Reflections: Jerry Garcia’s Life and Legacy (John Bell, Del McCoury, Neal Casal, Ethan Miller…)

August 5, 2014

During the “Days Between” Jerry Garcia’s birth on August 1 (1942) and his passing on August 9 (1995), we share this collection of artist commentaries on his life and legacy, which first appeared two years ago on the 70th anniversary of his birth.


“How I Spent my Summer Vacation”

I attended a Jerry Garcia Band show in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 80’s (Playhouse Square, I think). I remember each song seeming like a full concert. Jerry Garcia’s talking Guitar and vocal approach together painted images that let me experience the music on both a personal and what I believed to be a universal level. Jerry and the Band were playing and singing, but it also seemed that they were letting the songs play them (the musicians), as well – creating a kind of “musical sincerity.” That “letting the song play you” impression has since played a part in the way I try to apply myself to a tune – be it an original, or someone else’s. I will always hold heart-filled gratitude for that evening, and for Mr. Garcia.

“Jerry’s Voice”

What was most important about those huge gold and purple tracers Jerry left behind on this Earth? The monolithic sub-world/following and live legacy of the dead? The industry crushing business model as sketched out by M.C. Escher? The great, curious, defiant, rambling songs? The guitar god who built the biggest sound system of any gunslinger around and then turned the mellow up to 11 and shook the stadium to the dirt with the heaviest mellow crush the world had ever heard?!—-Naw, far as I’m concerned that’s all just fun for a bump and a bag of nitrous balloons on an Indian summer afternoon. What will always be the truth of the Grateful Dead is Jerry’s voice. In a group who’s multi-dimensional entity embodies the hustler, the lover, the hippie, the madman, the noble artist and the trickster (often in the same song), it is Jerry’s voice that gives us the truth beneath that tough hippie-outlaw veneer of the groups narrative. Therein lies the vulnerability, the imperfection, the fear and hope of the human soul. That voice can brag of conquest, beating the odds, murder and living fast, free and easy but in that shaky warble and falsetto sliver of a moon voice Jerry always pays penance to the melancholy that grows and spreads in the outlaw’s soul with each passing day further down the road. That’s the “truth” of the blues that was mostly left behind in the black rural south and Chicago clubs when the 60s and 70s rockers claimed the blues as their own and tried to make it into a superhero’s cape. When Jerry sings, it’s pale blue man, and it cuts to the bone every time. The heart of happiness is sorrow, the shadow of bravery is fear, the color of love is the loss of it, to live a life is certain death. It takes a brave and beautiful voice to sing that kind of truth.


When I met Jerry…I was playing a bluegrass festival in Warrenton, Virginia, I think it was, a bluegrass festival there. The stage was sittin’ on a lake and the audience was on dry ground. That’s the part I remember most about this festival. Anyways, I was booked on a Friday night and I had to go to another festival the next day, and just before I left I met with David Grisman, and he said “I want you to meet my new banjo player,” and it was Jerry Garcia. He had real thick black hair and a beard, you know? And so, David wanted Jerry to hear this banjo player that was supposedly at that festival – his name was Porter Church, a great traditional banjo picker. He said, “have you seen him?” and I said “yeah, he’s got a motorhome up here, he’s sitting on the steps of the motorhome playin’, but I’ve got to leave.” So I took ‘em up there and he was there, Porter was. I guess he introduced Jerry Garcia to Porter then. And so I left and I didn’t see Jerry for a long time.

I saw him in Columbia, Maryland, cause I used to live in PA, you know. So I went down to Columbia to see one of his Dead shows. And when he found out I was there he had me come backstage in the greenroom and said “you know, I wanted to play with Bill Monroe. I used to come see you guys at Ash Grove,” [the club] in Hollywood when I was working for Monroe in 1963. We played that like a week one time and two weeks another time. And he said, “man, I was in the audience every night, watching that. I wanted to be a bluegrass boy!” And I said, “man, why didn’t you tell us!” (Laughs)

But I never really got to know Jerry that well. He was a great guy, though…I wish I had gotten to know him better. He had a lot of respect for bluegrass musicians. [That time in Columbia] he told me, “man, you know, we’re just lucky.” And I said, “Well now, I tell you what goes along with luck – professionalism!” (Laughs) “Maybe a little of that,” he said. He wasn’t real braggy about nothin’.


There is no one who has ever created music with the combination of intelligence, intuition, depth, creativity, and humor that Jerry Garcia has. His work and life will continue to be a limitless source of inspiration for all of us.


I reckon what I love most about Jerry is that he gave so much music. I’ve learned a great deal from his phrasing and really dig his timing. I try to incorporate that “volume” into our music with a slant toward the DIY underground rather than the stadium. I think that’s why I’m so into the JGB band in their small club phases, the sheer joy of the playing colliding with a real people scene. such a good vibe. fave tune, so many of ’em, but probably “Rosemary” & “Spidergawd”. Sheeit yeah!


I read an interview with Jerry once and in it he said, “I want each note I play to have a little piece of my soul in it” or something to that effect. That really stuck with me and has had an enormous impact on how I play. I think about that quote all the time, actually. When he was on, you could hear that he really was singing each note that he played – using the guitar as his voice.

My favorite performance of his is with his band doing “Dear Prudence” from Kean College in 1980. I wasn’t there or anything, but it’s on a disc I have called After Midnight. His singing is great and the guitar playing – oh, man. So much intensity. It has that urgency that was such a great part of his playing that sounds like he might not make the next note. Like there’s no way he’s gonna make the next note. But he makes it. And he doesn’t go on forever: he says what he’s gonna say, sticks the landing and gets out. It’s perfect.