Garcia: An American Life

Garcia: An American Life

by Blair Jackson


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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 Garcia--the 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 With more than forty photographs, many of them previously unpublished, Garcia: An American Life is the ultimate tribute to the man who, Bob Dylan said, "had no equal."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140291995
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/2000
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 365,177
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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 [1906] 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.”


Excerpted from "Garcia: An American Life"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Blair Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Hopeful Candle Flickers

Chapter 1: Another Time's Forgotten Space
Chapter 2: Recall the Days that Still Are to Come
Chapter 3: There Were Days Between
Chapter 4: I Can't Come Down, I've Been Set Free
Chapter 5: Can YOU Pass the Acid Test
Chapter 6: In the Book of Love's Own Dream
Chapter 7: Come Join the Party Every Day
Chapter 8: Poised for Flight, Wings Spread Bright
Chapter 9: Where Is the Child Who Played with the Sunshine?
Chapter 10: Listen to the River Sing Sweet Songs
Chapter 11: The Wheel Is Turning
Chapter 12: Wait Until that Deal Come 'Round
Chapter 13: Line Up a Long Shot, Maybe Try It Two Times
Chapter 14: Beneath the Sweet Calm Face of the Sea
Chapter 15: Some Rise, Some Fall, Some Climb . . .
Chapter 16: The Desert Stars Are Bright Tonight
Chapter 17: This Darkness Got to Give
Chapter 18: If Mercy's in Business, I Wish It for You
Chapter 19: Dawn Is Breaking Everywhere
Chapter 20: Show Me Something Built to Last
Chapter 21: So Many Roads to Ease My Soul
Chapter 22: A Broken Angel Sings from a Guitar
Chapter 23: There's Nothing You Can Hold for Very Long

Epilogue: Sleep in the Stars

JG on CD: A Critical Discography

Customer Reviews