Jerry Garcia: Before the Dead
One of the most surefire chuckles in Amir BarLev’s Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip arrives early in the film, courtesy of Barbara “Brigid” Meier, Jerry Garcia’s girlfriend of the pre-GD 1960s. Often described as the “love of his life,” she bought the young musician his first guitar. He soon discovered bluegrass music and the five-string banjo playing of Earl Scruggs and began to practice day in and day out. Looking straight into the camera more than half a century later, explaining why she and her boyfriend drifted, Meier deadpans, “I found bluegrass really tiresome.” Bad for Barbara, good for us. Before the Dead , at four CDs or five LPs, is the most comprehensive collection of acoustic-music recordings featuring Garcia during that formative folk and bluegrass period. Much of it has floated around before; some makes its debut here. The audio quality necessarily varies but, throughout, despite Meier’s disclaimer, the music ranges from enjoyable to thrilling. Curated by former Dead publicist Dennis McNally and documentarian Brian Miksis, Before the Dead serves primarily as history—even the most obsessive Deadhead probably won’t listen to it often, but all should hear it at least once. The chronologically arranged set begins in 1961, with the 18-year-old Garcia and good friend/future songwriting partner Robert Hunter reeling out eight tunes on guitars for Brigid’s 16th birthday party. The repertoire—as remains so throughout the box—is nearly all from the traditional well, with songs like the spiritual “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” and the Joan Baez arrangement of “Rake and a Rambling Boy.” The guitar work is serviceable but not outstanding, and the vocals are ragged, but Bob and Jerry, as they’re billed, are having a good ol’ time. Garcia doesn’t break out the banjo until the June 1962 recordings of the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, one of several configurations featuring shifting personnel that occupy the package. America was deep into the “folk scare” by that time and Garcia already proves to be a master of the genre, his vocal delivery now recognizable from the first words of “Cannonball Blues,” the A.P. Carter number with which the group starts its set. Fans who later latched on to Garcia’s bluegrass pickin’ with Old and in the Way will surely feel at home with these and the other 1962-63 recordings made with various short-lived assemblages. The kid had a way with strings for sure. By the spring of 1964, when the last tunes here were recorded, Garcia was already searching for something new. He’d soon enough figure out what it was.