Grateful Dead guitarist and lead singer Jerry Garcia died 25 years ago this month, on Aug. 9, 1995.
The beloved rocker “seemed the antithesis of what a rock star is supposed to be,” People magazine noted after his death. Garcia didn’t look the part, didn’t act the part and didn’t even sound the part. He was gray-haired, heavily bearded, wore thick glasses and sometimes weighed as much as 300 pounds. Garcia usually dressed in a T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans, and his “stagecraft,” the magazine noted, “was to stand stock-still and utter not a word.” His voice, it said, was “cracked and reedy.”
But Garcia, who was born Aug. 1, 1942, was beloved by countless fans: a “benevolent Buddha” who played the guitar “not with his hands, but his heart,” as People wrote.
From August 1-9, the Rex Foundation is celebrating Garcia’s memory with a series of daily tribute concerts watchable on Facebook and YouTube; find the links at DazeBetween.com.
Meanwhile, Legacy.com remembers 10 remarkable facts about the music legend who once compared his band to a candy with a unique taste. “Our audience is like people who like licorice,” he famously said. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
1. Garcia’s parents named him Jerome after composer Jerome Kern, who churned out more than 700 songs, including “A Fine Romance,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Ol’ Man River.” Garcia’s Spanish-born father was a jazz musician and Dixieland bandleader. He drowned in an accident when Garcia was 5 years old, as People noted.
2. Garcia formed a band called the Warlocks that evolved into the Grateful Dead in 1965. The band first gained a following in the San Francisco area when they became a sort of house band for “the collective drug experiments” that writer Ken Kesey and his friends called the Acid Tests, Rolling Stone magazine noted in Garcia’s obituary. The band would play for hours as people took LSD “in a setting where there were no regulations or predetermined situations,” while Kesey and his cohorts filmed “everything from freakouts to religious revelations …,” according to the obituary. “The Acid Tests were meant to be acts of cultural, spiritual and psychic revolt, and their importance to the development of the Grateful Dead cannot be overestimated,” the magazine said.
3. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign released a commercial called “American Youth,” which featured a photo montage of young people, including Garcia. The musician, wearing a red-and-white-striped top hat, is beardless and not sporting glasses. The ad begins with Nixon intoning, “American youth today has its fringes, but that’s part of the greatness of our country. I have great faith in American youth.” The ad ends with the printed words, “This time vote like your whole world depended on it.”
4. While the Grateful Dead released more than two dozen live, studio and compilation albums in 30 years together, the band only had one top 10 hit, 1987’s “Touch of Grey.” The band built its cultlike following with frequent live performances. Some so-called “Deadheads” were known to follow the band for months at a time. In return for this loyalty, “The Dead made an effort to treat their fans well. Unlike many bands, the Dead encouraged their fans to tape their concerts, even providing a place near the sound engineer’s booth for fans to set up microphones and tape recorders,” Garcia’s obituary in The New York Times noted. “They also kept ticket prices low and maintained contact with fans” via a newsletter, a hotline and, later, email. “In return, the Dead have held on to what is probably the longest-lasting mass following in rock history,” according to the obituary.
5. Garcia’s use of LSD earned him the nickname “Captain Trips.” While Garcia’s official cause of death was a heart attack, the incident occurred in a California drug treatment center. Garcia was public about his use of drugs, notably LSD and heroin. According to People, he once said psychedelic drugs had their benefits: “I don’t think there’s anything else in life apart from a near-death experience that shows you how extensive the mind is.”
6. In 2003, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke ranked Garcia No. 13 on his list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” (Jimi Hendrix was ranked No. 1. Kurt Cobain finished a notch ahead of Garcia.) In 2011, guitarist Carlos Santana wrote about Garcia in the magazine and described Garcia’s playing this way: “Most people who play the blues are very conservative. They stay a certain way. Jerry Garcia was painting outside the frame. He played blues but mixed it with bluegrass and Ravi Shankar. He had country and Spanish in there. There was a lot of Chet Atkins in him – going up and down the frets. But you could always hear a theme in his playing. … Jerry was the sun of the Grateful Dead – the music they played was like planets orbiting around him.”
7. The Grateful Dead “never played a song the same way twice,” The New York Times noted in Garcia’s obituary. “The Dead built their reputation on long, free-form concerts, going onstage without a set list and playing anything from original songs to rock oldies to extended experiments with feedback. The music could shift in any direction as it sought what the band and its fans called the ‘X factor’: spontaneous, revelatory stretches of music arrived at through practice and serendipity.”
8. Garcia’s fans were drawn to what they saw as his “realness.” Retired San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin noted of Garcia, “Jerry was about what Jerry was about in 1965 as he was when he died.” In a post-death appreciation in The New York Times, writer Neal Karlen wrote, “Jerry Garcia just kept playing on with the psychedelic optimism of one who still actually believed that flower children could stop war by sticking daisies into rifle barrels” of National Guardsmen.”
9. Garcia made millions of dollars during his lifetime, but fans always saw him and his bandmates as a populist voice – “an alternative to the tarnished world of commercial rock,” Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote after Garcia’s death.
10. Garcia is still very much a part of pop culture. In 1987, ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s introduced “Cherry Garcia,” cherry ice cream studded with cherries and fudge flakes. It’s still a top-selling variety for the company. In recent years the San Francisco Giants baseball team has celebrated Garcia’s birthday with Garcia bobblehead dolls. In 2013, surviving Dead members sang the national anthem before a game; fans went home that day with skeletal Uncle Sam bobbleheads.
To keep track of the many celebrations in Garcia’s name, including numerous “symphonic celebrations” nationwide and the annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash in West Virginia that’s been going on for almost 30 years, visit jerrygarcia.com.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”