The rock and roll industry has seen its share of bands and singers. What is remarkable about the Grateful Dead is that the band has been performing since the 1960s and its following endured for several decades. At the head of this long-lived group was singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia (1942-1995).
The band has become a benchmark in music history. According to Rolling Stone, the Grateful Dead was ranked 29th among the 40 highest-paid entertainers in 1989, with an estimated annual income of $12.5 million. "[A]fter decades of touring with a consistency and success unmatched by any other band, the Grateful Dead have a relationship with the Deadheads—the fans who follow the band with a near-religious Fervor—that is unique in the history of rock and roll," Fred Goodman wrote in Rolling Stone in 1989. "On the eve of the release of their 22nd album, Built to Last, the Grateful Dead stand as an American dynasty like no other."
Heading that dynasty, Garcia was as much a product as a shaper of his time. On August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Jerome John Garcia was born to a family of music lovers. His father, Joe Garcia, was a ballroom jazz musician and bartender who came to California from Spain in the 1920s. His mother, Ruth Garcia, was a Swedish-Irish nurse whose family immigrated to San Francisco during the gold rush. In a 1991 interview with James Henke of Rolling Stone, Garcia talked about his father. "He played woodwinds, clarinet mainly. He was a jazz musician. He had a big band—like a 40-piece orchestra-in the 1930s. The whole deal, with strings, harpist, vocalist. I remember him playing me to sleep at night. I just barely remember the sound of it. But I'm named after Jerome Kern, that's how seriously the bug bit my father."
When he was just five years old, Garcia lost his father in an accident. "He was fishing in one of those rivers in California, like the American River," Garcia recalled in the interview with Henke. "We were on vacation, and I was there on the shore. I actually watched him go under. It was horrible. I was just a little kid, and I didn't really understand what was going on, but then, of course, my life changed. It was one of those things that afflicted my childhood. I had all my bad luck back then, when I was young and could deal with it." The other childhood trauma was the loss of a finger on his right hand. "[T]hat happened when I was five too. My brother Tiff and I were chopping wood. And I would pick up the pieces of wood, take my hand away, pick up another piece, and boom! It was an accident." The shock, however, came when the bandages were removed and young Garcia realized his finger was truly gone. "But after that, it was okay, because as a kid, if you have a few little things that make you different, it's a good score. So I got a lot of mileage out of having a missing finger when I was a kid."
After his father's death, he lived for a time with his grandparents and then returned to live with his mother, who took over her husband's bar. Located next to the Sailor's Union of the Pacific, the bar was frequented by sailors who traveled around the world. "They went out and sailed to the Far East and the Persian Gulf, the Philippines and all that, and they would come and hang out in the bar all day long and talk to me when I was a kid. It was great fun for me," he told Henke. One sailor, an old sea captain, he remembers distinctly: "he'd tell me these incredible stories. And that was one of the reasons I couldn't stay in school. School was a little too boring. And these guys also gave me a glimpse into a larger universe that seemed so attractive and fun, and you know, crazy ."
Ironically, Garcia's first foray into music was boring as well. He took piano lessons for eight years and hated them. "I took lessons on the piano forever— my mom made me," he said to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone in 1993. "None of it sank in. I never did learn how to sight-read for the piano—I bluffed my way through. I was attracted to music very early on, but it never occurred to me it was something to do—in the sense that when I grow up I'm going to be a musician." And then Garcia's older brother started tuning in to early rock and roll and rhythm and blues. "When I was 15, I fell madly in love with rock and roll. Chuck Berry was happening big, Elvis Presley—not so much Elvis Presley, but I really liked Gene Vincent, you know, the other rock guys, the guys that played guitar good: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley." At that time, the electric guitar was a new phenomenon and as soon as he heard it, Garcia was hooked. He asked his mother for one for his birthday and started on the road he still travels. "I was just beside myself with joy. I started banging away on it without having the slightest idea of anything. I didn't know how to tune it up…. I never took any lessons. I don't even think there was anybody teaching around the Bay area. I mean electric guitar was like from Mars, you know. You didn't see 'em even."
The Birth of a Band
Lessons or no lessons, Garcia learned his way around the instrument and immersed himself in the radical music of the day. "Rock and roll wasn't cool, but I loved rock and roll," he explained to DeCurtis about his formative years. "I used to have these fantasies about 'I want rock and roll to be like respectable music.' I wanted it to be like art…. I wanted to do something that fit in with the art institute, that kind of self-conscious art—'art' as opposed to 'popular culture."' Independent and strong-willed, Garcia took to spending time with a rowdy group of San Francisco teenagers. At 17, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in San Francisco. Garcia, with idle time on his hands, practiced acoustic guitar in the barracks, learned songs over the radio by ear, and copied finger positions from books.
After nine months, he left the army and took to living in his car, playing music, and absorbing the "scene" of San Francisco in the early 1960s. At about that time, he went to the Art Institute in San Francisco to study painting. "I wasn't playing guitar so much—I'd picked up the five-string banjo in the army," he told Bill Barich of New Yorker in 1993. "I listened to records, slowed them down with a finger, and learned the tunings note by note. By then I was getting pretty serious about music—especially about bluegrass." He and a friend toured numerous bluegrass festivals in the Midwest and absorbed the unique sound of the music. Although he made a little money giving lessons, he often lived in his car in a vacant lot in East Palo Alto, California. He began to meet other young musicians, like folk guitarist Bob Weir and blues-harmonica player and organist Ron McKernan. They formed the Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions in 1964. Once the Beatles invaded the United States, Garcia's band re-formed as an electric blues band, the Warlocks, in 1965.
At the same time, radical events were taking place in San Francisco. Ken Kesey, who was taking part in government-sponsored LSD tests, began throwing parties called the Acid Tests. It was at these energetic happenings that the Warlocks developed the sound that became known as psychedelic rock. "What the Acid Test really was was formlessness," Garcia explained to Rolling Stone's Goodman in 1989. "It's like the study of chaos. It may be that you have to destroy forms or ignore them in order to see other levels of organization. For me, that's what the Acid Test was—that's what it was a metaphor for. If you go into a situation with nothing planned, sometimes wonderful stuff happens. LSD was certainly an important part of that for me." Late in 1965 the band changed its name after Garcia picked "grateful dead" at random from a dictionary. Essentially ignoring the definition included, the band members chose to interpret the new phrase as signifying "cyclical change." In 1966 the band members moved into a house in San Francisco to live communally and performed at well-known music halls. In addition, the Grateful Dead also performed free concerts at Golden Gate Park to contrast the business attitudes that were beginning to pervade rock and roll and threaten their anarchist, hippie lifestyle.
Their first album, The Grateful Dead, was released by Warner Brothers in 1967. The band's early experience with a large studio corporation and extensive touring was not a happy one. "Their first four albums had not sold well, leaving them in debt to their label, Warner Brothers," Barich of New Yorker reported. "But they recouped with two straight hits in 1970, Workingman's Dead, and American Beauty, which were both primarily acoustic and were distinguished by the richness of the songs and the band's clean, crisp playing." The Grateful Dead used their success to leave the label, buy a small house, and begin handling their own business affairs. Barich continued, "In 1972, they tipped off their fans to their new free-form operation by inserting an apparently harmless message in the liner notes of a live album recorded on tour in Europe. "DEAD FREAKS UNITE!' the message read. "Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we'll keep you informed.' With one gesture, the Dead eliminated the barriers between themselves and their audience, and established a direct flow of communication." At last count, Barich noted, there were 90,000 Deadheads—as their fans are known—on the U.S. mailing list and 20,000 on the European one.
The Golden Years
Members of the Grateful Dead, Garcia included, survived the turbulent 1960s, the wrath of critics and fans alike—when albums and concerts did not hold up to expectations—drug abuse, the death of some band members, and several decades of changing musical tastes. Yet Garcia's band was still going strong in what he termed their "golden years," the 1990s.
Remarking on the appeal of the Grateful Dead to succeeding generations, Garcia commented to Henke in the 1991 Rolling Stone interview that "here we are, we're getting into our fifties, and where are these people who keep coming to our shows coming from? What do they find so fascinating about these middle-aged bastards playing basically the same thing we've always played? I mean, what do seventeen-year-olds find fascinating about this? I can't believe it's just because they're interested in picking up on the 1960s, which they missed. Come on, hey, the 1960s were fun, but shit, it's fun being young, you know; nobody really misses out on that. So what is it about the 1990s in America? There must be a dearth of fun out there in America. Or adventure. Maybe that's it, maybe we're just one of the last adventures in America."
When speaking with Barich of New Yorker, Garcia offered another angle from which to understand the band's success: He thinks that the band affords its followers "a tear in reality'—a brief vacation from the mundane," Barich wrote. "The Dead design their shows and their music to be ambiguous and open-ended … they intend an evening to be both reactive and interactive. A Deadhead gets to join in on an experiment that may or may not be going anywhere in particular, and such an opportunity is rare in American life." In addition to the limitless possibilities of their music, the Grateful Dead also offer a spiritual release for both band members and fans. Garcia explained to Henke in 1991: "I thought that maybe this idea of transforming principle has something to do with it. Because when we are on stage, what we really want … [is] to be transformed from ordinary players into extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. And the audience wants to be transformed from whatever ordinary reality they may be in to something a little wider, something that enlarges them. So maybe it's that notion of transformation, a seat-of-the-pants shamanism, that is something to do with why the Grateful Dead keep pulling them in. Maybe that's what keeps the audience coming back and what keeps fascinating us, too."
Success came at a price, however. In July 1986, Garcia went into a diabetic coma for a day. He has struggled with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and weight problems as well. In the early 1990s, the guitarist had trimmed down and began following a better diet and healthier lifestyle. He branched into the clothing business with a line of ties based on his drawings—even though Garcia never wore a tie. Despite valiant efforts to improve his health, too much damage had already been done. On August 9, 1995 Garcia died of heart failure in Forest Knolls, California.
From the creative mind of a San Francisco child who hated school and homework grew one of the most influential bands in decades. Despite his abhorrence of school, Garcia was a scholarly man and perhaps that has been an intrinsic part of his appeal. "I owe a lot of who I am and what I've been and what I've done to the beatniks of the 1950s and to the poetry and art and music that I've come in contact with," he said to Henke in 1991. "I feel like I'm part of a continuous line of a certain thing in American culture, of a root."
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