Jerry Garcia

1942 - 1995

Jerry Garcia had always been identified with San Francisco. Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Garcia was a San Franciscan -- fifth generation on his mother's side. His grandmother, Tillie, helped found the laundry workers' union and Jerry was so proud of her . . . Jerry's dad, Joe Garcia, played reeds in a swing band at the old El Patio and other places where the Dead later played. Joe ran a bar called Jose's at First and Harrison, too, so Jerry was solidly grounded in local lore."

Jerry was named Jerome, after Show Boat composer Jerome Kern. His father, Jose Ramon Garcia, came to San Francisco in 1919 from Spain, and has enough family wealth to pursue music. In the '30s, Jose was leading big bands and orchestras when he met Ruth Clifford, an opera-loving nurse of Irish and Swedish descent, whose family had arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. Soon after their marriage in 1934, Jose gave up music and bought the Four Hundred Club, a downtown bar. The couple had their first baby, Clifford, in 1937; on Aug. 1, 1942, Jerome John came along.

At age five, Jerry watched his father drown, no doubt an event which haunted him his entire life. "I was there on the shore," Garcia would recall later in Rolling Stone. "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."

Jerry was sent to live with his grandparents. He became, says his brother Clifford "Tiff" Garcia, "a tough little kid." Once, when a policeman grabbed the pair after they had set off a powerful M-80 firecracker, wrecking a barber pole, Jerry started kicking the officer. "He was only 8," says Tiff, still amazed. Rebellion became a constant in Garcia's life: A few years later, he flunked eighth grade for refusing to do homework.

By his early teens he was back with his mother, who had remarried, and Jerry was singing doo-wop for fun with Clifford and collecting Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly records. He desperately wanted an electric guitar, but for his 15th birthday, he got an accordion. He later recalled, "Arrggghh, no, no, no! I railed and raved, and [my mother] finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy."

To rein in the tough teen, his mother moved to Cazadero, a small town north of San Francisco. Jerry dropped out of high school at 17 and enlisted in the Army. He was discharged early, but honorably. "They didn't say that I was pathologically antiauthoritarian," he recalled, "but I guess that was out of kindness."

At that point, he was introduced to Robert Hunter. Both liked music, and they were both living in their cars. They began playing together, and more than 30 years later Hunter is still the Grateful Dead's principal lyricist. But it was still only 1960. In the five years before the Dead would be born, Garcia worked odd jobs as he both studied and taught music. Sometimes he performed in clubs with musician Sarah Ruppenthal; they married in May 1963 and had a daughter, Heather, that December.

Garcia had by 1964 added banjo to his repertoire and was playing with folk groups like the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, the Hart Valley Drifters and Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, the first direct predecessor of the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir, a high schooler, played guitar while Ron McKernan, better known as "Pigpen," played harmonica. The Uptown Jug Champions lost four members, added drummer Bill Kreutzmann and, later, bassist Phil Lesh, and became the Warlocks. Inspired by Bob Dylan's electrification of folk in 1965 and by the Beatles, Garcia and his partners began to rock. They began to get two kinds of gigs: straight nightclubs and the Acid Tests, a series of loose, public, LSD-soaked parties being staged by novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled in a bus with a destination sign that read, simply, FURTHUR . That sounded fine to the Warlocks.

"We were interested in getting crazy," said Garcia. "That's why we went with the Acid Tests." At the shows, Kesey dressed as Captain America, strobe lights flashed, and ecstatic dancers smeared Day-Glo paint on anyone who passed. "We weren't the headliners; the event was, and anything that happened was a part of it."

In San Francisco most of the band -- newly christened the Grateful Dead, after Garcia picked the words off a page in a dictionary -- moved into a Victorian house at 710 Ashbury St. They lived communally, each drawing $5 a week from a general fund. Somewhere along the way, Garcia had split with Sarah and begun living with Carolyn Adams, an Acid Test regular known as Mountain Girl; she became his second wife, and they had two daughters, Annabelle and Teresa. The '60s were, literally and figuratively, a high point for the band.

By 1970 all of the Dead, except Pigpen and Tom Constanten, got busted for possession of grass, acid, and amphetamines in New Orleans. After much publicity and anxiety, the charges were dismissed. In 1973 Pigpen died of liver failure attributed to alcoholism. Soon after, rattled and exhausted, the band quit touring for nearly two years.

On the surface, Garcia seemed fine as the '80s dawned and the Dead observed their 15th year together. But by the mid '80s, hard drugs had become a day-to-day reality in Garcia's life. The notion of mind exploration had been replaced with the simple, pathetic need for a fix: He was addicted to heroin and cocaine. "He got so trashed out for the last few years that he just wasn't really playing," Dan Healy, the band's sound engineer, said at the time. "Having him not give a shit, that was devastating." John Barlow, another Dead lyricist, says that by the mid '80s, he "was very afraid that Garcia was going to die. In fact, I'd reached a point where I just figured it was a matter of time before I'd turn on my radio and hear 'Jerry Garcia, famous in the '60s, has died.' "

Early in 1985, members of the band went to his house in Marin County and confronted him, telling him he was killing himself and that he would have to choose between drugs and the band. A contrite Garcia promised to seek help, but got arrested for a briefcase filled with 23 packages of heroin and cocaine. Garcia got off light and entered a drug treatment and counseling program. Jerry later said, "I'm the sort of person that will just keep going along until something stops me." He wanted " to distance myself a little from the world."

Back on the road in 1986, Garcia, feeling tired, nonetheless enjoyed sharing the stage with Bob Dylan and with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers until something stopped him. After the tour, he recalled, he simply felt tired.

One day he said, "I couldn't move anymore, so I sat down." A week later, Garcia woke up. He was in a hospital, surrounded by band and family members. He learned that he had been in a diabetic coma. At age 44, Jerry went through three months of relearning music with his friend, keyboard player Merl Saunders. And Jerry delighted in the outpouring of affection and advice from Deadheads. "The fans," he said, "put life into me."

In 1990, the band weathered the drug-related death of Brent Mydland, a keyboard player who joined in 1979 and came to do much of their singing and songwriting. The Dead replaced Mydland and in 1991 they played 79 dates and became the top-grossing band in the country. By 1992, it was just too much. Garcia collapsed from exhaustion. He could barely walk up a flight of stairs without falling over, he said. He had simply let himself go. The band had to cancel a tour while Garcia caught his breath.

He vowed to change his ways. He lost 60 pounds and married his longtime girlfriend, the former Deborah Koons. By now the father of four -- he had daughter Keelin with Manasha Matheson in 1987 -- Garcia admitted that, being away on tour or lost in drugs, he had been a lousy dad, and he began trying to straighten out. "With my older kids I was pretty much an absentee parent, a mediocre father at best," he said. "But they still seem to like me. With Keelin, I'm able to get more quality time in." Annabelle later said, " he was a shitty father."

When Garcia died, there were rumors that he had again slipped back into drugs. He had entered the Betty Ford Center in July but checked himself out before his program was completed. When he died, on Aug. 9 of a heart attack at age 53, he was at Serenity Knolls, a drug-treatment center north of San Francisco. Ironically, with Garcia's death, a remnant of the Summer of Love reemerged in San Francisco. The people who loved him and the Dead felt a need to come to his hometown. In the hours and days after his passing, they flocked into his city, into the Haight-Ashbury, convening at the local Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlor, part of the chain that for almost a decade has featured a flavor called Cherry Garcia. (Part of the profits go to the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, which makes small block grants to numerous grassroots projects. Beneficiaries range from handicapped athletes to struggling classical composers).

Many of the fans made the two-block trek up Ashbury to 710, where the Dead used to live. One pilgrim pats another on the back as he leaves. "It's tough, man," he says, "but it was a good ride." Doug Qualls, 37, wearing his "Tour '89" T-shirt, identifies himself and his buddy Rick Milson, 43, as firefighters from Apple Valley, near San Bernardino in Southern California. Yes, they say, they're Deadheads. "We came here to pay tribute to a guy we followed for years," says Milson.

On the day Jerry died, Bob Weir seemed composed before the television cameras, saying how much the world would miss his friend. That Sunday, at the memorial in Golden Gate Park, his voice, indeed his whole body, would quiver as he called on the crowd to take some of the joy Jerry Garcia had provided and to reflect it back to him: 50,000 arms waved at the sky. But on Saturday night Weir slipped into the Sweetwater and stayed in the basement, away from a house packed with people who would want to embrace him. He was content to hear, through the walls, the sound of Annie singing an R&B version of an old song by a mutual friend, Bob Dylan.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you . . .
Strike another match, go start anew
It's all over now, Baby Blue . . .


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