Garcia's Midas touch
Grateful Dead leader passed away 10 years ago today, but his legacy of music refuses to die
By Paul Liberatore
JERRY GARCIA died 10 years ago today, but his legacy lives on through a stream of new musical products from the seemingly bottomless well of recordings he left behind.
The charismatic leader of the Grateful Dead had a hippie-era disdain for commercialism, but he nevertheless possessed a Midas touch that has outlived him.
"He was a guy who in his lifetime had his legend eclipse his real self," said David Gans, host-producer of the syndicated radio show "The Grateful Dead Hour." "He was a great character who left us some pretty cool music."
Gray and overweight, Garcia died Aug. 9, 1995, in a Forest Knolls drug treatment facility, eight days after celebrating his 53rd birthday.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing, Rhino Records chose today to release the first DVD of the Jerry Garcia Band, his long-standing side group.
The DVD, "Live at Shoreline," featuring a cover photo of an elderly-looking Garcia onstage with his right arm raised in weary triumph, was recorded at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View in September 1990.
On Aug. 23, Rhino launches what it's advertising as "a musical crusade to spread the gospel of Jerry" with the release of volume one of "The Jerry Garcia Collection," a concert CD from another Garcia side band, the 1970s Legion of Mary.
This month's issue of Rolling Stone magazine includes an advance spread on the November release by Grateful Dead Records of "Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings," a 10-CD box set that captures every note played during an historic four-night run at the Fillmore in San Francisco when Garcia and the Dead were young and in the process of creating the music that would define their career.
Rolling Stone writer David Fricke calls it "some of Jerry Garcia's best lead guitar on record."
The band's archivist, David Lemieux, who is co-producing "Fillmore West 1969," couldn't agree more.
"Jerry's legacy lies in these archival recordings," he said. "What's amazing is that his music keeps demanding to be heard."
And there is a certainly a demand to hear it. In the decade since Garcia's death, there have been some 70 archival releases, including a raft of CDs and at least 10 DVDs.
In June, Rhino put out an elaborately-packaged, high-definition DVD and companion CD called "Truckin' Up to Buffalo," chronicling a 1989 Fourth of July concert at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.
And in addition to the music from Grateful Dead Records, Garcia's Sausalito-based estate has produced a series of CDs called "Pure Jerry."
Garcia died relatively young, but he packed a lot of playing into his 30-year career, mastering a variety of genres, from bluegrass and rock to funk and jazz. Although he was known for his distinctive guitar style, he also loved the banjo, and a book of transcriptions of his banjo picking with the bluegrass group Old and in the Way is reportedly in the works.
"Jerry would just play for the joy of playing," Lemieux said. "He was an ego-less performer who happened to have more talent than any of the others. But what he gave off from the stage was that he wasn't anything more than an excellent musician. This guy was so humble. He just wanted to play."
After Garcia died, the band quit performing as the Grateful Dead, although three of the surviving members - guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart - have continued to tour and record with bands of their own.
Along with drummer Bill Kreutzmann, they occasionally reunite as the Dead, and there has been talk of an event later in the year to mark the Grateful Dead's 40th anniversary.
With Garcia gone, though, Marin-based Grateful Dead Productions has had to downsize considerably, outsourcing its merchandising, laying off many of its extended family of employees, selling its capacious Novato headquarters and moving its offices and its eight remaining staffers into a more modest space in San Rafael.
"We always sold music, but now it's recorded music from the archives." said longtime Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, author of "A Long Strange Trip, The Inside History of the Grateful Dead."
"We've shrunk for obvious reasons, but we're doing OK," he said. "It's not as big as it once was, but it has endured remarkably."
Jerry Garcia from the IJ photo archives.
What has also endured is Garcia's mystique.
Lyricist Robert Hunter was his lifelong friend, and the two of them co-wrote the band's best-known songs. In a reflection on the 10th anniversary of Garcia's death that appears online, Hunter wrote:
"Few would disagree that a key part of him remained isolated, unknown and unknowable."
Hunter goes on to say that the best way to begin to understand Garcia is through his music.
"His art is the closest thing to an available roadmap of his singularities, amorphous clues, and clues only, to the nature of his true affections," Hunter said.