Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Remembering Jerry in West Virginia

From the Baltimore Sun:

The Grateful Living
Jerry Garcia's devoted followers keep the Deadhead life alive on a hillside in West Virginia.

By Jonathan Pitts
Sun Staff
Originally published August 9, 2005

TERRA ALTA, W.Va. - It's an odd place for a business district, this quarter-mile stretch of gravel road on a rolling, 700-acre farm in the mountains of West Virginia. But tent after tent adorned with handmade signs - "Sunshine Octopus Creations," "Knot Just Hemp," "Grateful Dan Imports" - and the men, women and kids poring over their wares testify to the lure and staying power of a man none of them ever met but that all feel they knew like a brother.It hardly seems like a decade since Jerry Garcia, good-time maestro and founding member of the Grateful Dead, died of a heart attack at age 53. The 3,000 or so fellow travelers here for the 20th Annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash are mourning Jerry the way Deadheads celebrated his music for 30-plus years - gathering to soak up tunes, trade tapes and stories, and thrill to the feeling that there's a life to be lived on the margins of "straight" society.By the time you reach the top of the hill, you've seen endless Jerry Garcias. Bearded Jerry, grinning like a genial nutcase from a thousand T-shirts, stickers and signs. Guitar-picking Garcias on posters, friendly Jerry teddy bears, Jerry key chains dangling from belts. Even Jerry lookalikes - scores of middle-aged men clad in Garcia-style bushy beards, sunglasses and oversized T-shirts covering oversized bellies.Who was Jerry Garcia? The question lingers as you reach the main stage, where his fellow Dead star Bob Weir will headline the weekend's bill. There, at the summit of Sunshine Daydream farm, a 20-foot Jerry portrait, eyebrows arched, gazes down on the gathering hordes. Even he seems curious to know what the legacy is that he left behind 10 years ago today, and whether it's built to last.

It's not hard to find Trip McClenny's house. Just wander down the hill, follow the dreadlocked security guards in orange tie-dyed T-shirts and hang a right at the gate, where three hippies are asleep under a cardboard sign that reads "Gate Crashers." You can hardly see the plastic cuffs around their ankles.It's not that McClenny, organizer of the bash, is an ungracious host. The Olney native started staging the "JGBB" here seven years ago, on his land dubbed Sunshine Daydream, because he saw it as the one place he could assure the kind of friendly, caring vibe that Garcia and the Dead embodied."What Jerry exemplified, in his music and his life, were kindness and love for others," McClenny says. That was how the Dead managed to create Deadheads, as McClenny puts it, "a family of concertgoers who would travel the country. These were kind people who were out to help each other. If you were hungry, they'd feed you. If you didn't have a ticket to a show, somebody might give you one."Like anyone who "gets" the Dead, McClenny, 39, first soaked in that vibe as a fan. He journeyed to Dead shows, selling sandwiches or beer to make ends meet and "living life the way the winds blew it to you. Sometimes you saw a great show, an enlightening or dramatic one. Other times, the magic wasn't quite there." Always, he saw old friends and made new ones.McClenny spends his waking life keeping Sunshine Daydream ready for the half-dozen "jam band" fests he and his wife, Emily, stage each year. They seek only bands that give off the friendly Dead vibe. But it's harder than ever, he says, to guarantee traditional Garcia-style family values."The festival circuit took a dark turn in the early to mid-'90s," he says. "You started seeing nastier drugs, the crack, the OxyContin, stuff like that. It used to be you didn't need but one security guy for a thousand people. ... Now, there can be guns, knives, syringes." His 56 security people search every car.Still, the vibe has been strong enough to prevail. What started out a mere party in the backyard of an Annapolis friend has outgrown that space and two others. McClenny never dreamed that Bob Weir, Garcia's sideman and fellow legend, would play in it. Yet this weekend, he's here, ax in hand.Hundreds have pitched tents here for the weekend, paying upward of $120 each for their 21st-century slice of Dead-style living. The money, McClenny says, is nothing more than a necessary evil, the gate crashers just bad apples who refuse to get how the vibe works."I'm not a concert promoter," he says with a laugh. "I'm a party thrower. Later on, I'll be up on the hill, socializing and dancing with everybody. That's my family out there."

As the sun sets over the hillside in a scarlet twilight, thousands move to the beat of ekoostik hookah, a Dead-style jam band that expands rock songs into lengthy improvisations. As psychedelic images flash on a screen, women in flowing skirts dance, gyrating as if working hula hoops on every extremity. As the set ends, McClenny seizes the mike."Hello to all you freaks on the hill!" he hollers. "Hello!" they holler back. He leads the crowd in a few shouts of "Happy Birthday, Jerry!" - Garcia would have been 63 on Aug. 1 - then introduces the main attraction.At 10 p.m., Weir takes the stage with an acoustic guitar and swings into a rendition of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird." Band mates join him one at a time, swelling the tune to a percolating jam, and cheers roll across the hillside. As a few Dead tunes are worked into the set, the crowd roars.Colorful bubbles float from somewhere above the stage. A dreamy-eyed young man in a Texas T-shirt adds crayon flourishes to an avant-garde drawing. And Weir plays maestro for a few jams that never quite spiral out of control. Ratdog doesn't leave the stage until 1 a.m.

Under a blue tent in the morning, a married couple in their 40s from Columbia share yogurt, nuts and fruit with another couple from Harford County. The former, who go by Jillybean and Jellyben, are online buddies with the latter, who use the screen names Sunspot and Hippie Chong.Like many Dead and Ratdog fans, they're professionals and practice a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding their real names with non-Dead friends. There's stereotyping, explains Jellyben. The Dead are from a drug culture, and people can be suspicious.The mention of Garcia's name sparks a discussion among the group. A friend, Kent Moreno, wanders in with a six-pack and his own thoughts on Garcia's impact. The musician's generosity, Moreno says, allowed him to "create consensus" in the Dead's music and business dealings "in a non-confrontational way."

His greatest virtuosity, says Moreno, might have been his skill at bridging genres, from bluegrass to jazz, from blues to rock. "A friend of mine says he doesn't like Picasso," the West Virginia behavioral counselor says. "My answer is, 'Which one?' There are many Garcias, just as there were many Picassos."All agree that when Garcia's passing might have weakened the bonds of community, the Internet created new gathering spaces. "It's what the Dead were about," says Moreno. "Community inter-relatedness. It's a lot easier now."

Few here seem to recognize a genuine Dead insider, the high-energy 55-year-old Dennis McNally. Grateful Dead publicist since 1984 and the band's official biographer, he's in West Virginia managing Ratdog. His memories of longtime friend Jerry Garcia are of the human kind."Jerry reached iconic status, and he earned that with his music," McNally says. "But he was supremely human - troubled with self-esteem issues, depressive, needy. He had no discipline whatsoever. Not even in his guitar playing. He didn't practice six hours a day because he made himself do it. He was obsessed. He always did what he liked to do."The Garcia McNally remembers was a compulsive reader who dove into literature, history and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein - all of which deepened his artistic point of view. He never lost his Beatnik disinterest in material things, even though he amassed plenty in his life. He gorged himself on Nathan's Famous hot dogs, lived on milkshakes, smoked, and tried feebly to exercise, but in the end couldn't change the habits that led to his death.The rumors were true, says McNally, that Jerry was a reluctant leader. He was a victim of his own personality. "If a Martian came to planet Earth," he says, laughing, "and ended up in a room with 40 people, he'd go straight to Jerry, who just gave off this welcoming vibe. People followed him. He hated that, because he preferred to have no responsibilities at all."In the end, McNally says, Garcia is still with him. His friends, his wife, his business - all have to do with Jerry, and that may never change. "He was a larger-than-life personality," he says, "and that fades away very slowly."

Ratdog fans make much of the fact that the once clean-shaven Weir has sprouted a Jerry-esque beard, and that Garcia's songs have crept more frequently into Ratdog performances. Before Saturday night's show, Weir, 58, tugs at his facial hair and ponders the influence of his late best friend."Ten years? It's just a number, really. I don't make much of that," he says. "But more than that, Jerry isn't even all that gone for me. ... When I'm onstage playing, I can hear the crinkle of his guitar, I can feel his direction. ... He's in the band, as far as I'm concerned."If Ratdog fans also hear such echoes, perhaps it's because Garcia helped Weir's musical sense develop. His key musical talent was not his voice or his monster licks, Weir says, but his capacity to listen. That allowed him to articulate what amounted to the right notes for any given setting. "His ears were his greatest strength," says Weir.Jerry's brilliant mind and "huge heart" were inspiring, he says, and he was "way funnier than people you pay to laugh at," but he underscores that his pal was just a human being."People made him into this demigod ... and he hated that," says Weir. "Jerry was a man of the people, but I have to say, the hippie culture didn't let him be that guy. He ended up staying in his room, keeping to himself, shut in. That led to the drug use. Physically, it killed him. If I had one thing to tell Jerry's fans, it would be, 'lighten up on Jerry.' He couldn't handle that load."

Perhaps Jerry was all these things - maestro, pharmaceutical Pied Piper, scourge of straights, jester, misfit magnet, and more. For McClenny, those are good things. Jerry and his pals called a traveling horde into being, and when Garcia died, it looked as if they had nowhere to go. McClenny and other festival hosts filled the void.It can be harder for fans to hit the road than it was in times gone by. McClenny needed to sell 3,500 tickets to finish in the black, and he fell short. On Saturday, even the encouragement of friends wasn't enough to raise his spirits.He hasn't had a chance to meet Weir, but word gets back to him that he has enjoyed his time on the farm. That seems to pick him up. By late afternoon, he's wondering what songs Ratdog might play that night. He's looking forward, he says, to dancing with his friends. They're his family, after all.

Bob Weir live
What: Ratdog, featuring Bob Weir
When: Tomorrow; doors open at 7 p.m.; show at 9 p.m.
Where: Ram's Head Live, 20 Market Place
Tickets: $33 in advance, $35 at the door
Call: 410-244-1131 or visit ticketing.ramsheadlive.com.


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