Today is August 9th, 2013. It was 18 years ago today that I was plunged into the heart of a darkness I still cant wrap my mind around. Jerry Garcia, the man who had lit my world on fire with amazing improvisational jams and the kind hearted grandfatherly voice, had died. My friend R gave me the news. It was via answering machine, “Jerry’s dead man” he said in a sorrowful voice.
After watching the death of Brent Mydland, one of the Grateful Dead’s finest keyboard players, I would have thought that Jerry would have been more careful. I was so certain that Jerry only used pot and psychedelics that I ignored those who had told me that he was a heroin addict. I remember long ago 2 deadhead friends trying to tell me that Jerry was a user. I was so sure it was hyperbole and i chalked it up to hatemongering among those who felt the need for something bad to happen. I was blind to the possibility that the long strange trip might indeed have some sort of end.
Despite these feelings, I had already thought about what it might mean when members of the band died. I was hopeful that some benevolent God might see the band as one of the truest voices of direction in the world but I did not really believe that by some magical cast of God’s dice that the band would last forever. Instead I postulated that the band would now and forever rotate members in the same way that Doctor Who has regenerations. The band members would change but the music, already a beacon from another world, would remain, and the world of being a Deadhead would go on far past my own life. Nevertheless the death of Jerry forced us all to come to terms with the impermanence of the world.
Jerry was my grandfather. I mean of course we were not related, and actually we were only about 20 years apart in age, but the voice he sang with, the way that he joked and talked about life, all of his mannerisms reminded me of my grandaddy. It seemed very difficult for those I was close to at the time to understand what this event meant to me. Jerry was dead. Courtney Love went to the media saying that she was grateful that he was dead. It may have been no more than a showpiece to get herself in the news, but she got no respect from me thereafter. While my non deadhead friends were not so callous, they seemed to be surprised at my grief. They tried to comfort me certainly, but deep down they did not know what had really happened. I lost one of my best friends. A friend I would never again have the potential to meet in person. A man who changed my life almost daily.
Jerry of course never wanted to be pegged as any kind of savior. “I’m fine with them following me, it is when they get the cross and nails that I get nervous”- this is a paraphrase of something Jerry said in an interview when he was asked about his fans. In other interviews he stated that he was Ok with being a leader but he wanted everyone to know that he would stumble and fall just as any other person might do. Jerry was a humble man, but he had a great many demons to wrestle with, more than most of us will ever know.
At a fan gathering approx a year after Jerry’s death, some of those of us in the tribe gathered to talk about the role of the Dead in our lives and our missing leader. John Barlow, writer for the Dead and also leader of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, addressed us at this conference. He explained that the band had made multiple attempts to help Jerry get out of the grip of heroin. he told us that the band had told Jerry that it was them or the heroin, Jerry said he chose the heroin. Later in this same gathering, in tears and anger, John blamed us for the death of Jerry. He was emotional at the time, we all were. We had gathered to discuss the future of our tribe but this was harsh. To the best of my understanding, in some sense he was right. Jerry sacrificed himself to The Grateful Dead. The role he held as the defacto leader of what really was a leaderless group, the pressure to keep creating and keep the Grateful Dead machine running, all of these stressors were what ultimately killed Jerry. Don’t get me wrong, I am not absolving Jerry of personal responsibility for his death. There is no divine entity asking for his death to appease the Gods, but the stress of that role almost required Jerry to seek refuge. In another interview Jerry stated that he always wanted to see The Grateful Dead. He stated that what we experienced as audience members was far beyond anything he could imagine and he wanted to understand the experience from the outside point of view.
As I write this I am in a melancholy mood. There is so much to say about that fateful moment so many years ago. That night, we gathered for a candlelight vigil in Piedmont park. Similar vigils were held the world over. There were displays throughout the park that had been made with signs like, we miss you poppa bear, and He’s Gone, and nothings gonna bring him back. The week that followed was one of mourning. Our local radio station held an all live Dead weekend in which they played bootlegs of Jerry’s greatest moments and solo’s all weekend long. Somewhere here in the house I have VCR tapes that I recorded of the event. I just wanted to keep it all, for posterity, for memory, and because the moment was frozen, there was no moving forward from this event.
Now here we are 18 years later. I still mourn but I see the waves that the band created. I see the way that the music, one great cacaphonous and harmonious entity, has splintered into a million myriad mirror images. The remaining band members keep the spirit alive playing a slightly smaller slate of shows than their predecessors. Each new band or configuration, mirrors the original in distorted but amazing ways. It would be near impossible to explain all of these and for those who are not already connected to the flock it would be confusing. Suffice it to say Jerry is with us in spirit in every musical gathering that bears the Dead’s music. He sits behind Phil and Bob, hopefully laughing, dancing, and digging the way the tunes have evolved. He is forever perched above whether in memory or in spirit finally able to experience a Grateful Dead show.
I miss you Jerry!