For thousands of fans around the country, around the world, the news comes as a sad but inevitable blow: Jerry Garcia is dead.
The 53-year-old lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead was found unconscious Wednesday morning in his bed at Serenity Knolls, a treatment center for drug addiction in Forest Knolls, Calif. The cause of death was a heart attack, said the Marin County Sheriffs Department.
Garcia was the spiritual center of the band that had endured more than 30 years, emerging out of the ‘60s as an emblem of the era’s psychedelic frees-piritedness and moving into the ‘90s as one of the consistently highest-grossing touring acts. The Dead could sell out seemingly wherever it played and drew a caravan culture of fans and vendors known as “Deadheads.”
“It’s a big loss for the world and anyone who loves music,” said a red-eyed Bob Weir in New Hampshire, where he dedicated a concert last night to the friend with whom he launched The Dead three decades earlier. “His life was far more a blessing for all of us. … Perhaps if we’re going to dwell on anything, we should dwell on that.”
“He really had no equal,” Bob Dylan said. “To me he wasn’t only a musician and a friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know.”
The Grateful Dead, which was known for such rock classics as “Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band” and its lone Top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey,” has been enjoying an ever-broadening popularity among younger fans as new bands such as Blues Traveler and Phish championed its jam-oriented performance style.
The immediate status of concerts scheduled through September, not to mention the band’s future, hang in suspension. Band members were reportedly meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss plans for the future.
Beyond the immediate shock, the news of Garcia’s death is hardly surprising. He had a long and highly publicized struggle with drug abuse, among other life-threatening conditions: A tour was canceled in 1992 when he entered the hospital with an enlarged heart, and he was in a diabetic coma for 24 hours in 1986.
News of his passing spread quickly on the Internet, where the Grateful Dead and its fans have a far-flung and varied presence reflecting the depth and breadth of the band’s reach. By Wednesday afternoon, the band’s newsgroup (rec.music.gdead) was brimming with mournful dispatches, with grieving fans offering prayers and sharing recollections of favorite shows.
It is a telling reflection that the band most commonly associated with the relics of the ‘60s - hippies, tie-dye, peace, love and psychedelic drugs - is in fact one of the most plugged-in and cyber-smart outfits around. The World Wide Web is dotted with Grateful Dead-related sites, providing everything from merchandise/ticket information to set lists and song-by-song impressions of recent shows provided by dedicated fans.
Those people living the road-life, turning the parking lots around every Grateful Dead show into third-world bazaars, have in recent years become the most high-profile aspect of the band in the media, particularly in light of two episodes this summer - a stampede of ticketless fans at a show in Indiana and the collapse of a deck at a campground in St. Louis being used by Deadheads.
This fascination with the side-show culture that grew around the band only distracted attention from the true center of the band’s identity and the source of Jerry Garcia’s mythic presence - the music. In an era of line-blurring and cross-pollination, the Grateful Dead was a great American band - melding blues, bluegrass and country into a music that is uniquely expressive of American history and culture.
Born Aug. 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Garcia learned to play the guitar by picking along with bluegrass recordings and developed a style that was marked by his intricate runs of single-picked notes that both melded with and drove the band’s discursive, improvisational approach to music.
Speaking of his playing style in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1993, Garcia said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for the individual note. … The root of my playing is that every note counts, every note has a personality, every note has a little spirit.”
In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a mecca of ‘60s counterculture, a single rose was tied to a tree near where the Grateful Dead got their start, and a crowd gathered, hugging and crying.
The group’s longevity meant that its culture ran less and less counter.
One of the best known Deadheads in Congress, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said he was stunned and saddened by Garcia’s death. “I talked with him in June when he was at (Robert F. Kenny Memorial Stadium),” Leahy said, referring to this year’s Washington concert. “I was on the stage with him and his wife. I told him he’d never looked better.”
Leahy marveled at a band that could appeal “to me, a senator in my fifties, and my son, a 31-year-old lawyer.”
Timothy Leary, a former Harvard psychology professor who gained notoriety for advocating psychedelic drugs, described his friend Garcia as “a historical monument, a legend of our times. … It’s hard to talk about it, I’m so deeply moved. It was part of our growing up.”
In today’s technological era, where much of the music being made exists only in the studio, the Grateful Dead stood as an icon from a bygone time. Though the band has produced more than 20 albums, the essential Dead experience has always been its live performances.
It was a band in the way few bands ever are - a group of musicians who spent their lives making music together. In stark contrast to the industry standard, Grateful Dead concerts had no set lists, one song bleeding into another as band members reacted to each other.
And ever at the front of that surging wash and jumble of music being made in the moment was Jerry Garcia, his guitar, and the strands of notes scattering like pearls.
Garcia is survived by his third wife, Deborah Koons Garcia, a Marin County filmmaker, and four daughters; Heather, 32, Annabelle, 25, Teresa, 21 and Keelin, 6. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
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