By Mark Miller
The last Grateful Dead concert, July 9, 1995 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago was a rather mediocre finale, even by diminished 1990’s Grateful Dead standards. Jerry Garcia was clearly at the end; only singing six songs, his playing was inconsistent at best.
Still, most in attendance witnessed a positive final glimpse of Jerry, standing on the stage catwalks with his band mates as they watched post-show fireworks that marked the end of tour. Later dubbed “the tour from hell,” it was a month-long disaster that saw Deadheads struck by lighting, ticketless fans bum rushing a Deer Creek show and Garcia himself receiving death threats from Christian extremists blaming him for leading young people into drug use instead of Jesus.
Though nobody knew it at the time, that July 9 concert was the end of the Grateful Dead. Exactly one month later, Jerome John Garcia would inhabit flesh no more.
August 9, 2005 marks the 10th anniversary of Garcia’s death. If Jerry were still alive, he would’ve just turned 63 (his birthday being August 1), maybe onstage with the Dead or his own Jerry Garcia Band, or perhaps jamming in a smoky room in Marin with David Grisman on mandolin.
While the Grateful Dead were more than Jerry Garcia, Jerry Garcia was certainly more than the Grateful Dead; even that amazing band could not contain all his musical expressions.
Dennis McNally, Grateful Dead publicist, historian and author of the Dead biography A Long Strange Trip, opins: “I think Jerry is one of the great American musicians in terms of the range of material he covered. I teased Jerry that he had a job as a professor of musicology when he gave up performing.”
Garcia died of heart failure on that early Wednesday morning in summer 1995 in a Marin rehab center, though it was cigarettes and cheeseburgers that did him in more than any illicit drugs.
When he expired Garcia was a shell of his former self, never fully recovering from a diabetic coma suffered in 1986. But from the mid-’60s through the mid-’80s Garcia was one of the most innovative guitarists in all of rock, even if he didn’t receive the mainstream press attention of Hendrix, Page and Clapton.
Blair Jackson, author of Garcia: An American Life says: “I found Jerry to be the John Coltrane of the guitar in his breadth of playing. He didn’t have the technical ability of Eric Clapton, but he tried more styles than any other rock guitarist.”
The irony of the Dead’s “stadium success” of the late ’80s was that the Dead were 10 years past their peak when the majority of their fan base got on the bus.
David Gans, host of The Grateful Dead Hour notes, “The Grateful Dead were winding down, with declining interest, energy and inspiration. As the income rose, the commitment to creativity declined.”
But for those fortunate Deadheads who boarded that bus to never-ever land during their Acid Test origins of the ’60s through jamming in front of the Egyptian Pyramids in the ’70s, they were witness to something special indeed.
“In his prime, Jerry was an absolutely unique and irresistible musician,” Gans adds. “He played with such subtlety and grace.”
In the wake of Jerry’s passing, the field opened up for the plethora of “jam-bands” that emerged in the mid- and late ’90s. If the jam-band scene as a whole prospered in the wake of Jerry’s death, the same can’t quite be said of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. Though they reunited as both The Other Ones and “The Dead” (the 2003 incarnation that eschewed “Grateful” in memory of Jerry), the various surviving members have shifted from project to project since Garcia’s demise, always in flux.
Perhaps the disunity displayed by the surviving members was meant to be. It undoubtedly underscores Garcia’s position of Grateful Dead leader, whether he wanted it or not. McNally agreed: “Jerry refused to lead, but he led by force of personality. He was what brought them together and held them together, even in the last five years of the Grateful Dead.”
“The methodology of decision making changed after Jerry died,” Jackson asserts. “It was no longer a consensus, but done by voting, which made things contentious.”
Jerry wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t God, and he certainly wouldn’t qualify as the “ultimate Deadhead,” given his refusal to play ’60s gems like “St. Stephen” and “Mountains of the Moon” thousands of Deadheads longed for. McNally attributed it to lack of practice, but Jackson contends Jerry felt those songs didn’t resonate with him as the earthier, less psychedelic Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty material did.
When it comes to affixing a legacy on Jerry, opinions also diverge.
McNally: “Jerry’s greatest legacy is the way Bob [Weir] listened to him and learned how to treat his band Ratdog.”
Gans: “Jerry would be the first to say he wasn’t the greatest guitarist. But like the best of musicians, he created a universe of his own.”
Jackson: “Everyone who had Jerry as the central part of their lives have been looking for something to give them a flash of his personality, stage presence and the way he played. It leaves me empty every time I’ve looked for that.”
A 1974 version of “Dark Star” plays in the background: it’s the ultimate Grateful Dead song from their peak year of onstage spontaneity, and Jerry’s guitar soars like a streaking fireball comet hurtling through the cosmos one moment, yet calls out like a wounded bird searching for its nest in the next. That Jerry could travel in and out of both worlds of power and grace so effortlessly, so naturally, is testament to a heritage that will always have something more to offer the listener. And what more could you ask from any musician?