Ten years ago, on August 9, the most recorded human in history passed away in his sleep, a cryptic smile on his grizzled lips. Jerry Garcia died in his beloved west Marin County, only a few miles from Olompali, where he and his extended family from the San Francisco music scene spent some of the most beautiful hours of the last great summer of the ’60s. The year 1966 saw the “hippie” scene in its fullest, incandescent flower. Just a few months later, after the media frenzy in the wake of the Human Be-in, it all came crashing down around their lovely, naked shoulders.
I wasn’t born until 1974 and can barely remember the late ’70s, but my father was a wild-eyed, acid-freak, lead guitarist in that last pre-Riggs decade and he passed on to me a love for those day-glo ideals of fairness, honesty and just plain consideration that were the gold standard of the nascent scene. But the best was the music. I cut my teeth on Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and The Beatles – lord, how fortunate I was! Just as hip-hop has shown today, the glorious music that came out of the late ’60s – particularly from San Francisco – demonstrated that even amidst chaos, violence, and fear, music has a visceral impact that effortlessly transcends the bullshit we wade through every day.
The bull goose looney, the often cripplingly sarcastic, pock-faced freak who drifted through those beflowered days like a reluctant Buddha, was none other than Jerry. He had a presence about him long before he earned the moniker “Captain Trips” (which he hated). At age 13, he was a greasy-haired, street punk; at 19, a stoned cog at the Presidio who was lucky enough to be declared “unfit for military service,” at 22, the hottest banjo player in the Bay Area. By 30, to his great chagrin, he had become a social icon.
Sitting on the grass at Olompali, in July 1966, he turned to his friend David Crosby and said, “Look around you, man. We’re the new archetypes.” It was the only explicit inkling he offered that he indeed understood his own place in the process. What balls that whole scene must have taken to look the entire slavering, cynical machine right in its metallic eye, laugh and say, fuck you! Let’s dance!
Far from the trite, flaccid shell that was handed down via Pat Boone and Life magazine, that first kernel of a scene was one of the boldest, most brilliant social experiments of the last 100 years, well equal in its way to the Anarchist syndicates of 1930s Spain or the musical foment of Jazz-era Harlem. That it failed, and was crushed is not an indictment but merely unfortunate and maybe inevitable.
But the Dead played on through it all, until the summer of 1995. I remember the lupine glee in the eyes of indie-hipsters: I’m grateful he’s dead, fuck those proto-human assholes who mocked our pain! And I remember walking along Garrison Bight in Key West, a bottle of Cuervo Commerorativo at my lips, angrily beating the tears off my face. I knew it was the end of an era and I was devastated to see it go.
Now, 10 years out from Jerry’s passing, I’m still coming to grips with his legacy. Jerry meant the world to me. His music was – and remains – an unadulterated source of joy and lightness, a direct conduit to the immense potential for goodness that exists within the human mind and soul. He got me to pick up my guitar, after years in mothballs, he got me to prick up my ears and listen for the high, lonesome music of the American sky. After all, for good or ill, he was as American as they come.
But one thing is clear: the ride is not over, brothers and sisters. As long as folks dance when they feel sad, or sing when they feel joy, the bus rolls on. There’s nothing trite about happiness and despite the vicious addictions, irresponsibility and various crap that clung to their edges, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, were always about spreading happiness, about the hope that we can be better – never the remembrance that we’re awful. It’s about transcending the beast and kissing God right on Her lips. Pure and simple, it’s about life and even though Jerry’s dead, I will always remain grateful.