Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - What If…?

What if on August 10, 1995, you opened up your morning newspaper and read the following: “Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was rushed to a Marin County, California, hospital late last night and underwent successful quadruple bypass surgery. Garcia, 53, was said to be resting comfortably and joking with doctors and nurses. He is expected to make a full recovery and should be able to tour again with the Grateful Dead “somewhere between six months and a year from now,” a hospital spokesperson said, “depending on how seriously he takes this episode.”

It was the “IWAAJ” — “It was all about Jerry” — debate in this space a couple of weeks ago that got my mind wandering (again) to that great hypothetical: What if Jerry hadn’t died 16 years ago, and he had instead embraced the healthy lifestyle choices that would have perhaps allowed him to live this long? Would the Grateful Dead still be going strong? How would that turn of events have affected the course of our own lives? I know it’s difficult and probably fruitless to speculate, but let’s have a little fun with this.

So many Dead Heads jumped ship from the end of ’93 through ’95 because of what they saw as a steady and alarming decline in Garcia’s playing and overall demeanor. Would they have come back to the fold if he rose, Phoenix-like, in the spring of 1996—slimmer, healthier (off drugs, diabetes in check), cheerier and also fully rehabbed for the debilitating carpal tunnel malaise that so affected his manual dexterity? Absolutely! It would be like the spring of ’87 (post-diabetic coma) all over again.

“It is getting clearer now…
I see Jerry singing ‘My Way,’
then going into ‘Idiot Wind’
with a 12-piece tuba section backing him."

During his convalescence, no doubt the New Jerry would have gotten together with Robert Hunter to write some fresh tunes, and though going on the road was verboten for a while, perhaps the band could have cut a new album using the best from those writing sessions along with the strongest of the still-unrecorded songs the band already had, including “So Many Roads,” “Corrina,” “Days Between,” “Lazy River Road,” “Eternity” and “Liberty.” A shortened version of “Liberty” becomes a surprise radio favorite, and everywhere the revivified band goes on their spring and summer tours in 1996, they are hailed as great survivors! They close the summer with a free concert at the Polo Fields in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, broadcast live over HBO. In a nod to the band’s return from their mid-’70s hiatus, the fall tour consists of 45 shows in small theaters, five each in nine cities, spread over October and November. An all-star New Year’s Eve concert—this one a low-priced pay-per-view event at the Fillmore in SF featuring a slew of the Dead’s musical friends, including Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Pete Townshend, Bruce Hornsby, Paul Barrere and Bill Payne from Little Feat and many others, is favorably compared to The Last Waltz. Martin Scorsese even directs the telecast.

OK, that fantasy is already out of control and we’re only a year into it! What really might have happened? Would the crowd problems that dogged the Dead’s last tours continue unabated? Probably. If ’87 is any indication, a renewed Grateful Dead would be an even greater draw than it was when they were at that creative low ebb in 1995. To keep the already large Grateful Dead organization humming along, the band would still have to play big arenas and “sheds” mostly; one hopes they would once and for all leave the stadiums behind. But would they have the sense and the willpower to do that? Maybe. Those of us who enjoyed traveling to shows always wished the band would go to Asia and Australia someday, just for kicks, but would the money-conscious brass allow that to happen?

Would the band ever get around to playing all those great nuggets that the post-Jerry bands have thrived on the past decade-plus, from “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven” to weirder stuff like “Born Cross-Eyed” and “What’s Become of the Baby”? Wow, that’s a tough one to answer. Jerry had a very unusual relationship with the Dead’s back catalog. He once told me definitively that he would never play “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” again. That’s a shame. I dig it every time I hear it these days. I never understood his aversion to “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star”—especially the latter, as it was so mutable and timeless. It’s hard to imagine him singing “What’s Become of the Baby” or “Rosemary.” I think he viewed those as album curiosities from a past best forgotten. Might the band have played any of their classic albums in their entirety as so many bands do today—say a mini-tour performing Blues for Allah for that album’s 30th anniversary in 2005, or Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty for their 40th anniversary in 2010? I can’t see it, frankly, but you never know.

Any chance the band would have at least started mixing up their sets more, escaping the bland predictability that set in around, oh, 1990? As controllers of the repertoire, Garcia and Weir both seemed locked into their musical habits, and though occasionally in interviews they paid lip service to the notion of shaking things up, it never happened while Jerry was still with us. It was Phil, a few years after Garcia’s passing, who first mustered the courage to step outside the box and look at the placement of songs and structure of shows differently. Bob soon followed in RatDog, and though Furthur went back to the “first-set song/second-set song” formulation a bit on their most recent tour, they are still much more adventurous in the way they present songs and where in the show they occur than the latter-day Grateful Dead. Would Phil have stepped up at some point and suggested some radical reinvention of the Dead’s “show”? I doubt it, but I’d like to think so.

Because they were always more of a live attraction than a top recording band, the Dead might have been immune to some of the economic woes that befell so many groups in the digital file-sharing age. One would hope that they would not have increased ticket prices to the level of so many major attractions in the late ’90s and the 2000s. They always had a populist streak in them, so I think that’s a safe bet. To generate more income, though, they might have picked up the pace in archival releases somewhat. There was a time when Dick’s Picks and various multitrack vault releases were big sellers for the band, but that diminished over the years after Garcia’s death, aided by the flood of soundboard tapes that found their way onto following Dick Latvala’s demise and were downloaded thousands of times for free (before the surviving band members put a stop to it).

I’d like to think we might still have been treated to epic box sets like the various Complete Recordings collections (Fillmore West ’69, Winterland ’73 and ’77, Europe ’72, Hampton ’89), but there probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the volume of releases that have come out. On the Garcia side, there’s nothing to suggest that he was at all interested in putting out archival CDs of his various bands, and chances are the wonderful All Good Things box set, with its abundance of unreleased studio material, would not have seen the light of day. It’s hard to picture Jerry putting in the time and effort to look at his past studio efforts in a new light. He was always more interested in moving forward.

On a personal level, I would never have had the opportunity to write my biography of Jerry, Garcia: An American Life, while he was alive — my sources would have respected his privacy too much to talk to a journalist. I probably would not have been invited to work on archival releases or write liner notes. The Dead’s famed tape vault would have stayed in their hands, so there would be no release deal with Rhino and no Rhino/Grateful Dead website for me to write for. I’m sure I’d still be going dutifully to every local concert and no doubt buying CDs or downloads of every one they played. Can you imagine the crush of people trying to pick up CDs of a show they’d just attended? It would take hours to get out of there! And you can be sure that YouTube would be positively littered with videos of every song the Dead played at each show. Poor Jerry, having to look out on a sea of inattentive camera-phone videographers. “Remember when people listened?” he’d grumble one night to no one in particular backstage.

The mind races with thoughts about what might have become of the JGB if Jerry had lived and John Kahn had died when he did? Would he form some completely different kind of group? What of Jerry’s troubled personal life? Would Sirens of Titan ever get made? (The New York Times: “Garcia’s directorial effort is a delectable but uncompromisingly weird confection…” ) Would Jerry host Saturday Night Live? Record a “duets” album? Support a presidential candidate?

We’ll never know. But what do YOU think? What if Jerry had lived?


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Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
Steaming Hot


The Nakano Pancake (not verified)
gone with the wind?

yeah, Mike Edwards, Mr.TheEleven is sooooooo right, dude; like totally. like right ON!!!
nobody in the Dead had an opinion, so why should you have yours? we're all fluffy innocents here and so were the band. are you mad? hey....if i have to bend over and take it every day, why shouldn't you?
shame on you for proffering an imaginary scenario. i offered you my hand in this limp-wristed, saccharine healing circle and you rejected it. you drop your blinkers, boy?

YEAH, you suck! you lilly-livered, liberal......

oh, hang on. you were just expressing an opinion, weren't you? oh MAN!, i jumped straight in without thinking; what a silly-billy. and there's me thinking i was the nation's conscience. i just didn't think it through, did i?

Mr.TheEleven; no intelligent girl likes it when a man tries too hard to get laid.

as for the blog itself, i couldn't care less. it's 2011.

Mr.TheEleven's picture
Joined: Nov 28 2010
Hey Mike Edwards - Keep Your Day Job

I'm no Reagan fan, but your violent fantasies are really out of place on, in American politics (or anywhere else for that matter). I can't imagine a single member of the Dead endorsing your post, much less not being repulsed by it.
Your poetry sucks, dude. As the Dead sang, "Keep Your Day Job."

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Mr.TheEleven's picture
Joined: Nov 28 2010
Too obvious a blog topic

Jer wud still be touring with the Dead, the JGB and other projects.
Rather obvious, isn't it?
If only ......

Blair, I'd like you to consider blogging on How to Talk to a Dead Critic (Hater?) - in other words, how to counter the usual criticisms of the band, primarily that they were musically sloppy and frequently low energy (especially in the 80s and beyond).

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

I like that dream.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I like that one, sailbystars...

A variant on the old Jim Morrison and Elvis "we-never-saw-the-body" fantasy. If you're right, then he's about due to start playing again! When do tickets go on sale?

sailbystars's picture
Joined: Oct 27 2010
he did.

...or at least that's how my "What if", that I often roll around in my head, goes. Nobody in Garcia's shoes does this: wakes up and says, 'things aren't going my way. The fans are screwing up our tours, our organization is bloated with hangers-on who either need a paycheck or are more than willing to feed my jones, the music is stale, my health is in the crapper...I'm going to shave this frickin' beard and move to kona, stay at Matt Kelly's on the way down low for a while, recoop....disappear... My true friends will help make up the story, luminaries down on the prank will attend the funeral to support the myth...and I'll be free. Died of a cardiac in rehab - who ain't gonna believe that! Maybe I'll take up the ukelele, check out some coral reefs...shhhhhh...." Living here in San Rafael, I swear a Jerry lookalike went by in the passenger seat of an 80s model blue honda accord the other day...a little slimmer, suntanned... Re-emerge at the opening night gig at Phil's future shed in Fairfax...I'll be there to witness..... one can dream...

Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
I wrote a poem recently that

I wrote a poem recently that goes like this:

Resurrecting Reagan

What a world this would be
If John Hinckley
Had been a better marksman

I imagined a much rosier outcome than what we got, but then a friend of mine pointed out that under such a scenario, George H. W. Bush would have become President eight years sooner. I, of course, had neglected to aim past the target.

SaintSteveg's picture
Joined: Nov 19 2008
Soul for sure, and also roots

Spacebrother, you're right on it about the jam bands. One thing all those groups cannot really get away from is that their roots are in the Grateful Dead. That's cool for playing in that genre, but the Grateful Dead's roots are in the blues, folk, country, R&B, New Orleans, reggae, cowboy music, jug bands, jazz, and foundational rock'n'roll. So the Dead are just one step closer to the source, which is a big part of where their soul comes from.

The other thing the Grateful Dead have that sets them apart from all others is an individual named Robert Hunter, a songwriter easily in the same class with Bob Dylan and a very few other great lyricists. That's one reason I DO enjoy going to Furthur shows; where else are you going to hear all these incredible songs?

As to where the Dead would have gone had Jerry survived 1995, it probably would have been best for them to just come together for the occasional tour, a la Rolling Stones, and then in between all of them could work at their own pace on what ever caught their interest. I think they would have gotten more into world music. I certainly would continue to follow avidly where any of them went, like I do now with 7 Walkers and Rhythm Devils. There are times I actually think I enjoy Garcia music more from his side projects than with the Dead, especially in the later years when in spite of their talents they did get into a rut and lost that creative fire that gave them their start.

~ I'll meet you some morning in the sweet by and by

Joined: Jun 4 2007
The Grateful Dead vs Jam Bands

The Dead always had that one thing that almost all of the post modern (1990's to current) jam bands lack and that is soul. Having a good solid groove is also a plus and helps.

It's virtually impossible for me to find something that remotely feels like emotion from the vast majority of the groups in the "trendy" jam band scene, though I've tried. The psuedo-jam-bluegrass bands don't have soul, and neither do the ones who try to write funny lyrics and/or throw in a handful of clever tight musical twists wrapped around with endless, non-dynamic noodling minus the groove that seems to go nowhere. For the most part, they've become sterile and generic.

Some of the first wave jam bands that have always stood out above the rest for me, who had/have the groove and soul that moves me were/are Aquarium Rescue Unit, Blues Traveler, Govt Mule, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Primus, whereas Phish, Widespread Panic, The Dave Matthews Band and SCI to name a couple all seemed to lack any real emotion to me. It's as if they tried too hard to . I'm not trying to cut on any of them, as they all have their moments, but as a whole, they never really did it for me.

A couple of newer bands who I think really have soul and the groove, and who frequent the jam-oriented festival scene, though I wouldn't necessarily pigeonhole them as "jam bands", are Lettuce/Soulive, Dumpstaphunk. They have the soul and the groove.

Bands like The Grateful Dead, The Allmans, Little Feat and many others who came out of the '60's set the bar impossibly high for most of the newer bands to come in and try to create the same vibe while mainting originality. It's all about the groove and the soul.

To bring this back to Jerry Garcia, even at his worst of days, he was still oozing with soul. The last flash of that which I experienced wasn't at the last show the Dead ever played, but was the night before during Visions of Johanna. I think, if he were still alive and healthier, JG would have continued to set the bar ever higher in regards to emotion, soul and the groove.


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