Remembering Jerry Garcia 25 years after his death

A generation of Americans can still remember the day when Jerry Garcia died. No music fan seemed prepared or willing to accept the void left by such a monumental music figure. It was August 9, 1995. Garcia, the self-taught singer-songwriter and founding member of the Grateful Dead, whose music catapulted him from just another guitarist to a counterculture folk hero, was suddenly gone after leading the band for three decades.
A generation of Americans can still remember the day when Jerry Garcia died. No music fan seemed prepared or willing to accept the void left by such a monumental music figure. It was August 9, 1995. Garcia, the self-taught singer-songwriter and founding member of the Grateful Dead, whose music catapulted him from just another guitarist to a counterculture folk hero, was suddenly gone after leading the band for three decades.

Credit: © Jay Blakesberg

Credit: © Jay Blakesberg

A generation of Americans can still remember the day when Jerry Garcia died.

No rock music fan seemed prepared nor willing to accept the void left by such a phenomenal music figure.

It was 1995, during the height of the alternative grunge band movement.

Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” was a hit song at the time.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were a month away from their sixth album release, and the Foo Fighters had just burst onto the scene the year before.

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Garcia, many would agree, laid the groundwork for those bands tearing up the music scene in the mid-1990s.

With 30 years of performances under his belt, Garcia had become a guru in the music world by the time of his death, and many music artists continue to follow in his footsteps today.

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He likely was the first rock star to have his own ice cream flavor.

Probably no other rock band has had such a lasting influence on popular music.

The Grateful Dead, one of the most popular touring bands of all time, had no defining hit song or any Grammy Awards to speak of — but the band was, more than anything, a tour de force of cultural influence. Their legendary concerts were a harbinger for the mega-music festivals we see today including Coachella and Bonnaroo.

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The music the group made was ahead of its time, exploratory with an incredible range from bluegrass to country, and wrapped in psychedelic and folk cloth, but it was all rooted in rock ‘n’ roll and drizzled over with Garcia’s legendary guitar improvisations.

But it all came crashing down 25 years ago on Aug. 9, 1995.

Garcia, the self-taught singer-songwriter and founding member of the Grateful Dead, whose music catapulted him from just another guitarist to a counterculture folk hero, was suddenly gone after leading the band for three decades.

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The Grateful Dead frontman died of a heart attack one month after the band played its last show July 9 at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

He was 53.

Garcia was not among the “27 Club” ― an unofficial listing of legendary rock stars who died at age 27 — which includes Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

Garcia lived into his fifties, like Michael Jackson and Prince, despite a prolonged high-risk lifestyle.

‘Living on borrowed time'

Decades of alcoholism, heavy smoking and drug abuse had finally caught up to the troubled genius whose creativity was heightened while under the influence, but his biggest mistake was failing to consider his health and longevity until it was too late.

Fans and bandmates alike were devastated.

America at the time was still reeling from the Oklahoma City bombing in April, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial also served as backdrop to the loss of a most likable music legend — gone forever and far too soon.

Former bandmate and drummer Mickey Hart told Rolling Stone last week that “I was a wreck” when Garcia died.

Hart also said that up until the time Garcia died, his good friend had been “living on borrowed time.”

“When he checked in, he was not strung out. He was just very sick from all that abuse. He died of something else — his heart gave out,” Hart told Rolling Stone. “It wasn’t like rehab. All his arteries were clogged up and he couldn’t get blood to his heart. Somebody there told me he died with a smile on his face.”

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A peaceful man and an unassuming figure with long shaggy hair, Garcia fit neatly with the counterculture revolution and rampant anti-Vietnam War sentiments among America’s youth in the late 1960s. In those days, Garcia was a budding artist in San Francisco’s cultural drug mecca known as Haight-Ashbury.

He shunned the spotlight and didn’t like being known as the “leader” of the band. He often referred to himself as “an artist who played music” and used his mild manner and transcendental philosophical viewpoints to coalesce a holistic musical movement around him.

His angle was “making it up as I go along. The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that’s difficult for me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1993.

Becoming a legend in his own time, Garcia was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the Grateful Dead a year before his death in 1994, the same year as John Lennon, Bob Marley, Elton John and Rod Stewart.

Garcia’s deteriorating health kept him from attending the ceremony.

“Although he never offered a formal comment on his absence, it was reported at the time that Garcia thought the Rock Hall was ‘stupid’ and was opposed to its bigger message about music artistry,” Vulture reported in 2019. The rest of the band showed up to accept the honor and brought with them a cardboard cutout of Garcia.

Influence remains

If he were alive today, Garcia would probably be a social influencer, with millions of followers on Instagram, and no doubt he’d still be performing live shows.

Even in death, Garcia has become more relevant and recognizable than ever. The Deadheads — what Grateful Dead fans call themselves — have bestowed an iconic cult status on the rocker to accompany the countless pop culture references seen on posters, T-shirts and music festivals carrying his name.

One of the biggest tributes to the musician was Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, introduced in 1987 eight years before he died.

Garcia’s legend still resonates and is being kept alive through his music — an extensive oeuvre that has been entirely digitized for the modern music consumer on YouTube, iTunes and other streaming platforms on the internet.

A handful of bands influenced by Garcia’s sound are also popular on the touring circuit and, like a folk tradition, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legacies is being passed down to a younger generation.

One band in particular is Dead & Company, which was formed in 2015 and features John Mayer alongside original members of the band, according to Variety, including guitarist Bob Weir and drummer Hart.

In touring gigs before the coronavirus shutdown, the band grossed a staggering $250 million over five years, Variety reported.

It’s evident that Garcia, like other late artists, has become worth more posthumously than he was when alive.

Today his name is connected to many lucrative capitalist ventures, including name-brand apparel and footwear. For instance, a brand of funky shag carpet Grateful Dead Nike shoes sold out quickly in July. You can also find Garcia’s name on a steady stream of furniture, decor, accessories and hygiene products that add up to a fortune of about $150 million, according to Variety.

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Garcia 13th in its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” By 2015, he fell to No. 46 on the list.

Just this week, the magazine gave him another nod, hailing “Jerry Garcia’s 50 Greatest Songs.” In the magazine’s Top 10 were “Scarlet Begonias,” “Sugaree,” “St. Stephen/The Eleven,” “Wharf Rat,” “Bertha Grateful,” “Ripple,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Eyes of the World,” “Dark Star” and “Uncle John’s Band.”

Garcia was also an accomplished painter who attended the San Francisco Art Institute as a teenager and went on to create more than 1,000 original works throughout his music career.

Some of his artwork has become part of a coronavirus relief watercolor exhibit called “California Mission,” presented by the Jerry Garcia Foundation.

Early life

Jerry Garcia was born Aug. 1, 1942 in San Francisco.

Garcia said he learned how to play the banjo in his adolescence and also revealed in interviews that he first got an ear for country and bluegrass music on an old radio at his grandmother’s house, where he spent part of his childhood. From there, he began listening to music by pioneering Black rock ‘n’ roll artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

So when his mom bought him an accordion for his 15th birthday, young Jerry begged her to let him trade it in for an electric guitar. She did and Garcia used it to win a talent contest in high school. But this early introduction to music also coincided with discipline problems, and Garcia would not realize his true calling to music until several years later.

In 1960, Garcia’s family forced him to join the Army after he was busted for stealing a car, but his military career was short-lived.

Discharged for dereliction of duty, Garcia became a drifter, sleeping on couches and living out of his car, doing drugs and hanging out on the streets, mixing with the wrong crowd.

Garcia was lost, and during this time, music was not much of a priority.

It wasn’t until early 1961 that he started playing guitar to make a living after witnessing the death of a friend in a car accident.

For Garcia, it was something of a wake-up call.

During the next few years, Garcia befriended other artists who came on board with his first two bands — Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks — that would eventually go on to become the Grateful Dead in 1965. Garcia was 23 years old.

Around this time, the psychedelic drug LSD was also gaining popularity among young people, including Garcia and the Dead, who also regularly used cocaine, heroin, opium and marijuana.

Police raids and arrests were not uncommon during the band’s heyday.

The group nearly fell apart several times during turbulent periods of the 1970s and 1980s, and the band rarely released new albums, becoming more known as a touring party band.

Nearing the end

By the 1980s, reports said Garcia had a $700-a-day drug habit, which forced him to work many side gigs away from the band.

After watching Garcia deteriorate from a decade of heroin use, bandmates intervened in January 1985, and Garcia agreed to go to rehab. Before he made it, however, he was arrested for drug possession. After completing a diversionary program, Garcia got clean for a while, but by that time his health was in severe decline.

In the summer of 1986, nine years before he died, Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma for five days.

He had to relearn how to play the guitar and was back playing with the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead later that year.

Four years later, in July 1990, the group’s keyboardist Brent Mydland died of a cocaine overdose.

Concerned about the band’s future and physically exhausted from touring, Garcia relapsed and began using heroin again.

The band intervened once more and got Garcia back up to speed by the time of the band’s 1992 summer tour.

The fall tour, however, had to be canceled after Garcia fell ill again and needed time to recover.

His physical condition was such that he had to use narcotics to tolerate pain.

He checked in to the Betty Ford Center in July 1995 and stayed there for two weeks. He next checked in to the Serenity Knolls treatment center in Forest Knolls, where he died, just outside San Francisco — the city where he made his name.