Requiem for the Dead

By Gates, David | Newsweek, August 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

Requiem for the Dead


Gates, David, Newsweek


When Jerry Garcia died last week, the Grateful Dead, the ultimate alternative band, d with him. up to mourn? As many Gen-X smarties as graybeard boomers.

JERRY GARCIA DID HIS LAST RECORDing session a month ago, on a Sunday in July. A week before, the Grateful Dead, Garcia's band for three decades, had just played what would be the last of their thousands of shows with him, at Soldier Field in Chicago, to a sellout crowd. The Dead hadn't played to an empty seat in years--that is, until the dancing started. In fact, they were probably the most popular concert attraction anywhere, ever. Those who were there say it wasn't their best show: the band sounded listless and Garcia forgot even more words than usual. Now, in the Marin County, Calif., home studio of the mandolinist David Grisman, an old friend he'd met in the parking lot at a bluegrass festival in 1963, he sang Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 9"--Standin' on the corner, I didn't mean no harm/Along come a po-lice, he took me by the arm -- for a Rodgers tribute album being put together by Bob Dylan. It took a few takes to nail the song, but that was to be expected. Garcia didn't look well, but he sounded fine -- even pulled off the yodel. Who knew the guy could yodel?

The next day, Garcia checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to try to deal with the heroin habit he'd been trying to deal with for years--that and his smoking and his eating. He had a million projects in mind, he'd gotten married for a third time just last year, the oldest of his four daughters was getting married next month--he was to give away the bride--and he wanted to be clean r the Dead's fall tour. He'd been busted in 1985 with coke and heroin, and his health had been intermittently lousy since 1986, when he came out of a diabetic coma so neurologically scrambled he had to relearn guitar. In 1992, the Dead had to cancel tour dates when he collapsed from exhaustion. (For most celebrities, this is a euphemism. For Garcia, it meant exhaustion--though his obesity, enlarged heart and congested lungs cried out for more than a good night's sleep.) He stayed at the Betty Ford two weeks, then checked out. Aug. 1 was his 53d birthday; friends say he didn't want to spend it in rehab.

A week later, he checked into a small private clinic, Marin County's Serenity Knolls; his doctor says he'd already detoxed, had turned the corner and "wanted to live." Two years before, Garcia had told a Rolling Stone interviewer he'd been scared into taking better care of himself. "I mean, it's a powerful incentive," he'd said, "the possibility that, hey, if you keep going the way you are, in two years you're going to be dead." Around 4 in the morning last Wednesday, Aug. 9, a Serenity Knolls counselor walked by and noticed Garcia had stopped snoring.

Within an hour, news of his death, apparently from a heart attack, had gotten onto the Internet, the dimensionless digital commune where something like the anarchic spirit of the '60s counterculture now resides. (Stockbrokers also got early word; the news was flashed on the Dow Jones tape.) Unlike the Beatles, the Grateful Dead never truly crossed over into mainstream musical culture: their best-selling single, "A Touch of Grey" (1987), went only to No. 9, and you'll never hear "Dark Star" in an elevator--unless you've been taking something you shouldn't. Yet the avuncular-going-grandfatherly Garcia had gradually become as beloved a personage as the charming, changeable, sometimes overearnest John Lennon. His thin, shaky voice suggested that you, too, could sing with a band if you loved doing it enough; his guitar-playing radiated joy and ease, without a trace of guitar-hero affectation; and his increasing portliness, a trial to Garcia himself, clearly gave others a sense of comfort. Sting, with whom he played shows in 1993, called him Father Christmas; fans compared him to everything from a teddy bear to the deity. "He went to great extremes to make everybody feel he was nothing special," says David Grisman. …

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