The Star Ledger remembers Jerry
Remembering Jerry, 10 years past
Sunday, August 07, 2005
BY GUY STERLING Star-Ledger Staff
It was a pot bust on the Turnpike in the early 1970s, of all things, that will forever link the Grateful Dead and New Jersey.
Stopped for speeding near Mount Holly and asked for his driving credentials, Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia opened his briefcase for the documents, only to expose his stash to an onlooking trooper.
The band's manager in California reached out that night to John Scher of South Orange, one of the young concert promoters producing Dead shows on the East Coast at the time, to bail Garcia out.
On their way back to New York, as Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally tells it, Garcia and Scher formed a bond that soon led to Scher assuming a major role arranging the group's tours, one that would last until Garcia's death.
From then on, New Jersey became a regular stop on Grateful Dead trips east and Scher would come to regard Garcia as one of the two smartest people he'd ever met, alongside former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.
This Tuesday, it will be 10 years since Garcia died in his sleep at a West Coast substance abuse center, effectively ending the Grateful Dead phenomenon -- even though the band has continued playing under other names. He was 53.
A cult figure who helped give rise to the '60s psychedelic era, Garcia is remembered today as a bellwether from rock 'n' roll's most adventurous time, maybe even its helmsman, on a par with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
In fact, when they were walking out of Garcia's funeral together in Belvedere, a small town north of San Francisco, Scher said Dylan leaned over and paid Garcia what to Dylan must have been the ultimate compliment.
"I'm really going to miss Jerry," Scher recalled Dylan saying. "He was the only other person in the world who knew what it was like to be Bob Dylan."
With his death, Garcia left behind a worldwide legion of fans as loyal and fanatical as any in rock and a reputation as an artist whose skill, love of expression and appetite for inner exploration helped change the face of modern music.
Next to The Beatles, no rock band has had more of a sociological impact than the Dead, said Scher. But the Dead was able to stretch out its voyage on the cusp of pop culture with its renowned live shows for 30 years, compared to less than a decade for The Beatles.
As proof of its ongoing influence, the Dead still sell more merchandise than 90 percent of all bands, still release CDs of live performances and still fill venues around the country when its former members perform.
Scher described Garcia's role in the Grateful Dead as being "a big brother to a bunch of talented orphans."
As the band and its free-form improvisational style gained in popularity from a start in San Francisco in the LSD-laced 1960s, Garcia -- with his beard, bushy hair, quizzical smile, glasses and dark t-shirts -- evolved into the physical embodiment of the Dead.
In the process, the band's following (known as "Deadheads") began viewing Garcia as some kind of mystic who "held the secrets to the universe," said Ken Viola, a former employee of Scher's who served as the Dead's security chief.
But that sort of public adulation and pressure, and an increasing visibility, never sat well with Garcia, ultimately driving him to a drug addiction and drug-related death, said Bob Weir, the Dead's rhythm guitarist.
Garcia's spirit also sagged when the Dead's audience changed in the late '80s after the release of its hit single, "Touch of Gray." At that point, Scher said, the concerts began drawing an added element of fans interested only in the party and not what had traditionally gotten Dead fans to the shows -- the music and a sense of tribal fellowship .
Viola said he watched Garcia change over the years, from an extrovert willing to talk to almost anyone about almost anything to something of a loner. But Garcia's keen intellect, insatiable curiosity and artistic sensibility never waned, he added.
Viola recalled accompanying Garcia to art exhibits (including some featuring his own work) in the band's down time. In Philadelphia, he said, they once sat in front of a stained-glass illustration of Maxwell Parrish's "The Dream Garden" for hours.
"Jerry had a penetrating mind," Weir said of Garcia's approach to music. "He could go to the core of what we were listening to or listening for very quickly."
As he changed, Garcia drifted toward activities that provided him with a sense of surprise and discovery in what for him were uncharted realms, such as scuba diving. "That was a whole new world for him, a place where no one bothered him and where he could commune with unique life forms," Viola said.
Near the end, Garcia began experimenting with playing his guitar through filters and other equipment in which he could sound like an entire orchestra. "There was some conversation that he would put together a CD using the new technology, doing it all by himself," said Viola. "What could have come of that boggles the mind."
Viola said he and Garcia got on well because they shared some interests. Each was a fan of comic books, as well as science fiction books and movies. Garcia's favorite film, he said, was "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."
One of his biggest thrills working with the Dead, Viola added, was introducing Garcia to Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman, two of the brains behind "Mad" in its early days as a comic book, at a Madison Square Garden show.
"They were a big influence on Jerry's personality," said Viola, who remains in the concert security business as senior vice president of events for Strike Force Protective Services in Springfield.
Onetime band publicist Ren Grevatt recalled setting Garcia up on an interview with author and radio personality Studs Terkel during a stop in Chicago and the two of them liking each other instantly. "It was a match made in heaven," said Grevatt, a Little Falls resident.
Viola said Garcia believed people ought to do exactly what they want and favored mind-expanding drugs over the pursuit of material objects as a way of taking him to a higher level of understanding and personal satisfaction.
"Jerry didn't care about money," said Viola. "He was more interested in making a change in people's consciousness. He viewed drugs as a tool, as a means to an end, not an escape."
"Jerry liked to get high," is how Weir puts it.
To many, Garcia's death came as a shock, but not necessarily a bolt out of the blue.
Garcia spent time at the Betty Ford Center in his final days to try and clean up his drug habit. Viola said he pretty much succeeded but, in the end, was unable to overcome numerous physical problems, including coronary blockage and sleep apnea. Garcia took up residence at Serenity Knolls outside of San Francisco more as a place to die than a place to continue his treatment, Viola added.
In their early years of touring, Garcia and the Dead bypassed New Jersey for New York and venues such as the Fillmore East. Among, if not the first, concerts in New Jersey were two shows at Paterson State College (now William Paterson University) on Oct. 11, 1970.
The early show that night was delayed more than an hour when the band got to Wayne and discovered bassist Phil Lesh had been left behind at the hotel in Manhattan, recalled Joe Tanis, William Paterson's director of advancement operations and a member of the school's student concert committee at the time.
"People were willing to forgive that things ran late because the band played so well," he said.
Scher didn't promote those shows, but once he got involved with the bookings, the Dead almost always appeared in New Jersey on East Coast tours at Scher-produced concerts. (The band's arrangement was essentially that Scher scheduled dates east of the Rockies and San Francisco promoter Bill Graham booked the West Coast shows.)
From the early '70s until Garcia's death, the band played a variety of New Jersey venues -- everywhere from the rickety Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City to Scher's Capitol Theater in Passaic to the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway to the Brendan Byrne Arena and Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.
There was also a short run at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City, and the Jerry Garcia Band, a side project, played New Jersey gigs as well.
A few of the Dead shows made news. At a Giants Stadium stop in 1978, a fan plunged 90 feet to his death from one of the facility's upper-level ramps, while the mysterious death of college student Adam Katz during an arena concert in 1989 led to a grand jury report critical of security at the Meadowlands sports complex.
Along the way, according to McNally, the band dropped any distinction between a New Jersey and a New York concert, only enhancing a Grateful Dead performance on this side of the Hudson.
"People always think groups make distinctions about where they play," said McNally. "But there are only three places bands play: At home, where band members sleep in their own beds at night; on the road, which is everywhere else, and New York, where the flow of adrenaline can be overwhelming."
The New Jersey and New York shows, along with those in Philadelphia and Boston, were fueled by a "cultural exuberance" found nowhere else in the world, added Weir. "If you got the place rocking, you could expect an unparalleled experience," he said.
In attracting thousands of Dead fans from throughout the region, the Roosevelt Stadium and Giants Stadium shows helped the band develop a substantial East Coast base and establish it as one of the premier draws in popular music.
The Dead was the first band to draw one million patrons to the sports complex, and the group developed a fondness for both Giants Stadium and the Byrne Arena. Weir said Giants Stadium offered decent acoustics and an "intimacy" rare in such mammoth venues.
The Meadowlands always looked forward to a Grateful Dead payday, although the accompanying headaches of dealing with the Deadheads made a Dead show among the most difficult of all concerts to host, said Michael Rowe, former general manager of Giants Stadium and the arena.
"During the day, they wandered around and, at night, they'd camp out," recalled Rowe. "You'd find them migrating around the entire property. More than once, they'd sneak into a side door of the arena and we'd find them taking a shower in the sink."
Nonetheless, the sports complex flew a tie-dyed flag over Giants Stadium in honor of Garcia after he died, a move that didn't sit well with Giants co-owner Wellington Mara, Rowe added.
The most celebrated Dead concert in New Jersey took place at Raceway Park in Old Bridge on Sept. 3, 1977. Authorities expected a crowd of 100,000, but McNally said more like 150,000 showed up, making it the third largest audience ever to see a Grateful Dead show, next to the Watkins Glen and Woodstock festivals.
But of the three performances, Raceway Park was the band's favorite because it was a Grateful Dead show with a Grateful Dead audience, said McNally. Viola called the all-day event that featured several other bands "New Jersey's Woodstock;" Weir called it "a treat."
"It was their first show in three months and a warm-up for the fall tour," McNally said. "They played well, had fun and sounded good, too."
But not everyone was so enthralled.
"People here never ever want to see something like that again, nor do we," said Old Bridge Police Capt. Robert Bonfante, one of the few township officers from 1977 still serving on the force. "Residents put up with a lot that night."
Scher blamed hard feelings from the massive traffic jams, cars abandoned everywhere and the makeshift camping grounds that popped up all over the township on the generation gap.
"We did everything right but the town was still scared," he said. "The residents weren't bothered by the bikers and hot-rodders who showed up at the raceway every weekend but they were scared of hippies."
Perhaps the band and Garcia's seemingly endless appeal are best described by the galaxy of devoted fans who thought nothing of spending three, four or five hours at a Dead show one night and doing it again the next.
"In this day and age, they're needed," said Paul DuCharm, a 39-year-old house painter from Ridgewood who estimated he attended 450 Dead shows dating to 1979, often taking buses or hitching rides with older friends to get to his destination.
"They're one of the great American traditions and more patriotic than what many people portray as patriotic. The Grateful Dead represent community, taking care of each other, liberty and freedom."
A half-dozen bands will be taking part in a Jerry Garcia tribute show at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park today starting at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 and the event will benefit the charitable Jersey Jams Fund. Sirius Satellite Radio will mark the anniversary of Garcia's death on Tuesday with a day-long tribute featuring Garcia's music and interviews with musicians who knew and played with him. New York's classic rock station, Q104.3, will play back-to-back Dead songs each hour throughout Tuesday and a block of Dead tunes at noon.