It was 27-years-ago today (August 9th, 1995) that Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack at age 53. At the time, Garcia was at the Serenity Knolls drug-treatment center in Forest Knolls, California, where he was trying once again to get on top of his chemical dependencies. Perhaps more than any other member of the Dead, Garcia was the focal point, although he never sought that role, nor did he wear the title easily. To him, it was a band and a family, and he was a member, which is what he always wanted.
Garcia’s death had a profound impact on many people. The band’s fans, collectively known as “Deadheads,” mourned his loss, while also realizing that so long as the music existed, he was never really that far away. His bandmates took a while to sort through things before announcing that they could not go on without Garcia.
On December 6th, 1995, they released this statement, which said it all:
After four months of heartfelt consideration, the remaining members of the band met yesterday and came to the conclusion that the ‘long strange trip’ of the uniquely wonderful beast known as the Grateful Dead is over.”
Garcia’s death also had commercial reverberations. For many years, the Grateful Dead had been one of the biggest touring acts in North America, and promoters and concert venues always knew they’d make money when the Dead came to town. While the surviving members of the band went on to their own projects, none of them has been able to draw the massive audience that the Grateful Dead always produced. Over the years the surviving members have dipped their feet into the reunion waters originally touring as both the Other Ones, embarking on a full-scale, sold out tours as the Dead, reuniting in 2015 for five “Fare The Well” 50th anniversary concerts, and most recently forming a new band — Dead & Company — featuring Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart — with John Mayer, former-Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, and longtime RatDog and Dead sideman, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
Former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux told Jambase.com, “(Garcia’s) philosophy was so woven into his music that I don’t think they can be separated. He had more capacity to communicate ‘high’ things than anyone I have ever known, both in music and when he spoke. I was always amazed at how naturally he did this, and at the unassuming way he carried himself given the adoration of so many. . . He did all this with a guitar and wonderfully scraggly voice. Amazing.”
On the 10th anniversary of Garcia’s death, Garcia’s songwriting partner, the late- Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter broke his silence on Garcia. His online journal at the official Dead.net website included the update saying, “. . . Nothing about his passing seems like ‘only yesterday,’ rather as long ago and faraway as my childhood. From the sublime to the vicious, everything that could be said has been said and said again. Yet, the essential mystery of who Jerry Garcia was remains. What can be said with fair assurance is that he was a source, an original way of seeing the world that agreed with others in a few broad and important outlines, but which in just as many other dimensions confounded all expectations. . . Few would disagree that a key part of him remained isolated, unknown and unknowable. His art is the closest thing to an available roadmap of his singularities, amorphous clues, and clues only, to the nature of his true affections.”
Robert Hunter died on September 23rd, 2019 at his San Rafael, California home with his wife Maureen by his side.
Although Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter amassed a wealth of classic material during their years as the Grateful Dead’s primary songwriting team, Garcia remained extremely humble about his talents as a songsmith: “For me, it’s one of those things, it’s like a craft. I don’t know if my songwriting rises to the level of art. There’s one or two things that I’ve written — that Hunter and I have written — that I think are truly wonderful, but whether anybody else thinks that — I don’t know. And I certainly don’t feel that I’m a wonderful songwriter. My output is very small. I’m not prolific by any means. Hunter’s output compared to mine; I’d say is, like, I’d say it’s about 50-to-one (laughs).”
In 2009, the Dead appeared on ABC’s The View and Bob Weir shed some light on how he personally dealt with Garcia’s sudden death: “Well, that was a body-blow for sure. I, I know that I personally just went on the road and stayed on the road. That was my grieving process. Y’know, ’cause he was a dear, dear, friend — a brother, all that kind of stuff. A loss like is tough to. . . So like I said I went on the road and stayed on the road. (Joy Behar): You just kept moving. (Bob Weir): Yeah.”
Garcia was extremely close to the members of fellow San Francisco legends the Jefferson Airplane. Garcia is credited on the band’s landmark 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow — which he named — as “Spiritual Adviser.” Remembering the era, Grace Slick recalled that the moniker is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek honor: “The business of ‘Spiritual Adviser’ is just to honor him, sort of. He didn’t come in with a T-shirt that said ‘Spiritual Adviser’ on it. I mean, he was just around. And we liked him and he’d come in. Sometimes he’d hang out, sometimes he’d play. . . sometimes there’d be downtime in the studio, one of the machines would break, and we’d all just hang out and. . . y’ know, he was a friend. ‘Spiritual Adviser’ is just sort of a jive title that we put on there.”
Shortly before his 2018 death, Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin told us he was left cold by the Dead’s attempt to carry on without Jerry Garcia: “‘Will the Dead ever lay down and die?!’ Y’know, that’s just makin’ money off their name. I don’t know, without Garcia, you don’t have the Dead — ‘don’t care who you’ve got. Garcia was the Dead. I thought Garcia was great singer, actually. I thought he was a voice, too, besides the guitar and the emotion. You’ve got to have one guy who’s got the vision, y’know? And Garcia had the vision for the Dead.”
Jerry Garcia explained that it was an uphill battle for any artist in the recording industry to maintain their creative integrity: “Unless you invent your own alternative for where you wanna go, and how you wanna improve, and how you wanna contain your own improvement, it doesn’t happen for you. The music business says to you: ‘Repeat your success. Do our formula thing and live on that, or die from boredom, or get pathetic.’ To me, those are unacceptable alternatives.”
Carlos Santana, another longtime friend of Garcia’s, continues to feel the loss, but tells us that he believes that the guitarist is with friends in a better place: “We’re all still healing, y’know. . . The best thing that I can say is that it reaffirms what the healers say, the old people, y’know, who live in the hills . . . They say, ‘To live is to dream. To die is to awaken.’ We’re still dreaming, y’know, and I’m glad that Bill Graham, Miles Davis, and Jerry Garcia made me part of their dream. We come from light and we’ll return to light, and he’s dancing in light, casting a shadow along with Janis Joplin, and Jimi (Hendrix) and Miles, Bill . . . So, I realize it is we who get bruised, because we want them here. But they have ascended to another octave and in reality, they are swimming in the sea of light. It’s a beautiful garden over there, and I can only imagine the music.”
We caught up to Jerry Garcia’s first wife, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia during Jerry’s posthumous induction into the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame and she explained the essence of what Jerry’s life was about: “He always had a guitar in his hands and if it wasn’t the guitar it was the pedal steel, or the banjo. Take your pick. He was a musician through and through. He really didn’t have anything else he liked to do, except, y’know, hang around and tell jokes with the guys between sets. Y’know, that was his life. He was the real deal. An original, an American original. Absolutely beautiful music.”
This past August 1st would have been Jerry Garcia’s 80th birthday.