Remembering Jerry Garcia
Like scores of other Grateful Dead fans, Garcia's death certainly came as a shock to me but not really a surprise. In fact, we've been lucky to have had him around this long after several close calls in recent years. But for alot of us, Garcia's passing and the presumed demise of the Grateful Dead marks not only the ending of a remarkable socio-cultural era ("the Sixties are really over now," remarked a friend), but the closing of a significant and joyous chapter in our lives. An unretrievable and precious part of our youth has ended.
I first saw the Dead in 1969, got "on the bus" at a March 1971 Winterland show, and was fortunate enough to be at Garcia's last two performances when the Dead ended their summer tour in Chicago in July of this year. In between were perhaps 50, 60, 70 shows--I never really kept count. What brought me back time and again, over the span of 25 years and many thousands of miles, was the very real yet indescribable phenomena, both personal and communal, that so often occurred when the Dead played live. The band's music at its best, and Garcia's flowing, crystalline guitar lines in particular, is/was so spacious and open-ended as to provide the receptive listener with innumerable pathways that often led to profoundly personal and spiritual experiences--"infinite possibilities!" Epiphanies I've experienced while listening to Jerry Garcia's music have profoundly influenced my life.
Whatever that undefinable magic is/was, it has cut across all generations in the past thirty years. Kids who weren't even born in the 60s have experienced the music's ability to transcend the listener to a higher plane. "The Grateful Dead is not for cranking out rock `n' roll or any of that stuff," Garcia once told Rolling Stone magazine "I think it's to get people high."
Although he would be the first to deny any leadership role in what he felt was a communal and egalitarian aggregation, Garcia was the spiritual vortex of the band that epitomized and most successfully brought to fruition the ethos and values of the 60s counterculture on a scale unimaginable 30 years ago. On their own terms and without really compromising their core values (which, not surprisingly, were the antithesis of the tenets of the commercial music industry), the Dead became arguably the most popular rock and roll band in history.
Garcia's melding of traditional American root forms--blues, country, folk, bluegrass, R&B, gospel--has always formed the basis of his music right up to the present. In an era today in which the influences of many young bands often run only as deep as the punk revolution of the late 70s, Garcia's passing means that American popular music has lost an important link to those most vital and traditional sources of the American experience.
While this is certainly a mournful time for many of us, we can ultimately rejoice in the overwhelming abundance of music that Garcia left for us all. No, we'll never be able to experience that magic of hearing him play live again (at least not on this side). Nonetheless, having performed more live (and recorded) gigs before more people than any musician I can recall, Garcia has left an enduring musical legacy unparalleled in American popular culture.
We will miss him dearly.