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.
"If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all!"
Phew. Quite a story, plushflush...Thanks for sharing...
this is my first post. It is a bit long, so bear with me
that August, I was preparing for a huge and important meeting (I worked at the time for a large financial services firm) involving my boss, his boss and many others. My boss had hired me into the firm, and I was very loyal to him and we worked well together, and I had worked for him for about 18 months. The segment of the business we worked in was not going well. I got a call from my spouse (at that time) telling me to meet her at the hospital. She was 10 weeks pregnant, and we had been trying to have children for quite some time, going through the ordeal of various fertility treatments, etc. That day, shortly before she had planned to depart on a business trip, she learned that the pregnancy was ectopic, and thus there was no choice but to terminate the pregnancy. I checked her into the hospital, and, as it was late in the day, headed home. Early the next morning, I was awakened by a call. Thinking it was my wife, I answered the phone eagerly. it was my father, calling to tell me that my mom had died. Somehow, I managed to remain calm - she had been bedridden for many months with a degenerative lung disease. I proceeded to call my boss at home to tell him that I would have to be gone for a few days, and explained why. I could tell immediately that something was wrong. He told me that his boss had decided to fire him the previous evening. Somehow, I processed this while I called my wife, to tell he about my mom and my boss. I picked her up at the hospital, and we proceeded to drive the three hours north to my hometown (Philly). While I had CDs and love music, I did not feel like listening to music or the radio. We talked about many things while we drove, and when we reached philly, we decided to stop for lunch before proceeding to see my dad. It was a bright and sunny day, and it seemed that Dead was pouring out of every window! We walked into a sandwich shop and commented to the folks behind the counter about all the wonderful music playing on such a nice day. The cashier said "Haven't you heard...."
I broke down and cried for over 20 minutes. It was all too much. As g-d is my witness, i hate this day.....
I learned that Jerry died via a phone call from a friend who worked at Bill Graham Presents. She called at 4AM as soon as she heard the news to let me know. Needless to say, I didn't fall back asleep that morning.
here is an old and classic post in the Deadheads of Europe thread that I've always loved, from Frankly, who we haven't seen so much lately:
Joined: Jan 11 2008
post communist europe
Hi everybody!i am living in the czech republic and i want to say that even if there never was an opportunity to see the Boys playing live over here there are amazingly many deadheads over here. and the more we missed the concerts the more we cherished tapes,vynils etc. With the uprising of the cd we could start to listen to high quality live recordings that, beside the regular albums,were never or very rarely available.
but i want to tell you about a very sad day in 95 we all remember. sitting in a bar in the center of prague thunder and lightning hit me as i opened the paper and read the news..but to my surprise many people who knew about my interest into the DEAD came up to me to show their support and understanding over that trgic loss! Even more,as the evening went by, a taxi-driver (which are the greediest human beings in town) offered to play a tape i had with me on his giant car-stereo in front of the bar!!!
the tape i had was the Boys at red rocks and it was played again and again until 3 o clock in the morning with dozens of people hanging out, dancing and having a great time. It was pure magic in the center of town...even a russian mafioso, who has been to the states for a while hugged me with tear in his eyes and we had a J together looking at the moon and listening to Jerry playing FRANKLINS TOWER!!
Yeah even prague said good bye to Jerry in a way that suited this man.
P.S.As this was happening in the center of town,neighbors must have called the cops more than once (the stereo in the car was just BIG) but the guy had a remote control and everytime the cops drove by, he simply paused the music just to start it again when they were gone...and the name of the bar was The Singers Place!!!
...that the Betty Ford Clinic didn't give him a complete physical, which would have detected his weak and blocked heart a couple of weeks before the heart attack. Clearly he was a bypass candidate-in-waiting. But maybe I don't understand the limitations of rehab facilities such as that one.
Anyone know why he wouldn't have been subjected to a physical?
I was kind of oblivious as to the nature of the events that were unfolding that day. Even then I generally did not have the TV on and seldom listened to radio with the exception of the then Temple University run Jazz station,WRTI. We had just moved into our first house the previous month and shortly afterwards I treated myself to my first high-end gear. Being that I was also getting into jazz big-time at that point, I had planned a visit to my local mom and pop CD store, where the customers were more a family with intersecting interests. I had a place where I could get my diverse music fix and and enjoy conversation with friends and acquaintances over a a cup of freshly brewed coffee. When I arrived, I recall that the owner of the shop had NPR on and a few people were gathered around the counter. I approached, sensing that the group was particularly quiet and in a solemn mood. At one point I made eye contact with someone that I hadn't really thought of as one who would have been a fan of the Dead. He quietly asked me if I had heard that "Jerry" died. I immediately knew which "Jerry" he was talking about as I exchanged a few glances with group. I remember feeling a little sick but not feeling completely shocked on hearing the news. (Although I was not off the bus, I felt that something was wrong in 94 and even though I hadn't been to any recent shows, it seemed that Jerry looked "tired.") I remember thinking that I kind of wished that maybe, just maybe, if the Grateful Dead machine had decided to skip a tour and allowed him a chance to rest and get healthy, that he would have still been around. (That is what I thought back then and in a sense still do.) Despite the news clips, their was still a lot of speculation of the events that proceeded that day. The internet was still pretty young, Information did not flow as freely and quickly as it now does and I did not realize how unhealthy Jerry looked during the last tour, until I saw some of the last photos of him. That was what did shock me. Up until that point I guess I had enough denial to have believed that his last attempt at recovery would have been the one that would have stuck. And maybe that was the bitter irony; that he had tried to get better when it happened and was under someones care...that it shouldn't have gone down that way.
Upon arriving home, the news had already spread. I got a few phone calls from friends that day who were also in dis-belief; even one from my mom. We spent the evening listening to American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. It still all seems very surreal sometimes.
I was on the road as a stage manager for a group of performers. I was saddened by the news but my head was filled with details of the performance that night and of those to come.
I had left the scene for good in the Spring of 93. The energy was nowhere and there was no point in going anymore. I was away from all my deadhead friends and the people I was with had no connection whatsoever with the scene or that music.
The show had to go on, but not for the Grateful Dead.
It hit me more when I made it home for break later that summer. All my deadhead friends were really bummed out...
1995 was my daughter's third birthday in May, and then my old tour buddy calls and informs me that "We're goin' to Shoreline !" I saw my last show on May 6, 1991 at Cal Expo on a parking lot score of a mail order ticket for cost. We saw all three nights in June at Shoreline, the second night we sat in the second row on the Jerry Side at the edge, could see the songlist Bob kept on his amp with the binocs, that run was the most new songs, 13, I had ever seen since my first set of shows at the Greek in May '83. Sunday was my 2,000th song, Stella Blue. That was the last time I saw Jerry Garcia. Aug 9 is my Parent's wedding anniversary. My Birthday is 11/29 the day George Harrison passed. Just weird with a beard. Aug 9 1995 I was with my family in Chico and we just were stunned, there was a community gathering in the center of the Downtown at the park, where the Dead music was softly playing from the radios and the people just looked a little less bright.
All the stars, are gone but one.
Morning dreams, we found the Sun.
Show me something built to last
Two blue stones, shine o'er the hill.
Call it back; you never will
All these trials, now are dead.
Show me something built to last
-Built To Last R Hunter/J Garcia
...I would have hailed a "universally strong Fall '94 tour" when that's precisely the one I was talking about above that so depressed me. (That said, there were strong shows on that tour, some of which I listened to recently... but NOT the two MSG ones I saw!)...
And there WAS some optimism in some quarters in the winter and spring of 95, with the reintroduction of "Visions of Johanna" and a few good shows sprinkled in the mix...
But I got slammed by many folks for my pessimistic Dupree's article. "How dare you talk about Jerry that way!" People did not want to hear it. And trust me, I didn't want to say it. It's true, though, that I'm a glass half-full kinda guy and an optimist at heart.
I walked out of Portland Meadows one day in May of 1995 and a guy was selling styrofoam on toothpicks with a sign "Nothing on a stick. $1." Something like that. That says it all about the misery leading up to Aug. 1995.
Another great article. As someone who didn't attend many actual shows (or have access to many tapes) I remember following Blair's writings and the GD Hour closely in 1994 and 1995 hoping there would be reports/indications of an upswing. Later on I found that I didn't agree with a lot of what Blair wrote about a "universally strong fall '94 tour" or the "winds of optimism" (paraphrasing here) blowing through the Spring '95 tour. It was unbearable for the most part. Lots of "Samba In the Rain," no Garcia ...nothing on a stick. They were toast until a major break or overhaul was in order. None came.
The big day comes. I was working a marketing job at a real estate company. The receptionist was a young woman around my age with no interest in the Dead. But knew it was big for me. I walked in that afternoon and she says, "He croaked. Your old man Jerry croaked."
Not a kind way to deliver some very upsetting news, needless to say.
It was not a shock and there was almost a weird sense of relief - I hate to use that word. But in some ways, I think the end of the Dead helped me to get my own life in order a short time later. Party time had gone as far as it could go for me. No more Grateful Dead - good time to turn over a new leaf.
In terms of shock and horror, the John Lennon assassination was way more profound. I was just a little guy but I was a Beatles fanatic. Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football. . . will never forget my older brother and I just being shellshocked. "I don't care what's on the line Howard, you have to say what we know in the booth," said Frank Gifford.
Jerry did it all to himself and did it his way. I never have gotten over what happened to John Lennon.
One more thing - someone mentioned being more shocked with Brent. Same here. I had a job that summer involving hauling produce. I get out of the truck and have lunch at a McDonald's and I read it in the Seattle Times newspaper. That just crushed me. My initial thought was "Wow. That might be the end of it." I never thought for a second they would be right back on the road. All about the money at that point. But another topic for another time.