Written by Matt Katz. Originally published August 31, 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
It’s fitting that Jerry Garcia died in August, a month of haze, happiness and easy living. Fifteen years ago this month the rock icon and lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead – who personified his band perhaps even more than Mick Jagger does the Rolling Stones – died of a heart attack while rehabbing from a long-standing drug addiction. He was 53. The Grateful Dead broke up upon his death, but his music continues to draw audiences, old and new, because of the sustained popularity of his remaining band members, the eternal sunshine-y positivity that his music evokes and the unique style of fandom that Garcia cultivated.
Garcia and the Grateful Dead broke ground by achieving musical success sans record sales. It was all about the live shows, marked by new set lists every night, songs that far surpassed the standard three-minute mark, and the intense half-hour spacey improvisational jams somewhere deep in the second set, just when the LSD, THC or MDMA started pumping into the system. This wasn’t like going to a Meatloaf show. Seeing the Dead was an experience, filled with people who had been on tour with the band for weeks, or months, or years, sometimes with their children in tow, subsisting on trust funds or drug sales or delicious veggie burritos sold out of their Winnebagos. The textured musical composition and poetry of Grateful Dead lyrics had such transcendental power that the parking lot, that most boring of modern innovations, turned into a magical wonderland. A.K.A. “the lot,” or “shakedown street,” the parking lot at Dead shows was where you found your weed and your glass to smoke that weed; it’s where you looked like a freak and looked at freaks; it’s where you traded trivia about the last and best performance of “Sugar Magnolia.” That lot lives, sometimes bigger and trippier than ever, at shows for jam bands like Phish and at massive music festivals like Bonnaroo that have exploded in popularity since Garcia died. All those old Deadheads – and the subsequent generations with that Deadhead DNA – just need somewhere to dance in the summertime.
Maybe Bonnaroo would have existed without Garcia. But the sheer prolific nature of the Grateful Dead’s touring – about 2,300 shows over 30 years with periodic breaks for overdoses, deaths of band members and at least one coma – means that generations were blessed to see him create music. The vast majority of those shows were taped by Deadheads and remain popular online and in 36 volumes of the Dick’s Picks concert collections. By the 1990s, a Grateful Dead show wasn’t one big baby boomer hippie fest. The audience didn’t only age with the band; instead the fan base’s age range got wider as the band got older.
I am among the youngest end of that spectrum, having seen the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia when I was 15 years old, in March 1994, at a sweaty, cavernous Nassau Coliseum in New York. I’m listening to the show now – digitally of course – and I’m struck, again, by the happy nature of the lyrics and sound. “Help On The Way” opens the show, and the crowd goes wild. The song begins: “Paradise waits…” Then “Slipknot!” and “Franklin’s Tower” follow, one into the other, as they often do. A few jams later all I hear are the crowd’s screams, whoops and whistles at the 0:02 mark of “Ramble On Rose.” Everyone knows what the song is by the first note. And everyone is stoked about it.
Ramble on, baby
Settle down easy
Ramble on, Rose…
Happy music. The kind of happy music that goes well with cruising down a country road, blowing smoke, on an August day. In death, Garcia’s legacy is linked with happiness at the ultimate modern cultural barometer, YouTube, where the most popular Grateful Dead video is a performance of the song “Ripple.”
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?
The comments on the video are a string of pronouncements like: “this song always makes me feel better! No other band can do what The Dead_ do for my soul!”
I eventually got to know Garcia not just from the Grateful Dead but also through his collaborations with David Grisman, which made me fall in love with bluegrass. But the image most ingrained in my mind of Garcia is from a wonderful, hilarious and musically-inspired documentary called Festival Express – about a drunken, jamming train tour across Canada in 1970 with a who’s who of awesomeness: The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy and the Grateful Dead. The film features great live performances at shows across Canada, some mild rioting involving hippies who thought the music should be free and late-night jam sessions on a rumbling train. In one scene, Garcia, 27, keeps the beat on the acoustic as a wasted Rick Danko of The Band belts out the old Southern prison song “Ain’t No More Cane,” with Janis Joplin, a vision of happiness, handling the harmony. Immediately afterward, through a fuzzy dark beard, Garcia turns to Joplin: “Janis, I loved you since the day I saw you... now you know.”
Joplin died three months later. The world kept Garcia around for a quarter-century more – and then some. Although the Grateful Dead never played another show as the Grateful Dead, after Aug. 9, 1995, the remaining members of the band jammed on with great and successful side projects, like Rat Dog, and even played regularly with a Dead cover band, Dark Star Orchestra. In 2003, the Grateful Dead alums formed “The Dead,” headlined Bonnaroo with a new Garcia-like guitarist and Joan Osborne on vocals (and with me, dancing and blissed out, somewhere near the back of the crowd that day, as Osborne belted out “Sugaree”).
Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, two original Dead members, now perform in a band called Furthur, and have started to perform original songs written by the Dead’s long-time lyricist and Garcia collaborator, Robert Hunter. The Grateful Dead is making new music. Amazing.
As the music lives on, and grows, without him, Garcia’s cultural relevance is imprinted in an odd, but somehow appropriate, place. Cherry Garcia, the cherry-and-dark-chocolate ice cream, is still the most popular Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor. Perfect to make you smile and give you the sugar rush to dance on a hot August day.
Fans at a Grateful Dead concert, 1987 (Wikimedia Commons/Mark L. Knowles)