Reflections: random memories of Jerry Garcia
August 3, 2005
Ten years ago this week, I’m sitting in my car in front of what was then the Ritz-Carlton, Aspen, waiting for my mom to get in the car for a ride to the airport, my father in the passenger seat, I punch on the radio. It’s in the middle of “Bertha,” a happy upbeat tune that dates to the early ’70s. When it ends, I switch to the next station. More Dead. A happy coincidence. When it’s done, I hit the KDNK button. Jerry singing “Sugaree.” This is no coincidence. I turn to my father and tell him the news I know to be true: Jerry’s dead. Sure enough, the song ends and the announcement comes. Garcia has died at the age of 54 years and eight days. It’s Aug. 9.My parents are sympathetic, but uncomprehending. So when we stop at Carl’s and I see fellow Head Rob Cooper, bawling and crushed, I get out of the car and we hug. I cry all the way to the airport, and my parents, bless them, make no feeble attempts to lighten the mood. I mean, my parents are my parents, but Jerry raised me.Early ’70s – I’m a kid at summer camp. One of the counselors got the book of lyrics and chords for “Workingman’s Dead.” I flip to “Casey Jones,” and the phrase, “High on cocaine” – I don’t even understand the “high” part, much less “cocaine.” But the name, Grateful Dead, and the pictures of roses and skeletons make an impression. Have to check back in a few years.1980 – I’m a high school semi-derelict, out for a night in New York with my friend, David. Driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, high as can be – I’ve familiarized myself with the concept of “high” – I’m mesmerized by the music, the Dead’s “Playing in the Band.” Beyond mesmerized. The beat is elastic, elusive, unpredictable, and I can’t lock into it to save my life. The music I’ve been using to elevate my senses – the Who, Pink Floyd, the Doors – suddenly seems insubstantial and basic in comparison. This is way weirder, more mystifying.It also doesn’t sound anything like the Dead albums – “Mars Hotel,” the then-current “Shakedown Street.” I get my hands on my first bootlegs: 1971 from San Francisco’s Cow Palace, 1970 from Binghamton, N.Y., a 1971 from the Fillmore East that, despite the dreadful sound quality, instantly finds permanent residence in my cassette player.October 1980 – All of a sudden, my so-called friends have disappeared for a week. The Dead were playing at Radio City Music Hall; I had been there once before, dragged by my mother to see the Christmas show with the Rockettes. My friends return to school raving about things that made no sense to me: Acoustic sets. “Aiko Aiko.” Brent Mydland. I felt like a total loser, the only one of my group who wasn’t hip enough to know to get Dead tickets and float off to Manhattan for a week. I promised myself that wasn’t going to happen again.
January 1981 – Following an all-night party, on zero sleep, Bolis and I and I-can’t-remember-who-else drive to Madison Square Garden to buy tickets for the Dead’s March shows. My long, strange trip begins and, as I would hear Garcia say years later, it really was like joining the circus. At the Garden box office, Bolis and I – together, we couldn’t have weighed 200 pounds – are nearly trampled by Hell’s Angels, scalpers, thugs, tripping hippies and various other sorts who have done this before. The cops arrive and impose a welcome semblance of order, and we get our tickets. Driving back to New Jersey, we scream out the window to startled motorists, “We got Dead tickets!”I spend the next two months inhaling as much of the Dead repertoire as possible.March 9, 1981 – My expectations are huge. But even they can’t match the reality. Whoever said there’s nothing like a Dead show understated it by a factor of a million. It’s like an alternate universe where none of the rules – of sonic principals, social interactions, concert etiquette; certainly not the laws, and hell, maybe not even gravity – apply. This isn’t a concert in the regular sense of a band performing for an audience; on a level of meaningfulness, this made a mockery of my previous rock ‘n’ roll experiences. This is group participation, the closest thing I’ve witnessed to organic creation. If the Dead didn’t play “Uncle John’s Band” – the band’s anthem of togetherness and reassurance and, to my virgin ears, an oasis of familiarity in a bewildering desert of the uncommon – I don’t know when, or where, I might have landed. It seemed Jerry and the boys knew exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. And not for the last time.And to think, I hadn’t even discovered acid yet.March 10, 1981 – I’m back for more of the same. I begin to pick up on the catch-phrase lyrics which seem simultaneously to change and crystallize my sense of the world. Interestingly, they always seem to be from Garcia’s songs:-“If you get confused, listen to the music play.”-“Once in a while you get shown the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”-“Every time that wheel turn ’round / Bound to cover just a little more ground.”
-“Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.”It’s religion and literature and family and fun all wrapped into one, that promised land of adventure I’d always hoped existed and always thought just out of reach.But shoot, I think, that Jerry looks like a wreck. I’d better see a bunch more shows while I still can.May 2, 1981 – Fortunately, it takes the Dead less than two months to make it back to the East Coast. Toward the rear of the floor at the Philadelphia Spectrum, Jeff and I see a sight that lives with me still: a huge Jerry look-alike and an almost-as-big, nearly-as-shabby-looking woman, standing on their chairs – and in between them, holding hands with each, a tiny, golden-haired child, dancing and smiling.Oct. 15, 1983 – Four days earlier, I’d blown off the show at Madison Square Garden in favor of a college seminar. I got a call following the show that I’d missed the breakout of “St. Stephen,” the first time in almost five years the Dead played that seminal song. I learn my lesson; three days later I’m off to a two-show stand in Hartford, Conn.The tight-as-nails security prevents dancing in the aisles. But on the second night, the deliberate, spare opening notes of “St. Stephen” scratch out from Garcia’s guitar – and somehow the seas part, and I’m on my way to the floor and beyond. For reasons tossed away with Garcia’s ashes, “St. Stephen” would have just one more outing.Dec. 9, 1983 – My friend Jeff and I have tickets for the Jerry Garcia Band show at New York’s Beacon Theatre that say row AA, and we are stumped: Is that row one, which seems too much to hope for, or row 27, which would be more typical? I arrive well before Jeff, and am escorted past row 27, past all the other rows, to the front row, the seat closest to Jerry. The band opens with “Sugaree” and I’d be in complete heaven, if only I could share this moment with someone. A minute into the song, I turn to see Jeff, wearing his ridiculous tie-dye poncho and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a human face, dancing toward the front. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to Garcia, and the view is pretty spectacular.
Sept. 10, 1991 – The ushers at Madison Square Garden are cracking down on dancing or sitting, standing, pausing in the aisles – except, curiously, for our section. With saxophonist Branford Marsalis sitting in, it’s already an exceptional show. When the band breaks into “Dark Star,” the rarely played, ultimate exploratory vehicle, our usher turns his head over his shoulder, revealing a satisfied grin smile, and says to my sister, “My first ‘Dark Star.'” My sister cracks up: “He’s a Deadhead!”Like the bumper sticker says: We are everywhere.Aug. 30, 1997 – I missed out on a lot of Dead history – never saw Pigpen, never saw an acoustic show, missed the ’70s entirely. I blame my parents; what, they had something better to do Sept. 3, 1977, when the Dead were playing that insane show at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., less than an hour from our house?But I think I was a witness to a tiny bit of Deadworld history. Ratdog, Bob Weir’s post-Dead band was playing Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. I couldn’t get an interview with Bob, so I tried another approach by addressing a set of questions to him on the front page of The Aspen Times. (Sample: Are you the luckiest guy in the world?)Just before Ratdog took the stage, a gorgeous woman comes to me in the crowd and asks if I’m Stewart. She is, she informs me, Bob’s girlfriend, and that Weir loved the questionnaire and wants to meet me. I’m skeptical until I see her a few minutes later dancing onstage.After the set, I wander backstage and find Weir in a circle of people. As I approach, the entire group falls away, leaving me and Bob. We chat; I tactfully suggest that he should start playing lead guitar in his band. He wants to check out the next act, Joan Osborne, and says, “Won’t you come with me?” (I remember the words, because they are right out of “Uncle John’s Band.”) We venture onto the stage to listen to her set.Weir must have been impressed (with Osborne, not me). Six years later, Osborne is touring as part of the Dead, which includes Weir and the rest of the founding, surviving Gratefuls, singing most of Jerry’s tunes. And to think I was there when he first heard her.Winter 1997 – Merl Saunders, co-leader of several ’70s bands with Jerry, is playing the Double Diamond. My band, Basic Food Group, is at the old Howling Wolf. When Merl’s show ends, he and his mates, trailed by 50 or more fans, come over to the Wolf. Merl joins us for a version of the Dead rocker “Bertha,” and the place really gets howling.For a few songs, I’m only two musical degrees of separation from Garcia.
Sometime in 2001 – I’ve been drilling my 2-year-old Olivia about the indispensable musicians and their instruments: Miles, Coltrane, Grisman. One night my wife Candice is awakened by Olivia, who sits bolt upright from her sleep to announce, “Jerry Garcia plays guitar!”If she follows her father’s path, it will be the first of many Jerry dreams.Aug. 31, 2002 – Dead bassist Phil Lesh wants to meet me. That’s what he said on the phone, anyway, while I interviewed him before his Phil & Friends show at the Labor Day Festival. Backstage before his set, sure enough, there’s Phil. But he’s talking to someone, looking busy and serious. So I’ll hang just out of stalker range and wait. But 15 seconds later, he’s gone, like vanished. So I settle for introducing myself to his road manager and passing the peace pipe with the band. Alas, no return of Phil.The show starts and I figure my chance is maybe gone. But, surprise – even to Jazz Aspen’s stage crew – Phil announces the band is taking a set break. So I head backstage again and just before I zero in on the manager guy again, I figure I’d better use the bathroom first. I charge in – and there’s Phil, relieving himself like a regular person. I turn on my heel, wait around the corner, and a few seconds later, it’s just me and Phil, talking about his show, the band, Aspen.Aug. 3, 2005 – Biking from Snowmass back to Aspen, the skies open up. I’m drenched, can barely see. But Jerry’s singing a stellar “Morning Dew” over my Discman, and all is all right.Thank you for a real good time.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org