In this poignant book, journalist Mikal Gilmore weaves a narrative of the '60s and '70s as he examines the lives of the era's most important cultural icons. Keeping the power of rock & roll at the forefront, Gilmore gathers together stories about major artists from every field George Harrison, Ken Kesey, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, to name just a few. Gilmore reveals the truth about this idealized period in history, never shying away from the ugly influences that brought many of rock's most exciting figures to their knees. He examines how Jim Morrison's alcoholism led to the star's death at the age of twenty-seven, how Jerry Garcia's drug problems brought him to the brink of death so many times that his bandmates did not believe the news of his actual demise, how Pink Floyd struggled with the guilt of kicking out founding member Syd Barrett because of his debilitating mental illness. As Gilmore examines the dark side of these complicated figures, he paints a picture of the environment that bred them, taking readers from the rough streets of Liverpool (and its more comfortable suburbs) to the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury that hosted the infamous Summer of Love. But what resulted from these lives and those times, Gilmore argues, was worth the risk in fact, it may be inseparable from those hard costs.
The lives of these dynamic and diverse figures are intertwined with Gilmore's exploration of the social, political, and emotional characteristics that defined the era. His insights and examinations combine to create a eulogy for a formative period of American history.
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He was the unlikeliest of pop stars and the most reticent of cultural icons. Onstage, he wore plain clothes usually a sacklike T-shirt and loose jeans, to fit his heavy frame and he rarely spoke to the audience that watched his every move. Even his guitar lines complex, lovely, rhapsodic but never flashy as well as his strained, weatherworn vocal style had a subdued, colloquial quality about them. Offstage, he kept to family and friends, and when he sat to talk with interviewers about his remarkable music, he often did so in sly-witted, self-deprecating ways. "I feel like I'm stumbling along," he said once, "and a lot of people are watching me or stumbling along with me or allowing me to stumble for them." It was as if Jerry Garcia who, as the lead guitarist and singer of the Grateful Dead, lived at the center of one of popular culture's most extraordinary epic adventures was bemused by the circumstances of his own renown.
And yet, when he died on August 9, 1995, a week after his fifty-third birthday, at a rehabilitation clinic in Forest Knolls, California, the news of his death set off immense waves of emotional reaction. Politicians, newscasters, poets and artists eulogized the late guitarist throughout the day and night; fans of all ages gathered spontaneously in parks around the nation; and in the streets of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury the neighborhood where the Grateful Dead lived at the height of the hippie epoch mourners assembled by the hundreds, singing songs, building makeshift altars, consoling one another and jamming the streets for blocks around. Across town at San Francisco city hall a tie-dyed flag was flown on the middle flagpole.
Chances are Garcia himself would have been embarrassed, maybe even repelled, by all the commotion. He wasn't much given to mythologizing his own reputation. In some of his closing words in his last interview in Rolling Stone, in 1993, he said: "I'm hoping to leave a clean field nothing, not a thing. I'm hoping they burn it all with me.... I'd rather have my immortality here while I'm alive. I don't care if it lasts beyond me at all. I'd just as soon it didn't."
Jerome John Garcia was born in 1942, in San Francisco's Mission district. His father, a Spanish immigrant named Jose "Joe" Garcia, had been a jazz clarinetist and Dixieland band leader in the 1930s, and he named his new son after his favorite Broadway composer, Jerome Kern. In the spring of 1948, while on a fishing trip, Jerry saw his father swept to his death in a California river. "I never saw him play with his band," Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1991, "but I remember him playing me to sleep at night. I just barely remember the sound of it."
After his father's death, Garcia spent a few years living with his mother's parents in one of San Francisco's working-class districts. His grandmother had the habit of listening to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts on Saturday nights, and it was in those hours, Garcia would later say, that he developed his fondness for country music forms particularly the deft, blues-inflected mandolin playing and mournful, high-lonesome vocal style of bluegrass's principal founder, Bill Monroe. When Garcia was ten, his mother, Ruth, brought him to live with her at a sailor's hotel and bar that she ran near the city's waterfront. He spent much of his childhood there, listening to the boozy, fanciful stories that the hotel's old tenants told, or sitting alone, reading Disney and horror comics, and poring through science-fiction novels.
When Garcia was fifteen, his older brother Tiff the same brother who, a few years earlier, had accidentally lopped off part of Jerry's right-hand middle finger while the two were chopping wood introduced him to early rock & roll and rhythm & blues music. Garcia was quickly drawn to the music's funky rhythms and rough-hewn textures, but what captivated him most was the lead-guitar sounds especially the bluesy mellifluence of players like T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry. It was otherworldly-sounding music, he later said, unlike anything he had heard before. Garcia decided he wanted to learn how to make those same sounds. He went to his mother and proclaimed that he wanted an electric guitar for his upcoming birthday. "Actually," he later said, "she got me an accordion, and I went nuts. Aggghhh, no, no, no! I railed and raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy."
During this same period, the Beat scene was in full swing in the Bay Area, and it held great sway at the North Beach arts school where Garcia took some courses and at the city's coffeehouses, where he heard poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth read their venturesome works. "I was a high school kid and a wannabe beatnik!" he said in 1993. "Rock & roll at that time was not respectable. I mean, beatniks didn't like rock & roll.... Rock & roll wasn't cool, but I loved rock & roll. I used to have these fantasies about 'I want rock & roll to be like respectable music.' I wanted it to be like art.... I used to try to think of ways to make that work. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art 'art' as opposed to 'popular culture.' Back then, they didn't even talk about popular culture I mean, rock & roll was so not legit, you know? It was completely out of the picture. I don't know what they thought it was, like white-trash music or kids' music."
By the early 1960s, Garcia was living in Palo Alto, hanging out and playing in the folk music clubs around Stanford University. He was also working part-time at Dana Morgan's Music Store, where he met several of the musicians that would eventually dominate the San Francisco music scene. In 1963 Garcia formed a jug band, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Its lineup included a young folk guitarist named Bob Weir and a blues aficionado, Ron McKernan, known to his friends as "Pigpen" for his often-unkempt appearance. The group played a mix of blues, country and folk, and Pigpen became the front man, singing Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins tunes.
Then, in February 1964, the Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and virtually overnight an entire young generation was instilled with a new spirit and sense of differentness. Garcia understood the group's promise after seeing their first film, A Hard Day's Night. For the first time since Elvis Presley and the first time for an audience that had largely rejected contemporary rock & roll as seeming too trivial and inconsequential pop music could be seen to hold bold, significant and thoroughly exhilarating possibilities that even the ultraserious, socially aware folk scene could not offer. This became even more apparent a year later, when Bob Dylan who had been the folk scene's reigning hero played an assailing set of his defiant new electric music at the Newport Folk Festival. As a result, the folky purism of Mother McCree's all-acoustic format began to seem rather limited and uninteresting to Garcia and many of the other band members, and before long, the ensemble was transformed into an electric unit, the Warlocks. A couple of the jug band members dropped out, and two new musicians joined: Bill Kreutzmann, who worked at Dana Morgan's Music Store, on drums, and on bass, classically trained musician Phil Lesh, who, like Garcia, had been radicalized by the music of the Beatles and Dylan. "We had big ideas," Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1993. "I mean, as far as we were concerned, we were going to be the next Beatles or something we were on a trip, definitely. We had enough of that kind of crazy faith in ourselves.... [The] first time we played in public, we had a huge crowd of people from the local high school, and they went fuckin' nuts! The next time we played, it was packed to the rafters. It was a pizza place. We said, 'Hey, can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won't bother anybody. Just let us set up in the corner.' It was pandemonium, immediately."
It was around this time that Garcia and some of the group's other members also began an experimentation with drugs that would forever transform the nature of the band's story. This wasn't the first time drugs had been used in music for artistic inspiration or had found their way into an American cultural movement. Many jazz and blues artists (not to mention several country-western players) had been using marijuana and various narcotics to intensify their music making for several decades, and in the 1950s the Beats had extolled marijuana as an assertion of their nonconformism. But the drugs that began cropping up in the youth and music scenes in the mid-1960s were of a much different, more exotic, sort. Veterans Hospital near Stanford University had been the site of government-sanctioned experiments with LSD a drug that induced hallucinations in those who ingested it, and that, for many, also inspired something remarkably close to the patterns of religious experience. Among those who had taken the drug at Veterans Hospital were Robert Hunter, a folksinger and poet who would later become Garcia's songwriting partner, and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey had been working on an idea about group LSD experiments and had staffed a loosely knit gang of artists and rogues, called the Merry Pranksters, dedicated to this adventure. Kesey's crew included a large number of intellectual dropouts like himself and eccentric rebels like Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road) and Carolyn Adams (later known as Mountain Girl, who eventually married Garcia and had two children with him).
When the Pranksters began holding acid parties at a house in the nearby town of La Honda, California, the Grateful Dead as the Warlocks were now called became the house band for these collective drug experiments, known as the Acid Tests. These events became the model for what would shortly become known as the "Grateful Dead trip." In the years that followed, the Dead would never really forsake the philosophy of the Acid Tests. Right until the end, the band would encourage its audience to be involved with both the music and the sense of camaraderie that came from and fueled the music. Plus, more than any other band of the era, the Grateful Dead succeeded in making music that seemed to emanate from the hallucinogenic experience music like 1969's Aoxomoxoa, which managed to prove both chilling and heartening in varying moments. In the process, the Dead made music that epitomized psychedelia at its brainiest and brawniest, and also helped make possible the sort of fusion of jazz structure and blues sensibility that would later help shape bands like the Allman Brothers.
"I wouldn't want to say this music was written on acid," says Robert Hunter, who penned some of the album's lyrics. "Over the years, I've denied it had any influence that way. But as I get older, I begin to understand that we were reporting on what we saw and experienced like the layers below layers, which became real to me. I would say that Aoxomoxoa was a report on what it's like to be up or down there in those layers. I guess it is, I'll be honest about it. Looking back and judging, those were pretty weird times. We were very, very far-out."
By 1966 the spirit of the Acid Tests was spilling over into the streets and clubs of San Francisco and well beyond. A new community of largely young people many sharing similar ideals about drugs, music, politics and sex had taken root in the Haight-Ashbury district, where Garcia and the Grateful Dead now shared a house. In addition, a thriving club and dance-hall scene found mainly at Chet Helms's Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham's Fillmore had sprung up around the city, drawing the notice of the media, police and various political forces. In part, all the public attention and judgment made life in the Haight difficult and risky. But there was also a certain boon that came from all the new publicity: The music and ethos of the San Francisco scene had begun to draw the interest of East Coast and British musicians, and all of this was starting to affect the thinking of artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the same artists who, only a year or two before, had exerted such a major influence on groups like the Grateful Dead. For that matter, San Francisco bands were having an impact on not just pop and fashion styles, but also on social mores and even the political dialogue of the times. Several other bands, of course, participated in the creation of this scene, and some including Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company would make music every bit as inventive and memorable as the Dead's.
Because of its reputation as a youth haven, the Haight was soon overrun with runaways, and the sort of health and shelter problems that a community of mainly white middle-class expatriates had never had to face before. By 1967's Summer of Love, there were bad drugs on the streets, there were rapes and murders, and there was a surfeit of starry-eyed newcomers who arrived in the neighborhood without any means of support and were expecting the scene to feed and nurture them. Garcia and the Dead had seen the trouble coming and were among those who tried to prompt the city to prepare for it. "You could feed large numbers of people," Garcia later said, "but only so large. You could feed one thousand, but not twenty thousand. We were unable to convince the San Francisco officials of what was going to happen. We said there would be more people in the city than the city could hold." Not long after, the Dead left the Haight for individual residences in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
By 1970 the idealism surrounding the Bay Area music scene and much of the counterculture had largely evaporated. The drug scene had turned creepy and risky; much of the peace movement had given way to violent rhetoric; and the quixotic dream of a Woodstock generation, bound together by the virtues of love and music, had been irreparably damaged, first by the Manson Family murders, in the summer of 1969, and then, a few months later, by a tragic and brutal event at the Altamont Speedway, just outside San Francisco. The occasion was a free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. Following either the example or the suggestion of the Grateful Dead (there is still disagreement on this), the Stones hired the Hell's Angels as a security force. It proved to be a day of horrific violence. The Angels battered numerous people, usually for little reason, and in the evening, as the Stones performed, the bikers stabbed a young black man to death in front of the stage. "It was completely unexpected," Garcia later said. "And that was the hard part the hard lesson there that you can have good people and good energy and work on a project and really want it to happen right and still have it all weird. It's the thing of knowing less than you should have. Youthful folly."
The record the band followed with, Workingman's Dead, was a statement about the changing and badly frayed sense of community in both America and its counterculture, and as such, it was a work by and about a group of men being tested and pressured at a time when they could have easily splintered from all the madness and stress and disappointment. The music reflected that struggle particularly in songs like "Uncle John's Band," a parable about America that was also the band's confession of how it nearly fell apart and "New Speedway Boogie," about Altamont. "One way or another, this darkness has got to give," Garcia sang in the latter song, in a voice full of fear, fragility and hard-earned courage. Workingman's Dead and the record that followed it, American Beauty, made plain how the Grateful Dead found the heart and courage and talent to stick together, and to make something new and meaningful from their association. "Making the record became like going to a job," Garcia said. "It was something we had to do, and it was also something we did to keep our minds off some of these problems, even if the music is about those problems."
As a result, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are records that explored the idea of how one could forge meaningful values in disillusioning times. Says Robert Hunter: "When the Jefferson Airplane came up with that idea, 'Up against the wall,' I was up against them. It may have been true, but look at the results: blood in the streets. It seems the Airplane was feeling the power of their ability to send the troops into the field, and I wanted to stand back from the grenades and knives and blood in the street. Stand way back. There's a better way. There has to be education, and the education has to come from the poets and musicians, because it has to touch the heart rather than the intellect, it has to get in there deeply. That was a decision. That was a conscious decision."
Sometimes, adds Hunter, it was difficult to hold on to that conviction. "When American Beauty came out," he says, "there was a photograph due to go on the back which showed the band with pistols. They were getting into guns at the time, going over to Mickey's ranch, target shooting. It wasn't anything revolutionary; they were just enjoying shooting pistols. For example, we got a gold record and went and shot it up.
"I saw that photo and that was one of the few times that I ever really asserted myself with the band and said, 'No no picture of a band with guns on the back cover.' These were incendiary and revolutionary times, and I did not want this band to be making that statement. I wanted us to counter the rising violence of that time. I knew that we had a tool to do it, and we just didn't dare go the other way. Us and the Airplane: We could have been the final match that lit the fuse, and we went real consciously the other way."
In addition, with their countryish lilt and bluesy impulses, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty were attempts to return to the musical sources that had fueled the band's passions in the first place. "Workingman's Dead was our first true studio album," Garcia told me in 1987, "insofar as we went in there to say, 'These are the limitations of the studio for us as performers; let's play inside those limitations.' That is, we decided to play more or less straight-ahead songs and not get hung up with effects and weirdness. For me, the models were music that I'd liked before that was basically simply constructed but terribly effective like the old Buck Owens records from Bakersfield. Those records were basic rock & roll: nice, raw, simple, straight-ahead music, with good vocals and substantial instrumentation, but nothing flashy. Workingman's Dead was our attempt to say, 'We can play this kind of music we can play music that's heartland music. It's something we do as well as we do anything.'"
In a conversation I had with Robert Hunter in 1989, he revealed something else that he thought had affected Garcia's singing in that period and made it so affecting. "It wasn't only because of the gathering awareness of what we were doing," he said, "but Jerry's mother had died in an automobile accident while we were recording American Beauty, and there's a lot of heartbreak on that record, especially on 'Brokedown Palace,' which is, I think, his release at that time. The pathos in Jerry's voice on those songs, I think, has a lot to do with that experience. When the pathos is there, I've always thought Jerry is the best. The man can get inside some of those lines and turn them inside out, and he makes those songs entirely his. There is no emotion more appealing than the bittersweet when it's truly, truly spoken."
With Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, the Grateful Dead hit a creative peak and turned an important corner. For one thing, the two records sold better than anything the group had issued before, and as a result, the band was able to begin working its way free of many of the crushing debts it had accrued. More important, the Dead now had a body of fine new songs to perform onstage for its rapidly expanding audience. With the next album, a double live set, Grateful Dead (originally entitled Skullfuck, until Warner Bros. balked), the band issued an invitation to its fans: "Send us your name and address and we'll keep you informed." It was the sort of standard fan club pitch that countless pop acts had indulged in before, but what it set in motion for the Dead would prove unprecedented: the biggest prolonged fan reaction in pop music history. (According to The New Yorker, there were 110,000 Deadheads on the band's mailing list in 1995.) Clearly, the group had a devoted and far-flung following that, more than anything else, simply wanted to see the Grateful Dead live. One of the aphorisms of the time was: "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead show," and though that adage sometimes backfired in unintended ways such as those occasions when the band turned in a protracted, meandering and largely out-of-tune performance often as not, the claim was justified. On those nights when the group was on propelled by the double drumming of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and the dizzying melodic communion of Garcia's and Weir's guitars and Lesh's bass the Grateful Dead's verve and imagination proved matchless.
It was this dedication to live performance, and a penchant for near-incessant touring, that formed the groundwork for the Grateful Dead's extraordinary success for a period of more than twenty years. Even a costly failed attempt at starting the band's own autonomous recording label in the early 1970s, plus the deaths of three consecutive keyboardists Pigpen McKernan, of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, in 1973; Keith Godchaux, in a fatal car accident in 1980, a year after leaving the band; and Brent Mydland, of a morphine and cocaine overdose in 1990 never really deterred the Dead's momentum as a live act. By the summer of 1987, when the group enjoyed its first and only Top Ten single ("Touch of Grey") and album (In the Dark), the commercial breakthrough was almost beside the fact in any objective assessment of the band's stature. The Grateful Dead had been the top concert draw in America for several years and in fact had probably played before more people over the years than any other performing act in history. But the nature of the band's success went well beyond big numbers and high finances: From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, the Grateful Dead enjoyed a union with its audience that was unrivaled and unshakable. Indeed, the Dead and its followers formed the only self-sustained, ongoing fellowship that pop music has ever produced a commonwealth that lasted more than a quarter century.
At the same time, Jerry Garcia and the other members of the Grateful Dead paid a considerable price for their singular accomplishment. By largely forswearing studio recordings after the 1970s (the band released only two collections of all-new music in the period from 1980 to 1995), and by never returning to the sort of songwriting impetus that made works like Workingman's Dead and American Beauty so notable, the Dead lost the interest of much of the mainstream and cutting-edge pop audiences of the last two decades. To the band's fans, the Dead's magic lay in their live extravaganzas, where the group's improvisational bents melded with their audience's willful devotion, to achieve the sort of bouts of musical-communal ecstasy that few other rock & roll performers ever managed to equal. As a result, for many years, the Dead tended to play out their career, and make their meanings, almost entirely in the live moment, in the process attracting a mass-cult audience for whom the group functioned as the only ongoing force to keep faith with the dreams of collective utopia popularized in the 1960s. To the group's detractors, though, the Grateful Dead often appeared as little more than a 1960s relic, a band frozen in the sensibility of exhausted ideals, playing to a gullible cult audience that, like the group itself, was out of touch with the changing temper of the times. Or as one critic put it, the Grateful Dead was a group of "nostalgia mongerers...offering facile reminiscences to an audience with no memory of its own."
Garcia and the other members of the Dead heard this sort of criticism plenty over the years, and it had to have cut deep into their pride. "It's mortifying to think of yourself as a 'nostalgia' act when you've never quit playing," said Robert Hunter. "For years and years we drew an audience of nineteen- or twenty-year-old kids. Can you have a nostalgia for a time you didn't live in? I think some of our music appeals to some sort of idealism in people, and hopefully it's universal enough to make those songs continue to exist over the years."
Perhaps the general pop world's disregard and outright ridicule took a certain toll on the spirits of the various band members. In any event, something began to wear on Jerry Garcia in the mid-1980s, and whatever it was, it never really let up on him. By 1984, rumors were making the rounds among the Deadheads which was one of the best networked communities on the planet that Garcia's guitar playing had lost much of its wit and edge, that his singing had grown lackadaisical and that, in fact, he was suffering from drug problems. The rumors proved true. Garcia had been using cocaine and heroin for several years in fact, had developed a serious addiction and according to some observers, his use had started to affect the spirit and unity of the band itself. "He got so trashed out," said the Dead's sound engineer, Dan Healy, "that he just wasn't really playing. Having him not give a shit that was devastating."
Watching from his home in Wyoming, Garcia's friend John Barlow thought he was witnessing the probable end of the Grateful Dead. "I was very afraid that Garcia was going to die. In fact, I'd reached a point where I'd just figured it was a matter of time before I'd turn on my radio and there, on the hour, I'd hear, 'Jerry Garcia, famous in the '60s, has died.' I didn't even allow myself to think it wasn't possible. That's a pretty morbid way to look at something. When you've got one person that is absolutely critical, and you don't think he's going to make it, then you start to disengage emotionally, and I had. For a while, I couldn't see where it was all headed. I mean, I could see the people in the audience getting off, but I couldn't see any of us getting off enough to make it worthwhile.
"And it wasn't just Garcia," Barlow says. "There were a lot of things that were wrong. I don't want to tell any tales out of school, but I think our adherents have a more than slightly idealistic notion of what goes on inside the Grateful Dead, and just how enlightened we all are.
"What happened with Garcia was not unique."
It was not long after this time that I had my only lengthy conversation with Jerry Garcia. It was during a period of high activity and high risks for the Grateful Dead. The band was putting the finishing touches on its first album of new songs in several years, In the Dark, which, in turn, would launch the band's only Top Ten single, "Touch of Grey," a touching song about aging, decline, rebirth and recommitment. At the same time, the Dead were beginning rehearsals with Bob Dylan for a nationwide tour that would make for a series of performances that were, at times, disorderly at best, and other times, full of surprising ferocity.
Garcia and I met on an uncommonly warm evening in the spring of 1987, in the band's San Rafael recording studio. When our conversation began, we had just finished viewing a video documentary about the band called So Far, which was shot nearly two years before. So Far is an adventurous and impressive work that, in its grandest moments, attests to the much-touted spirit of community that the Dead shared with their audience. Yet certain passages of the hour-long production seemed to be rough viewing on this night for Garcia, who looked rather heavy and fatigued during the project's taping. At the time So Far was made, Garcia was deeply entangled in the drug problem that, before much longer, would not only imperil his own health but also threaten the stability of the band.
That fact lends a certain affecting tension to the better performances in So Far in particular, the group's doleful reading of "Uncle John's Band." The song, with its country-style singalong about people pulling together into a brave community in frightening times, had long been among the band's signature tunes, yet in So Far, the Dead render it as if they were aiming to test its meanings anew. In the video, Garcia and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir face off in a dimly lighted concert hall, working their way through the lyrics with an air of frayed fraternity, as if this might be their last chance to make good on the music's promise of a hard-earned bond. "When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door," they sing to each other, and from the look that passes between them in that moment, it's impossible to tell whether they are about to pull together or come apart.
It is a raggedy but utterly remarkable performance, and on the occasion of our meeting, it seems to leave Garcia a bit uneasy. "There were so many people who cared about me," he tells me, "and I was just fucking around.... Drug use is kind of a cul-de-sac: It's one of those places you turn with your problems, and pretty soon, all your problems have simply become that one problem. Then it's just you and drugs."
It is now late in the evening. The other band members have all gone home, and only a couple of assistants linger in a nearby room, making arrangements for the next day's rehearsals with Dylan. Garcia looks tired on this night it has been a long day, and the next one promises to be a longer one but as he sips at a rum and Coke and begins to talk about the rough history of the previous years, his voice sounds surprisingly youthful.
"There was something I needed or thought I needed from drugs," he says directly. "Drugs are like trade-offs in a way they can be, at any rate. There was something there for me. I don't know what it was, exactly. Maybe it was the thing of being able to distance myself a little from the world. But there was something there I needed for a while, and it wasn't an entirely negative experience.... But after awhile, it was just the drugs running me, and that's an intolerable situation.
"I was never an overdose kind of junkie. I've never enjoyed the extremes of getting high. I never used to like to sit around and smoke freebase until I was wired out of my mind, know what I mean? For me, it was the thing of just getting pleasantly comfortable and grooving at that level. But of course, that level doesn't stay the same. It requires larger and larger amounts of drugs. So after a few years of that, pretty soon you've taken a lot of fucking drugs and not experiencing much. It's a black hole. I went down that black hole, really. Luckily, my friends pulled me out. Without them, I don't think I ever would have had the strength to do it myself."
In fact, says Garcia, it was the Grateful Dead who made the first move to resolve his drug problem. "Classically," he says, "the band has had a laissez-faire attitude in terms of what anybody wants to do. If somebody wants to drink or take drugs, as long as it doesn't seriously affect everybody else or affect the music, we can sort of let it go. We've all had our excursions. Just before I got busted, everybody came over to my house and said, 'Hey, Garcia, you got to cool it; you're starting to scare us.'"
The problem became so acute that one day in January of 1985 the other members of the Grateful Dead paid Garcia a visit and told him they were afraid he was killing himself. They also reportedly issued the sort of warning they had never before issued to a bandmate: Garcia would have to choose between his involvement with drugs and the band. The members wanted Garcia to understand that they loved him, but they also wanted him to choose his allegiance.
"Garcia was the captain of his own ship," Bob Weir says of that period, "and if he was going to check out, that was up to him. But you know, if somebody looks real off-course, we might take it upon ourselves to bump up against him and try to push him a little more in a right direction."
Perhaps, in that confrontation, Garcia was reminded of something he had once said about the Grateful Dead's original lead singer, Pigpen, in 1972, after it had been disclosed that Pigpen had severely damaged his liver from drinking. "He survived it," Garcia told Rolling Stone, "and now he's got the option of being a juicer or not being a juicer. To be a juicer means to die, so now he's being able to choose whether to live or die. And if I know Pigpen, he'll choose to live." The following year, Pigpen was found dead. According to most reports, he had never really returned to drinking but had simply suffered too much damage to continue living.
In any event, Garcia reportedly made a decision: He promised the band he would quit drugs and would seek rehabilitative treatment within a few days. As it developed, he never got the chance. On January 18, 1985, while parked in his BMW in Golden Gate Park, Garcia was spotted by a policeman who noticed the lapsed registration on the vehicle. As the policeman approached the car, he reportedly smelled a strong burning odor and noticed Garcia trying to hide something between the driver and passenger seats. The policeman asked Garcia to get out of the car, and when Garcia did, the policeman saw an open briefcase on the passenger seat, full of twenty-three packets of "brown and white substances."
Garcia was arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine and heroin, and about a month later, a municipal court judge agreed to let the guitarist enter a Marin Country drug-diversion program.
Looking back at the experience, Garcia was almost thankful. "I'm the sort of person," he says, "that will just keep going along until something stops me. For me and drugs, the bust helped. It reminded me how vulnerable you are when you're drug dependent. It caught my attention. It was like 'Oh, right: illegal.' And of all the things I don't want to do, spending time in jail is one of those things I least want to do. It was as if this was telling me it was time to start doing something different. It took me about a year to finally get off drugs completely after the bust, but it was something that needed to happen."
Garcia pauses to light a cigarette, then studies its burning end thoughtfully. "I can't speak for other people," he says after a few moments, "and I certainly don't have advice to give about drugs one way or another. I think it's purely a personal matter. I haven't changed in that regard.... It was one of those things where the pain it cost my friends, the worry that I put people through, was out of proportion to whatever it was I thought I needed from drugs. For me, it became a dead end."
Following Garcia's drug treatment, the band resumed a full-time touring schedule that included several 1986 summer dates with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "I felt better after cleaning up, oddly enough, until that tour," Garcia says. "And then, I didn't realize it, but I was dehydrated and tired. That was all I felt, really. I didn't feel any pain. I didn't feel sick. I just felt tired. Then when we got back from that tour, I was just really tired. One day, I couldn't move anymore, so I sat down. A week later, I woke up in a hospital, and I didn't know what had happened. It was really weird."
Actually, it was worse than that: Though he had never been previously diagnosed for diabetes, when Garcia sat down at his San Rafael home on that July evening in 1986, he slipped into a diabetic coma that lasted five days and nearly claimed his life. "I must say, my experience never suggested to me that I was anywhere near death," says Garcia. "For me, it had just been this weird experience of being shut off. Later on, I found out how scary it was for everybody, and then I started to realize how serious it had all been. The doctors said I was so dehydrated, my blood was like mud.
"It was another one of those things to grab my attention. It was like my physical being saying, 'Hey, you're going to have to put in some time here if you want to keep on living.'" Garcia still seems startled by this realization. "Actually," he says, "it was a thought that had never entered my mind. I'd been lucky enough to have an exceptionally rugged constitution, but just the thing of getting older, and basically having a life of benign neglect, had caught up with me. And possibly the experience of quitting drugs may have put my body through a lot of quick changes."
At first, though, there were no guarantees that Garcia would be able to live as effectively as before. There were fears that he might suffer memory lapses and that his muscular coordination might never again be sharp enough for him to play guitar. "When I was in the hospital," he says, "all I could think was 'God, just give me a chance to do stuff give me a chance to go back to being productive and playing music and doing the stuff I love to do.' And one of the first things I did once I started to be able to make coherent sentences was to get a guitar in there to see if I could play. But when I started playing, I thought, 'Oh, man, this is going to take a long time and a lot of patience.'"
After his release from the hospital, Garcia began spending afternoons with an old friend, Bay Area jazz and rhythm & blues keyboardist Merl Saunders, trying to rebuild his musical deftness. "I said, 'God, I can't do this,'" says Garcia. "Merl was very encouraging. He would run me through these tunes that had sophisticated harmonic changes, so I had to think. It was like learning music again, in a way. Slowly, I started to gain some confidence, and pretty soon, it all started coming back. It was about a three-month process, I would say, before I felt like 'Okay, now I'm ready to go out and play.' The first few gigs were sort of shaky, but..." Garcia's voice turns thick, and he looks away for a moment. "Ah, shit," he says, "it was incredible. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was great. It was just great. I was so happy to play."
Garcia smiles and shakes his head. "I am not a believer in the invisible," he says, "but I got such an incredible outpouring. The mail I got in the hospital was so soulful. All the Deadheads it was kind of like brotherly, sisterly, motherly, fatherly advice from people. Every conceivable kind of healing vibe was just pouring into that place. I mean, the doctors did what they could to keep me alive, but as far as knowing what was wrong with me and knowing how to fix it it's not something medicine knows how to do. And after I'd left, the doctors were saying my recovery was incredible. They couldn't believe it.
"I really feel that the fans put life into me...and that feeling reinforced a lot of things. It was like 'Okay, I've been away for a while, folks, but I'm back.' It's that kind of thing. It's just great to be involved in something that doesn't hurt anybody. If it provides some uplift and some comfort in people's lives, it's just that much nicer. So I'm ready for anything now."
In the years following that 1987 conversation with Garcia, the Grateful Dead went on to enjoy the greatest commercial successes of their career. More important, though, was the symbiosis that developed between the band and its audience a reciprocity likely unequaled in pop history. At the heart of this connection was the Dead themselves and their self-built business organization the latter of which did a largely independent, in-house job of handling the booking and staging of the band's near-incessant tours, and which also bypassed conventional ticket-sales systems as much as possible by selling roughly 50 percent of the band's tickets through a company-run mail-order department. This model of an autonomous cooperative helped spawn what was perhaps the largest genuine alternative communion in all of rock: a sprawling coalition of fans, entrepreneurs and homegrown media that surrounded the band and promoted it as the center for a worldwide community of idealists. What's more, that community thrived largely without the involvement or support of the established music industry or music press.
But any meaningful example of cooperative community isn't without its problems, and by the early 1990s, the Deadhead scene was increasingly beset by serious dilemmas. As far back as the mid-1980s, some of the group's more reckless and unfaithworthy fans particularly the ones who gathered in parking lots outside the band's shows, begging for free tickets, sometimes selling various drugs and often disrupting the peace and security of nearby neighborhoods had grown so prevalent that some concert halls, local police departments and city councils were forced to pronounce the Dead and their audience as unwelcome visitors. The Dead often tried to dissuade its followers from this sort of behavior, but it wasn't until the summer of 1995 following some serious bottle throwing and gate crashings that resulted in riot incidents that the situation reached a crisis level and provoked a severe response from the band. The Dead issued an edict, in the form of fliers, demanding that fans without tickets stay away from the show sites, and advising that any further violent mass actions might result in the band canceling future tours. "A few more scenes like Sunday night," the band wrote, "and we'll quite simply be unable to play...And when you hear somebody say 'Fuck you, we'll do what we want,' remember something. That applies to us, too." In response, Garcia received a death threat that was taken seriously by not only the band and its entourage, but by law enforcement officials as well. After events such as these, according to some observers in the Dead's camp, Garcia and the band had seriously started to question whether many of the people they were playing to truly made up the sort of community they wanted to preserve.
But there was a graver problem at hand. Garcia's health continued to be a problem in the years after his 1986 coma, and according to some accounts, so did his appetite for drugs. He collapsed from exhaustion in 1992, resulting in the Dead canceling many of the performances on their tour. After his 1993 recovery, Garcia dedicated himself to a regimen of diet and exercise. At first, the pledge seemed to work: He shed over 60 pounds from his former 300-pound weight, and he often appeared renewed and better focused onstage. There were other positive changes at work: He had become a father again in recent years and was attempting to spend more time as a parent, and in 1994, he entered into his third marriage, with filmmaker Deborah Koons. Plus, to the pleasure of numerous Deadheads, he had recently written several of his best new songs in years with his longtime friend Robert Hunter, in preparation for a new Grateful Dead album.
These were all brave efforts for a man past fifty with considerable health problems and a troubled drug history. In the end, though, they weren't enough to carry him further. In mid-July 1995 he checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, for one more go at overcoming his heroin use. According to one report, he wanted to be clean when he gave away his oldest daughter, Heather, at her upcoming wedding. He checked out several days later, so he could spend his fifty-third birthday on August 1, with family and friends. A week later he went into a different clinic, Serenity Knolls in Marin County. He was already clean, most sources report; he just wanted to be in sound shape. This time, Jerry Garcia did not walk out and return to the loving fraternity of his band, his fans and his family. At 4:00 a.m., Wednesday, August 9, 1995, he was found unconscious by a clinic counselor. In his sleep, it seems, he had suffered a fatal heart attack. According to his wife, he died with a smile on his face.
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were so active for so long, and were so heartening for the audience that loved them, that it seemed somewhat astonishing to realize that the band's adventure was now over. Of course, anybody paying attention anybody aware of the up and downs in Garcia's well-being might have seen it coming. Still, endings are always tough things to be braced for.
"He was like the boy who cried wolf," says John Barlow. "He'd come so close so many times that I think people gradually stopped taking the possibility as seriously as they otherwise would have. Or maybe we felt so certain that this would happen someday that we had managed as a group to go into a kind of collective denial about it. I mean, I looked at this event so many times, and shrank back from it in fear so many times, that I erected a new callus against it each time I did so. Now that I'm here at the thing itself, I hardly know what to think of it. Every deposition of every imagined version of it is now standing in the way of being able to understand and appreciate the real thing.
"But this is a very large death," says Barlow. "There are a lot of levels on which to be affected here, all the way from the fact that I'm going to miss terribly the opportunity to spend time in conversation with one of the smartest and most playful minds I've ever run up against, to the fact that there will never truly be another Grateful Dead concert. I never thought of myself as a Deadhead, exactly, but that's been a pretty fundamental part of my life of all our lives for the past thirty years."
It was, indeed, a big end. To see the Grateful Dead onstage was to see a band that clearly understood the meaning of playing together from the perspective of the long haul. Interestingly, that's something we've seen fairly little of in rock & roll, since rock is an art form, the most valuable and essential pleasures of which including inspiration, meaning and concord are founded in the knowledge that such moments cannot hold forever. The Grateful Dead, like any great rock & roll band, lived up to that ideal, but they also shattered it, or at least bent it to their own purposes. At their best, they were a band capable of surprising both themselves and their audience, while at the same time playing as if they had spent their whole lives learning to make music as a way of talking to one another, and as if music were the language of their sodality, and therefore their history. No doubt it was. What the Grateful Dead understood probably better than any other band in pop music was that nobody in the group could succeed as well, or mean as much, outside the context of the entire group, and that the group itself could not succeed without its individuals. It was a band that needed all its members playing and thinking together to keep things inspiring. Just as important, it was a band that realized that it also needed its audience to keep things significant. Indeed, it would probably be fair to say that, for the last twenty years, the Dead's audience informed the group's worth as much as their music did.
In the hours after I learned of Garcia's death, I went online to the Well, the Bay Area computer conference system that thrived in no small part due to its large contingent of Deadheads. I wanted to see how the fans were doing, and what they were saying, in the recognition of their loss. For the most part at least in those first hours that I scanned the messages what I found were well-meaning, blithe comments, people sending each other "beams" (which are like positive extrasensory wishes) and fantasies of group hugs. They were sentiments that many people I know would retch at, and I must admit, they proved too maudlin for my own sensibility. Still, one of the things I had to recognize about the Deadheads years ago was that this was a group of people for whom good cheer wasn't just a shared disposition but also an act of conscious dissent: a protest against the anger and malice that seems to characterize so much of our social and artistic temper these days. The Deadheads may sometimes seem like naïfs, but I'm not convinced their vision of community is such an undesirable thing. After all, there are worse sustained visions around for example, the conservative and neoconservative ideologies that have engendered disaster in the nation since the 1980s and that still scourge any community of the misfit or helpless.
In any event, for my tastes I saw far too little attention paid by both the Deadheads and the media to just how much darkness there was that made its way into Garcia and the Dead's music, and how strong and interesting that darkness was. For that matter, there was always a good deal more darkness in the whole 1960s adventure than many people have been comfortable acknowledging and I don't mean simply all the drug casualties, political ruin and violence of the period. There was also a willingness to explore risky psychic terrain, a realization that your best hopes could also cost you some terrible losses, and I think that those possibilities were realized in the Dead's music and history as meaningfully as they were anywhere.
In fact, the darkness crept in early in the Dead's saga. It could be found in the insinuation of the band's name which many fans in the early San Francisco scene cited as being too creepy and disturbing as a moniker for a rock group. It could also be found deep down in much of the band's best music in the strange layers and swirls that made parts of Aoxomoxoa such a vivid and frightening aural portrayal of the psychedelic experience, and in the meditations about death and damage that the band turned into hardboiled anthems of hope on Workingman's Dead. And of course, there was also all the darkness in the band's history that ended up bringing so many of its members to their deaths.
Not all darkness is negative. In fact, sometimes wonderful and kind things can come from it, and if there's one thing that was apparent to everybody about Jerry Garcia, it was that he was a good-humored man with generous instincts. But there was much more to him than that, and it wasn't always apparent on the surface. In a conversation I had several years ago with Robert Hunter about Garcia, Hunter told me: "Garcia is a cheery and resilient man, but I always felt that under his warmth and friendliness there was a deep well of despair or at least a recognition that at the heart of the world, there may be more darkness, despair and absurdity than any sane and compassionate heart could stand."
In his last interview with Rolling Stone, in 1993, Garcia had this to say about his own dark side: "I definitely have a component in my personality which is not exactly self-destructive, but it's certainly ornery. It's like...'Try to get healthy' 'Fuck you, man...' I don't know what it comes from. I've always clung to it, see, because I felt it's part of what makes me me. Being anarchic, having that anarchist streak, serves me on other levels artistically, certainly. So I don't want to eliminate that aspect of my personality. But I see that on some levels it's working against me.
"They're gifts, some of these aspects of your personality. They're helpful and useful and powerful, but they also have this other side. They're indiscriminate. They don't make judgments."
Garcia, of course, made his own choices, and whatever they may have cost him, I would argue that in some ways they were still brave, worthy choices. Maybe they were even essential to the wondrous products of his life's work. His achievements, in fact, were enormous. He helped inspire and nurture a community that, in some form or another, survived for thirty years and that may even outlast his death; he cowrote a fine collection of songs about America's myths, pleasures and troubles; and, as the Grateful Dead's most familiar and endearing member, he accomplished something that no other rock star has ever accomplished: He attracted an active following that only grew larger in size and devotion with each passing decade, from the 1960s to the 1990s. You would have to look to the careers of people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis or Charles Mingus to find the equivalent of Garcia's musical longevity and growth in the history of American bandleaders.
Most important, though, he was a man who remained true to ideals and perceptions that many of the rest of us long ago found easy to discard and maybe in the end that is a bigger part of our loss at this point than the death of Garcia himself.
My favorite Grateful Dead song of the last decade or so is "Black Muddy River." It's a song about living one's life in spite of all the heartbreak and devastation that life can bring, and in its most affecting verse, Garcia sang: "When it seems like the night will last forever / And there's nothing left to do but count the years / When the strings of my heart begin to sever / Stones fall from my eyes instead of tears / I will walk alone by the black muddy river / Dream me a dream of my own / I will walk alone by the black muddy river...and sing me a song of my own."
Those were among the last words Garcia sang at the Grateful Dead's final show, at Chicago's Soldier Field, in early July 1995. Not bad, as far as farewells or a summing-up of the man's purpose might go. When Garcia died, a certain world was lost, a lingering ideal was finally gone. That hope of community that he and the Dead represented fast dissipated. The dream had long been a misapprehension, of course at least for somebody as disenchanted as myself. Still, I would trade almost anything to be in the midst of that fool's paradise once again. It was an experience too remarkable ever to forswear.
Copyright © 2008 by Mikal Gilmore
Table of Contents
PIONEERS AND A BORDER TOWN
Allen Ginsberg: Holy Man(published 1997)
Timothy Leary: The Death of the Most Dangerous Man(published 1996)
The End of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead(published 1995)
Ken Kesey's Great American Trip(published 2001)
Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of Loss(published 2007)
THE BEATLES: PINNACLES & WAKES
The Mystery Inside George Harrison(published 2002)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: Within and Without the Beatles(published 2007)
The Mystery Inside John Lennon(published 2005)
Johnny Cash: September When It Comes(published 2004)
Bob Marley's Hell on Earth(published 2005)
GENIUS, INTOXICATION, DOWNFALLS AND HARD RECLAMATIONS
Phil Ochs's Tale of American Ruin(published 1997)
Hunter S. Thompson: The Last Outlaw(published 2005)
Jim Morrison and the Doors: The Virtues of Waste(published 2001)
The Allman Brothers Band: Bonds of Music and Elegy(published 1990)
The Long Shadow of Led Zeppelin(published 2006)
The Madness and Wonder of Pink Floyd(published 2007)
Bob Dylan: Not There, Then There(previously unpublished in this form)
Leonard Cohen's Life of Depression(from 2002, previously unpublished in this form)
Acknowledgments and Memoriam