Los Angeles, CA
Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995. He was trying detox for an upcoming tour, but passed away in his sleep. He had been a junkie on and off for two decades. The monkey on his back grew so large that the fragile man collapsed underneath its weight. The Garcia I saw onstage in the 90s was a faint image of his titanic former self. In some ways I was seeing a ghost. The ghost of Jerry.
YouTube gives you the opportunity to see different versions of Jerry Gracia spanning four decades, some from as early as the mid-60s (post-bohemian pre-hippie) all the way up until his last concert at Soldier's Field in Chicago in 1995. The late 70s version is my favorite incarnation of Garcia. The Grateful Dead caught lightning in a bottle in 1977 (specifically May 1977) and everything they played that year, night after night in cities and towns across America, was absolutely incendiary as the Dead reached near perfection. In subsequent years, Garcia's crippling addiction to chasing the dragon had stunted the growth of him as a musician. The Dead were in a holding pattern for the last decade of their existence. The Dead's organization ("family") had grown so large and they had so many mouths to feed, the band had no other choice but to keep on playing live shows. The raging party continued and the spirit of the 60s lived on well into the mid-90s. Year after year. Gig after gig. The psychedelic circus roared across America over a hundred times a year. The Dead couldn't keep playing without Garcia, which is why they let his addiction slide. The band and management attempted several interventions, but in the end Garcia held all of the power. He always threatened to quit, but the band backed down because they had to keep playing gigs to pay the bills. Too much overhead. The band played on. Garcia continued his junkie ways. Tragic situation.
Some days you never forget what you were doing that day. Whenever I hung out with my college friend Jerry, we designated those days as "Jerry Day." It's morbid to think that Jerry Garcia would die on something I had circled on my calendar as Jerry Day. I had the day off from work and we attended a day game at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks took on the Baltimore Orioles. Cal Ripken hit two homeruns that game and the Yanks lost. I hopped on he subway into Manhattan and cruised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I had worked at the time. I was supposed to meet up with friends for a drink when a few co-workers offered up their condolences. Jerry Garcia had passed away and word got out when I was at the game. This was 1995 and word traveled a little slower. I had yet to have an email address and the concept of Twitter was still a kernel wrapped up inside a nugget of someone's mushroom trip.
I smoked a doobie with friends behind the Met, then walked across Central Park to Strawberry Fields. An impromptu vigil sprang up at the Imagine memorial for John Lennon. I still have a vivid image of Deadheads passing a joint with NYPD on horseback nearby. They were there to keep the media at a respectful distance.
The death of Garcia never really sunk in until a few days later. It took more than a week, but I went through every Dead bootleg (all of them were on cassette tapes) I had and listened to every Dead CD I owned. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do at the time. I was living in Brooklyn (I guess that makes me an OG Hipster) and sat on my ratty couch, smoking ditch weed, blasting Dead bootlegs, and jotting down fleeting thoughts in a marble notebook (how fucking retro).
It's weird how you remember certain dates over other ones. That was almost 20 years ago and it took roughly two decades for me to understand the impact of Garcia's death, which symbolized the end of the 60s. The party was officially over, except many hippies had nowhere to go home to. The entire scene that sprung up around the band was their home, and their fellow Deadheads were their family. Jerry Garcia was the center of their universe... part spirit guide, part deity. Wherever he went... they followed. But Jerry was gone. For good. Just writing that makes me incredibly sad, because I know what it's like to be staring into the bleak abyss of addiction and hoping to see your reflection back, yet all you see is... nothing... nothing, but darkness.
This is Garcia playing in Oregon exactly 41 summers ago...
Here is an outtake from The Grateful Dead movie. It's an interview with Jerry Garcia...
This version of Althea really hits home on a day like today. So much bittersweetness...