Don't Thank Me.
Thank Jerry.
By Eric Francis

Jerry Garcia.

The Grateful Dead hold a special place in my life because it was in their presence that I first experienced happiness. I did a lot of fun things in the 22 years before I showed up at a show on July 4, 1986 at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, actually to see Bob Dylan play later in the day. Before then, I'd had some exciting adventures, started a magazine, played politics, and did a few too many drugs. There were some hot, creative girlfriends. I was well on the way to being a writer. Great rock concerts were not exactly something new; I grew up 45 minutes from Madison Square Garden.

And, emotionally, there always seemed to be some weight or sense of burden I could never get out from underneath.

It was in the presence of the Grateful Dead that I had my first experiences of pure, unmitigated joy, the kind you can't explain. When I started going back to Dead shows soon after, this happened over and over again: the band would come out, there would be this energetic sense of a sudden upward rush, like all the weight of the world was lifting off of everyone all at once, love would flood in, and I would cry through most of the first set.

This did not solve my problems. But it's what Hakomi therapy calls a missing experience: I was able to feel the existence of a state of being that I had no reason to believe existed before. And that's a really good start.

My involvement with the Deadhead community has come with many strange synchronicities, fun miracles and in hindsight, incredible turning points. There was a long time when I could account for nearly everyone and everything around me as having some involvement or being some consequence of an association with Deadhead karma. It was at a show in Pittsburgh that I met a little Leo named Kirsten, who brought me back to a guy named Mikio (I was born on his birthday, we discovered in our first conversation -- the fifth such person he knew). That encounter led me straight to New Paltz, where I knew I was home from the first time I passed through town a few weeks later.

Even my work writing about PCBs and dioxins benefited. One of my biggest stories was based in Las Vegas (it involved the Nevada Power Co.), where there were annual shows in the early 1990s. A vendor/friend in New Paltz bought me an airplane ticket to Vegas (when at a time when I could have never even considered such a prospect) if I would only work outside the shows, essentially telling young women from every corner of the country how beautiful they looked in silk dresses. Then I saw one of the shows and, from there, spent a week at a plaintiff's law firm, copying the files of GE, Westinghouse and Monsanto that formed the basis of my reporting.

Fun little miracles like that.

                           We've had enough of the boring three-minute rock and roll
                           tune. Everyone get ready, we're now going to give you
                           one long, outrageous, amorphous 30-year song.

The Grateful Dead had about a dozen official members over the years, all of them awesome talents. But among them, Garcia stands out as the face we know, the voice we remember, and most of all, the creator of those magnificent, intricate, soaring lead guitar performances that are part of why Bob Dylan said outright, "He had no equal." His presence, his passion and the feeling of his soul reaching, indeed, blazing out to the audience, were like nothing, no one, I have ever imagined, seen or felt; you had to be there to sense that psychic presence that once seemed to me like cool oxygen blowing into the room from another dimension.

For those who did not get to be there, they are in fact the best-documented musical act in history. There are some impeccable recordings easily available, to which I'll refer you later in this article.

The Onion, in its fabulous book of news parodies called Our Dumb Century, has a small article about the Grateful Dead gearing up in 1965, in the peak of the Haight-Ashbury ethos and the true sweet spot of the Sixties -- in the time and space where it all began. I must paraphrase, as the book is in storage. The Dead's then-West Coast promoter, the late Bill Graham (alias Uncle Bobo), is quoted as saying something like, "We've had enough of the boring three-minute rock and roll tune. Everyone get ready, we're now going to give you one long, outrageous, amorphous 30-year song."

That's exactly what they did, rumbling out of the glowing social morass of San Francisco like a UFO, carrying that energy with them around the country hundreds of times, vibrating it into theatres and stadiums, and collecting a tribe of three generations of fans, most of whom would have gone to every single show if they could. I went to 35 of them, and I feel like I just had a little taste.

At the same time, they brought back to popular culture the nearly two centuries of the traditional American music (and Irish ballads and much besides) they were steeped in, intermingled with their own compositions that stand out for their poetry and musical excellence. Working in the background of Garcia was the poet Robert Hunter, whose archetypal downtrodden characters, morality tales enacted by legendary villains and Elizabethan turns of phrase carrying metaphysical insights Garcia embodied with his gentle, grainy voice.

For example:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn
and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Hunter's lyrical pen, the writer said, was sparked to motion by Dylan's 1966 Blonde on Blonde album; it was that record (With "Visions of Johanna" and "Just Like a Woman") that demonstrated to many who played it to vinyl shreds that rock lyrics could be intelligent.

There's simply no way to categorize this band, and everyone admits the name "Grateful Dead" is a little off-putting till get you used to it, or till you hear the legend of the traveler who comes across the corpse of a man who could not afford a decent burial. So the traveler pays for the funeral, and some time later, when he's confronted by thieves, the spirit of the man he's buried scares them off and saves his life. That term, a grateful dead story, fell out of the Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary one day when the band had to change its name, realizing there was another Warlocks out there somewhere.

The Dead had their roots in bluegrass (starting as a jug band), were influenced equally by the blues and old American folk and show tunes, adopted many of the conventions of jazz, improvised telepathically, practically invented acid rock, were the masters of electric rock music, composed haunting, Celtic-styled ballads, adapted and wrote western-styled country songs, experimented with world-beat rhythms with two drummers behind them, played spirituals the like of "And We Bid You Goodnight," and as it worked out, made one of the most awesome contributions ever to American folk music.

The amazing thing is they could take you through this diversity of styles, eras and genres in the space of a 90-minute set without missing a beat, merging song into jam into song, good enough sell out ten nights in a row at Madison Square Garden, closing up the show with a Chuck Berry tune or Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" like it was the Homecoming Dance.

Rock music is folk music, and in this respect, Garcia's peers are not just his 60s contemporaries (Santana, Janis Joplin) but also Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Carter Family and long-gone greats of American folk I've never heard of but should have. Garcia said that John Coltrane showed him how melody could portray an entire inner landscape with every emotion represented. Of every composer-musician whose work I've heard, Coltrane's saxophone pieces come the closest to the spaces that Garcia could reach with his guitar, or perhaps vice-versa.

Many people who are not into the Dead have criticized Deadheads for being a bunch of Sixties nostalgia freaks. I've never seen this debunked by anyone better than Steve Silberman, in his article, "A Place of our Own" (included with the So Many Roads boxed set).

"As you became more familiar with the Dead's music and its evolution, you realized that the mainstream stereotype about the band and its fans -- that they were stuck in a tie-dyed time warp, married to a form whose time had come and gone -- was the opposite of the truth. The band's sound pushed relentlessly into the future, shunning past success and building on itself from night to night, tour to tour."

He continues, "They played as if the entire human heritage of music-making -- from goatskin drums turned over fires in the desert, to a lone singer on a street corner with his hat full of coins, to electric guitars employed as lightning rods for unholy fire, to late 20th-century digitally generated thunder -- was their playground, their 'instrument'."

IT'S DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE that Jerry, who would have been 63 next week, has been gone 10 years, and that the band itself started (as the Warlocks) 40 years ago.

Garcia died of heart failure in a drug treatment facility shortly after his 53rd birthday. Had he been on a cardiac ward, he might have survived; he really needed bypass surgery, because (according to biographer Blair Jackson's reporting) two arteries leading to his heart were blocked 85%. But apparently that never occurred to him or anyone around him, and if it did, no action was taken. But it's not like Garcia liked doctors, or cooperated with the efforts of his friends to help him. And I had a Leo friend who died of heart failure at 53 because he refused to do what the cardiologist said, on the grounds that the guy was overweight.

Everyone thought Garcia's problem was drugs, which was true, to an extent. But drugs always obscure something deeper. Part of that something deeper was heart disease, and part of it was the incredible pressure of being Jerry Garcia. He was basically a mellow, easygoing San Francisco guy who didn't like conflict and was interested in little other than music. Being Jerry meant not only being a musician, but also being a social icon on a level that even few rocks stars must endure; as well as a media figure, statesman and businessman when he would have been just as happy playing little clubs (which he did a lot of, with many side projects, right to the end of his life). As the crown jewel of a multimillion-dollar touring enterprise that employed dozens of people, he was the spiritual and musical center of a vast, traveling community that everyone knew could not go on without him.

It seems he felt trapped: he could not escape that role, and the resulting pressures (financial and otherwise), so he kept resorting to heroin to make the struggle go away for a while. He also smoked cocaine -- a drug that seems to have done the most damage to the Grateful Dead and its organization, though several of its members also suffered from severe alcoholism. Repeatedly starting and stopping drugs took a serious toll on Garcia's body. And his biographer, Blair Jackson, says he smoked between 40 and 60 cigarettes a day, despite having bronchitis and diabetes. I've seen him walk on to the stage many times trailing a thick plume of cigarette smoke behind him, as if he'd smoked the whole thing in one bite.

And, smoke and all, when he got on stage with the Grateful Dead, there could be no doubt he belonged there.

No matter what he struggled with, I still consider him one of my heroes. A person is not their problems, and more than anything, Garcia wanted to give us music -- and that is what he did, in an incredible, decades-long outpouring of love. And he kept his sense of humor. One of my favorite stories is officially unverified, but I'll tell it anyway. He was sitting alone at breakfast in the hotel dining room when a Deadhead came up to him and said, "Jerry Garcia! This is the greatest moment of my life."

Says Jerry: "Well, I hope it gets better from here."

He grew up in a household where music was a tradition; his father was a professional musician, so he was infused with show tunes and traditional American music from his first moments. Weekend family gatherings would transition from spontaneous musical events to intense, articulate political discussions. His mother was a classical pianist who could perform Chopin. Yes, this sounds exactly like the spawning ground.

The first instrument Garcia mastered was banjo, and he was said to be a titan at the regimented, fast, and precise playing that traditional bluegrass demands. (Some of his banjo playing is preserved in recordings of a band called Old & In the Way, though he says he was past his prime by the early 70s when that was recorded. Still, it's well worth tracking down for the band's renditions of some great old traditional tunes and excellent playing.) He also tried mandolin, dobro, fiddle and autoharp before getting seriously into guitar.

The style he developed was relentlessly unique. His leads would fade to the background when other musicians or vocalists were doing their bit, and then blaze to the open when it was time. He would pluck sounds out of thin air and weave them into the intricate rhythms of melodies that would live once and then disappear back into the ethers.

Reading Blair Jackson's biography Garcia: An American Life, two stories to me say Jerry Garcia more than any others. First, there's the story of a record set called the Anthology of American Folk Music, which collected dozens of folk tunes recorded between the 20s and the 50s that were originally released as 78s.

Garcia's lyricist and longtime friend Robert Hunter tells the story.

"Back in 1961 there was only one copy around our scene, belonging to Grace Marie Haddie. The six-disc boxed collection was too expensive for guitar-playing hobos like me and Garcia, even if we had a record player, or a place to keep a record player. Grace Marie had a job and an apartment and a record player. We would visit her apartment constantly with hungry ears. When she was at work, we'd jimmy the lock to her apartment door or crawl through the window if the latch was open. Had to hear those records."

Then there was the story of what happened when, some years later, checks started coming in -- royalty checks, money from gigs, whatever. He would throw the envelopes, unopened, in the glove box of his old car. Just like that. One day a friend found them there.

What these two stories have in common is music; in other words, you don't need money. It is not surprising, given his particular values, that Garcia was the one who decided it was just fine that Deadheads were taping shows and trading the tapes. In Deadhead culture, there was and still is a tradition of giving the recordings away, or trading for blanks or copies of other shows, which is something I've been the beneficiary of many times and never seen violated once. Still, the Dick's Picks series of live concerts produced and sold as CDs by the Dead organization sells wildly despite the countless bootlegs in circulation.

And as for the gig itself, why play a one-hour show when you can play a four-hour show?

If you want to know why you can just write to Planet Waves and ask for a free subscription if you need one, or email the newsletter to your friends -- don't thank me; thank Jerry.

Well, for that, and a lot else besides.

Garcia's Natal Horoscope

Okay, so, I hope I have something new to add to the discussion in the form of a look at the natal chart of Jerome John Garcia. There are a couple of fun things that really stand out, a couple of scary ones, and I think we should take a look at his Neptune, which is what seems to have been his greatest asset and also what did him in.

Here is the chart.

Even the blind can see the grouping of Leo planets in his 10th house. Not everyone who makes a major contribution to the world has a powerful 10th -- but lots do. The thing about the 10th is, no matter how many planets you have there, you earn your place in the world, but at least you have the resources to do so. And as Debbi Kempton-Smith says, you have to live every minute like you're being followed around by a television crew. The top of this horoscope is populated by two signs: Cancer and Leo, the very core of the zodiac. Cancer is to the right, toward the 9th house (spirituality, the higher self); Leo is to the left, toward the 11th (friends, dreams, rewards of profession). These three houses are among the places we really come into contact with the public.

Let's work right to left. Look at that conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in Cancer in the 9th house. This is someone who has a lot to give, and who simply has to give it. What else do you do with that aspect? He would have made a really good college professor. In a way, he was one.

I'm going to invite Isabel Hickey into the discussion, through her book Astrology: A Cosmic Science, one of my favorites. Of this aspect, she writes, "What the world would call a lucky person, but it is an earned increment in the spiritual bankbook. Intense appreciation of beauty. Orderly and artistic. [Okay, not so orderly in Jerry's case, but he could definitely focus.] Gives popularity and benefit through the public if in a congenial sign [it is]. Restless individual that wants to be on the move."

This is a good book. She concludes with one of the best-known facts about Venus-Jupiter conjunct: "Overindulgence in appetite and extravagance need controlling." Yes. In Cancer, we do get the image of too much cream soda and ice cream, diabetes be damned.

He identifies strongly with that Venus; his ascendant is Libra, consistent with his mellow nature, his dislike of conflict and at times an inability to make or stick to a decision. Apparently it's a true story that at one point he fired rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and keyboard player-vocalist Pig Pen from the band, but they ignored him and kept coming back to work anyway -- thank God.

The chart ruler's conjunction to Jupiter de facto makes him a spiritual leader, ice cream and all.

Now, notice how the chart works from a professional perspective. Cancer reaches as far as the 10th house cusp, the career and the reputation (house cusp marked directly above, in orange). So while Leo is strong later in this house, the ruler is actually Cancer and thus the Moon, demonstrative of the nurturing and unambitious style of Garcia's professional life -- and how many people he took care of financially as a result of his own success. Cancer is another one of those public places, particularly when you put it somewhere everyone can see it, such as the 10th.

The 10th house ruler is the Moon, and by its placement, that refers us back to the 6th house -- work, service, work, service, work, service.

Health. The Moon is in Aries in his 6th house: a need for innovation. In another article, I called this "the dauntless Moon," shared by the likes of Betty Dodson and Salvador Dali. It's a good Moon for artists. It stops at nothing, if it's got a pulse. That suggests high vitality, but the 6th suggests that health is potentially a big issue, and it's connected to his professional activities due to the 10th house association. It also says that practice makes perfect. You can read this placement as Garcia's statement that he would rather perform concerts than play scales. He played hundreds of nights a year. How many Dead shows were there? A lot. There's a searchable database of them at Then there were the Garcia Band shows. And many, many side projects. He was not ambitious; he just liked to do his thing.

But that 10th house is something to speak about, and whether he wanted a reputation or an impact or not, it called him, and he was in many ways the consummate Leo, completely at home in the public eye despite being a shy little kitty. Reading his Leo planets in order, we have Pluto, Mercury, the Sun and Chiron. Hey, George W. Bush has Mercury conjunct Pluto (in his ascendant, which carries a lot less responsibility than the 10th). And apparently worse musical tastes. He listens to "My Sharona" on his iPod (true fact, verified by the White House -- if you believe the press reports).

Garcia's is the chart not just of a big star, but one whose soul-level communication has impact, and represents the core of his identity. This is the combined influence of the Sun, Mercury and Pluto. (Along these lines, Mr. Bush really is who we think he is as well, the dark side of these aspects.) Mercury-Pluto puts a bit of death in that message, or an awareness of something that feels like ultimate finality all the time. We can see two different ways the same aspect has been played out by two different men both considered great leaders.

Neptune is worth looking at, as it's the ruling planet of both music and drugs. He has it in Virgo, like millions of people in his generation and indeed people born as early as the late 1920s, just before the Great Depression hit. This is not an easy placement. NOT. It can be driven but frustrated; Neptune wants ease, bliss, freedom and dreams (skip the details), while Virgo wants things just the way it wants them, down to the red jellybeans. It's certainly a good aspect for someone whose dual nature is perfection and hanging loose, for someone who projects spiritual energy through virtuoso skill -- if they can work through their insecurities. Mars in Virgo helped that a lot -- it's definitely a competent placement. When the chips were down, it was Garcia who would do the heavy lifting on the band's albums and films; he could work for days on end.

Let's see what Isabel Hickey has to say about Neptune in the 12th house, where it stands in Garcia's chart. "Feeling of being cribbed, cabined and confined strong. Stress on the subconscious levels due to extreme sensitivity. With Neptune afflicted the individual feels far from home on a foggy night and he can't see where he is going. Deep seated loneliness that only connection with the Higher Self will abate. 'Serve or suffer' is the keynote here."

Serve or suffer indeed. We have a lot of music to thank Jerry Garcia for. I am grateful he had music for no other reason than he really needed it. Fortunately for him, so did the world. Not a bad deal.

There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we'll never know we'll never know.

-- From "Days Between," Jerry Garcia's last song
written with Robert Hunter

My Recommended Dead CDs

For acquiring commercially available CDs, I suggest going right to Grateful Dead Merchandising, recently available at (800) 225-3323 ; they have nearly everything, including lots of stuff your record store tells you is out of print, never existed, etc. All you can get in record stores (usually) are studio albums, which usually miss the point, but have some transcendent moments for sure. To catch the spirit, though, start with the live stuff.

I have several unequivocal recommendations that are in the "no turning back" category. The first is called One From the Vault, a live recording made during the band's hiatus in 1975. It's basically a perfect, if mellow, performance with an excellent sampling of the Dead's original and cover repertoire, before an invitation-only audience of about 600 people. If you've never heard the Dead, or have only heard the occasional song, this is the perfect introduction. Even your parents and kids and cat will like this CD.

Next on this list is Dick's Picks #10, an historic show from Winterland in San Francisco, recorded 12/29/77. Garcia's guitar sounds like no other performance except the surrounding nights (extra songs at the end of the CD); the band feels like it's 14 feet tall. They played some of their hottest shows (as did many others) in Winterland, this rundown, falling apart little arena formerly in San Fran, once home to the Ice Follies. Deadheads loved the room so much some took their chairs when the wrecking ball hit a little over a year later.

Then there is Reckoning (previously, For the Faithful). This is an acoustic recording from the early 1980s, mostly ballads, traditionals and some great slow-moving country songs. The acoustic guitars and Brent Mydland's piano are a superb mix. If you like the super-mellow folk sound, there's an earlier studio album worth having called American Beauty, which is beyond beautiful but with a very different selection of music than Reckoning. The Dead family's vocals at the end of Ripple are worth the whole thing.

Okay -- that will get you started.

If you want to get a taste of the band's original, early sound (with blues man Pig Pen), there are two that are exemplary. The first is Two From the Vault. The second is Live/Dead, the band's first live release. Live/Dead is truly an astonishing recording, preserving the psychedelic spirit of the late 1960s like nothing else.

The Closing of Winterland, recorded New Years' Eve 1978, one year after the 12/29/77 show, is one of the grooviest things ever put on a CD or DVD. This is a new release, I think. The band is once again at its best (it was Winterland, after all), they play three full sets, and if you get the DVD (salvaged from a public television broadcast -- with full quality audio), you get the opening acts, including Grateful Dead proteges The Blues Brothers.

There are two commercially available CDs that exemplify the band's sound in its third incarnation, with keyboard player and vocalist Brent Mydland, whose playing soars and whose voice feels like the sound of a jet airliner. Those two recordings are Dozin' at the Knick and Nightfall of Diamonds.

I don't know enough about the Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick periods at the end (between 1990 and 1995) to recommend the best recordings from that era -- but some are in the Dick's Picks series, and Blair's book, below, briefly reviews every available commercial recording until the time the book was published.

As for books: I've loved Blair's excellent biography of Garcia, An American Life, which I got in Woodstock a couple of months ago and just finished. But one of the funniest books I've EVER, ever read is called Living with the Dead by Rock Scully, their former manager. It's considered somewhat apocryphal and less than balanced, but who cares (except for the people who felt offended, so that counts); but if you factor in the biases, it's well worth reading. Bassist Phil Lesh has a new book out, called Searching for the Sound, which I've not read -- and which I've heard contains lots of regrets about drugs and alcohol (Lesh has a liver transplant).

The band's original lyrics, including all by Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, are at The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which has a ton of information, discographies, and has recently been released as a book. The free site is here.

Grateful Dead Merchandising, which also has a toll-free number above that hopefully still works, is They are now offering downloadable shows for about half the price of Dick's Picks.

Deadbase is

See examples of Jerry Garcia's art at:

Earlier article by Eric on Jerry Garcia, from 1995

Grateful Dead on Wikipedia

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