Ashbury Park Press remembers Jerry
Jerry Garcia's legacy thrives 10 years after his death
Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/7/05BY TIM DONNELLYCORRESPONDENT
On Aug. 9, 1995, grown men wept in public. They were men who at first glance might not be united — truck drivers, lawyers, bikers, doctors, conservatives and liberals — all in mourning over the same man.The outpouring of sympathy and broken hearts was not totally unexpected, but preparing for the inevitable doesn't dry the tears. Singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia was dead, and for legions of Grateful Dead fans the world over, their lives were forever altered.Garcia died in his sleep with a grin on his face and an apple clutched close to his chest. Years of drug abuse, smoking and a poor diet that would have given Elvis Presley a run for his beloved fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches finally caught up with Garcia, who died at age 53 in the drug detoxification unit of a Northern California rehabilitation facility.The irony of Garcia literally dying to get straight was too much for some. For others, it was the final incident in a life full of serendipitous prankersterism, the kind of stuff that made Garcia a legend.
Estate alive and well
Ten years after his passing, Garcia's legacy thrives in more ways than one. His estate, run by his third wife, Deborah Koons, is in the middle of a windfall as a "Pure Jerry" line of solo concert recordings, neckties and wine does brisk business at jerrygarcia.com. Garcia's primitive yet passionate art fetches big dollars at highbrow galleries. In 2004, the estate grossed more than $5 million.His former bandmates in the Grateful Dead have released more than 30 concert recordings from their deep and prodigious vaults through the "Dick's Picks" series. These shows barely scratch the surface, as there are close to 2,800 shows available online for download.This fall will see a release of a book of Grateful Dead lyrics and a 10-CD boxed set from the band's highly successful run of shows at San Francisco's Fillmore in 1980.Even in death, Garcia still has the faithful grateful and wanting more."The cynic would say that the estate is making money off poor Jerry," said Aeve Baldwin, editor of Relix Magazine, the authority on all things Grateful Dead. "I think if he were around and cleaned himself up, he would have been doing art. He would be designing neckties and doing these different things."Dennis McNally, the official historian of the Grateful Dead, served as the band's publicist for more than a decade. McNally personally knows what money meant to Garcia when he was alive."He didn't want to be rich. As a point of fact, he spent the money faster than he made it, so that way it didn't have any hold over him," said McNally from his San Francisco-area office. "He didn't want to be poor, he didn't want to be rich, he didn't want to be bothered and he managed to keep it that way. That is what makes him a success."At the same time, he didn't pay attention to the basics that we all know to do — like staying healthy is a good idea."Even when the band first started out in the post-beatnik, pre-hippie days of the mid-1960s, money wasn't a concern for Garcia and his band. Their art was top priority, even when they were flat broke."There's a story that Jerry told about when they named the band the Grateful Dead," said McNally. "He was talking to a clerk at a music store where they owed money, and they owed money to every instrument store in the greater Palo Alto area. The clerk said, "How do you spell grateful?' So Jerry spells it, and she says, "No matter how you spell it, you are never going to get anywhere with a name like that.' "McNally believes fierce independence and faith in the music is what separates their legacy from other bands of their generation."Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are something unique in American history, in that they achieved absolute success, measured on whatever rule of thumb you want to measure it," said McNally. "Whether it was financial success, great admiration or lots of girls . . . they did it completely on their own terms. They did it by systematically by breaking every rule they were ever taught. They created music strictly on their terms. They went a long way because of the magical music.""One of my clearest memories of the Grateful Dead was in the parking lot of the Brendan Byrne Arena, circa 1986," said Baldwin. "It was the height of the yuppie era, and I distinctly remember seeing a guy pull up in a BMW, step out of his car, unbutton his shirt and tie to reveal a Grateful Dead shirt underneath as shaggy hippies around him cheered him on."If you look at the number of white-collar deadheads, it wasn't just about the drugs or tuning out. There are senators. The Gores are Deadheads. It was about the music and a promise it held out."
Impressed by improvisation
Mark Diomede is the guitarist for the Juggling Suns, the most successful "jam band" to ever call the Jersey Shore home. The 47-year-old's life was changed on Aug. 1, 1973 (Garcia's birthday), at Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium, his first Grateful Dead experience. Thirty two years later, Diomede carries Garcia's improvisational torch at the Shore."I was 15 at the time. What really attracted me to their music was their ability to take a song and turn into a sound journey," said Diomede, of Bradley Beach. "The way they interacted and weaved their instruments, together would take you on a ride in your head and take you to other places. They are like the 1969 New York Knicks, where everyone scored 18 points a game. There was a teamwork-oriented approach to their improvisation."Former Clark resident Jay Blakesberg worked with the Grateful Dead as a photographer from the late '80s to the band's demise in 1994. For the lifelong Deadhead, his introduction to the band came at the Shore."I remember in 1976, a friend told me we have to go see the Grateful Dead before they break up. First, I did a Jerry Garcia Band show in July 1977 in Asbury Park. My first Dead show was at Englishtown, Labor Day weekend 1977. I was 15," said Blakesberg from his Northern California studio. "Within two years, I would travel to shows that were five or more hours away. I met people who were like me."Baldwin knows what the initial and lasting attraction to Garcia's music is."What a lot people missed was that they were so good at incorporating all forms of American music. The fact that they would always reach back and dip into what was done before them and put a new twist on it. I think people miss that a lot," said Baldwin. "There's such a profession of the Dead being a stoner band, but at the same time, look at the people who are covering their music today — it's like a big cosmic circle."
The Dead in N.J.
New Jersey Deadheads were extremely lucky as the band played the area at least twice a year for two decades, and some of those concerts are considered some of the best nights ever for the Dead.Their impact was such that after Garcia's death, tie-dye flags flew at half-staff below the stars and stripes in front of East Rutherford's Meadowlands arena and Philadelphia's Spectrum.As a band, the Grateful Dead played New Jersey 54 times, starting at Paterson State College in 1970. The Dead's final Garden State appearance was less than two months before Garcia's death — at Giants Stadium on Father's Day 1995. The band's shows at the Passaic's Capitol Theatre, Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium and the Stanley Theater in particular have stood the test of time as evidenced by their release on CD through "Dick's Picks."
Shore fan base
Bob Municchi has owned the Grateful Dead-inspired store, Tye 1 On, a fixture on the north end of the Seaside Heights boardwalk for the past 11 years. By his admission, he had seen the Dead play "hundreds" of times, starting with their free show in New York City's Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in 1970 and culminating with Garcia's final performance at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995."There are tens of thousands of Dead fans in New Jersey, especially here at the Shore. And we all know each other," said Municchi. "It was an easy drive to Boston, upstate New York or out to Long Island and down to Philly and D.C. from here. It really was the perfect place to be a Deadhead."Garcia's in-state solo concerts were plentiful as well, specifically his shows at Kean College in Union in 1980, considered two of his best shows ever and released last year in the "Pure Jerry" series. His shows at Convention Hall in Asbury Park have reached epic status."The NY/NJ area is the anti-San Francisco. San Francisco is a more relaxed place," said McNally. "It's not a place to have huge screaming ambition; it's a place you can be civilized and live well. It doesn't attract the people who want to get to the top of Wall Street or publishing. Yet, the Dead had an affinity for it.""We went in 1968, '69, '70 — it was the place where they made a living. The only place besides San Francisco they could sell tickets was the Fillmore East, and that carried them a couple years. In 1970, they started playing colleges around the area and started to develop an economic base, which is an essential part of functioning," McNally added.The Dead functioned like a machine in the metro area, thanks to North Jersey concert promoter John Scher, who booked the band's national and international tours. Scher remains in the Dead inner circle to this day, managing Dead alum Bob Weir and his band, Ratdog.But for Scher, who got his start in show business at the Sunshine Inn in Asbury Park in the late '60s and booked hundreds of Dead shows, one weekend in 1977 tops it all."If everyone who says they saw the Grateful Dead at Englishtown Raceway Labor Day weekend in 1977, then there would have been a million people there. It's like the first Woodstock in that respect," said Scher. "But there were close to 100,000 people there. What we went through to get that show off the ground was amazing. There was a climate of conservatism at the Shore during that time, and the locals didn't want the hippies coming to town."They tried to stop the show and we had to go to court. The judge sided with us and said, "What law are they breaking?' He told the towns not to be cute. Well, one town decided to do "construction' on one of the roads leading in, causing this horrific traffic situation. People left their cars wherever they could, so they ended up causing what they didn't want in the first place."The music is what still resonates with Blakesberg, who listens to the show to this day thanks to the "Dick's Picks" series."I can still go back and listen to the Englishtown show and listen to the "He's Gone/Not Fade Away' jam at full volume and have the hair stand up on the back of my neck," said Blakesberg. "That 35-plus minute section of music is some of the most inspiring playing I have ever experienced, and compared to anything else being played in 1977 by any other artist, it is so completely original and truly mind-blowing."
By 1987, the secret was out. The Grateful Dead was no longer the greatest house band for an intimate gathering; they had a Top 10 single ("Touch of Grey") and a video in heavy rotation on MTV. The Deadheads were over run by an element that was not there for the music — they were there for the party.Shows in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Indianapolis were marred by gate-crashing and rioting. Death threats were made against Garcia. What had turned out be an all-inclusive happening was being threatened by its very attraction."The party that went on was well under control. To this day, the Dead's crowd was the best self-patrolling crowd in the world, better than a sports crowd, or any other rock crowd," said Scher. "Before "Touch of Grey,' everybody took care of one another. Then people started coming for the wrong reasons."McNally dealt with the downside of Garcia's fame on a daily basis."Jerry never left his hotel room the last 20 years when he was in New York City, it was too much," said McNally. "The city is intense enough, and when you are famous, it's just too much."One time Jerry made a driver stop the van in the middle of Times Square and hopped out to run into Nathan's to get a hot dog. He loved those things, but in the end it did him in.""Too many people went to shows with absolutely no intention of going in — they were there to party," said Municchi, the Dead-inspired store owner. "There were so many kids who went out on tour who were lost souls and never contacted their parents. Some of these parents were so incensed that they started calling in death threats on Jerry. It was really hairy. None of it was his fault. He was an artist — all he wanted to do was play music."Eventually the unwelcome tide receded for the band, but Garcia's battles with substance abuse and diabetes raged on. The Grateful Dead was a corporation employing dozens of people on the road and in their San Rafael office in California. The musicians were no longer playing for the music but playing to provide food for their workers. They were amazing one evening, lackluster the next.Something seemed amiss by the summer of 1995."On some nights, they weren't very good," said McNally. "But the hope was that the next show would be spectacular, and it often was."When word came down that Garcia had died, Mark Diomede was doing his morning routine of playing guitar scales in front of the television, something he took from Garcia's repertoire."I sat down and started flipping around the TV and I saw Jerry's face, and at that point I knew," says Diomede. "At that point, my phone started ringing. I think I spoke with every newspaper in New Jersey that night."Municchi's experience was more premonitory then anything."The night before, I saw Ratdog in Central Park," he said. "I saw Bobby (Weir) and asked him how Jerry was. He told me that "Everyone has crosses to bear and their own demons. But Jerry was Jerry, and he was going to be all right.' That night was also the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima; there were hundreds of people there, so I stopped and said a little a prayer for Jerry. Twelve hours later, the world was turned upside down."The day after Garcia's death, Diomede and his band retreated to the comfort of the Metro in Long Branch for their weekly gig when fate walked in the door."Bruce Springsteen came in the bar to check on having a birthday party for his wife, Patti," said Diomede. "We approached him and told him it was a tough day for Deadheads and asked him if he would like to sit in with us for a little bit. He said, "If you can get me a guitar, I'm up there.'"We did five or six songs with him. We did a 10-minute version of "Not Fade Away' with him — we were trading solos back and forth, and he can really play guitar. Everybody was out because everybody needed to be with friends. It's what people really needed."
Garcia's sense of humor
The most common misconception of Garcia was that he was a shaman-like guru dispensing knowledge with each guitar lick. In fact, he was erudite and extremely well-read and could be bitingly sarcastic."Jerry was extremely smart and funny," said Scher. "He had a wealth of knowledge when it came to pop culture stuff, old movies and all kinds of music. His sense of humor was great."He had given me a painting of his after I busted him about not having one. So he gives it to me; I have it hanging in my house to this day. I brought it back to my office and noticed he didn't sign it. So I go back to him, and he says, "I was expecting you; what took you so long?' He took out a pen, laughed, and signed it."Blakesberg's dealings with Garcia during photo shoots left him impressed with Garcia the man."I realized that Jerry was just a regular guy who did not really like all the limelight stuff that came with being a rock star," said Blakesberg. "He didn't really care about the photo shoot and was only there because he was told it was part of the deal for the interview. He became a very human guy to me that day, but still a guy that could play music that moved people in ways they didn't even know they could move."The last words Garcia sang in New Jersey were haunting and forthcoming. They're from the song "Brokedown Palace":"Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell, listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul."