B y J i m L i p s o n
THE DAY WE all knew was coming..."
This was how my friend Chad put it, and with that I knew instantly why, 10 hours after hearing the news of Jerry Garcia's passing, I've yet to shed a tear or feel anything close to the grief I felt when John Lennon died.
Actually, I've yet to feel any grief at all.
Somehow, in my heart, I knew this day would come. It was only a matter of time.
What I do feel is bitter. And cynical. And disappointed. And angry. Jerry, having lived through the drug-related deaths of band members Pigpen and Brent Mydland, should have known better...did know better.
In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, responding to a question about Pigpen, Jerry laments, "He was really fucked up; his liver was full of holes...just all kinds of bum trips from juicing all those years...It's incredible! But he survived...and now he's got the option of being a juicer or not being a juicer. To be a juicer means to die, so now he's being able to choose whether to live or die." Pigpen died March 1973. He lived the blues and died the blues. He had long since made his choice.
Jerry's first wake up call came in July of '86. Those of us expecting weekend shows at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in California arrived to the news that Jerry was in a diabetic coma. Later we learned his relationship with heroin was more than a passing fancy and that it had contributed to his failing health.
Somehow I thought this might be a good thing--pull the band off the road and give Jerry a chance to clean up, take stock of himself and come back new and refreshed.
By late fall the band was back. Shows, as they had already become, were musically hit and miss although when the band was on and Jerry was into it, all was forgiven. The shows were also becoming more and more surreal--part concert, part carnival, all spectacle.
The following summer they released In the Dark and with that came a commercial success not even they could have imagined. In the years that followed, the Grateful Dead became the No. 1 concert draw in the world, playing 70-80 sold out shows a year in 20,000- to 60,000-seat venues. The band was getting rich, bootleg tapes were everywhere, and you could still see three consecutive shows and never hear the same tune twice. They had become perhaps the largest cottage industry in the country. Jerry was also big as a house, smoking cigarettes on stage, and was not looking well.
No one liked to talk about this. The Dead, after all still were the consummate party band. "Does anyone in the band still take psychedelics," asked Rolling Stone in 1991. "Oh yeah. We all touch on them here and there. Mushrooms, things like that. It's one of those things where every once in a while you want to blow out the pipes." A good thing, most deadheads would agree. His comments on cocaine and heroin were not as clear:
"And as far as drugs that are deadenders, like cocaine and heroin, and so forth, if you could figure out how to do them without being strung out on them, without having them completely dominate your personality...I mean if drugs are making your decisions for you, they're no fucking good." Yes, heroin was a "deadender," he said. At the same time, "if you could figure out how to..." What? Make them work for you?
That summer Jerry was hospitalized for "exhaustion." This was widely reported. The following summer--1992--Jerry was back in the hospital, although The Dead's publicity office categorically denied this in Rolling Stone. That was about a month after I received a letter from a friend working in a hospital outside of Petaluma, California, that read, "You won't believe who checked into the hospital last week...."
Following that episode, word of Jerry cleaning up was everywhere. After years of greasy fast food he was on a vegetarian diet, had given up cigarettes, had a personal trainer and was looking fit, sort of. When I saw him with the Garcia Band in Seattle in the summer of '93 it was true. He'd lost weight (he was actually in shorts), was quite animated moving about the stage, and took great pleasure in introducing the band. There were no cigarettes, the band was hot and Jerry was having a good time. Yes, the Jerry I had grown to love was back!
Sometime later, rumors of a heroin relapse began to surface. At the last of three shows in Chicago in the spring of '94 Jerry became so lost he actually left the stage for a bit. The band finally went into "The Other One" without him.
The word is Jerry died of a heart attack while in treatment. An autopsy is pending. According to sources in Berkeley, he was in the Betty Ford Center for two weeks, checked himself out, and was then seen bingeing around Marin before checking back into Serenity Knowles where he died. Jerry's 53-year-old body, ravaged by years of abuse--drugs and otherwise--was ripe for the fall.
At first my idea was to write about Jerry and the Dead from my own perspective--how my relationship with Jerry and the band was unique unto itself.
I wanted to write about the first time I heard "Uncle John's Band" performed not by the Dead but by three freaks in a hallway outside the Lynbrook High School cafeteria 10 minutes before they were to perform it at an after-school coffee house and how deeply that had affected me; or how I bonged my way through my junior year of college lost in my roommate Geno's indestructible lava lamp and his collection of bootleg vinyl Dead; and my first show in Rochester, N.Y., in the fall of '76, where I felt like I was a part of the bootleg. I wanted to sing the praises of Jerry's finest recorded work, which, ironically, was not with the Dead but for David Crosby's first solo record and Paul Kantner fronting the original Jefferson Starship.
At some point I'll come to terms with my grief. When I do, I know it won't be about the music, the shows or even the memories. It will be possibilities. Any time the Dead or Jerry took to the stage there was the possibility we would all be a part of the magic, that Jerry and the band would take us somewhere juicy we'd never been before. That possibility, that something great and amazing could happen at any moment--that's what I'll miss most as I now begin to mourn.
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