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- July 12, 1976
- Vol. 6
- No. 2
Jerry Garcia's Grateful Dead Pass the True Acid Test: They're Still Playing
The Grateful Dead itself faced calamity along the way. Drummer Mickey Hart left after his dad took over as manager and then lammed with the profits. Ron ("Pigpen") McKernan, perhaps the group's most creative blues musician, died from the cumulative self-destruction of alcohol and drugs. Their zonked-out concerts were forbidden in places like New York's Central Park. And Captain Trips never found his Tennille in two failed marriages. Two years ago, the Grateful Dead splintered into announced "retirement."
But without conviction. "Our lives are controlled by music," concedes Garcia. Not to mention by America's most impassioned fan club, the 80,000-strong Dead Heads. So mid-'76, the Dead resurrected their funky sound into a double album (their 14th), Steal the Face. They had already welcomed back drummer Hart and launched a tour. "Each year we get older," figures Garcia, "but our fans at the front stay at 19 or 20." Guitarist Bob Weir adds realistically, "The older ones are there, but they're not about to fight their way to the stage."
The contemplative Garcia is the heart of the Dead—though he insists the band is "a close family without individual egos." Jerry was born in San Francisco to a Spanish-American father, who played in a mariachi band, and a Swedish-Irish mother. (They earned the family living bartending.) His dad disappeared early, and Jerry dropped out of high school to teach himself guitar by ear. He had been given an accordion at 15 but pawned it for an electric guitar. Joining the Army, he washed out after nine months.
After bunking in abandoned autos near Stanford University ("and preying on students' young minds and refrigerators"), he formed what was to become the Grateful Dead in 1965. Stoned, he plucked the esoteric name out of an Oxford dictionary notation on the burial of Egyptian pharaohs. Garcia's "whole world went kablooey" when he joined author Ken (Cuckoo's Nest) Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in exploring the psychedelic culture with their "Acid Tests," dropping LSD and "tripping and jamming together for five or six months." By 1967 the band was innovating free concerts for flower children during the "summer of love." "They were not heavy druggers," notes manager Steve Brown. "They were much straighter than you might imagine. But Pigpen's death shocked them into cleaning up." Yet in 1973 Garcia drew a year's probation in New Jersey for possession of LSD, pot and coke. "Where does it say in the Scriptures you can't get high or raise your consciousness?" Jerry asks.
Garcia lives near the rest of the group in Marin County in a spectacular ranch house overlooking the Pacific. His first marriage, to a communications student at Stanford, ended in divorce. Garcia has two daughters, Annabelle, 6, and Trixie, 18 months, by his second wife, Mountain Girl. (That name
came when she was Ken Kesey's old lady. Actually, she's Carolyn Adams from a middle-class Unitarian family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.) Last year Jerry and Mountain Girl separated. "She had a different life," he reflects. "It was painful, but it's more honest this way. We're all very close."
During this summer's tour the Dead have jettisoned their monstrous sound system and the oppressive Hell's Angels of their earlier days. Of the Angels, Garcia notes, "When we're in town, the polite thing is to insure that they're on our guest lists. But they'd never disrupt one of our shows." Not the least of the reasons for the Dead's continued charisma is that they still thumb their guitar picks at the System. When presidential candidate Jerry Brown sought their endorsement, they turned him down. "He never came to see us perform," explains Garcia. "How can we apply the same seriousness to his career?" Besides, as Garcia sees it, the Dead will outlast such political ephemera. "If the world is still here in 2001, the Grateful Dead will still be playing—imperfect, spontaneous and hungry to grow, like our audience."
January 30, 2015
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