It's an average day until the phone rings and my friend Joe leaves a message on the machine. It says something about him getting all these calls asking whether the rumor is true that Jerry Garcia died. He says I should check out whether there's anything to it and call him back. Now ordinarily I didn't put much faith in rumors about Jerry's health. This was hardly the first time people thought he'd died. And if Garcia had died, surely the phone would be ringing off the hook. I'd gotten at least 250 calls when the Dead's keyboardist, Brent Mydland, had overdosed several years ago. I consider Joe to be very credible. I decided to call a local radio station for confirmation, not wanting to bother the band's publicist. While I was asking the operator for the telephone number to the station, the report came over CNN Headline News. It was indeed real and quite final. I hung up the phone realizing my life had profoundly changed. Still, Jerry dead? I thought before he died we'd first be left on hold, like the time he had a diabetic coma and fans worried for weeks.
Of course, the phone soon started ringing. It took maybe 30 more minutes before the calls started coming. The phone rang and rang and rang. You know, it's always 9-5 somewhere in the world. I thought constantly of what the other magazine publishers I knew who covered the Dead would be dealing with and, often with tears in my eyes, of what the band and Grateful Dead Productions employees must be occupied doing. There would be people calling to order merchandise who had no clue Jerry was really dead. Others would be media from all over the world who would want to interview band members or have photos and video footage rushed to them. I felt really bad for whoever answered phones anywhere when Jerry died because I sure got more than my share of calls about it. I did the only thing I could think of to do for the band. I left them alone. I was probably the only reporter in the world who had their phone numbers and did not call.
Some of those calls were from friends. They offered condolences as if my father or uncle had died. In fact, it was easier for many of them to understand my pain over a musician than if it had been a real family member. Other calls involved the "real story" of how he died or which network had something on Jerry to run and videotape. Some of my friends went to public memorials where people stood around and bonded with whoever was standing next to them. Lots of my friends coped by playing Garcia's music, including our music editor who went to help out and answer the phones at the radio station he volunteers at. I stayed home and monitored the VCR. I coped by documenting the event with clips from Entertainment Tonight, MTV, VH-1, CNN and even Nightline. It thrilled me Garcia made Nightline because you have to be truly elite in society to have Nightline scrap their intended show for the day to feature you instead. I thought back to the last time Jerry had been discussed on Nighline. He was interviewed in person at the Apple Computer sponsored US festival in 1982 about the reasons for his popularity, as was Sting. This time was more poignant with David Crosby talking about the ability he and Garcia had to cut across generations when they performed. Here was Crosby, alive, because he sobered up, while Garcia was dead with no warning because it seems he tried only haphazardly and without the commitment to his health that a person with diabetes who chooses to abuse heroin should muster up. Never mind that a diabetic should not be using heroin. Or that this was a form of Russian roulette suicide. Maybe, as President Clinton said about Garcia's death, it would make a few people not want to die this way. But for the grace of god Crosby could be dead too, and he knew it and it showed when he spoke to Nightline's camera. I wonder how many others are out there struggling. Someone told me in New York City you can't get into a detox center on the day you choose to quit your addiction. I could go on and on about how the drugs clearly robbed years from him. What a waste. Here's a guy the world loves and he is offered the finest treatment in the world at the Betty Ford Center and he hesitates and checks himself out. Meanwhile thousands of addicts want to have the chance to change and they can't get into treatment because they're poor street people. Garcia died in a rehab center, apparently having decided at the last minute to try again.
The official story is that his body simply gave out just as he was quitting. Many people I've talked to wonder whether someone came to party with Jerry at the rehab center and he simply overdosed after their visit.
In the end I'll remember the good times though because despite the obvious addictive lifestyle and personality (which recovery statistics indicate troubles two out of three of us anyway), he had so much talent that even on a bad night it was special. I was one of the lucky few who got to see him play hundreds of times and who got into the scene in the early days before the Grateful Dead were the big business money machine they are known as in the entertainment industry today.
I started listening to the Grateful Dead in 1970 just after the Workingman's Dead LP came out. A guy known to be a drug user in my elementary school had a copy of that LP and I wanted to see what deviant, sinister things he was listening to. So I bought it simply because he had brought a copy to school one day. Instead of sinister lyrics, I found a bunch of peaceful songs and fell instantly in love with the band. I have other early memories too. The first time I saw them, at Roosevelt Stadium in 1974, the show was rained out after people were already inside. Bassist Phil Lesh came out in a raincoat to tell the audience to go home. At the rescheduled show a few days later, I saw the Wall of Sound, live Seastones, "Loose Lucy," and a group of people who were colorful and friendly and who marked their places on the lawn with flags. I hit it off with the crowd instantly, even picking up a guy there who my friend Sheri dated for several years. The band had a booth set up where you could sign up to be on their mailing list. They gave me a sticker and some cardboard album cover cards when I walked over. Years later I found myself hanging out in Pacifica, CA with Steve Brown who told me he had worked that very booth at Roosevelt Stadium on that very day! It's a small world after all. The band sold souvenir T-shirts that day which had their skull logo with some pot leaves surrounding it. I also remember many yellow and blue beach balls being tossed out of a plane early in the day. Mine doesn't stay inflated anymore, but I made sure to grab one and I still look at it from time-to-time.
In between my first and second shows, the band took a break in 1975 from touring. I went off to college. My roommate Sally (who years later became the co-publisher of Dupree's Diamond News) and I listened to a radio broadcast from Great American Music Hall, one of the Dead's only four live shows that year. I discovered live tapes and bootleg LPs in college and the many intricacies of live versions of "Dark Star." In 1976 when they toured again I caught seven shows, seeing the Dead play now historic versions of "Cosmic Charlie" and "St. Stephen." I got lucky again in 1985 and saw all four of the times they played "Keep On Growin'." I saw the Dead play "From The Heart Of Me" with Keith and Donna, "Blow Away" with Brent, and "Baba O'Riley ---> Tomorrow Never Knows" with Vince. I was lucky enough to have seen them play with (among others) the Band, Suzanne Vega, Steve Miller, Los Lobos, Hall and Oates, Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Branford Marsalis, Jack Casady, Sting and John Cippolina.
Some of the venues were memorable too. There was the intimacy of the Uptown (plus killer Dim Sum across the street); the great view from anywhere at Berkeley's Greek Theatre; the smoky hallways of the Capitol Theatre; the great dance space in the rear of Barton Hall at Cornell University 1977; wearing chairs on our heads to block out the rain for most of the show at Edwardsville, IL 1980; seeing the Dead's Halloween 1980 show and skits at Radio City Music Hall in New York City from a local theatre in Chicago (an early attempt at pay-per-view); the sheer beauty of the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City; and (although it was a Jerry Garcia Band show) the basement of the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre in NYC every night Jerry played Broadway.
Besides playing with the Dead (75+ nights a year), painting, doing media appearances and sitting in on studio sessions to help his fellow musicians, Garcia found time to play with his own band too. The name and players changed quite a few times. I never saw anyone go to a show who had a bad time. I'll never forget seeing Jerry and Donna play on a boat ride benefit show put on by and for the Hell's Angels. I caught other shows in Asbury Park, NJ, The Stone in San Francisco, Legion of Mary at Brooklyn College, and the Orpheum Theatre in Boston.
But it wasn't just about the music. Sure, catching them play "Werewolves of London" with face masks in 1978 was worth the drive to Springfield, MA. But no matter what the band played or didn't play on any given night, their shows gave me the chance to explore most of the United States. I could have gone to Europe a few times too. They even played at the Great Pyramids in Egypt. The Dead have fans in any country you can name. Yes, one can follow any band, but if you saw six Dead shows in a row you'd catch almost no repeated songs and you'd possibly catch something that had never been played before or a song that hadn't been played in years. I was at the only shows where they played "Get Back" and "Stir It Up." Other rare tunes I caught live include "She Belongs To Me," "Gentlemen Start Your Engines," "Addams Family Theme," "Fever," "Maggie's Farm," "Walkin' The Dog," "Kansas City," "On The Road Again," "Mission In The Rain," and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." I saw dozens of zoos, museums and shopping malls in at least 20 states I traveled to in pursuit of the Dead. I probably would never have seen many of the places I have if not for the fact there was a show scheduled in that city on that day.
In most of those cities there were also people to hook up with. The same group of people went to shows in the 1970's. It was a close-knit thing. Around the time the band grew commercially successful and all the "Darkies" (people who liked the Dead only since the release of the LP In The Dark, with the hit single "Touch Of Grey") started showing up, the Dead started selling tickets mail-order and you found yourself seated in the same sections in the hall as the people you were seated near last night. It was easy to make friends. 90% of the audience collected live tapes. Most of them also smoked pot. They all had a rumor to share. One night I sat near a guy who bought the entire section ice cream sandwiches during intermission. Another night, at Giants Stadium, I was seated in the section that had some guy high on LSD fall from a higher balcony right onto a woman several rows behind me. You never saw 80 or so people sober up so fast. They attracted medical attention (from the other side of the building, no less), got out of the way or assisted those who were injured and then were able to go right back into enjoying the song, which was still playing after the emergency passed. Over the years people gave me rides in their cars, let me crash on their floors and sold me tickets at cost. Some people I knew routinely bought extras in the early days and other people I met over the years had never even paid for a ticket. You could hold up a finger or a sign at shows and often enough some stranger would walk over and treat you to what was known as a "miracle ticket."
Besides ticket giveaways there were other strange things happening in the parking lot. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't one of my favorite parts of the shows. Long before I started Gray Areas I began to notice the rich sociological research that could be done in the parking lots of Dead shows. Later it expanded to include the hotel lobbies and restaurant tables where Deadheads congregated when the band was in town. There were drugs sold openly. More drugs than you can imagine. Enough drugs to eventually attract the DEA who started following the Dead too merely to bust their fans. Once I saw a sign posted warning people not to take Blue Unicorns LSD as it was a bad batch. Another time I saw a sign on a car that said "Narcotics Anonymous. Please don't offer me any."
As you walked across a parking lot or down a block towards the show, you'd be offered nitrous oxide, mushrooms, Ecstasy, and several types of LSD. I also loved seeing the bumper stickers ("Who are the Grateful Dead and why do they keep following me?,") T-shirts, jewelry and tarot card readers as well as the Veggie Burritos, spaghetti, orange juice and pizza vendors. By the end, so many people came to party in the parking lot who had no intention of going inside to see the show that vendors turned up who couldn't tell you how many drummers the band had. It was truly a gray area, this carnival of people who had been following the Dead and selling things for years simply to support the trip suddenly being forced to stop by the band's management because of the influx of jerks.
And you didn't have to be a vendor to be a jerk. Newspaper reports started turning up of people who had peed on people's lawns, turned up in a park a week before the band hit town and expecting to be allowed to stay there, walking out on bills at restaurants on the road and shoplifting in the cities visited. Thousands of kids literally grew up on the road following Jerry Garcia. I know I did. Some of them traveled with American Express cards and stayed in luxury hotels, ordering room service. Some of them skipped meals to afford their next balloon of nitrous oxide. Some of them did both at different times. Some of them always seemed to need guidance before they could handle their booze, drugs and even getting to the show on time. It was a sad night when a beloved bus and its passengers overturned on the highway after the driver had too little sleep in the 1980s. Phil dedicated a song at Alpine Valley the next night to those who had died on the bus en route to that show.
Phil did a lot more than that. I ran into several people over the years who confided in me that the Grateful Dead, in particular Phil, had literally come to the police stations in many cities after the show to bail fans out of jail. Some fans couldn't be sprung though, including the 2000 or so who were sent away with high mandatory minimum sentences for offenses involving LSD. I thought about them when Jerry died. I get requests for free issues from way too many prisoners each week. A few letters came in from people in October 1995 whom I think didn't know the bad news from August yet. Death is so final, as Bob Weir said. I felt lucky to have seen four shows that last summer. Those prisoners didn't have that chance.
I felt lucky to have turned my 19-year-old boyfriend on to the Dead right before the end. He hated crowds and would not have voluntarily gone to a 90,000 seat stadium to see anyone play there if not for me. I know he does not regret going to those four shows with me. I know he too felt a loss when Jerry's death hit and it was easier for him to keep me together because he knew firsthand what the pain was about.
It's taken me a long time to write this. It's not easy saying goodbye to your dreams. This past summer some of the surviving band members played a tour called Furthur, named after Ken Kesey's once magical bus. It was good music, but lacked the magic. People were finally allowed to vend inside the venues, but the band charged $9100 up front to do the tour (not including travel expenses) and would not rent you a table if you only wanted to vend at a few of the shows. By and large the only people who could come up with $9100 were the people who'd lasted on the scene after ripping off the bands copyrights and trademarks for so many years. Most people who sold bracelets just wouldn't make back the initial cost. Still, the band chose the vendors they accepted very carefully and it was fun to shop even though I wish they'd been less elitist about it. I spent all too much money buying things inside the show and in the parking lot too. The people I spoke with vending in the parking lot had been on the entire tour but had not been inside to see even a single show. Some things hadn't changed.
The band has fared well since Garcia's death. They have a flourishing web page (http://www.dead.net), they are still publishing the Almanac newsletter/catalog and they are getting as much airplay as ever. The fans have coped by also making web pages and by devoting themselves to other bands like Phish, Hot Tuna, Rusted Root, Blues Traveler and the many Dead cover bands that may play locally to them. People are still fighting to get those dreadful mandatory minimum sentences defeated and the band's charitable arm, the Rex Foundation, is still going strong.
I didn't listen to any Dead music for a long, long time. One day, for no specific reason, I felt that I could listen again and that was that. I imagine a lot of people went back to school, settled down and now live in one town all the time, got steady jobs or made other fundamental changes to their lives. Luckily the band allowed audio taping for the last decade they toured, and video tapers taped almost every show (against the band's wishes) from the time video cameras became popular in the mid-1980s. The music lives on and new fans are still coming on board. Those of us who saw the band live have memories, more than enough to last a lifetime. I can close my eyes and still see them playing. I can turn on a videotape and see an entire show again. It is something we can show to those who weren't there and I believe other bands with cult followings should allow the fans to tape them while they still can. As a publisher, who has been ripped off myself more often than not, I can fully understand why bands just say no to live tapes. But as a fan, I have to be honest and say it's the bootlegged videotapes that will most easily make Garcia's memory live on for me.
I miss Jerry Garcia, some days more than others. He was a troubled individual who probably hated being a public figure more often than not. But he could play guitar in a way no one else will probably ever duplicate, and when I heard him play, and sing, I was often able to forget life's problems totally, or to come up with a solution to whatever was bothering me at the time. I know people still feel this way about Jimi Hendrix. I imagine someday they'll be mourning Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan the same way. For many Garcia's music was almost a religion, even though he was just a man. I hope he's in Heaven (or Hell) playing with Janis and that he's got all the heroin he feels he needs. He might have lived longer without it, but I think he knew that all along and chose to enjoy or escape his time here in a way most of us, including me, can only judge too harshly. Me? I'll keep on writing. I can only hope, as every writer does, that in my time here on Earth I'll have some small impact on the people who come across my writing. By the end Jerry never had to question his worth. He made an impact, the kind aspiring writers and musicians only dream about. Ultimately it helped to kill him, but for those who value him his art is now emblazoned on everything from ties to eyeglasses, his music is sold in every record store and many other musicians still choose to cover his songs. Dealing with the public can be horrible, but in the end it made him a millionaire. Whether we choose to value a life by the amount of money one leaves, or by the amount of people one is remembered by, or by the number of people who want to attend the funeral, Jerry Garcia's life was a success. He didn't seek out fame or fortune but he was so talented he found both. I choose to value his life by what he meant to his fans. And for us he is gone but never forgotten. Thanks, Jerry. Fare Thee Well.