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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Joined: Jun 6 2007

Interesting issue... I think the jam band scene probably would've flourished as it did even if the Dead were still around... What's that Paul Simon line from "Boy in the Bubble": "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts..." He was probably thinking more Sinatra, Elvis, Beatles, U2, whatever, but my point is, a lot of young folks into jamming wanted their own generation's bands to fill that niche; thus moe. and SCI and Phish and the others of that first wave of cool jam bands...

Joined: Jul 9 2008
What about the "fallout" effects?

I'm having some fun thinking about how if the GD had continued with a healthy Jerry (and everybody for that matter), the effect it would have had on the whole jam band genre that we have come to know today. Certainly Phish was already on the rise in a big way but they really warped into the forefront post GD. That void also left a large musical hole to be filled. I know that speaking for myself, Jerry's passing and the end of the GD freed my musical mind to really explore what was out there.

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
the double phoenix tour

Upon release from the hospital Jerry vows to take the Grateful Dead on tour to Japan. The press eats it up and starts dubbing the tour "the double phoenix tour" and dwells on Jerry's remarkable ability to come back from the brink. The Dead tour to huge crowds in Japan and quickly add a series of concert performances in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City. They negotiate a deal with the government there to step up efforts to repatriate the remains of MIAs. The press now dubs the tour "Here Comes Sunshine". In typical fashion, Jerry shrugs off the hype and publicity by commenting that they just want to do the right thing for folks. From Vietnam, they travel to Cambodia to play at the holy shrine. From there they swing over to Russia to play a series of performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Rostropovich joins them on stage in St. Petersburg to add cello solos to "Mississippi Half-Step Toodeloo". Upon return to the US, the Dead announce that they will now take time off from touring to set up a new foundation to channel money into many worldwide charities. In true Dead fashion they simply announce-stay tuned folks, we'll let you know what's up when we figure it out. now lets go run and see

Joined: Jun 4 2007
well at the very least...

...we know he wouldn't have become Katy Perry's or Lady Gaga's new guitar player.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
after leaving the hospital....

Jerry realizes that the Dead are a large part of his problems. The band goes into semi-retirement, playing about 6 gigs a year. Jerry forms an all acoustic band, which dips heavy into the back catalogue, way back! He also decides to try his hand with more experimental jazz-like settings, recording an album with Anthony Braxton, and another with Wadada Leo Smith. Garcia Band also breaks up, since he realizes that some of "those folks" are also not good for his health. Starts doing work for film soundtracks, and then tours with an eclectic rotating group of musical companions under the name Jerry and Friends. Their popularity rises, and based on an obscure comment he made to CNN, soon finds himself running for President. HIs guru-like sayings play well in middle-America, and he wins, upon being sworn in makes Wavy Gravy Defense Minister, and Micky Hart's uncle minster of finance. Robert Hunter becomes Poet Laureat, all drugs are made legal, but Fox news is made illegal. I better stop now!

unkle sam's picture
Joined: Oct 3 2008
very well said

No flame here deadheadland, back in the long ago several conversations about Jerry would lead to a comment by someone saying "do ya think Jerry knew it was all coming to an end?" The whole "hippy" scene was ending, just 4 years later woodstock 99 would go up in flames, lots of young heads didn't even want to hear anything about the dead, it was an "old scene". Jerry was getting death threats, the carpal tunnel had to have been painful and frustrating for him, I don't want to think that on that day that he entered serenity he knew it was over, but I do think he knew something that we will never know.
I miss Jerry every day, he was a powerful warrior in his time, unfortunately, nothing lasts.

deadheadland's picture
Joined: Aug 21 2007
cryptical envelopment - you know he had to die...

I can't imagine. maybe I could have in 1995, or even 96 or 97... but I have long since accepted that once it has happened... nothing left to do...

not that I don't miss him, but not in a way that I wish things were different. in complete acknowledgement and acceptance is where I found healing.

The scene was beleaguered by a multitude of pressures, and one way or another, something had to give... and this was the one cosmic event that would change it all.

In the aftermath of the great He's Gone of '95 we have all these new bands, and new takes on the music, and as you point out Blair, a new relationship with songs Jerry refused to play. We have a large and dynamic festival culture, that while deeply influenced by the Dead tours of the past, has gone beyond just "us" - it's all become something far bigger! Even the huge growth of Burner/Burning Man culture was, IMO, partially spurred on by Jerry's passing... so much has been influenced by Deadhead's and by Jerry, directly and indirectly.

I might get a lot of flame for saying this, but I don't see it could have gone down any other way. I hope Jerry felt no pain.

We had JJG for 53 years on planet earth - and thankfully so very much of it was recorded!

(~);} happycat! >^.^<

Gypsy Cowgirl's picture
Joined: Aug 14 2007
WEll Hell......

hate to break everybodies bubble, but my dad always told me when I was a kid "there are no What If's".........he also said "it's a sick world out there".......he was a young man during WW 2, so no wonder he thought that........BUT I wish Jerry had lived & gotten healthy, just for his sake!

Joined: Feb 28 2011
Multiverse Jerry

In some versions of the spacetime Jer' is still strummin'.
Just not in our particular stream.
Could be up to anything.

We got a lot and more evolved from that.
Grateful for the ride.

Just turned 68 today.
Never thought I'd have lived this long.

Blessed and graced past drugs alcohol,telomere malfunctions,and much else into today.
A miracle every day.

I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul...

Stuck in my head all last night.

Plan on dancin' tonight with my Sugar Magnolia/Mississippi Queen.
There's a band down by the riverside.

Peace Jer' whatever you're up to.

It MUST have been the Roses
Bear xiv

Joined: Dec 8 2008
Lighter Side

Bobby, might have gotten the lyrics to Truckin' right :)

In keeping with GD tradition, we'd be looking for a keyboard player, as the hot seat claims another.

Day Job returns to encore slot.

Ohhh what could have been.....


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