away from lily-white Stanford culturally, if not geographically.
It’s not clear how long Jerry stayed with the couple from Salt Lake City—whether it was a matter of days or weeks—but sometime right after he arrived on the Peninsula, his bad-news army buddy showed up unannounced at the house, parking his stolen car outside: “He’s got a fella with him, both of ’em dressed in suits and packing irons, and they had just done a string of bank robberies up and down the coast!” Jerry recalled. “I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I’d like to not see so much of this guy and his crime scene any longer.’”
Jerry had no visible means of support when he arrived in Palo Alto, but through his friend Laird Grant and his own natural openness and affability he managed to plug into several different social scenes almost immediately. The main one revolved around Kepler’s Books, on El Camino Real, just a few blocks from Stanford in neighboring Menlo Park. More than just a bookstore, Kepler’s was a serious hangout that attracted all sorts of interesting characters, and indeed, it was at Kepler’s that Jerry met a number of the people who would be part of his remarkable odyssey over the next three-plus decades.
One person he encountered very quickly after moving to the Peninsula was a slight eighteen-year-old Englishman named Alan Trist, who had moved to Palo Alto in November 1960 when his father began a yearlong fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences. To occupy his days and keep his mind sharp for the three years of study at Cambridge he still had in front of him, Alan was auditing courses at Stanford, until fate intervened:
“One of the other Fellows at the center had a daughter, Karen Kaplan, and they had a dinner party one night and she said, ‘Well, if you want something to do here, you should see what’s going on down at Kepler’s,’” Trist says. “So the very next day I went down to Kepler’s, where I met Jerry. He was sitting on a coffee table playing the guitar and we struck up an instant relationship. Jerry had this amazing way about him, and it happened the first time I sat across the table from him—he would just sit there and play and look at you and smile. His charisma was really attractive. After that I didn’t want to audit any more courses at Stanford, because here was a bookstore where Roy Kepler allowed people to sit around all day and read the books and play music and talk. You could even take the books home overnight if you wanted.”
Kepler’s was more than just a boho hangout, for owner Roy Kepler was also one of the area’s best-known peace activists, so the store attracted people from that world, too. Both Kepler and Ira Sandperl, who worked at Kepler’s and also taught at the progressive Peninsula School nearby, had been instrumental in starting the Peninsula Peace Center in the late ’50s over on Stanford Avenue in south Palo Alto. The Peace Center became an organizing hub for all sorts of pacifist political activity during that era, such as mobilizing against further nuclear proliferation and testing. “Ban the Bomb” was the slogan of the day, when the devastation of the Korean War was fresh in people’s minds and the cold war was still heating up.
To help pay the rent on the ramshackle house that was headquarters of the Peace Center, Kepler and Sandperl used to rent out most of the rooms, at first mainly to needy Stanford students, but then to anyone who could afford the dirt-cheap monthly rent. Sandperl says that the staff at Kepler’s also regularly helped its more indigent customers—which in short order came to include Jerry and most of his friends—to find places to live or crash for a day or two.
“The Palo Alto Peace Center was a great place for social trips,” Jerry said. “The Peace Center was the place where the sons and daughters of the Stanford professors would hang out and discuss things. And we, the opportunist wolf pack—the beatnik hordes—would be there preying on their young minds and their refrigerators. And there would be all of these various people turning up in these scenes and it just got to be very good; really high.”
One character he met at the Peace Center who became a lifelong friend was Willy Legate, a brilliant, red-haired, red-bearded College of the Redlands dropout and would-be communist—“I didn’t know Marxist theory then and I don’t know it now,” he says, “but I enjoyed giving the impression that I might be some kind of commie.” A deep-thinking and introverted historian, philosopher and theologist, Willy was also the first person in Garcia’s Palo Alto crowd to take LSD: In February 1959, he ingested about 100 micrograms of illegally obtained Sandoz LSD with a couple of acquaintances in his dorm at Redlands. “We listened to a lot of Bach,” he recalls. “I remember the dormitory’s hallway seemed to be miles long, and the chapel jutted out like gingerbread against the cut-glass sky.
“These guys seemed to be saying that such hallucinogens were the answer, the end—a religious thing,” Willy says. “I considered the experience a mental act, not a spiritual reality.”
Another group Jerry ran with during these first days on the Peninsula lived in rented rooms in a rambling old house known as the Chateau, on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, a couple of miles from Kepler’s. “The Chateau was this large house that was probably built in the late ’20s or early ’30s on this little knoll there,” says Laird Grant. “At the time it was owned by a guy named Frank Serratoni, who was an artist. He’d do these drawings and then put a watercolor wash on them; they sold at the City of Paris [an elegant San Francisco department store] and places like that.”
“The Chateau was mainly the various people from the Kepler’s crowd,” adds David Nelson, who met Garcia in the summer of 1961. “And defining that is kind of elusive, because a lot of them were people who had been traveling and used Kepler’s as a stopping point or meeting place. You’d be hitchhiking and coming from Big Sur or Monterey, where Emerson College was, and you’d be on your way to Oregon, where Reed College was, or to Berkeley, which had a scene, too. So there was all this commerce and traffic and different stopping places. Kepler’s was one because it was a public place. The Chateau was another because it was so loose—it was always filled with people staying with other people, and partly because of that it became a really serious party place. They were big affairs, with pot for the people who were wise to it, usually smoked out back discreetly, and big jugs of wine inside. People would play music endlessly and Frank Serratoni just let it all happen.”
Yet another meeting place was one of the local folk music spots, St. Michael’s Alley on University Avenue in Palo Alto. It’s there that the area’s most celebrated singer and activist, Joan Baez, got her start while she was still a student at Palo Alto High School, and as Alan Trist puts it, “Kepler’s was the main spot in the daytime and at night everyone would go over to St. Michael’s Alley.” Besides drawing some of the Kepler’s crowd, St. Michael’s also attracted a number of Stanford students and even local high school kids, since no alcohol was served there. Garcia and Phil Lesh met at St. Michael’s during that year.
Garcia also struck up close relationships with a number of high school students who hung around the scene, including Charlotte Daigle, a senior at Palo Alto High School whom he dated on and off for about a year after they met at Kepler’s; Barbara Meier, a sophomore at Menlo-Atherton High in Menlo Park, who would become one of his first serious loves; Danya Veltfort, a bright, politically active Peninsula School alumnus and Willy Legate’s girlfriend; and a sixteen-year-old Menlo-Atherton student named Paul Speegle Jr., whom Garcia and Laird Grant knew from their time at Menlo-Oaks.
Speegle was by all accounts a very interesting character. He was the son and namesake of the well-respected drama and music critic for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin newspaper, and he certainly had a taste for the theatrical himself. A painter of considerable renown, he regularly dressed in elegant, semi-Edwardian finery, and he was active in two local drama groups, the Teen Players at the Palo Alto Community Center, and the Comedia Theater. “Paul and Lowell Clukas were totally into Rimbaud and they were just flaunting it,” says Barbara Meier. “Menlo-Atherton High School at the time was so ’50s preppy—white bucks, crewcuts. They were definitely effete young men, but very, very bright. They were cultured. They were erudite. They had very refined taste and I think they were appalled, as I was, by our high school.”
Garcia and Speegle spent a fair amount of time together in early 1961. Jerry greatly admired Paul’s painting and his colorful personal eccentricities (this was no typical sixteen-year-old), and it was through him that Garcia became briefly involved with the Comedia Theater group. “I was just getting to be good friends with Paul,” Garcia said of this period. “We didn’t know each other that well yet, but it’s like how you know you’re going to be good friends with somebody. It’s just getting hot. I could feel that coming. We were starting to cook. . . .”
At about 1:30 in the morning on February 20, 1961, a party at the Chateau was breaking up and Garcia, Speegle and Alan Trist all piled into a 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk owned by one of the Chateau’s residents, Lee Adams, to drive Paul back to his mother’s house in the Los Altos Hills. Jerry, Paul and Alan had been playing charades—with Paul and Alan donning black cloaks at one point to mime what Trist calls “a game of death”—and they’d all had a lot to drink, including Adams, the driver. At about 1:50 A.M. the car was speeding south on Junipero Serra Boulevard near the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital at about ninety miles per hour when Adams failed to negotiate a curve and lost control of the Stude, which slashed through a fence, rolled over several times and finally came to rest on its wheels—on top of Paul Speegle, who was pronounced dead at the scene. “It was just wham!” Garcia remembered. “We went flying, I guess. All I know is that I was sitting in the car and that there was this . . . disturbance . . . and the next thing I was in a field. I went through the windshield and landed far enough away from the car where I couldn’t see it. It was night. It was very, very quiet, you know. It was like a complete break in continuity—from sitting in the car roaring down the road, to lying in a field wondering what had happened; nothing in between.”
The force of the crash was so severe that Garcia was literally thrown out of his shoes, and Adams and Trist were tossed clear of the car as well. All three were taken to Stanford Hospital—Jerry with a shoulder injury, Alan a hurt back, and Lee Adams with a mild head wound and various cuts on one side of his body. The story of the calamity made the front page of the Palo Alto Times: Under a brooding photo of Paul Speegle Jr. was a headline that read SPEEGLE’S SON KILLED IN CRASH, and the accompanying story gave the vital stats on the car’s other occupants, mentioning “Jerry Garcia, 18, 1339 Willow Road, Menlo Park, ‘fair’ condition with a shoulder injury.”
In interviews Jerry often spoke of the crash as one of the early turning points in his life: “This was crushing. This was serious. For me—I was not really going anywhere special. I wasn’t going to art school anymore, but I was playing the guitar an awful lot, sitting around and poking around the guitar. But I wasn’t thinking about myself as a guitar player or musician. I was still thinking of myself as an artist. But that was really drifting away from me and I hadn’t really admitted it to myself one way or another. . . . I was awfully happy to be alive, certainly. I was a changed person. It was cosmic. In fact, it affected our whole little community. . . .”
In another interview Garcia went even further, saying the crash was “where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life.”
Sara Ruppenthal, whom Jerry would meet and marry two years later, says that “He would talk about the accident a lot. I remember him driving me by the V.A. and saying, ‘Here’s where the accident was. I remember going through the barbed-wire fence.’ He’d broken his collarbone and was in a lot of pain but managed to walk to the V.A. hospital, but they told him, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any emergency services; we can’t help you.’ That was such an awful part of his life. It was something that was still weighing heavily on his mind when we met.”
Garcia didn’t really make any radical changes in his life after the crash. He was still essentially a homeless drifter with no money, bouncing around to different friends’ houses for as long as they would have him. Alan Trist’s parents let Jerry stay off and on in the small Spanish-style house they were renting for the year and, as Trist puts it, “He always had a graciousness about him that you never felt imposed upon.”
“In those days,” adds David Nelson, “you could basically walk around with some stuff—maybe just a knapsack, or a little bag and a guitar—and you’d set it down somewhere and that’d be where you were. There were occasional nights one place and then you’d move on to another place, and you really didn’t have to sweat it that much; you’d always wind up someplace.”
Shortly after the accident, Garcia met Barbara Meier, a bright, vivacious fifteen-year-old student who was already an entrenched member of the Kepler’s/Peace Center crowd. As she puts it, “My parents knew they could call up Kepler’s pretty much any time to find out where I was, or [the Kepler’s clerks] would cover for me and tell them I was fine.” She describes her parents as “very cool, bright, extremely literate and politically liberal.
“Part of why I flowed into [the Palo Alto beatnik] scene so easily is that at the same time my parents were in Menlo Park, my aunt, who was a fashion executive at Joseph Magnin [department store] in San Francisco, had an apartment in North Beach so I would go and spend weekends up there. I think the turning point for me, when it really fell into place, was 1959, somewhere around my fourteenth birthday. I read On the Road and then I got what that scene in North Beach was all about.”
Through her aunt, Barbara started to land modeling assignments, and her career was in full swing when she met Jerry—she often appeared in Macy’s and Magnin’s ads in the San Francisco newspapers, and nationally she appeared in Life magazine and in a Pepsodent toothpaste commercial. Jerry mocked her modeling but was more than willing to reap the benefits of the hundred dollars a day she made doing it. Barbara gave him money in dribs for nearly two years, and even bought him two guitars during that time.
* * *
In March 1961 Garcia was filling some of his evenings working the lights for the Comedia Theater’s production of Damn Yankees when he met a very interesting, seriously intellectual, similarly bohemian nineteen-year-old who had been bumming around town looking for adventures and kindred spirits following a stint in the National Guard. This was Robert Hunter, who was, coincidentally, a former boyfriend of one of the girls Jerry was dating at the time, Diane Huntsburger. Hunter and Garcia hit it off immediately, discovering they had many interests in common, including Beat culture, mysticism, James Joyce, drawing, poetry, singing, playing guitar, girls and getting high. Just a couple of not-so-regular American teenagers on the prowl for good times.
Like Garcia, Bob Hunter had been bounced around by fate most of his life. “I’m from up and down the West Coast,” he said. “I’ve lived in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Long Beach, all that, a couple of years in Connecticut, in my growing-up period.” At age nine he went through a traumatic family breakup that led to his being placed in a series of boardinghouses for a couple of years: “Made a melancholy lad of me,” he once wrote. “I was never in one place too long. I think Palo Alto about the longest of all—I spent between eighth and eleventh grade there. Up till then I think I went to a different school every year, which certainly helped develop my outsider feelings; always the new kid in school.”
One way Hunter dealt with his loneliness was to dive headlong into both reading and writing: “I always had my nose in a book,” he said. “I was getting away from it. . . . I thought that a lot of [the other kids] were just better than me. I didn’t feel that I was particularly smart, and I felt they didn’t like me for some reason. I think the reason they didn’t like me was that I was too defensive and I would strike first. But I’d just forget it all and bury my nose in Robin Hood or something like that. I think my real life was books, in my growing up. So it was only natural that I started writing. I started my first novel when I was eleven.”
Certainly there were plenty of books around the Hunter household. His stepfather, Norman Hunter, was a book salesman for Harcourt Brace and later a prominent book editor, whose high-profile authors included William Saroyan among others, “so we had a splendid library around the house.” He said, “My father certainly didn’t discourage [my writing] . . . although he told me there was no money to be made in the profession. I wasn’t as discouraged from that as I was from my trumpet and violin, which after a hard day at work, he would tolerate but not encourage.”
Besides his stabs at those instruments, Hunter took up the guitar, but it was trumpet that he played in a group called the Crescents during his senior year of high school in Stamford, Connecticut, forty-five minutes north of Manhattan on the venerable New York–New Haven Railroad line. It was an unusual quartet—drums, electric guitar, trumpet and bass clarinet. “We played Dixieland and I played trumpet and we played rock ’n’ roll and I even wrote a song called ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Moon.’ We used to play for dances on Saturday afternoons over at the Jewish Community Center and at the Veterans Hospital, where I had a good fantasy trip: ‘Blue in the Night’ with a blue spotlight on me. I got some of my Harry James fantasies out of my system.”
After graduating from high school in Stamford, Hunter had a brief and ignominious stint at the University of Connecticut: “It was my first taste of real freedom. I arrived for freshman year a week early and spent all the money my father had given me for textbooks on pinball. Fortunately, I flunked out.” Before that happened, however, he played in a folk music trio at UConn, and his second semester there he was president of the folk music club. After dropping out of school, Hunter traveled to California to pursue a girl he was in love with, but when he finally found her she was no longer interested in him. Heartbroken, he attempted to join the Coast Guard, but they weren’t accepting enlistees, so he signed on with the National Guard, which required just six months of active duty, followed by five and a half years as a reserve.
So there he was, fresh out of Fort Sill, living on his meager mustering pay in a room in the Palo Alto Hotel, when he met Garcia. Within a month of their meeting the two of them were living side by side in their cars in a vacant lot in East Palo Alto—Jerry in an old Cadillac (with the words CALL PAM written in the dirt on the back window) and Hunter in a 1940 Chrysler straight-eight he’d picked up for fifty bucks a day or two after he’d arrived in town. “Hunter had these big tins of crushed pineapple that he’d gotten from the army,” Garcia said, “and I had this glove compartment full of plastic spoons, and we had this little cooperative scene, eating this crushed pineapple day after day and sleeping in the cars and walking around.
“He played a little guitar; we started singin’ and playin’ together just for something to do. And then we played our first professional gig. We got five bucks apiece.” Their innocuous little folk act was billed as Bob and Jerry, but they performed only two real gigs—at the Arroyo Lounge on May 5, 1961 (for a payday of five dollars, which Hunter says “we decided to frame as the first musical earnings for either of us, but spent on cigarettes instead”); and a concert at the Peninsula School’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony in early June. That gig had been arranged by Danya Veltfort, whose younger sister was matriculating. Danya says Bob and Jerry took home fifty dollars for their troubles, good money for those days (and that crowd). The only known tape of Bob and Jerry was recorded by Barbara Meier’s father in the living room of her house at her sixteenth birthday party. As Danya says, “It was a big deal to be able to make a tape in those days; not like today where everyone has recorders.”
Alan Trist viewed his new friend Bob Hunter as “another fellow traveler. Like me he was really into reading; we’d spend hours having literate discussions, picking books off the shelves and getting into them. Jerry was carrying his guitar around and Hunter and I had our notebooks and we’d go places and Jerry would play and Hunter and I would write. Or we’d go to a cafe somewhere and we’d write and sometimes Jerry would sit there and draw. We’d talk and then move on to some other place.
“Hunter tells me now that Jerry and I were the ones who were raving around at the time, full of theatricality and spouting lines of poetry and being totally wild, and he was more circumspect. I think his recollection is probably correct, but what’s interesting to me is that’s not the person I later became. But Jerry was always outgoing and always had a very positive outlook on life. That’s the thing that was most important to me during that period—a pure positiveness that we were all experiencing with each other, and affirming back and forth.”
When one of them had a working car, they often would go up to San Francisco to wander around North Beach and soak up what was left of the Beat scene at places like City Lights Books and the Coffee Gallery. “It was still a vital scene, especially to those of us who were just coming of age,” Trist says.
But their outlook on life was always much sunnier and more optimistic than that of the Beats they so admired. As Barbara Meier explains, “We weren’t sitting around in our black turtlenecks, smoking Gauloises and talking about existentialism. We weren’t doing that. We were raving. The music was happening; we were singing. We were partying. We were running around the beach or the mountains. The age difference [between the Palo Alto crowd and the original Beats] was crucial. I don’t think we were saddled with that morose energy at all.”
“It’s funny, you know,” Hunter remarked. “Back in those days there weren’t a lot of people on the street, and I thought me and Garcia and Trist and the people who were hanging around there were really unique. I thought we were the new thing. It was quite arrogant: we felt that we were the legitimate rulers of the world.”
At least they were rulers of the back room at Kepler’s for a while. Garcia had traded his Sears electric guitar for an acoustic model shortly after arriving in Palo Alto, and late that spring Barbara bought him a better guitar, and shortly after that, a lovely sounding Stella twelve-string. Jerry spent hours in the back room at Kepler’s practicing and playing the limited folk repertoire he had mastered, which consisted mainly of straight-ahead popular tunes by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and other leading lights of the burgeoning folk revival movement.
Of course folk music wasn’t exactly new in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but its widespread popularity in America was, particularly in urban areas. This renaissance was driven largely by college students who had rejected rock ’n’ roll as the anointed musical voice of their generation. By 1960 rock’s initial flash had dimmed considerably, as the first generation of ’50s rockers all but vanished from the scene (Chuck Berry went to jail; Jerry Lee Lewis was tainted by scandal; Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were dead; Elvis was in the army), replaced by bland teen idols whose white-bread take on rock ’n’ roll was seriously lacking in soul and grit. And then there was the matter of rock’s lyrical content, which was mainly limited to teenage love, lust and heartbreak. Folk music, on the other hand, drew from a wide variety of established traditions, including American blues, Southern mountain music, songs from the labor movement and the dust bowl diaspora, ballads from the British Isles, sea chanteys and tunes from around the world. In an America that was furiously promoting The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best as visions of the perfect postwar world, folk musicians—like the Beat writers all through the ’50s—provided an alternative vision of the world to thousands of kids who believed that the gray-suited Madison Avenue man paradigm was just smoke and mirrors obfuscating a darker national reality that included McCarthyism, segregation, an aggressive, even jingoistic, foreign policy and an unhealthy compulsion to manufacture a perfect cookie-cutter culture.
“Having been born at the beginning of the ’40s and coming of age during the ’50s, there was an expectation of conformity,” says Suzy Wood, who met Jerry in 1961. “My sense is that there was a huge feeling of unrest, starting with those of us who had that ’50s kind of background: This is what we expect you to do—go into advertising, go into engineering, wear a suit, wear a skinny little tie, wear a dress with petticoats under it. You never fuck anybody except somebody you’re married to. And in real life people weren’t doing that. And so instead of saying, ‘Here’s the structure we’re going to fit into,’ we said, ‘Let’s trash the structure entirely. Let’s just do anything we want.’ And that was the appeal of people like Jerry, because he was doing exactly what he wanted. He certainly wasn’t being in the army and wearing a suit.”
Adds Eric Thompson, who became one of Jerry’s musical partners later that year, “The people of our generation looked up and said, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got enough to eat. We’re not at war. Everything seems to be fine. Why do I have to anesthetize myself? Why do I have to strive for this? Why can’t I strive for something that actually interests me?’ This was not something that previous generations had really done on any kind of wide scale. I think folk music’s popularity was partly a response to the repression of real life that was happening. When all of a sudden you came across this wealth of emotional music, it seemed like it was coming from a different world than the one my parents talked about, and it seemed a lot more real to me and a lot of other people.”
A musical turning point for Jerry came in the late spring of 1961. Marshall Leicester, who’d had a passing friendship with Garcia back at Menlo-Oaks Middle School, returned to the Peninsula from a year at Yale. One day, “I walked into Kepler’s and Jerry was sitting there playing a twelve-string guitar and singing tunes like ‘Everybody Loves Saturday Night,’ which was one of those kind of Pete Seeger ‘love-your-worldwide-neighbors’ songs in which the verses are the words ‘everybody loves Saturday night’ in about fifteen languages—sort of the last gasp of the politically oriented folk music of the ’30s and ’40s. I think I asked to borrow his guitar and play some of my kind of music on it, and I think we were mutually impressed with each other. We remembered having met before and we hit it off.”
Leicester taught Garcia the rudiments of the fingerpicking guitar style and also introduced Garcia to the main traditional white folksong forms of the South—old-time string band music and bluegrass. “He was playing more strum stuff, Kingston Trio–oriented songs,” he notes. “He wasn’t playing melodically oriented guitar at all. I think he’d gotten away from rock ’n’ roll, too, so he wasn’t using a flat pick, either. So I taught him how to play stuff like [Elizabeth Cotten’s] ‘Freight Train,’ and he just took it and ran with it on his own—I never saw anybody learn how to do something as quickly as he picked up on that. So from there he went and made himself into someone with a sense of style.”
The model for Garcia and many other aspiring old-timey music pickers in the early ’60s was the New Lost City Ramblers, a trio of New York City boys who were faithfully devoted to uncovering, preserving and performing rural folk songs. One of the founding members of that group was Mike Seeger, Pete’s younger half-brother, who had learned how to play fiddle, guitar, banjo and autoharp mainly from listening to old Library of Congress recordings made in the South as part of the library’s Archive of Folk Song project. In the mid-’50s Seeger had traveled through the South himself with a tape recorder, capturing dozens of obscure folk and blues performers in their living rooms and back porches.
“In those days we all wanted to be Mike Seeger, so we were all trying to learn to play five or six instruments,” says Marshall Leicester. “I played guitar, banjo, autoharp and a little mouth harp. I didn’t become a fiddler, which is mostly what I am these days, until a couple of years later. Jerry was just playing the guitar at first, but then of course he took up the banjo and got really good at that, too.” By 1963 Jerry was trying his hand at mandolin, dobro, fiddle and autoharp as well.
Another huge influence on nearly everyone playing folk music at this time was Harry Smith’s multivolume Anthology of American Folk Music, which brought dozens of folk tunes that had been originally cut as 78s between the ’20s and the ’50s to a new audience. “Back in 1961 there was only one copy around our scene, belonging to Grace Marie Haddie,” Robert Hunter said. “The six-disc boxed collection was too expensive for guitar-playing hobos like me and Garcia, even if we had a record player, or a place to keep a record player. Grace Marie had a job and an apartment and a record player. We would visit her apartment constantly with hungry ears. When she was at work, we’d jimmy the lock to her apartment door or crawl through the window if the latch was open. Had to hear those records.”
Early in the summer of 1961 a pair of folk music enthusiasts, Rodney Albin and George Howell, launched a small coffeehouse called the Boar’s Head in a loft above a bookstore called the Carlos Bookstall in San Carlos (north of Menlo Park). “George was a renegade high school student and a wanna-be beatnik,” said Peter Albin, Rodney’s younger brother, later a founding member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “My brother played banjo and fiddle and guitar; I played a little guitar, and a lot of our friends played various instruments. So we opened the Boar’s Head and we had little get-togethers there on Friday and Saturday nights.”
Besides the Albin brothers and George Howell, one of the other key members of the Boar’s Head scene was David Nelson, who in June of 1961 had graduated from Carlmont High School in Belmont. Nelson was another bright, well-read kid with music in his soul. He began taking guitar lessons when he was in second grade and even studied steel guitar when he was in grade school.
It was through the Albin brothers that Nelson met Garcia: “I still remember that moment at Kepler’s when Pete and I were peeking through some books, and we saw this hairy, swarthy guy with an open Levi’s shirt and a real brooding look and an olive wreath in his hair, playing a Stella twelve-string. It was Garcia, and he had some notoriety even then. There was something scary about him; something awesome, some invisible quality. We talked to him and Rodney put a banjo in my hand and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ I had learned a little bit of banjo from a Pete Seeger book Rodney had given me, but here I was playing with Garcia the first minute that I met him!
“So we asked him to come play at the Boar’s Head. That night at the Boar’s Head it was Garcia, who played some songs on guitar, and then Bob Hunter came on wearing his army boots, as he always did in those days, and he sang a couple of songs. And there was also David X [David McQueen, a black man in his forties who was part of the Chateau scene] and Sherry Huddleston, who’s the one who gave Pigpen his name [the next year]. It was very low-key. The Boar’s Head always seemed more like a party than a real gig. It became another place for friends to get together and play and sing.”
After Boar’s Head gatherings, Suzy Wood, Carlmont High class of 1960, often hosted parties at her parents’ large, lovely home on Debbie Lane, on a hill above the College of Notre Dame in nearby Belmont. “The way the house was set up, there was an extra lot behind the house, sort of secluded by fences and bushes, and we’d go hang out back there and pass hats and collect change and somebody would go off and buy gallons of wine,” Wood says. “That was a place that summer where there was a lot of partying, for as long as anybody could stand to lie around drinking wine. I don’t remember Jerry being into drinking particularly.
“My father was very intrigued by him,” she continues. “Even though Jerry was a dropout, because of the kind of intelligence and charm and insight that he had, he always seemed more like a leader than a bad guy. My dad thought he was a wonderful person but he’d say, ‘Why doesn’t he do something with his life?’ If there was any disapproval of Jerry back then, it was usually from the parental generation, but even so he was charming enough that they kind of threw up their hands—‘Oh, the darling boy! Whatever will become of him?’”
Marshall Leicester’s parents were a little more negative in their assessment of Jerry’s character. After the ever-homeless Garcia spent a couple of weeks crashing at the Leicester family pad, Marshall’s parents made it clear to their son that it was time for this charming “freeloader,” as they branded him, to move on.
Bob Hunter spent most of July 1961 in a National Guard summer training camp at Hunter-Liggett Military Base in San Luis Obispo, a few hours down the coast, but when he returned, he, Garcia and Willy Legate all lived for a time at the Peace Center. Willy, at least, had a political streak, but Hunter and Garcia had little interest in the center’s activities, a fact that was not lost on Ira Sandperl and Roy Kepler, who tolerated them there and at Kepler’s but never really warmed up to them personally.
At Jerry’s urging, Barbara Meier attended the California School of Fine Arts that summer of 1961, and, like Jerry before her, became close to Wally Hedrick. Unlike Garcia, however, Barbara stuck with art through the years; indeed, she is still a painter. Garcia spent quite a bit of time in San Francisco that summer, too. “Jerry lived with John ‘The Cool’ [Winter] in this hotel on O’Farrell Street, which was just down from Magnin’s,” Barbara says. “So I’d walk those five blocks from Magnin’s down to the hotel to see him. It’s hard to say what they were doing. I think they had a little benzedrine and they were kind of racing around the city. I remember being with them and we’d rave around. We’d go to parties or drive over to KPFA [in Berkeley]. Little impromptu gigs and parties would turn up.
“They’d do crazy things like go down to Fisherman’s Wharf and boost [steal] a big fifty-pound bag of carrots, for instance, and they’d live on that! He never had any money, but I was sort of supporting him. I remember that I made a point of never showing up to see Jerry without first stopping to pick up a pack of cigarettes, for instance, because he never had cigarettes. Once he had a car he could never afford gas, so I was always filling up his gas tank, too.”
Eventually Garcia and Winter moved briefly into a nice attic apartment on Noriega Street, in the Sunset district of San Francisco, that was shared by Jerry’s occasional girlfriend in this era, Phoebe Graubard, and Elaine Heise, the former girlfriend of Paul Speegle (as Elaine Pagels she went on to write The Gnostic Gospels). Phoebe had grown up in Palo Alto, where she was close friends with Danya Veltfort, but she moved up to the city to attend San Francisco State. She thought nothing of having Jerry, John and sometimes others crashing at her pad for days at a time. “It was part of that wave of Beat energy,” Phoebe says. “If you read a Kerouac book, like On the Road, it was like that. They just kind of arrived, there was this frenetic On the Road kind of energy for a while, and some of those On the Road kind of experiences and these characters, and then one day they were gone.”
Phoebe says that Jerry spent nearly all his time on Noriega Street playing guitar, trying to master old-timey fingerpicking styles, and even gigging occasionally as a solo act: “Jerry was playing in dives in North Beach, these remnants of the Beat Generation’s places, but no one was going to them anymore. He would walk in at seven-thirty or eight and there might be nobody there, and sometimes nobody ever came and he’d play his set and go. But he had an amazing perseverence.
“Jerry used to take his guitar with him wherever he went, and one time we went down to Aquatic Park on the bus. We were sitting on the grass and he was playing the guitar and this old Basque man, who worked in a restaurant or something, had a pot full of food that he was going to feed to the birds, but he said he liked Jerry’s guitar playing so he gave us the big pot of food instead. It was very sweet. And this was at a time when none of us had any money; we were very poor.”
* * *
Alan Trist bid a fond farewell to his Palo Alto mates in September of that year and returned to England fundamentally changed. He had spent the year “experiencing life in the moment,” he says. “We weren’t thinking about the future. We were aware that we were experiencing something deep at that time. There was a lot of coherence to that little scene. It was this bunch of us going all around and hanging out just for the purpose of enjoying each other and sharing intellectual and artistic experience. We were all, in the broadest sense, involved in the arts—writing or drawing or both; playing music, listening to music. We were proto-artists; that was our sense of ourselves.”
“Jerry, John, Alan, Phoebe and I stayed up all night rapping at Phoebe’s before driving up to Twin Peaks at dawn, then driving Alan to the airport for his return to England,” Robert Hunter recalled. “I consider that the end of our old scene. We all thought so. Alan was really the prime mover of our group cohesiveness. Without Alan’s social focusing skills, the main group splintered, by main force of entropy, into several scenes rather than one.”
Also departing at summer’s end was Marshall Leicester, who returned to Yale. Leicester pops back into the scene during Christmas and summer vacations for the next couple of years, but his absence forced Garcia to look for new playing partners, as he dug deeper into the old-time string band repertoire and also began to explore bluegrass a little more.
Despite the generosity of Barbara Meier, who became Garcia’s girlfriend that autumn, Garcia was perennially broke, but his friend David McQueen reveals that from time to time Jerry would do odd jobs to earn a little scratch:
“Aside from my regular job, I used to do yard work for extra spending money. I knew Jerry was broke and I enjoyed his playing at Kepler’s, so we’d go on these yard jobs so he could earn some money for cigs. It was fun for both of us. Jerry used to call me a lousy blues singer, and I said he was equally lousy at yard work. Neither of us got offended; it was the truth.
“Jerry always had a guitar with him wherever he went,” McQueen continues. “One day, after doing a yard job, we were on the way back to my house in East Palo Alto. It was summer, kids were out playing in the streets, and Jerry was playing guitar and we were singing as we walked. I looked behind us at one point and saw there was a whole group of little black kids following us and dancing, like in those great but politically incorrect Marx Brothers movies. I was impressed—those kids were for real! When we stopped, they were all over Jerry: ‘Play some more! Play some more!’ Jerry loved it.
“He was listening to a lot of Reverend Gary Davis at that time. But blues, gospel, jazz—he’d play it all. He used to jam with the drummers who came to play at Pogo’s [Norm Fontaine’s] house. I’m sure Jerry was influenced by some of the music he heard in East Palo Alto. Sometimes he’d go to the Anchor Bar—white owned, black run—which had music on weekends. There was a house band, but anyone with a union card could sit in, and name players would come by and jam after hours for drinks.”
That fall Garcia moved to the Chateau. Actually, he moved into a broken-down car that had its windows whited out and was collecting dust behind the main house. He already knew all the Chateau’s denizens, having partied there on numerous occasions since his arrival in the area, and no doubt he’d crashed there before, but this was the first time he’d actually lived there. By the middle of November, Bob Hunter was living there, too, having managed to snag a room in the main house when Carl Moore moved out. A while later Garcia moved inside to drummer Danny Barnett’s old room.
It was in that autumn, too, that Jerry first encountered twenty-one-year-old Phil Lesh, who’d been kicking around the Peninsula on and off for a couple of years, and, like nearly everyone in the area with a rebellious streak and boho tendencies, eventually found his way to Kepler’s and the Peace Center. Phil came from a very different world from Garcia’s, and there was nothing in the early days of their relationship that would have suggested they would someday become musical soul mates.
Phil, who grew up in El Cerrito and Berkeley—the East Bay, as it is known—was initially interested in classical music almost exclusively. In third grade he began violin lessons and he stuck with it long enough to become second chair in a local youth orchestra after a few years. At fourteen he dropped violin and took up the trumpet, playing in the El Cerrito High School marching and concert bands. Midway through high school Phil’s parents moved to neighboring Berkeley so Phil could go to Berkeley High, which had a much more serious music program.
Although he mainly played the classical repertoire, Phil also became a jazz aficionado during his high school days. At first he was attracted most to the music of Stan Kenton and the big, horn-heavy bands that were popular on the West Coast in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But at age seventeen, he met a bassist at a summer music camp who turned him on to John Coltrane (whom Phil dismissed initially: “I was incensed—How dare he play like that?”). It took him a while to warm up to the hot (or should we say cool?) jazz trumpeter of the day, too: Phil found Miles Davis’s sound too airy and breathy at first—“not the kind of trumpet tone I’d been taught was the hip thing,” he said.
After high school he moved to the Peninsula to attend the College of San Mateo, where he played in the school’s jazz band for two years. During his second year there, Phil wrote a pair of original compositions for the jazz band, an experience that opened up a new world to him: “That was the first real flash that I had of having ideas and writing them down.” Eventually he dropped the trumpet completely because he had decided that what he really wanted to do was become a composer—“with a capital C,” as he put it.
Throughout his time at CSM he’d become increasingly interested in both the pioneers of electronic music such as Stockhausen and Berio, and modern composers like Schoenberg and Charles Ives, who was Phil’s favorite. Operating under the mistaken belief that the University of California at Berkeley’s music program was more plugged in to this progressive world, Phil enrolled there for the fall semester. It wasn’t until he got to Berkeley that he discovered that the music department was geared to musicologists rather than composers. But on the day he was registering for classes in the department he met a fellow intellectual and modern-music freak named Tom Constanten, who became his roommate in Berkeley, and, several years down the line, the Grateful Dead’s second keyboardist.
That fall of 1961, on November 18, the crowd at the Chateau got together to throw a giant party, dubbed the Groovy Conclave, which was attended by Lesh, Constanten, Bobby Peterson and about two hundred other people—intimates from the post-Beat and folk worlds, as well as friends of friends of friends. The party lasted nearly three days. Laird Grant, who didn’t actually live at the Chateau but instead was settled in the wilds of the nearby Los Trancos Woods, even printed up “tickets” for the party. Garcia and others played music in the front room. Pot was smoked discreetly in the backyard, and the crowds went through gallons and gallons of jug wine and white port–and– lemon juice. It truly was a “groovy” scene; it was also the first time that nearly everyone from the bohemian/beatnik community on the Peninsula had gotten together in one place. These were pre-hippie days, but already some of the freak mindset was established in this crowd: they disdained the straight nine-to-five workaday world; they helped each other survive their sometimes desperate poverty; their scene was always more inclusive than exclusive, embracing misfits and outcasts as long as they were interesting; they enjoyed eclectic tastes in books and music; and they certainly seemed to share a hedonistic bent.
Alcohol was still the main drug then, but, as Bob Hunter said, “Those were seriously demented times. We were taking anything to get high: Asmador, Contac capsules—you could open them up and separate the little white caps out and take them; God, anything. There was hardly any weed around—maybe a matchbox or so every now and then. And it was nothing like what came along later; it was brown Mexican.” As the early ’60s wore on, the route from the Bay Area down to Los Angeles, and even all the way to Mexico, became increasingly well-traveled by couriers smuggling cellophane-wrapped bricks of Mexican pot back to an ever-expanding base of customers. There was also a fair amount of methedrine in the scene, which laid waste to more than a few promising souls back then, and on occasion strange things like the cough medication Romilar and various prescription drugs would turn up and be eagerly ingested. The truly desperate might even eat the cotton wadding from the insides of nasal inhalers, which were reputedly soaked in a mild upper.
Of his own preferences during this era, Garcia said, “We did a lot of playing around with these weird drugs, cough medicine kind of drugs. I didn’t like to drink ever and drugs were always much more fun for me. I loved pot. Pot was just right up my alley. Anything that makes you laugh and so you love to eat—that’s fun. To me there was no contest. That constituted our scene—we laughed a lot, really a lot. Still do. That was part of the orientation. We were basically looking for something, too. Seeking. And determined. And there was nothing pressing us to be any more structured than that, really.”
As the months passed, Garcia devoted more and more of his time to practicing the guitar and his new love, the five-string banjo, a legacy of Marshall Leicester’s influence. In fact, many days went by when Jerry literally played all day and well into the evening; this was a passion that bordered on the obsessive, no question about it. And the better he got, the more like-minded pickers he encountered.
One friend he made in the folk and bluegrass world around this time was a guitarist named Eric Thompson, a precocious and very well-connected fifteen-year-old who was a high school senior bound for UC Berkeley when he met Jerry. Though he lived on the Peninsula, Thompson had been floating around the more established Berkeley folk and bluegrass scene for about a year.
Berkeley had been the birthplace of the first Bay Area bluegrass band to come out of the folk boom in the late ’50s, a group called the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, who amassed a small but dedicated following and influenced many other aspiring players. Berkeley had a few choice nightspots that catered to the string band music crowd, including the Peppermint Stick, the Jabberwock and the Cabale; an annual folk festival put on by guitarist Barry Olivier; a couple of music stores where pickers could hang out and swap licks—Jon and Deirdre Lundberg’s Fretted Instruments and Campbell Coe’s Campus Music Shop—and even a radio station, listener-sponsored KPFA, that regularly featured folk and bluegrass programming. Indeed, Barry Olivier had started the acoustic music program The Midnight Special in 1956—before the New Lost City Ramblers hit with their eclectic mélange, and well before Flatt and Scruggs came through town in 1961 and blew away every would-be picker from Marin to San Jose, leaving them slack-jawed and envious.
KPFA was also very supportive of avant-garde and modern classical music, which is one reason Phil Lesh did some volunteer engineering work for the station during his time in Berkeley. Among the programs he regularly engineered was The Midnight Special, and one night at a party at the Chateau Phil was listening to Garcia singing and playing the guitar when he had a flash that Jerry should play on that radio show. Phil recalled, “I said, ‘Hey Jerry, if we could make a tape of you playing and singing, would you mind if I took it to Gert Chiarito [host of The Midnight Special] and played it for her?’ He said, ‘Shit no, man.’ . . . He rode with me back to Berkeley to get the tape recorder—this is when we had all the time in the universe!—and he sang and played five or six songs.”
Phil played the tape for Gert Chiarito, who was so impressed that she arranged to do an entire hour-long program with Garcia, which was called “The Long Black Veil,” after the classic murder ballad that was part of Jerry’s repertoire at the time. “After that he was almost a regular,” Phil said. “Then he started to bring his buddies up from Palo Alto.” The exposure on KPFA helped established Garcia as one of the premier pickers in the area.
Meet the Author
Blair Jacksonis a longtime journalist whose area of expertise includes Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. His quarterly magazine, The Golden Road, was for ten years the authoritative resource on the Grateful Dead. He is the author of Going Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion.
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