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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JacktoldAlthea's picture
Joined: Jun 21 2007
What if?

What if they built their own venue somewhere where they could some what control this problems they were having with dead beat gatecrashers. What if it were the perfect venue, perfect sight lines, perfect sound and of course perfect landscape? Jerry was about moving forward as you stated Blair, maybe they embrace technology and webcast /pay per view style all their shows? What if this concept kept them going for years based on the light travel and so called home field advantage? I believe they would have evolved with the changing times just as the surviving members have. Can you see it now, Jer sitting in on a meeting discussing social networking? I think I can. Thanks again Blair, fun stuff as always.

Nothing to tell now, let the words be yours I am done with mine...

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
cosmicbadger sums it up...


One thing for certain is that I would never have met my extremely tolerant
wife and she would not have given birth to my beautiful daughter whom I am looking at this very moment. So that is a place that cannot be visited.

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
What if ,,,

...TC had never turned to Scientology and Pigpen had never become a member of the infamous 27-Club?

Well ... Lou Reed and Keith Richards may look like raisins but they're are still alive ... and so is David Crosby ... and a whole bunch of other guys ... :-)

Micke Östlund,
Växjö, Sweden

My record collection:

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
if wishes were horses

well I would hope that he would have semi retired from the GD, played what he liked, when he liked, with whom he liked and joined in a few spectacular annual Grateful Dead reunion shows because he wanted to, not becasue he had to. Maybe they could have played that mythical Easter Island gig.

But as the old rhyme goes

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were swords, I’d wear one by my side
And if "ifs" and "ands"
Were pots and pans,
There'd be no work for tinkers’ hands

PalmerEldritch's picture
Joined: Jul 25 2011
Yes, wishful thinking , but

Yes, wishful thinking , but maybe eventually there would have been fully acoustic versions of Dark Star and PITB. I'm talking full blown, (30 min.+) versions. Why not? - Just listen to the Bird Song jamming from the "Reckoning" sets. Yes, we'd miss the electrified dynamics but I'd bet it could have been replaced with something equally beautiful.
The stadium concert scene would probably have ended, but maybe a "Burning Man" type concert event could have evolved- you know, with a "leave no trace" type of ethic.
But yeah, Zuckfun, acceptance, tranquility. We're blessed with what we already have.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I'd be curious to see that, Weve...

Any way to upload a pdf or something of that Simon story?
I wonder what I wrote for that issue...

The Weve's picture
Joined: Feb 16 2010
Dead Yet- Garcia looks at 40

was the name of a piece written by Richard B. Simon for Relix Aug 2005 (v32n5) Special ; 40 Years Of The Grateful Dead. Only one page, but a great read that's along this same line.
Also in this issue are contributions from Blair J, Bear, Bruce Hornsby, Rock Scully, Butch Trucks, DL2, McNally, David Crosby & Wavy Gravy, and Bob Matthews & John Barlow.
Also Tons of photos and self portrate by Ol' Jer himself. If you don't have a copy of this issue start looking in the used CD & Records Shops for one, you'll be glad when you find it.

Holy S#%*! It’s the COMPLETE Europe ’72 Box! On 73 Discs!
♪♫♥♫~♥☼ღ♥♪♫♪♫♥ The Music Never Stops ! ♥♫♪♫♪♥ღ☼♥~♫♥♫♪
" There is Nothing like a Grateful Dead Concert ! "

Joined: Mar 18 2010
On Keyboard and Vocals, Mr. Keith Godchaux

Another thought provoking article, thank you kindly Blair. Maybe not exactly the question you asked, but my what if game centers around one of your previous articles- the one about the concerts when songs reappear. There's the infamous China Cat from 12/29/77- But what if Dark Star was played in 1977, or Cumberland Blues? What if Fire On The Mountain was played live for the first time in 1969- Or how about a Big Railroad Blues in 1978? What if Donna wrote a song called Sunset that Keith sang? Well, I always want to believe everything happens for a reason. As history unfolds, and acceptance is vital for tranquility- I wouldn't change a thing, even though it's amusing to ask, what if I could?

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
I am STILL bumming

about Sirens of Titan, because Jer was the right guy for that project. Sigh.

Joined: Jun 4 2007
To take it a step further...

I can only wonder where they would have been had Brent not died. They would have played the Shoreline run and Brent Mydland would have been a part of the E90 tour. Who know? Perhaps we might have been anticipating an E90 box set instead of E72.

Having been in attendance of the infamous '95 Deer Creek show, and the "Tour From Hell" on a whole, it was a particularly sad way for the band to end. Since then, I had frequently speculated that "if only they would have taken a year or two off", but in hindsight, I now believe that the crowd would probably have ruined it in the long run. The bad press, the higher security, the ever amassing crowds ect.


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