This holiday weekend, the surviving members of The Grateful Dead are playing their last shows. The marketing and merchandising aspect of the shows has drawn criticism from longtime fans. I enjoyed this little observation in the New York Times coverage:
David Gans, who has hosted a syndicated radio show, “The Grateful Dead Hour,” for more than 25 years, and plans to release an oral history of the band this fall, called the 50th-anniversary pop-up economy an “orgy of commercialism.”
But he warned of false nostalgia: The band’s universe “was never as clean and sweet, high-minded or hippie-dippy as it was thought to be,” he said. “It’s always been way more complicated and materialistic than that.”
Mr. Gans recited a quotation often credited to Garcia himself: “We’ve been trying to sell out for years — nobody’s buying!”
Here are some scattered yet heartfelt thoughts about Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead. With my favorite pictures.
I can scarcely listen to Buddy Holly’s music. I start to cry, and then have a red nose for the rest of the day. But The Grateful Dead’s live cover of his immortal song, “Not Fade Away” is a fixture on my playlist. Jerry’s unmistakable voice is a bit nasal, not a professional singing voice, but so right for the music he makes. Fans are surely more interested in his guitar (and it’s a great moment when those first notes hit in “Not Fade Away”), but I love to hear him sing. It’s like saying hello to an old friend.
There’s something addictive about pictures of Jerry, at least for me. He was a round-faced kid with acne scars, and later in life he was heavy. Yet none of that takes away from his Beauty in my eyes.
The Long Suffering Husband was surprised when I told him I was writing about Jerry. “You’re writing about him before Ray Davies??” It’s true, I am far more familiar with Ray’s music than the Dead’s, and I haven’t yet managed to write anything about the Kinks. But as a blogger, you can’t prioritize these things. You have to take the inspiration as it comes.
Palo Alto has produced some very interesting people. In the computer business there were William Hewlett and David Packard, Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. Mark Zuckerberg, the king of dot coms, is from Palo Alto. In music there are The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, and of course The Grateful Dead.
I only own a few Dead albums, but they are good ones. My introduction was Workingman’s Dead (1970), of which my favorite songs are “Uncle John’s Band” (gentle and sublimely beautiful) and “Cumberland Blues”:
Lotta poor man make a five dollar bill
Keep him happy all the time
Some other fellow making nothing at all
And you can hear him cryin…
“Can I go buddy
Can I go down
Take your shift at the mine?”
The song is about a mine worker trying to make enough money to move away. He tells his girlfriend he has to get up early for his shift, or some other man will take it. The backstory is that in 1923, thirty-three men died in an explosion at the Cumberland mine in British Columbia. “Cumberland Blues” is very bluegrass, but it’s not a folk song. It’s something entirely new that feels traditional.
I heard an interview with Bill Kreutzmann, the band’s drummer. He still gets choked up talking about Jerry. They met when they were both teenagers in Palo Alto. Jerry came to the Kreuzmann house to buy a banjo which Mr. Kreuzmann had advertised for sale in the paper. Jerry was a little older, and Bill would go watch him play in local venues, understanding even then that Jerry was extraordinary. Then Jerry asked him to join his new band…
I never really liked the whole skull and roses thing. It creeped me out. For a long time, I thought The Grateful Dead was a heavy metal band, or that they played weird psychedelic music. But American Beauty (1970) lives up to its name. I like it because it’s similar to Workingman’s Dead, but even more lyrical, if such a thing is possible. This album includes the classic “Ripple,” an easygoing anthem which owes its spiritual depth to the lyrics by Robert Hunter:
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full, may it be again.
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.
My other fave from American Beauty is the sweetly rocking and contemplative “Box of Rain”:
It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there
Bill Kreuzmann said that LSD was his college and graduate school. He still believes it was the best thing that ever happened to him (along with Jerry). It was cocaine that did the deadly work. Jerry died young, of a heart attack, while he was in rehab.
My favorite fact about Jerry is that he was named for composer Jerome Kern. Jerry’s father was a jazz musician who played the clarinet. He must have hoped his son would make music too. Little did he know that Jerome John Garcia would leave his mark on American music, just as Jerome Kern did, with a legacy of sweet, moving melody.
Happy Fourth of July, Beautiful Man. You’re on my mind today.