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.
I was at work, it was still morning, and I'd called a vendor and their on-hold music (a local radio station) was Estimated Prophet. "Wow, that's unusual," I thought.
Minutes later, a hand was on my shoulder and my one Deadhead co-worker ~ a woman a generation older than me ~ gently said, "Jerry Garcia died." For a split second, I parried it with "you're kidding, right?" But who would kid about that? She squeezed my hand, I squeezed it back, and sat dumbfounded.
Awhile later, I went out to the car and popped in "Loser" from Hampton '87 (always a special memory). And got really filled up. It was around lunchtime and I had the sudden thought that, wow, Jerry doesn't have to eat anymore.
Not long after, my boss ~ who'd joked to me just weeks before (when the Dead played Portland Meadows), "why do you want to go see a bunch of old guys?" ~ told me to take the rest of the day off. Joking aside, she intuited what it meant to me, and I'll always be grateful for her thoughtfulness.
Some have mentioned John Lennon's death being a similar impact, and, yes, it was. Not too many strangers ~ even iconic ones ~ can infiltrate our very families in that way. Not the same AS immediate family, of course, but deeply ingrained in its cultural meridian, and shared experience. As for Jerry ~ well, of course, I never got to see John play 47 odd times (or even once), or watch his fingers plucking and soaring on his guitar, or glancing over his glasses to his bandmates with a cool assurance that said, "yeah, I'm hot tonight." Such details helped create the sense that I knew him, even knew him well. Of course I didn't, and yet my energy & imagination, encountering his energy & spontaneous art, were witness to a soul doing its signature thing, manifesting its voice of choice.....and the love I responded with was real. And at the end of the day, I believe Jerry's was real, too.... in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.....
DDN Issue #30. 1994 Year in Review.
You state that "there were lots of really good shows (more than in '93, I felt)."
Summer tour is discussed as being up and down. Then:
"But the serious mojo seemed to be back during fall tour, with many folks RAVING about shows at all four major stops. I only saw two of the MSG shows (but heard most of the rest of the tour on tape) and I'm here to testify that this was the real stuff: explosive and exploratory, rather than tepid and unsure."
LOL. Ok, I'll give you that Scaret -> Fire from MSG. That WAS explosive.
Of your top 20 shows in 1994, 7 were from the fall tour.
DDN Issue 33. 1995 Year in Review. Starts with saying the first shows of the year were up and down.
"But then something remarkable happened.: the band put together a tour which was almost universally strong. Now, they'd pulled off this feat before in the fall of '94, when they almost made us think that everything was hunky-dory and Garcia was fine (even though we still heard bad stories and there still a lot of, er, lapses). But there was a remarkably fresh wind blowing through the Dead's spring tour that gave rise to some genuine optimism even among the most skeptical." You go on to say that spring '95 "held many other delights, too, with a great deal of energy," etc.
Maybe it was the top notch playing from everyone ELSE in the band at that time that had you feeling the magic...or just wishing it was true.
To be fair - there was PLENTY of discussion in these and other DDN issues at the time from you about the problems. You also were pretty frank about some of the new songs at that time as being . . . uh...questionable. And a lot of other interesting insights, such as the in the ear monitors, the switch in soundmen from Healy to Cutler, etc. etc. Fascinating stuff.
I can't claim to know much about Betty Ford in particular, but in patient treatment centers aren't in business to do physicals. They might have medical staff for people going through severe detox...but most treatment centers are not hospitals etc. in the conventional sense. You check in, you get to work, if you are in bad physical shape and have health problems, that is to be expected but not something they are equipped to deal with outside of detoxification. At least that's what happened at the one I am acquainted with. :)
Also, the Dark Star oral history book has Garcia's personal physician saying that they did do some cardiac tests near the end of his life, but these did not suggest any major blockages. But, to know for sure they would have had to do a dye test (contrast) but Garcia didn't want to do it.
In 92 he had congestive heart failure ... Can't recall which side but it was the side that makes your extremities fill up with fluid, not the lungs. The doctor was more concerned about diabetes than anything. The drug use was more a concern from the sense that while on drugs the eating habits and smoking were more out of control leading to overall worsening of his diabetes and emphysema.
I think the massive blockage totally caught this dr by surprise. I recall a comment that if they had done the contrast test and found it, Garcia was done in terms of touring for quite awhile (that would have been the advice anyway).
That is ironic. Would have been a good excuse to get out of playing stadiums and cooling out the stress that he was not excited about, not to mention a way to really aggressively address the stale state of the Dead musically.
Even for someone like Jerry, I have to imagine though at 53 that you're not really thinking seriously that you are about to die of a widow maker. He was thinking "I have to really get serious, but I have some time still...it's not too late."
Too late. No more time.
Think about that. Just 53 ....WAY too soon.
I was taking out a cassette of Pink Floyd Animals to put in American Beauty (if I remember correctly) before I went in to SunTV for work. The radio was on between the changing of cassettes and the DJ made the announcement just as the tape loaded and started to play. I ejected the tape as quick as I could to catch the rest of what was said but you know those old cassette decks. I fumbled around with the power knob, volume and tuner dial but I was too late. I remember feeling like my heart sunk down into my gut and I just hoped I heard the DJ wrong.
I grabbed the morning paper on the way in to the store and read a little bit about it. When I went out to lunch my girlfriend (wife now) put a note on my car letting me know she was thinking about me. She knew me well enough even then to know I would be feeling empty.
From the moment it sunk in for me the Grateful Dead meant something different to me. I can't explain it in words but when I always thought of the band before that day, the idea of the Grateful Dead had a specific feeling to me. After that the feeling changed to something different. It's not as simple as life and death either. As I said I can't put it into words.
Something the writer of the newspaper article said has always stuck with me. He said something about how Jerry could take a very serious or sad song but sing it with a smile and in turn bring a smile to the listener, but could also make a humorous song sound eerily deep and tender. The writer offered his favorite song, Sugaree, as a good example of this.
We were getting ready to go out and see Bobby's new project: Ratdog. Man, it was quite a scene in and around the venue that night. The show had to go on, I suppose. I kept thinking, "Jerry would approve" Earlier in the day when we got the news we knew that it would be a mob scene at the beach and it was of course. But a calm, communing vibe. Just stunned mellow people in disbelief, assembled for sharing the sorrow together. A vigil feel to the atmosphere E: Every Little Light, Knockin' on Heavens Door
shwack in nh
I woke up to a friend throwing rocks at my window. At first I ignored them, but the noise became more frequent. After he told me, I went down into the basement and put on Shining Star from 2/7/92. A friend asked me later that day- Which song did you play first? After I told him, he replied- I picked the same one.
At the time, I was a head grocery clerk; it was a promotion I took so that I'd be able to attend more Dead shows. One of the few perks of the job was that I wrote the schedule. I was in aisle 8 ordering diapers when my newlywed wife came up to me, a pleasent suprise, I thought. "Did you hear? Jerry Garcia died." And she burst into tears. My initial reaction was, "It's gotta be some mistake," but that lasted only a matter of seconds. Deep down I knew Jerry had been slipping. It was devestating but oddly not suprising. I finished the rest of the day at work. Several of my coworkers told me to just go ahead and go home. My response was that I'd spent the last several years jockeying for time off to go to Dead shows, so what would be the point of getting off work now? Our phone was ringing off the hook all day. After a few hours, my wife stopped answering and the machine was full of condolences from friends and family when I got home. In those days, our house was the meeting point for our group of friends as we had a kick ass stereo and an even better collection of tapes. Every night after the bars closed we'd have several friends over and listen to tapes. So our house was full that night, including a tour friend who drove two hours to come over, calling in sick for the next day because "someone very close to him died." The next day, I remember getting in the car and thinking, "I guess they'll never play Lakeshore Drive at Soldier Field." And the next song to come on the radio was...Lakeshore Drive. That kind of thing happens all the time with the Dead, doesn't it?
Thanks Blair for sharing your thoughts and providing us a chance.
I was at work. I had just got, the past night, 3 taper seats for the Boston Garden shows, and was excited to be seeing the band again. I had seen Highgate '94 and pretty much gave up after that. It was such a bad scene, everything about it. Because of my little children, my going to shows in the '90s was very sparse. My wife, though, said I'm good to go see all 6 Boston shows, and seeing as those were the last shows in the Garden, I was psyched! I decided to tape the shows, even, after a number of years of not taping.
The phone at work rings and it's a really good friend. He tells me the news, and I was just devestated. Not surprised, though. But terribly devestated. At the time, rec.music.gdead was going strong, and that's what I did, I went there and discussed online. We shared our thoughts and rememberances and despair all day. My wife called me up and asked me if I was okay. I went out to my car at lunchtime and the first tune I heard on the radio was Unbroken Chain. Still remember sitting in my car in tears. No one at work really got it...
Drove home and my daughter comes running up to me to tell me the news. She was so sad about it. I kept wanting to take her to a show, but never felt she was old enough. Alas, she'll never get to see it.
Now the years have gone by. Jerry's music lives in all the tapes we have, it's really incredible the vast array of music that is out there. But I miss the shows, which is where I knew Jerry. I miss the incredible feelings his guitar would bring forth. I miss standing there caught in the web he was weaving, that was ever changing and ever moving, hanging on for dear life. He was challenging you to hang on as he took you higher and higher and higher. I haven't found another musician that can do that. I'm so happy I got to experience that, but I miss that experience terribly.
Without digging out my old copys of Dupree's Diamond News, I recall some fairly critical, almost scathing (that being a relative term in the hippy dippy deadhead world) reviews of Dead shows in '94 and '95. If Blair wrote anything about a sea of optimism or a universily great tour, it was definitely overwhelmed by what I considered very honest and objective critical reviews. Of course, it was still a lot of fun to attend shows in those last years but clearly Jerry was slipping--I think Blair pointed this out in at least one review and very accurately mentioned that it was frustrating because the rest of the band seemed to be playing extremely well. I remember my wife reading DDN and saying, "Jeez, why does this guy even go to shows if he's going to be so negative?" But I thought it was spot on. Count me as one of those who was terribly dissapointed at being able to see David Murray with the Dead but barely able to hear him--I was so up for him sitting in!
"If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all!"
Phew. Quite a story, plushflush...Thanks for sharing...