Grateful Dead leader's legend still ripples the still waters of rock
by Greg Cahill
July 30, 2009
Fourteen years ago, on Aug. 9, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia
went belly up in a Forest Knolls rehab center, where he was trying to
shake his demons, but instead succumbed to health problems that led
to a fatal heart attack. Death knocked just eight days after his 53rd
birthday, ushering in a legacy that has gone into overdrive five
decades after Garcia and a group of pals formed the proto-Grateful
Dead rock band the Warlocks.
On the anniversary of Garcia's birth, Aug. 1, the world still
celebrates this gentle soul who more than any other musician
personified the San Francisco music scene.
In Austin, Texas, at the lakeside Moon River Bar & Grill, jam bands
and fans will gather at the eighth annual Jerry Garcia Birthday
Festival to help preserve the memory of the influential singer,
songwriter, guitarist and bandleader.
There also will be several satellite radio tributes.
And locally, Dedicated Maniacs, 21 Aces and Dead Set will assemble
Aug. 1 at 19 Broadway nightclub in Fairfax at a Garcia birthday bash.
All of this comes on the heels of a tour that found four of the
surviving members of the Grateful Dead, with Government Mule
guitarist Warren Haynes in tow, and billing themselves simply as the
Dead, returning to the road for the first time since 2004.
It wasn't the same without Garcia.
"The Dead mightn't be the real thing as it relates to the Grateful
Dead with Jerry," Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux conceded on
the band's Web site, in a review of the tour, "but it's close enough
to pretend and have a good time with 18,000 of your closest friends."
Ain't nothin' like the real thing.
Here are five reasons to celebrate the man they called Captain Trips:
1. In a band that exemplified the hippie ethic, Garcia remained a
humble cat who spurned the urge to use his rock-star status to
impress--you couldn't always say that about some of his bandmates.
2. First and foremost, Garcia was a bluegrass nut. He may be thought
of as a psychedelic rocker, but he grew up listening to the Grand Ole
Opry on his grandma's radio. He played in jug bands before being
bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug. He contributed that country
influence to the classic Dead albums Working Man's Dead and American
Beauty. He then lent his fame to 1975's Old & in the Way, the one-off
bluegrass album that helped launch the progressive bluegrass scene.
He later recorded acoustically with his own band and worked with
bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman (whom Garcia dubbed "Dawg") right
up till shortly before his death.
3. He never lost his joy of the music and his quest to learn. At one
interview I conducted at the band's San Rafael headquarters in the
late-'80s, Garcia--widely regarded as one of rock's greatest
guitarists--lamented how difficult it was to play acoustic guitar,
having lost half the middle finger on his right hand as a kid.
4. "The Wheel"--the epic rumination about mortality co-penned by
Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter--is the apex
of what Bob Weir once dismissed as Garcia's "flirtation" with
pedal-steel guitar. The song is one of the most transcendent in the
vast rock canon (once you get past the strident intro).
5. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the first Woodstock
Festival, where the Grateful Dead performed a rambling set (even by
their standards), Garcia's birthday is a helluva great excuse to
party. After all, what's the Summer of Love and stuff without a
double scoop of Ben & Jerry's chocolate-flaked Cherry Garcia ice cream?