Monday, August 08, 2005

Gainsville Times remembers Jerry

From Gainsville Times:

One of the perks of the newspaper business is that we have access to news as it breaks. Veteran journalists can recite personal timelines of where they were by when big events happened.

Take the Aug. 9, 1995, death of Jerry Garcia. The advisory moved on the news service wires: a founding member and primary band leader of the Grateful Dead had passed away at 53.

It wasn't a surprise, not with Jerry's failing health and well-chronicled struggle with substance abuse. But having to break the news to others, including a sister and like-minded co-worker, were another matter, one that still stings.
Now, I'm no music critic. To be sure, there are others in the community who are more qualified to trumpet the band's legacy and place in rock 'n' roll history. But I know what the Dead has meant to me, friends and family, an influence that will resonate this week and beyond.

What began as curious fascination while thumbing through an uncle's record collection turned into a life-shaping musical journey that continues today. The allegiance has weathered parental concern, the responsibilities of the real world and children. In fact, rarely a week goes by without an old show in the tape deck.

Granted, improvisational, "jam band" music is not for everyone. A 31-minute version of "Cryptical Envelopment" can sour many. But the Grateful Dead isn't "devil music" and, contrary to popular perception, doesn't turn listeners into drug-crazed zombies. Though, to be fair, many did their fair share.

No, the legacy for me is the music and the sense of community. The energy spreading through the carnival-like atmosphere of the concert parking lot. Vendors, some in their mid-50s, hawking everything from veggie burritos and bottled beer to homemade clothing and jewelry.

It was a culture all its own, one that could move Deadheads, as diehard fans were known, to cross a continent for a series of concerts.

Yes, I caught shows on both coasts. But perhaps it's fitting that the venue where I most often saw them, the Omni, no longer exists. Despite Jerry's failing health, the four-night Atlanta run in March '95 has grown in significance.
Sadly, it's the spring date on which I passed that lingers. Covered a city council meeting instead of catching the fourth night at the Omni, a show that produced gems such as "GMLSG," "China Cat> Rider" and "Looks Like Rain."
The regret still surfaces, not unlike the occasional Steal Your Face or dancing bear sticker in traffic around Hall County. Whether about trains, travel, cowboys or lost love, the songs of Garcia and longtime lyrist Robert Hunter continue to inspire.

Listeners can delve beyond more accessible mainstays such as "Casey Jones," "Touch of Grey" and "Truckin" to find true gems. And it's the diversity, those hidden nuggets that fuel the appeal of a band whose influences ranged from blues and bluegrass to folk, country, rock and psychedelic.

Songs became known by a word, acronym or phrase. For the record, "Box of Rain" remains a personal favorite. As do "Ramble on Rose," "Brown-eyed Women," "Mississippi Half-Step," "GDTRFB" and "Cucamonga."
Concerts were pure escapism. No two shows were alike. Listeners chased certain songs and the Dead's patented suites, or combinations of songs. And the band plays on through bootleg copies, as well as the "Dick's Picks" series.
Haven't seen any incarnation of the Grateful Dead and its surviving members. Maybe sometime. Tonight, though, I'll settle for New Haven '81. There's "Promised Land," "10ACJed" and a great "Estimated>Scarlet>Fire."
Hard to believe 10 years have passed without Jerry. He's gone, yes, but I'm forever grateful for the music and memories.

Kevin Atwill is The Times' metro editor. E-mail:


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