COLUMN TWO, OCTOBER 1, 1995
(Copyright © 1995 The Blacklisted Journalist)
ST. JERRY OF THE DEAD
Just as Jack Kerouac's seismic novel, On The Road, shook up the '60s, the music of Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead quaked the '90s. Jack's book liberated its readers with truths that moved the earth. Jerry and the Dead freed their listeners with Richter scale emotion.
Although not the world's greatest master of his instrument, handicapped since boyhood by half a missing middle finger on his right hand and about as fancy looking as a bag lady's wardrobe, Jerry was an American original who inspired a band of what started out as just so-so musicians into heroes pied-pipering integrity, honesty, idealism and truth in a culture driven largely by greed, lust and materialism.
Does that sound like too leaden a message to float on the cloud of pot smoked by a partying neoBeatlemania-type phenomenon? The Deadhead army ranges from tie-dyed, hippieish kids to grim-prim politicians the likes of Senator Leahy and Vice President Gore, both of whom have cast ballots in favor of Jerry. Although neither one was ever elected Commissar of Music Appreciation, Deadheads don't care whether the Dead's music is in the groove or far short of it. To them, every Grateful Dead concert always turns out to be a roaring fun party. Except, there's now an ingredient missing from the roaring funness.
For me, Jerry Garcia, like Jack Kerouac, will live forever on the Mount Olympus of these times of ours. For me, both have achieved Countercultural sainthood. That's what I think. For me, they both will endure as gods of tomorrow because they dared to declare the gods of our past to be obsolete. That's how I read their message. That our times keep changing so fast that what was appropriate 50 years ago no longer applies, that the virtues of the past are the vices of today and that the vices of the past are the necessities of now. A lot of us obviously have come to feel that way. To me, Jerry was Jack's disciple. Culturally and spiritually, Jerry was one of Kerouac's kids and it's now hard for me to think of one without thinking of the other. Jack wrote books and Jerry played music, but the two of them preached the same sermon: the world is moving so fast that morality can't keep up with the times.
That's obviously not a sermon any church would allow to be delivered from its pulpit. And although neither Jerry nor Jack can hardly be accused of ever having tried to lead saintly lives, the two of them achieved enough recognition, acclaim and moneyed success to have been duly beatified by the media of a society which is too materialistic to feel threatened by the dead. Actually, ours is a culture which more than likely would rather have wanted to throw them both in prison.
Seismic is an apt word to describe both their lives. Jerry, named after Jerry's mother's greatest musical hero, Jerome Kern, had been shook up since boyhood. On a camping trip one spring day, a disbelieving five-year-old Jerry watched helpless and horrified from the riverbank as his father, Joe, a dedicated orchestra leader who was also a gung-ho fly-fisherman, was swept to his death by a raging river. As for Jerry's missing finger, Jerry never liked to talk about it, but former New Rider David Nelson, who used to play guitar with Jerry, told me he once got up the nerve to ask.
"Jerry's brother Clifford was chopping wood with him at their cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains," David told me. "Jerry was holding the wood and Clifford was chopping and, together, they just missed. That's about it. Jerry said he could feel dirt under the missing fingernail for years. The ghost finger. He said when it happened, there was this buzzing all of a sudden. I said, 'Did ya feel it when it happened?' He said he was too young, he was only about three. He said there was this buzzing, a sound like a buzzing. You know, when your nerves are tapped out, you can't hurt any more. But no, Jerry never liked to talk about it."
It's getting close to 40 years since On The Road first shook up contemporary culture, but Jack's book still stirs young people revolted by a world they so passionately long to change. With Kerouac's writing now more popular than ever, how can the celebrity of Jerry and the Dead possibly not endure?
For the present, the Dead rightfully has cancelled all tours. That's to be expected. But ultimately, it would seem foolhardy for the surviving band members to abandon so successful an institution that they have worked so hard to build. My opinion is that they should keep on truckin' until nobody comes. Take a vacation. Then find another guitarist, not a Jerry clone but an original. Yes, keep on truckin' till nobody comes. I don't think that's materialism so much as just plain common sense. But without Jerry, how can a Dead concert ever be the same? On the other hand, were any two Dead concerts ever the same even with Jerry? Still, there's no getting away from the fact that Jerry really was the heart and soul of the band.
We'll just have to wait and see what the Dead comes up with. Thankfully, there still are enough recorded sounds of Jerry's voice and Jerry's guitar to keep ears pinned for eons. Even in death, or maybe because of it, the eyes of the world are on Jerry. At least, he still seems to be on the tip of people's tongues.
Eyes of the World" That's the Dead tune I'm listening to right now. One of my favorites. I'd like for you to hear it right now with a click of your mouse, but the Dead management has nixed the idea. Why not? We're not commercial!
Jerry Garcia was a superman musician who dragged the '60s all the way into the '90s. Journalists marvel at the age extremes of Jerry's army of Deadheads, from little kids to white-bearded ancients. Now that is a sort of neoBeatlemania-type phenomenon, isn't it? Or is it? To me, the Deadhead army is more or less a redefined '60s Counterculture, or what's left of it. They used to call Kerouac "King of the Beats." By the time Jerry died, he certainly could have been called "King of the post-Beats." He really had no contenders. Perhaps sucked into the leadership of the Counterculture by the existing vacuum, the Dead seemed to have taken over by default. On this point, however, Dennis McNally, the Dead's spokesman, disagrees.
"Instead of saying the Dead took over, I would say the Deadheads took it over," Dennis says. "They're a very different bunch of people. Jerry's attitude, the rap he always gave me was, "Hey, man, I'm just a musician!'
"Have you seen this movie, Tie-Dyed" It's about the parking lot scene, in some ways, the last parting gasp of the Counterculture. Garcia said of the Counterculture in the Rolling Stone interview in 1972, 'It was the same old undifferentiated mess.'
"I perceive the Counterculture as an abstract intellectual entity. The realities of life in 1995 have overwhelmed us. Survival is hard enough. Developing something as vibrant and healthy as an actual, living, breathing Counterculture, I don't see it. The information is there. The information will always be there and hopefully it will get picked up at a healthier time. At this point, for me, being an historian, it is the original. One of the essential facts of the Counterculture is that it evolved at a time of wonderful prosperity. It was perfectly possible without a great deal of scuffle to live on the edge economically. It was no great problem. If you could get five people to rent a house that cost $100 a month, anybody---anybody---could get $20 a month together. Now that a
The Grateful Dead parking lot scene: the people are consumed with drug, a lot of ripping off goes on, there are a lot of bad vibes
one-bedroom apartment costs $1000, it's a little trickier. For me, the Counterculture is an intellectual entity. But as a reality, it's an awful hard row to hoe, that's all. And you see that in this film, which is about the parking lot scene at the Grateful Dead concerts. There's people living like that and there's a hell of a lot of very negative information. These are people consumed with drugs and there's a lot of ripping off going on and a lot of bad vibes. The point is this is a movie about 2,000 people, the people who live in the parking lot. It's not about the whole Grateful Dead scene, although it does not make that clear, which is upsetting. It's specifically about a very tiny segment of the Grateful Dead scene and on the whole, as portrayed by this documentary, it's a pretty depressing scene. It's a lot of lost people who have found some comfort but they're not very bright. Let's put it that way. The dangerous thing about this film is that it was preceded by a seven-minute short interview with Ken Kesey about the Dead and, for obvious reasons, there's more perceptivity and intelligence in seven minutes of Kesey than there is in the entire film. I would make a distinction between the Dead and the Deadheads."
In other words, Dennis complains that the world is mistaking the lunatic fringe for the whole lampshade. The Deadheads in the parking lot scene don't represent the majority of Deadheads, Dennis insists. The far-outers are always there, trying to make more of something than it really is, carrying the original idea to the extremes of distortion. Hasn't that also been done with the teachings of Christ and of Mohammed? At the last Grateful Dead concert I attended in Giant Stadium in the summer of 1995, I came across a 14-year-old kid from Maine who had no money to get home and who had been drifting from one Dead concert to another. When I tried to question him further, he disappeared into the crowd.
With everything that attracts followers, you always find a lunatic fringe, nutballs who like to take something right to the edge and beyond. I know professionals---engineers and dentists and school teachers---who are definitely not nutballs but who are just as dedicated Deadheads as anybody in the lunatic fringe.. They may have been smoking pot for years, but they aren't extremists. They're certainly not part of the parking lot scene. I'll let a young writer I admire describe the parking lot scene. His name is David Weddle and I read this in an "underground" sheet called LA Village View about the Deadheads storming Las Vegas, where the Dead were due to take the stage for four concerts at the outdoor Silver Bowl arena:
The parking lot at the Silver Bowl in Las Vegas begins to fill up before noon on Friday. The first of the four concerts that the Dead will give this weekend starts at 4 p.m. By two in the afternoon, the lot swarms with 10,000 Deadheads, Buses and vans and trucks with open tailgates are parked in rows that form the impromptu streets of Deadland, U.S.A. Vendors peddle tie-dyed clothing, knitted hats, shiny ceramic bongs, carved-stone dope pipes, vegetarian burritos, spaghetti, stew, chocolate-chip cookies, beer, soft drinks, Devil sticks, drums, puppies, and Day-Glo posters of Jerry Garcia and the band. Music blasts from speakers mounted on buses, vans and cars, a swirling mixture of One More Saturday Night, Uncle John's Band and Touch of Gray. Rivers of bodies flow up and down the narrow boulevards: dogs snake through the forests of legs in search of unattended food, owners calling after them, "Cassady! Cassady!, come here!"
People dance, talk, throw arms around one another. "Oh, my God, you made it!"
"Yeah, drove eighteen hours straight over the Rockies, but we're here!"
Furtive young men wander casually through the crowd offering hallucinogens. "Doses! Doses here!" "Ecstasy! Bud! Fresh Bud!" An interested customer taps one on the shoulder and the pair disappear into the narrow shadows between the cars.
Perhaps more to the point, Weddle also wrote:
Crammed into the surreal menagerie of vehicles smoking toward the city from the north, south, east and west are an equally odd assortment of pilgrims, ranging in age from fifteen to seventy: housewives from Florida, attorneys from Arizona, computer programmers from the Silicon Valley, curio-shop owners from Montana, marriage/family counselors from Los Angeles, aging hippies from the Bay Area, and a hardcore contingent of kids in their late teens and early twenties who call themselves "Tour Heads."
The latter have no permanent addresses. They have chosen a life on the road, following the Grateful Dead from one show to the next---Berkeley; Telluride; Madison Square Garden; Eugene, Oregon; Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. They crisscross North America a dozen times a year---running away from pasts they don't want to talk about and toward the salvation that each concert promises but never quite delivers.
What they get out of it? A sense of belonging? An ersatz religion? The Deadhead phenomenon put the Dead squarely at the leadership of what remained as the leftover Counterculture of the '60s.
Let's start with the spell Jack cast on Jerry. In the beginning, Jerry always made sure to have a picture of Jack in his dressing room. The Dead represented a musical expression of whatever it was that turned the Counterculture toward that tie-dyed hippie lifestyle which grew out of On The Road, especially after Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. As the house band for Kesey's Acid Tests, during which time Jerry got to be tight with Kerouac's buddy, Neal Cassady, hero of On the Road and founder of the cross-country lifestyule, the Dead became absolute Counterculture heroes. Neal drove Kesey's Merry Pranksters to these "tests" in Kesey's fabled schoolbus with "Further" as its destination sign. Those were the days when kids growing up in an insane world were trying to find sanity in insanity. Acid addled everybody's heads. Meanwhile, the Dead, as drugged out as anyone else, gave generously of themselves. Never too avant-gardist and playing wherever and whenever they could, they made their music accessible to all. They played free in the parks of major cities and were always available to play free for any other worthy causes. I even once got Jerry and the Dead to record an album with this anonymous folk singer I once had the bad sense to manage.
Jerry and the Dead took over leadership of the Counterculture by becoming the Counterculture's darling. Besides, there was nobody else to step into the lead role. Of course, the most detailed account of that story is destined to be written by Dennis himself, the Phd. hired by Jerry to be the Dead historian after Jerry read Desolate Angel, Dennis' biography of Jack Kerouac. Of course, in Grateful Dead talk, "historian" turns out to be a euphemism for press agent. Dennis is an old friend of mine. In fact, I'm the one who first introduced him to Jerry. How does Jerry's death now affect Dennis' behind-the-scene influence within the organization? As one who was close to Jerry, Dennis shared Jerry's vision of the band. And as an established Beat scholar, Dennis is just as much one of Kerouac's kids as Jerry was.
I tried to phone Dennis the day Jerry died, but couldn't get anything but a busy signal for at least 72 hours. I finally got through to his answering machine, and he called back the next day to say he was under such an avalanche of pressure that I should give him a week or two. Dennis will always be one of my heroes. I told him I'd rather talk to him when he's not so pressed.
I'd already taped a conversation with Dennis but that was in 1994, when I put together the first of what I planned as a series of books about the Dead. The manuscript of TALES OF THE DEAD (Book 1) contains (1) an article by Michael Lydon that Jerry thought was the best piece ever written about the Dead, (2) an interview I had with Jerry in the early '70s, (3) a piece Dennis wrote about Deadheads and (4) my 15,000-word interview with Dennis, in which he tells all. I'll give you some of TALES OF THE DEAD in future columns.
So, the '60s Counterculture is just something that really never went away. Call it the Underground if you want. A cultural underground, a musical underground, a literary underground, an artistic underground, a drug underground. To me, marijuana is the glue which holds the Counterculture together. "What distinguishes Beat poetry from other contemporary forms?" Beat prophet Allen Ginsberg recently is quoted as having mused. "My first thought was, all the Beat poets smoked pot." Nothing has turned the Counterculture into a "brotherhood" so much as the ritual of joint-sharing. And yet, to me, smoking pot is probably the only thing wrong with pot. After having for too long insulted my lungs and my entire body with all to many clouds of it, I've come to realize how anti-life smoke really is. Also, I've found pot fattening.
It was Jerry who gave me my first hit of cocaine that ever meant anything to me. That was back in the early '70s, when I was the default producer of that studio session in which Jerry and members of the Dead were
The Dead backed up my
act, an anonymous folk singer, who later stabbed me in the back and is now all
but drowned in the
sea of oblivion
backing up this anonymous folk singer who, like me, now has all but drowned in the Sea of Oblivion. Dead or alive, he's probably still too arrogant to realize that by stabbing me in the back he was also cutting his own throat. But that's another story. It's been centuries since I last listened to that recording he made with the Dead and I don't remember if it gives any hint that I was climbing the walls of the control booth in pain from a toothache when Jerry gave me a little mountain of blow on a sheet of white paper and said:
"Here! It's pure Merck. Put that on the tooth and the pain will go away."
I did and it did. That was many kilos ago. I now can tell you authoritatively that all coke really does for you, besides driving you crazy and maybe ultimately giving you a heart attack, is to make you want more coke. I knew that Jerry, like me, eventually got hooked on smoking cocaine freebase, but I was also under the apparently erroneous impression that, in the aftermath of his sugar coma only a year or so ago, he had freed himself from smoking cocaine freebase same as me, cold-turkeying without shrinks, without rehab and without Narcotics Anonymous.
I guess I was naive, as usual, never to be aware Jerry had a junk problem. He kept it well hidden from me, although, in retrospect, I'm not surprised that he had one. It's common for superstar musicians to flirt with junk and too many I know and have known have let that flirtation turn to romance. I, too, have been known to shove some heroin up my own nostrils but I quit the very first time I got sick. Yes, as unsurprised as I turned out to be, I was ignorant of Jerry's junk problem. Dennis, in fact, told me that the Dead organization had swept itself clean of hard drugs, although did emphasize cocaine. But then I can't expect Dennis to tell me everything. "It definitely was not my job to publicize Jerry's heroin problem," Dennis chuckled afterwards, "but, yes, he had one for a long time."
In the end, I'm somehow annoyed by the fact that so great a hero of mine had to die in rehab. Yes, the Underground is still also a drug underground. Mainly peace-loving and otherwise law-abiding citizens who don't fancy going to extremes because, like myself, many of them have already been there, Deadheads find marijuana a benign and therefore preferable alternative to alcohol and they plead that the restrictions against pot be eased. Prohibition, they point out, never succeeded in accomplishing anything but the creation of a new Mafia. Alcohol is just as debilitating a drug as cocaine or heroin. Interdiction didn't work with liquor any better than it is working with heroin or cocaine. Doesn't it make sense that the best solution to a crime wave caused by a drug plague is to take the profit out of the drug trade by decriminalizing the drug?
The snapshot of Jerry which I keep in my billfold of memories shows the bulging cheeks of Forever-Cheerful-Jerry, Jerry-Of-The-Eternal-Smile, Santa-Claus-Jerry, the Jerry-You-Could-Always-Hit-On-For-A-Favor. At least, that was the Jerry I knew before the Grateful Dead got to be so big and I got to be so small.
Possibly, I wore out my welcome with Jerry in the early '80s when I was so drug-sodden, I can't even remember the details of the time I sold him an eighth of cocaine and charged him for it instead of giving it to him as a gift. Blacklisted, kicked out of journalism and driven insane, I was living in D.C. and had turned to petty drug dealing to support myself. I was out to impress the woman I was with, a fellow dope-dealer's old lady, who remembers that it was an ounce, not an eighth. The going rate for an eighth at the time was about $325. The price of an ounce was about a couple of grand, which would have been a good reason why I took Jerry's money. I still think it was an eighth and I should have given it to him as a gift. I was so drugged out that my aim was to be able to boast to all the other small-time D.C. dope dealers I was hanging out with at the time that I had the distinction of having sold coke to the great Jerry Garcia.
This transaction occurred backstage at D.C.'s old Warner Theater, where Jerry was performing in a couple of acoustic shows while on tour with John Kahn, the bass player Jerry used for both his Jerry Garcia Band and his acoustic band, Old & In The Way. This was one of those many periods when the Dead remained idle while Jerry, who never quit working, would tour on his own with other musicians such as Kahn or keyboardist Merl Saunders or with either of Jerry's other bands.
Although I've seen Jerry since then, I feel he kept me at arm's length since that D.C. incident. Still, like all those Deadheads who never met Jerry, I felt he was my spiritual brother. In my mind, only a saint can have so many spiritual brothers, especially among those who have never met him. There were still so many things I wanted to talk to him about.
For me, Jerry Garcia epitomized that loose, easy, friendly, happy-go-lucky, good-timey, good-natured, intellectually gifted, in-touch, well read, highly aware, Bohemian-bent, artistically oriented and multi-ethnic San Francisco style, which, in addition to the fact that San Francisco is built on hills towering above very scenic vistas, makes out-of-towners like me feel such a natural high every time I arrive for another peek at the Golden Gate. San Francisco is fun, isn't it? San Francisco is like a Playland, a scenic cable-car theme park. Like the Dead, San Francisco makes me want to dance.
For me, Jerry epitomized the San Francisco flavor that I tasted in On The Road, the kind of happy buzz I got from hanging out with young poets at North Beach coffee shops decorated by seductive, artistic, leotard-clad and very long-legged waitresses. San Francisco and the entire Bay Area has a naturally air-conditioned climate and the kind of atmosphere that spawns the literate, the liberal-minded, the forward-looking, the well read, the easy-going. Fun-seeking and laugh-ready, San Francisco has the kind of enabling environs which allowed Jerry and the Grateful Dead to experiment, to be devoted to what they did more as artists than as professionals and to be unpolluted by commerciality. Isn't that the flavor you detected in the sounds cooked up by Jerry and the Dead? Can't you hear it in the Beat Generation Jazz mixed with the Blues and Bluegrass and Rock and Roll and Folk tunes and whatever other sounds the Grateful Dead can conjure out of the Dead's variegated musical roots? But still, how can the Dead's music ever be the same without Jerry? The loss is too staggering to contemplate. Let's have a moment of silence. ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN TWO
CLICK HERE TO GET TO "MOON JASMINE: AT HOME WITH JERRY GARCIA"
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ