Jerry Garcia

Written by WL Woodward

If you were born on August 9, 1995, you’re turning 21 today. You have earned the right to go out and get fractured with all the same friends you’ve been hammering with for years. But tonight, dagnabit, you can puke anywhere and pull the birthday card.

If you died on August 9 1995, you might be Jerry Garcia.

When Jerry was 4 he was holding a piece of firewood for his older brother wielding an axe. Older bro cut off little Jerry’s right hand middle finger. My favorite part of that story is the brother later suggested Jerry play the banjo. I was an older brother, and did my best to torture the minions below me. But that took a particularly weird absence of concern.

In 1972 I graduated high school purely by the grace of a hot young biology teacher, Ms. Sharis. From her perspective I had skipped a large number of classes and avoided or worse ruined required lab sessions. From my perspective I had friends in that class who needed help rolling joints. Public service. The problem was I had already been accepted to a state college based on some haphazard criteria like ACT’s SAT’s, and a few good years in school. But I had to graduate high school. Colleges are really sticky about that.

The last day of school and I know my one problem was talking this young woman, who had been completely clear all semester she knew my name and didn’t like it, into at least giving me a passing grade. And of course she knew exactly why I was standing in her classroom that June afternoon.

Ms. Sharis had a distracting clothing style, with tight sweaters and pumps with black hose. It was like taking biology from Katherine Ross. You’d think I’d have spent more time going to that class, but I had that whole public service thing going on. Now my immediate future required an ability to convince this woman I was worthy of grace or at least pity without staring at her chest.

I have no idea how I got out of that one. I really don’t. I could make something up but honestly it’s a blank. Anyway that fall I was a freshman at UConn, living in a dorm with a hundred other idiots who were pledged to destroy the world, starting with their roommate. On my floor was a guy who also needed help rolling joints, and had an amazing record collection. His predominant passion was the Grateful Dead.

There is a wonderful state that happens when you discover something after it has been around for a while. Like Catholicism. Wait, that’s not right. Like hearing a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert as a teen in 1968, or finding an author like a Bradbury or a Vonnegut after they’ve written most of their stories. That 1956 Ford Victoria at the church car show.

In 1972 Jerry and the Grateful Dead had already released some of their best work. Live Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty. I ran down that rabbit hole and had a ball. And I couldn’t keep up. A live album Europe’ 72 with the cream of their live performances in that era was followed the next year with Wake of the Flood. That album was so highly anticipated by DeadHeaddom I bought it instead of hot dogs on a whim. I brought it home and left on some errand, probably to shoplift hot dogs. Album still in the wrapper. When I got back my roommate and his girlfriend were bustin it out in his bed with Wake playing on the turntable. With some embarrassment my roommate shouts out “Dude, sorry to break that out, but this album is amazing! It’s our second time through!” His girlfriend made no move to put her clothes on. Those were the days.

Jerry was more than the Dead. He did learn to play banjo, and I wish there were videos of him playing because he was a beautiful player of three fingered banjo without a middle finger. He took up pedal steel and started New Riders of the Purple Sage with John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson and David Nelson, dragging along Dead guys Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart. That band broke into a genre of country/folk/rock that blew up with the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Jimmy Buffet, Jackson Browne, Commander Cody, Little Feat. In that same period Jerry hooked up with David Grisman, mandolinist extraordinaire, and formed Old and In the Way, a straight ahead bluegrass band with guys like Vassar Clements on fiddle (John Hartford filled in during rehearsals) and Peter Rowan on guitar. At press their debut album in 1975 is still the top selling bluegrass album.

So one minute you’re listening to the psychedelic weirdness of Aoxomoxoa, then Casey Jones, and little surprises like Garcia playing pedal steel on Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Teach Your Children. That’s right. Put that piece of shit song in your head (sorry, it’ll be over in a minute) and dig on that pedal solo. Yep, Jerry. Then he’s got a hit bluegrass album. All of that while he’s doing all those great Dead albums of the 70’s and early 80’s. The guy never stopped. That was the key to Jerry Garcia. He was ambitious in only one way, and that was to be better every day at whatever music he was working on.

Of course, our respect and love for Garcia certainly had a generational thing going on, where we overlooked and forgave his substance habits. It was the 60’s, then the 70’s, 80’s. We thirsted for his freedom and drank from his talent. Many believed drugs could be how to follow. As the decades ticked our generation realized the folly of THAT shit. Damn. Can’t hold a job down and we ain’t all Jerry Garcia. By the 80’s everyone had moved on. But we still listened and never forgot his beauty that had nothing to do with his personal bullshit.

Eventually Jerry’s musical powers became indirectly proportional to his happy intake. Way too early. Certainly an object lesson. But like all people larger than their skin there are many layers to those lessons. Like the wife who asks her husband if the dress makes her butt look big, you choose your take-away. Mine is the joy I’ve gotten with his songs, his solos, and his incredible crinkling smile you could almost hear.

So thank you Ms. Sharis. Thank you for sending me forward.

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