Tales of the Living Dead
“There is a human drive to celebrate, and we provide ritual celebration in a society that doesn’t have much of it.”
with Jerry Garcia
When you’ve had a street named after you, then you can congratulate yourself on a certain notoriety. But when you’ve had an ice cream named after you–well, that is the kind of recognition which dreams are made ~ After thirty years of playing with one of the most successful bands in rock and roll history, Jerry Garcia finds himself at the age of fifty-one, at the zenith of his popularity. The Grateful Dead the sixties-gone-nineties rock band hers recorded over a hundred albums and plays more live shows than almost anyone anywhere. And their concerts are always sold out.
With its own magazine, Internet status, and booming merchandising industry, the group is a musical phenomenon of mythical proportions. But Jerry Garcia shrugs his shoulders with genuine innocence in the face of it all. Is it the band that has spawned the semi-nomadic tribe whose members roam the country like medieval minstrels, living on veggie burgers, psychedelics, love, and of course, the promise of a ticket to the next show ? Or is it that the aspirations and values of the sixties just refuse to die, and the Grateful Dead is simply a conduit for their continued expression ?
Jerry Garcia began playing with the Warlocks in 1965, and in the same year the Grateful Dead was formed. He developed his improvisational style at the infamous “acid tests, ” where the Grateful Dead was often the house hand. The Jerry Garcia Band, formed in /975, is as popular as the Dead. It has a more blues-oriented, gritty sound, but maintains Jerry’s distinctive psychedelic edge.
Garcia is almost supernatural status got an extra boost when he journeyed into the jaws of Death and back, after falling into a diabetic coma. He has reached a point in his career where, if he were half-asleep and out of tune, the audience would still hang on every note with a reverent sigh. Who is this man who has catalyzed peak experiences in young and old for three decades. He describes himself as a “good ‘ol’ celebrity,” although at shows you’re likely to see at least one starry-eyed youth coddling a sign declaring that “Jerry is God. ” Many fans are convinced he is not from this planet.
The interview took place at the Grateful Dead’s homey headquarters in San Rafael, California With his full, white beard and wise-owl eyes, Jerry Garcia looks ready to pass out the clay tablets, yet when he smiles, the Old Testament prophet is transformed into a self-parodying garden gnome, who has walked the yellow-brick road of success simply by doing what he loves.
Jerry: I’ll take off my glasses. They don’t convey much humanity.
David: Jerry, how did you start playing music?
Jerry: My father was a professional musician, my mother was an amateur. I grew up in a musical household and took piano lessons as far back as I can remember. There was never a time in my life that music wasn’t a part of.
The first time I decided that music was something I wanted to do, apart from just being surrounded by it, was when I was about fifteen. I developed this deep craving to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with rock `n roll, I wanted to make that sound so badly. So I got a pawn shop electric guitar and a little amplifier and I started without the benefit of anybody else around me who played the guitar or any books.
My step-father put it in an open tuning of some kind and I taught myself how to play by ear. I did that for about a year until I ran into a kid at school who knew three chords on the guitar and also the correct way to tune it. That’s when I started to play around at it, then I picked things up. I never took lessons or anything.
David: Who particularly inspired you?
Jerry: Actually no particular musician inspired me, apart from maybe Chuck Berry. But all of the music from the fifties inspired me. I didn’t really start to get serious about music until I was eighteen and I heard my first bluegrass music. I heard Earl Scruggs play five-string banjo and I thought, that’s something I have to be able to do. I fell in love with the sound and I started earnestly trying to do exactly what I was hearing. That became the basis for everything else – that was my model.
Rebecca: Jumping ahead a few years. During the sixties you played a lot of acid-tests when you could fit all your equipment into a single truck. How do you compare those early days to now? Do you enjoy it as much?
Jerry: Well, in some ways it’s better and in some ways it’s not. The thing that was fun about those days was that nothing was expected of us. We didn’t have to play. (laughter)We weren’t required to perform. People came to acid-tests for the acid-test, not for us.
So there were times when we would play two or three tunes or even a couple of notes and just stop. We’d say, to hell with it, we don’t feel like playing! It was great to have that kind of freedom because before that we were playing five sets a night, fifty minutes on, ten minutes off every hour. We were doing that six nights a week and then usually we’d have another afternoon gig and another night-time gig on Sunday. So we were playing a lot!
So all of a sudden you’re at the acid-test and hey, you didn’t even have to play. Also we weren’t required to play anything even acceptable. We could play whatever we wanted. So it was a chance to be completely free-form on every level. As far as a way to break out from an intensely formal kind of experience it was just what we needed, because we were looking to break out.
Rebecca: And you’re still able to maintain that free-form style to a certain extent even though you’re now more restricted by scheduling and order?
Jerry: Well, also we’re required to be competent, but the sense of accomplishment has improved a lot. Now when we play, the worst playing we do isn’t too bad. So the lowest level has come way up, and statistically the odds have improved in our favor.
Rebecca: What do you think it is about the Grateful Dead that has allowed you such lasting popularity which has spanned generations?
Jerry: I wish I knew. (laughter)
Rebecca: Do you think you can define it?
Jerry: I don’t know whether I want to particularly. Part of it’s magic is that we’ve always avoided defining any part of it, and the effect seems to be that in not defining it, it becomes everything. I prefer that over anything that I might think of.
David: When you say everything, do you mean something different for everyone?
Jerry: Well, that’s one way of saying it, yeah. But the other way of looking at it, from a purely musical point of view, is that it becomes a full-range experience. There’s nothing that we won’t try. It means everything is available to us. It also works from an audience point of view too. We’re whatever the audience wants us to be, we’re whatever they think we are.
Rebecca: Do you think there is a timeless quality about your music that appeals to people?
Jerry: I’d like to believe there’s something like that, but I have no idea, really. There is a human drive to celebrate and we provide ritual celebration in a society that doesn’t have much of it. It really should be part of religion. It happens to work for us because people have learned to trust the environment that it occurs in.
Rebecca: Do you feel at all disillusioned at the rate of social evolution? In the sixties, many people thought that massive social change was just around the corner?
Jerry: I never was that optimistic. I never thought that things were going to get magically better. I thought that we were experiencing a lucky vacation from the rest of consensual reality to try stuff out. We were privileged in a sense. I didn’t have anything invested in the idea that the world was going to change. Our world certainly changed. (laughter)Our part of it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s continuing to do it, continuing to evolve. It’s a process. I believe that if you open the door to the process, it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.
David: How do you feel about the fact that many people have interpreted your music as the inspiration for a whole lifestyle – the Deadhead culture?
Jerry: Well, a little silly! (laughter) You always feel about your own work that it’s never quite what it should be. There’s always a dissonance between what you wish was happening and what is actually happening. That’s the nature of creativity, that there’s a certain level of disappointment in there.
So, on one level it’s amusing that