Blair's Golden Road Blog - Where Were You When You Heard the News?
By Blair Jackson
Summer flies and August dies / The world grows dark and mean…
—Robert Hunter, “Days Between”
On the morning of August 9, 1995, I was driving to my job as an editor at Mix magazine, listening to our local classic rock station and caught the end of “Uncle John’s Band.” A nice way to greet the day, I thought. But when the DJ came on right after and very solemnly intoned, “In case you haven’t heard…” Well, I hadn’t heard. Then came his unbelievable announcement that Jerry had died earlier that morning. I practically ran my car off the road. My wife, Regan, was on her way to work in San Francisco, so I couldn’t reach her (this is pre-cell phone for me), so I kept driving to work, flipping the radio dial to see if I could learn more. Through the years I’ve talked to many people who said they were not surprised by the news at all, that they’d actually expected it for some time. But I was completely shocked.
There had been warning signs, of course. Jerry seemed listless and out of it during a lot of 1994, and he looked terrible. That autumn, I was sufficiently depressed by a frighteningly bad Garcia band show in Oakland and a pair of concerts at Madison Square Garden that I abruptly backed out of an agreement with a major publisher to write a book of essays about the Dead, celebrating their 30 years together. In the first 1995 issue of Dupree’s Diamond News, I wrote that something was clearly wrong with Garcia—Was it physical? Drug-related? We didn’t know. Even so, I remained hopeful that he could bounce back from whatever maladies were afflicting him, as he had after the coma in ’86 and the second scare in the summer of ’92.
The shows I saw in ’95 were a mixed bag. The three February Oakland Coliseum shows were so-so; the third special because it featured another festive Mardi Gras parade and an appearance by saxophonist David Murray (who, alas, was not miked well). The June Shoreline Amphitheatre run was better, with the first two good enough that I felt more hopeful about the future of the band than I had for some time. From afar, we followed the infamous summer ’95 tour, with its seemingly unending disasters—the gate-crashing in Vermont, fans hit by lightning in D.C., the death threat to Jerry at Deer Creek, a porch full of Dead Heads collapsing near the group’s Missouri venue. It all had a nearly Biblical, wrath-of-God feeling to it.
Shortly after the tour, word spread that Jerry had gone into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic in Southern California, which I took to be excellent news. No more of those “Honest, Doc, I can kick it on my own, just leave me alone” cures. Maybe this would be the program that could really whip him into shape and convince him to change his ways. As we all know, however, he didn’t stay there as long as was recommended, he came home, fell back into his bad habits, then checked himself into another facility—Serenity Knolls in West Marin—and died of a heart attack his first night there. It still hurts to recall it.
Back to that day. I arrived at work, and one by one my colleagues stopped by my office to talk about the terrible news and to console me, as if I’d lost a family member (that’s not far off). I talked to Regan by phone at the San Francisco Chronicle, were she worked, and she was understandably shaken up. She wanted to come home, but as the resident Dead Head on the copy desk, instead had to answer questions from Chronicle reporters covering Jerry’s passing and then copy-edit their stories. No escape.
I’d only been at work about an hour before I got a call from someone at the San Francisco public radio station KQED, asking if I would appear on the NPR program All Things Considered to talk about Jerry. Joining me were my friends and fellow Dead scribes David Gans and Steve Silberman. As I recall, they were brilliant and articulate, as always, and I chimed in just a few times, offering nothing particularly profound, as my brain was mush at that point. I derived quiet satisfaction from the fact that the local TV news seemed to be all-Garcia that night. It wasn’t just important to us. Family members back East and in the Midwest called that night to offer their condolences. They, more than most, knew what the Dead and Jerry had meant to me.
Over the next couple of days, I was corralled into doing a whole bunch of short radio interviews with various news and music stations to talk about Jerry and his legacy. In retrospect, I have no idea how any of these interviews came to me—maybe Dead publicist Dennis McNally, who was inundated by press in the days and weeks after Jerry died, suggested my name. Whatever the case, it was all very surreal, and I never felt like I was saying what I wanted to say or what I thought needed to be said. If only my words did glow…
I also felt as though I couldn’t really let Jerry’s death sink in, because I was constantly having to be even-keeled and analytical about it, rather than emotional. People were falling apart all around me, but I didn’t allow myself to. At that point I was more numb than anything else.
All that changed five days after Jerry died. With our 4-year old son, Kyle, and his 1-year old sister, Hayley, in tow, we joined a few thousand other Dead Heads at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park for a big public memorial celebration. An enormous, colorful portrait of a smiling Jerry playing his guitar hung above a stage that had been erected beneath the tall cypress and eucalyptus trees that ring the field. An impromptu shrine collected hundreds of flowers, photos and objects of every variety (jewelry, stuffed animals, odd knick-knacks that had special meaning to the givers). A giant sound system pumped out one Dead tune after another (chosen by Dick Latvala and David Gans) and people smiled, danced and sang along as if the band were playing. We saw many folks we knew, shared hugs and stories, and vowed we would stay connected.
There were uplifting and heartbreaking speeches from Jerry’s family and each band member, and momentarily the overwhelming feeling of community on that field pushed back the grief. You had to believe we would get by, we would survive, if only because we had one another.
There was plenty more Grateful Dead music as the late afternoon sun started to cast long shadows across the field. Our young children were getting a little antsy, so we reluctantly decided to depart. But I vividly remember the four of us stopping for a couple minutes on a grassy berm above the Polo Fields and looking down longingly at the sea of tie-dye and swaying dancers, Jerry’s portrait and assorted banners waving gently in the wind. The music was still clear as a bell, wafting on the breeze, carrying so much joy, mystery and, yes, sadness on its flight to the heavens. In my very hazy recollection, some intense Anthem of the Sun-era tune gave way to the aptly dubbed “Beautiful Jam” from the 2/18/71 “Dark Star,” and I remember in that instant feeling the remarkable continuity of the Dead’s history, from the Human Be-In, in that very spot in January 1967, to this sad, sad day in 1995. This was my tribe, in happiness and sorrow.
That’s when it hit me. The finality. Nothing like this will ever come our way again. It’s over. Nothin’s gonna bring him back.
And for the first time in five days I cried.
It's weird but when the phone rang too early that morning I knew it was because Jerry had died. One of those strange synchronicities. Now that I care for people with health problems similar to his I wish I could have helped him before his body failed him, but I know he never would have let me. He lived the uncompromising life of a true artist. I'm just happy there are so many who keep the chain unbroken.
I was home and getting ready to head out of the door for work when my phone rang. It was my friend Randy from back east (I was living in L.A. at the time). I knew something must have been up for him to be calling me in the morning hours. Not usual. Of course, I didn't know exactly what. "Is it true that Jerry's Dead?" he asked. I hadn't heard a thing, but in that moment, my heart sank and a dread washed over me. Without confirmation, I knew the odds were that wherever Randy had heard this, it was probably true. Yet I hoped in my silence that it wasn't, that it was all a piece of gross misinformation that Randy had come in contact with. But my heart was already pumping with nervous energy and fear. I turned on the TV immediately and my dread was fully realized. There was a photo of Jerry and, before even hearing the news report itself, I knew that day I had long-dreaded had arrived.
I was already late for work and knew I had to get my shit together and bolt out the door. The drive was interminable, the radio reports confirming and reconfirming this new reality.
Unfortunately for me, no one where I worked was into the Dead. Jerry's passing, for them, was just another rock and roller biting the dust. My job at the time required that I be "on" and present. No chance to disappear into a side office and make a call to a dear friend who would understand. That came later that day (about 8 hours later), but throughout those long hours I genuinely struggled to maintain myself. Several times tears ran down my cheeks and I managed to hide them from clients. I was also amazed at the depths of my sorrow. There are family members I've lost whose deaths I was not nearly as effected by. Yet I had only met Garcia once and, though he was as generous and delightful as one would hope he'd be, we weren't friends, nor even acquaintances. But through his music, through seeing him live, I felt I knew something integral about the man. And if nothing else, he had touched me, moved me, more times than I could recount. The mere thought that I would never again see him play, that there would be no more Grateful Dead shows, that this experience and this seemingly crucial and beloved part of my life --two-thirds of my life!-- had come to a close, left me feeling devastated and empty, confused and lost in a way that only death can elicit.
About two days later, an envelope arrived in the mail. My tickets to see Jerry and the Grateful Dead at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion. 3rd row center.
So here I am, like everyone else, 17 years later. And Garcia is still a reigning part of my life. His presence is still felt, I've just managed to alter my expectations of how he and his music present themselves in my life. And there's comfort in knowing that there are thousands of others out there who know and share this experience, this experience of mourning the loss and celebrating the life of someone we did not personally know, but whose soul managed to touch us so deeply nonetheless.
Oh, and by the way, I still have those tickets.
I was working at a warehouse at the time, and I went out to eat lunch in my car. I was going to put in a tape I made from One From The Vault CD, but didn't because the radio, WXPN in Philly, was playing Terrapin Station which seemed a bit unusual and very cool at the time.
If I recall correctly the DJ, broke the news after Terrapin ended..
As I returned to work, people came up to me and told me the same news, they asked how I felt and do I want to take the rest of the shift off. I said no, and continued to work. We were listening to a normally Top-40 radio station from Reading, PA., and they were playing about an hour of the Dead and I was telling some people some of my show tales about traveling to show the parking lot scene, people I went to shows with, what really happens at a Dead show, breaking some stereotypes along the way and I gave some Dead tapes to people who never got beyond Touch Of Grey, Truckin', Uncle John's Band.
I was sitting in a dumpy breakfast cafe in Usulutan, eastern El Salvador, reading the national rag, sipping a thin cup of coffee, it was the last thing i expected to see buried in this newspaper, far far from the front page. "Jerry Garcia, lider de los Grateful Dead, muerto" I was totally taken aback, and though I was physically so far away from all of it, immediately transported to memories of the Warfield, Shoreline, Eel River, all the amazing moments he was at the center of. He was the first 'star' I deeply connected with to pass away. Like your favorite uncle you see a couple times a year, something like that. When, and it hurts to even think about it, Mr. Dylan meets his maker, it will again cut to the bone.
One of my Peace Corps buddies, not a deadhead by any measure at all, had a co-worker in the restaurant he'd worked at in Chicago before moving to the Peace Corps who knew Manasha. Because of this distant connection, my friend passed an evening backstage at the Chicago show sometime in 92 or 93, then rode round Chicago in a limo with Garcia, Manasha and his friend. They retired to the hotel suite, partied and laughed with the fat man. Jerry's advice for my friend - "Follow your heart". My buddy called him months later. Jerry was at home in Marin, and said he was writing a melody based on how the birds were sitting on a telephone wire outside his window...
I miss Jerry a lot. Still hope he fooled us all, got his health and mojo back, and will pop in to Terrapin Crossroads for an impromtu jam one of these days.
i took it remarkably in stride. He had looked about 80 years old at the Seattle shows; they were good shows, esp 5/26, but poor Jerry was looking old.
after the show on the 25th, i listened to Bear's Choice. Jerry sang, "I'm goin', but i ain't comin' back", as well as "that's the last you'll see of me." looking back, prophetic.
I enjoyed the jerry memorial at seattle center. Truth be told, i never shed a tear over it all, but I do wish quite often that Jerry were still with us.
THANK YOU JERRY!!!
I was on vacation near the isthmus on Catalina Island when my father-in-law woke me up and said he heard the news on his little AM radio. I walked the hour + walk down to the store and bought an LA Times which had the story on the front page. On my walk back I went past an area called Lions Head which juts out into the ocean and has a bench out near the point - I walked out to that point, said my peace and cried for quite a while.
Like Blair I had a bit of a delayed emotional reaction. My Dad popped into my office at work and gave me the news, that in a sense was a little weird, but he heard it on the news while he was driving and wanted to tell me in person. I can't say I was totally shocked, I had seen 3 shows in Philly earlier in the summer and Jerry just didn't look or play well at all. I was like holy s--- it finally happened. I had a tie dye shirt in my car that I actually hung at half mast on the flagpole in front of the store the rest of the day and a couple of people actually thought the owner of the business had passed away!! Anyway I was upset but I'm not a real emotional person and just went about my business. A few days later I was at an Elton John (believe it or not) show on the lawn in Camden and a few minutes in it hit me like a ton of bricks and I couldn't stop crying. I realized then that a big part of my life was gone and never to return.Since my first show in Philly in the spring of 77, what a great time time get on the bus!!, I had seen the Dead many many times and wouldn't ever again and would never see Jerry up there again and it really hurt.
I always wonder what would be if Jerry were still with us and a day doesn't go by that I'm not reminded of him either listening to something or just seeing one of the many pictures of him I have in my home or office. Thanks for the memories and all the great music still being put out there today. I miss you man!!!
Jamming with my band in the guitarist basement.
My soon to be wife (August 19th) called me there which freaked me out because she would never call me there and I thought immediately that someone in our family had died or gotten hurt. After the call we just sat there as I talked about tours past and they just listened even though they had never seen Jerry or The Grateful Dead
Listening to the radio, driving to work. I got the news just as I was pulling into the parking lot. Sat in my car trying to digest it, debating whether or not to pull out and drive back home.
I didn't. The first person I saw inside was our HR manager. Her office was down the hall from mine, and she popped her head in my door to say good morning, took one look at my face and asked if anything was wrong.
When I told her that Jerry Garcia had died, she said, "Who?" I repeated, thinking that she hadn't heard me, and she just shook her head with a blank look on her face. So I gave the quick 25-words-or-less summary that I tended to use with the uninitiated.
Like many, I was also flashing back to John Lennon's death. What was really strange was the depth of emotion that I felt at that moment. I'd been off the bus since mid-1987 -- I had become kind of the opposite of a "Touch" head.
I don't know what synapses got rewired by the shock of the news, but something happened. At that point I started keeping an eye peeled for the bus, got back on the next time it rolled around.
one of my friends called to give me the news-I was working in my office-I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to buy tickets for the Fall, 95 shows coming up at the Boston Garden. It was a hit to the solar plexus. Yeah, for all of us there had always been the nagging thing behind the curtain but somehow Jerry seemed invincible, right? He always had pulled everything together before and he did seem to be better at times, right? I last saw him during Fall 94 Boston Garden-10/1/94. A brilliant show-the last one as it turned out for me. I had heard the horror stories about the summer tour but couldn't get to any of those myself. A friend who went to High Gate told me that Jerry was"out of it", so I was kind of worried all of the time for him and for all of us who needed this music and this experience. But, even so-the finality was so FINAL.