The Long Strange Wide World of Jerry Garcia

Though he was quite possibly the brightest and most philosophically articulate interviewee of his era in popular music, Jerry Garcia was not the guru that the media canonized in his name. While charismatic and charming, he refused to be a leader -- not of the counterculture that flowered in his hometown neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco in the '60s, nor even of the band, the Grateful Dead, for whom he played lead guitar for 30 years -- "You can call me the boss, man, just don't expect me to make any decisions." 


He was a guitarist, and in the course of his 34 years of public performance, he covered more musical genres more brilliantly than any musician of his time. In one single album, the Dead's 1969 masterpiece Live Dead, he plays rock, blues ("Death Don't Have No Mercy"), atonal weirdness ("Feedback"), and as good a fusion of rock and jazz as there ever was ("Dark Star"). Somewhat later, he and David Grisman laid down superlative country and folk, while their bluegrass project Old and in the Way revitalized the form. 

As Bob Dylan put it, "There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly, and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but (Garcia) filled them all without being a member of any school." At the center of Garcia's playing was a curiosity, an openness to the world around him, a sensibility that led him to be a genuinely great artist. It is highly appropriate that his legacy is represented tonight by so wonderfully gifted and disparate a trio of musical approaches as a ragtime/blues guitarist, a gospel-influenced a capella singing group, and a banjo player who has recorded with Garcia's playing partner David Grisman and Garcia's influential intellectual mentor, William Burroughs. 
Garcia began playing guitar at the age of 15, studying Chuck Berry and the other early rock icons. When rock became boring in the early '60s, he turned to folk music, and then to bluegrass banjo. In 1965, he and his cohorts in what would become the Grateful Dead would harness authentic improvisation learned primarily from John Coltrane with a rock and roll backbeat to create an electronic American string band that was sui generis and without peer. Garcia personally would transfer the crystalline dance of that most fiendish of stringed instruments, the banjo, into the blues textures of rock guitar to create a sound as distinctive and inimitable as any of his peers. 
His larger-than-life personality and his deep personal commitment to bohemian values often left critics with a historical perception of him that focused more on sociopolitics than art. In the end, his real legacy was that of the quest, the urge to do more as an artist, a thinker, and a human being. As his lyricist partner Robert Hunter described it in the song "Crazy Fingers," 
Midnight on a carousel ride
Reaching for the gold ring down inside 
Never could reach
It just slips away but I try 


By Dennis McNally

(Dennis McNally is the author of a biography of Jack Kerouac, Desolate Angel, which led to his being the Dead’s official biographer, and its publicist since 1984. His work on the band, A Long Strange Trip/The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, was published in the summer of 2002. This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for “A Long Strange Trip: The Legacy of Jerry Garcia”, a September 19th, 2002 NYGF concert featuring Jorma Kaukonen, The Persuasions & Tony Trischka.)

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“You can call me the boss, man, just don’t expect me to 

make any decisions.” Photo © 2001 Susana Millman.


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Merkin Concert Hall just before showtime. Some patient fans

hold out for “miracle” tickets to the sold out concert.


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Jorma Koukonen takes a break from email and

computer solitaire with Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin)

and David Spelman.


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Tony Trischka (banjo) and Barry Mitterhoff backstage at Merkin.


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Tony’s banjo waits for him on stage.



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The Persausions, who got their start singing on

the streets of Brooklyn over 35 years ago, with

Jorma, Barry and Tony.


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“These are heavy songs,” said Jerry Lawson, lead singer

of the Persuasions, when talking about Garcia and Hunter’s

work. ‘It Must Have Been The Roses’ — those words will

make you cry.”

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