Reflections: Jerry Garcia’s Life and Legacy (Warren Haynes, Jorma Kaukonen, Chuck Leavell, Ronnie Mc
Here on the 17th anniversary of his passing is our final installment of artists’ commentaries on the life and legacy of Jerry Garcia… Click here to read reminiscences by members of Umphrey’s McGee, The Decemberists, The Meters, Megafaun and Strangefolk and click here to read commentaries by Jimmy Herring, Henry Rollins, Aaron Maxwell, Papa Mali and others, Click here to hear from John Bell, Del McCoury, Ethan Miller, Neal Casal and more, and click here for memories from his Grateful Dead bandmates.
One of the things that some people overlook is the vast amount of great songs he left behind. We get a glimpse, through these songs, into all the different types of music that influenced him which went way beyond the previous decade or two. He was a student of folk music who was somehow able to turn a modern generation onto something that they didn’t know they were interested in by incorporating roots that sometimes went back a hundred years or more into his own unique style of songwriting.
Sometimes the sign of a great song is how many different ways it can be successfully re-interpreted or re-arranged. If you think of all the different ways he and/or the Dead interpreted the songs and add to that all the different ways that bands and artists who came later interpreted them there could be an entire College course devoted to just that.
The music of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I am a Bay Area native with two older brothers so it was only natural that their music had a major presence in my life. The taste, tone and feel of Jerry’s guitar playing are so beautifully executed. That signature sound paired with his ability to exhibit so much off the cuff creativity has always made him a guitar player I deeply admire and respect."
“A Walk With Friends”
I was in the Bay Area not long ago and it happened to coincide with Jerry’s birthday and people were taking note of it and it was Jerry Day at the ballPark for a Giant’s game and there were bobble head dolls and who knows what else? People ask me from time to time, ‘What was he like? What did you guys talk about?’ etc. etc. Even my wife, Vanessa, was asking me this morning, ‘Did you share a spiritual vision together?’ Well, I grant you all that these are all valid questions after the fact, but in that time… life was truly much simpler and in many ways more profound.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1965, I found a third floor walk-up at 1145 Divisadero Street…west side of the street between Turk and Eddy. Now in those days, the Western Addition, as that neighborhood was called was somewhat marginal. That said, we musicians and artists were welcomed by the locals and indeed it was a nice little community. (All those buildings are long gone, of course.)
Anyway, I remember I was out in front of our building washing my ratty but much beloved Sunbeam convertible and who should I see walking down Divisadero from the general direction of the Haight, but Jerry Garcia. ‘Hey man, how’s it going?’ I remember him saying. ‘It’s going great I replied.’ It was one of those rare and utterly lovely sunny, warm days in S.F. I had a garden hose and a bucket of soap. Jerry just grabbed a rag and unbidden started to help me wash that old car.
What did we talk about? Well, I’d be lying if I said I remembered exactly, but as I look back through that misty veil of years, we just talked about being alive on that beautiful morning, in a beautiful place.
We were about halfway done washing that loveable old junker when a homeless guy passing us on the sidewalk stopped to talk for a bit. ‘I could use a dollar boys,’ he said. ‘But I ain’t begging. I’ll sell you this ring for a buck.’ Now, Jerry didn’t have any extra fun tickets in his pocket but I had three or four dollars. Being the pack rat that I have always been, I figured, ‘What the heck? Let me see that thing.’ Out of his pocket he pulled a large carnelian stone in a German Silver setting. ‘Yeah, I’ll take it,’ I said and gave him one of my dollars.
He thanked me and walked on. I put the ring in my pocket and Jerry and I finished washing the little car. We talked a little more about life in general and he bade me goodbye and continued up Divisadero towards Geary.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this little note… that question… "What do remember most about Jerry?’ I guess after the fact, what I remember is two young guys who in some way shared in their vision a passionate love for music specifically and for life in general. Two young guys who in that moment had much of their life ahead of them… many blank pages to fill.
Two young guys who, in that moment so long ago on the streets of San Francisco, were quite simply… just friends.
My old bud Jerry, is gone now, may he rest in peace… but I still have the ring.
Back in 1973 when I was in the Allman Brothers Band, we played several shows with The Grateful Dead. Probably the most notable was the show in Watkins Glen, NY on July 28th which also included The Band. Billed as “Summer Jam,” it turned out to be an historic show, the most attended one day musical event ever at the time…with over 600,000 people attending. I was fairly new in the band, having joined in the summer of ‘72, and the position constituted a huge step up for me. We had recorded but not yet released the Brothers and Sisters record, which was to top the charts by fall of ’73 and had three hit singles on it…"Ramblin’ Man", “Jessica” and “Come and Go Blues”. Even without the new record out, our concerts were selling out and we were all ridding high. Of course, so were Jerry Garcia and the Dead at the time. I remember meeting Garcia back stage the day before the show, when we were all doing sound checks. There were already some fans there, and the Dead’s sound check turned into a long set to entertain them…probably a couple of hours or so.
I was only 21 at the time, young and wide-eyed at all that was going on. Garcia was an icon, a cult music hero and of course a very famous guy and easy to recognize. I was pretty shy at the time and felt a bit intimidated by the whole situation, but of course I wanted to meet Jerry Garcia, and was thrilled to do so. We didn’t exchange a lot, just some pleasantries and musical compliments, with him welcoming me into the ABB and both of us saying that we looked forward to the jam the next night after all three bands had played. I had already been warned about the notorious dosing of folks that would sometimes happen backstage with the Dead…which I believe mostly came from a guy named Owsley, one of their “insiders.” I was told not to drink anything from a bottle, can or glass that had been opened, and to wipe the top of any can before I drank out of it (sometimes drops of acid would be put on the tops of the cans in the coolers). So I was very careful, and luckily avoided any surprises.
The promoters of the show knew it would be a big draw…talk was that maybe 100,000 might show. But none of us in our wildest imaginations thought it would turn out the way it did…breaking all previous records for attendance, even surpassing Woodstock.
The Dead opened the show the next day, playing two long sets and Garcia taking some adventurous and exploratory solos. I didn’t watch all of it, but peeked out occasionally to listen. They were in their element and had the crowd going strong. The Band played next, but were interrupted with a downpour of rain, having to stop for a while before finishing. We played third…doing a long almost three hour set in two segments, playing the songs the fans already knew, and some of the new yet-to-be-heard tunes from Brothers and Sisters.
After all of that, there was a v-e-r-y long jam session that included members of all the bands. I jumped in occasionally…I certainly wanted to say that I had “Jammed with Garcia”! I may have played on “Not Fade Away”, “Mountain Jam” and a couple of others…and it was a real treat for my young self to share the stage with not only Garcia, but all the others in the Dead and The Band.
We did other shows that year with the Dead, the most memorable of which was New Year’s Eve in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. It was an amazing show, both bands playing well and everyone partying to the Max. Bill Graham, who promoted the show, came down from the top of the building at midnight dressed in a diaper as the “New Year Baby”. The crowd was throughly entertained, and we had the obligatory jam afterwards, playing well into the early morning hours of 1974. Garcia played his ass off, and it was again a real pleasure to be on stage with him. By then we knew each other better, and I was more willing to stretch out and participate with stronger energy. We had some nice exchanges between us, and I can just say that I am truly grateful to have played with such a giant of rock music. Jerry was always nice and encouraging to me, and I only wish I could have spent more time with him. By the way, one of our drummers, Butch Trucks, did not escape the efforts of Mr. Owsley on that New Years’ Eve concert…he got dosed and told me later that as he was playing his drums kept moving away from him and he had to chase them…ahh, that was the way of the times!
ADAM AIJALA (YONDER MOUNTAIN STRING BAND)
Jerry has had a major impact on the way I approach the guitar. Even though he’s been gone for quite awhile, I am still learning from him and, man, he’s the reason I got into bluegrass. With that in mind, I guess his impact on the music I write is pretty huge considering I’ve played in a bluegrass band for the last 14 years. Wish he was still around.
BRAD BARR (THE SLIP, BARR BROTHERS)
Jerry Garcia brought to music and culture a wonderful mischievousness, eloquence, and broad sense of the connections that seemingly disparate musical styles shared — not to mention a blistering guitar tone, especially in the early days. I’m not sure if another western musician in the mid-sixties had such an all-encompassing vision for popular music, where old-time folk songs, rhythm and blues, and forward reaching psychedelic improvisations/soundscapes could exist together, rooted in their alternative and devious origins. I miss him.
In 1972 David Grisman made a trip to Warrenton,Va. Bluegrass Festival. He was an old friend of my Father Del McCoury. As my Dad puts it, “he had a fella with him who had real dark hair whom he introduced as his Banjo player Jerry Garcia.” They were there checking out all the bands and jamming with whoever. Their band was called Old And In The Way. That bands album would go on to become the best selling Bluegrass Album for nearly 20 years until a young lady named Alison Krauss came on the scene.
Throughout my early years of playing Bluegrass I would tell people my age that I played Bluegrass music with my father. Many times their reply was “cool, like Old And In The Way….Jerry Garcia” !
Growing up in PA in a household full of Bluegrass I really wasn’t that aware of The Grateful Dead.
Not until my late teens. I knew my mandolin hero, David Grisman ( Whom I affectionately call Uncle Dawg), had worked with them on American Beauty so I had to find out more. I started going to shows in DC and Philly and I had never heard anything like it before. It felt familiar and exciting and lonesome and moving!
In the late 80’s I had a chance to meet Tom Vennum who was working for The Smithsonian Folklife. He had written books on World Drumming and had become friends with Mickey Hart. He got me backstage to meet Jerry in DC. I gave him a bunch of live Bluegrass tapes I had made and he was very appreciative.
It was around this time that Jerry and David Grisman reconnected and started working together again.
I remember calling Uncle Dawg at his house and he would say " hang on" and then put Jerry on the line. He always seemed to have a giggle in his voice…it made me smile talking to him.
Long story short, I bought some old-time Banjos for resale and I asked David what they were and what he thought the value was. He told me and then said “Hey, Jerry might be interested.”
The Dead were coming to DC again so I took my Dad, brother, sister, and my wife along. We met after soundcheck in catering with my banjos in tow. This was the first time my dad and Jerry had seen each other since 1972. He told us the first time he actually saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys was in CA 1963 with my dad on guitar and singing. He said it changed his life! He looked at me and said “Your Dad was a big inspiration to me.” I felt so very proud at that moment. We all talked Bluegrass, David Grisman, recording, singing, writing, scuba diving and finally, before he had to go get ready, I showed him the banjos. He picked them for a little, I told him what I wanted for them and he said "sure, I’ll take’em! Before he left I asked if they would do an old mountain song my dad had done for years called “Rain and Snow.” Twenty-five minutes later I heard the roar of the crowd and the beginning of that lonesome song with a lonesome singer carrying it on to another generation!
This was a great night for a young man with an inquisitive musical heart.
ARON MAGNER (THE DISCO BISCUITS, CONSPIRATOR)
Memorable Moment: Black Muddy River encore RFK 6/24/95
I had seen a few bust-outs after seeing the Dead since ‘89, but this one felt different. Perhaps the fact it was a ballad made it more emotional than say the first “Unbroken Chain” ever, only a few months earlier, that carried a roller coaster ride’s worth of excitement. Maybe it was the fact that “Black Muddy River” is an encore song, and ballads in this position are meant to sum up the evening with a soft landing. It was also the first time the song had been played in 4 years. I certainly know full well that burying a song even for a couple of tours begets added inspiration when you finally play it again. Whatever is was, it was the last time I heard Jerry’s voice live. Now that I think about it, there was some closure in it for me. I don’t think I want my last memory tainted by walking out of another Throwing Stones—> NFA, as I had done so many times before. But now my boy Joe Russo plays in the Grateful Dead, so what do I know?
CONRAD DOUCETTE (TAKKA TAKKA)
Where to start with Jerry Garcia? Is it that guitar sound? To me, that clean tone is the aural equivalent of a Yosemite lake, as crystalline and darn near as inspiring. I was fortunate enough to have seen the Grateful Dead a number of times, and let me tell you, few things have ever floored me as much as hearing that tone burst forth from mammoth PAs, as powerful yet cool and sleek as Excalibur’s blade.
Jerry’s playing transcended its role as ensemble instrumentation. Many lamented the Grateful Dead’s forced exile into larger and larger hockey arenas and football stadiums, but not me. It was all I knew, and besides, this was a band that was the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge – how do you shoehorn that into a theatre? That band, those songs, Jerry Garcia… they deserved to deliver their benevolent rule from the grandest of stages. And once you heard the music, beautiful and loud, and you saw that sea of happy humanity, and you felt that surge of spiritual goodwill that can only be enjoyed on such a scale, well, ignoring a stadium’s tacky Budweiser banners was a snap.
I was there in Chicago on July 9, 1995 – Jerry’s last performance and the Grateful Dead’s final concert. The last song Jerry sang that evening was “Black Muddy River,” a lyric which manages to straddle two sides of the Dead’s journey: the shared experience of something bigger than us – that muddy river that rolls on forever – as well as the lifelong odyssey that we must all travel alone. It’s a moving tune anytime, but on that evening the song was particularly heartrending. Was it the knowledge that this was the end of a tour, one that had been at times trying for both band and fan? There was that, yes, but also consider the grandeur of the setting, with that skyline and that majestic lake, and also the simple pleasure of hearing a beautiful song in the throes of a warm summer evening with a friend at your side.
It’s a moment that stands vividly in my memory, and it’s a testament to Jerry’s writing. His songs are as monumental, or as simple, as you need them to be.