From his birthday on August 1 to the anniversary of his death on August 9, 1995, along with other Deadheads and fellow travelers, I celebrate the life, art and inspiration of Captain Trips, The Nine Fingers From Hell, a songwriter and the lead guitar player for the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.
I never really got into what was initially, nor what became, Heavy Metal: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, UFO. Never really warmed up to any of it. Never hated it. Never believed that it ought to be banned. Some of my best friends were and remain metalheads. I just never felt the need for the emotional, physical or financial investment. For the longest time, I labored under the assumption that the Grateful Dead was a heavy metal band. Just because of their name! (And the ubiquitous skulls and bones.) So, I simply avoided them. As the seventies went on, it was easy, too. The Grateful Dead was never the kind of outfit that tried to make it in any commercial mainstream sense. They had no Billboard Top 40 hits and they didn’t seem to really care. They didn’t really have to, because they had their tribe to follow them on tour and tape their shows and trade their tapes.
My first real brush with the Grateful Dead was quite indirect. I was a fan and subscriber to National Lampoon. And when the magazine started a radio show, I became a proselyte of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which ran weekly on WSDM, “Smack Dab in the Middle” of Chicagoland’s FM dial. I had already discovered the writings of Hunter S. Thompson and thrilled when an entire half-hour episode of the National Lampoon Radio Hour spoofed the legendary gonzo journalist as “Thompson Hunter” on what they called its California Show. The protagonist, voiced by Brian Doyle Murray, brother of Bill Murray (who would play Thompson in the film Where the Buffalo Roam), picks up a hitchhiker voiced by Harold Ramis and invited him to a Grateful Dead concert in Monterrey. So, Christopher Guest wrote a Dead parody called “Cocaine Express.” OK, I thought. It’s definitely not being parodied by these heavyweight smartasses as heavy metal, I figured. But there it stayed as a minor curiosity for what may have been as much as a year, give or take, for I was busy getting deeply into folk and country music. Little did I know.
The Grateful Dead’s official website had (maybe even still has) a handy list of every Dead show on which a visitor could check a box by each entry and calculate how many of the shows they had seen. I tried it, but no longer remember exactly how many shows I tallied. There were at least a few dates that were unclear to me after all this time and my calculations required a certain amount of guesswork. It added up to somewhere between 50–60 shows. Among Deadheads, my score fairly reeks of moderation.
I like to claim for my narrow generation, the shallow demographic between the boomers and Gen X, that we gave the world punk rock. Punk was so sorely needed exactly because so many of the “hippie” bands and their successors had grown so grossly jaded from the rapid growth of the industry. But the Grateful Dead remained fairly loyal to that essence of what was branded as counterculture; that thing that grew out of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation and blossomed into a gnarly overgrowth of spiraling color and dangerous thorns and sweet fragrances and venomous juices. As such, that smiling skull with the crown of roses that psychedelic poster artists Alton Kelly & Stanley Mouse borrowed from an illustration by Edmund Joseph Sullivan in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam for a concert poster at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco remains solid iconography not only of the Grateful Dead and their various offshoots and successors but for that experimental spirit of social, psychological and physical adventure that fits the historically metamorphological pattern of American Enlightenment revolution.
This Jerry Week, Garcia will have been gone for twenty-five years; only half a decade less than the long, strange trip of the Grateful Dead itself. Their music and stories hold up because we’re older now and they’ve been walking the point for us through a largely countercultural life for a long time. It is not a bad thing to mark time and history with such solid contributions to human civilization.
A collection of dedicated but fickle artists and flawed mortal people but they succeeded mightily at creating their own righteously aesthetic space on a brutally cynical cultural landscape and, by the mid-late 70s, it drew me to the music and the culture that their approach produced. Forever. I think it was Lisa Simpson who said, “the Grateful Dead is country music for people who like LSD.”
I don’t know, maybe it was the roses.