In February, 1961,, when Jerry Garcia was 18 years old, he was a passenger in a car that flew off a curve at 90 mph. One passenger died and two others were badly injured. Garcia was thrown into a field and sustained only a broken collarbone. He later said, “That’s where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life. It was like a second chance. Then I got serious”
One thing he got very serious about was music, which he had practiced since early childhood. Two months after the accident, he met Robert Hunter, a musician and poet who would become the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. The two of them found a local gig and made $5 each, which helped Garcia, who was living out of his car in Palo Alto.
The story I heard was that several other key members of band met in the parking lot of Palo Alto music store in 1965. They first played as The Warlocks in a Menlo Park pizza parlor. After learning that another group called The Warlocks had signed a record contract, Jerry Garcia picked the name, Grateful Dead by flipping open a dictionary. There are several accounts, but according to Phil Lesh, the bass player, the definition was: the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.
For the next thirty years, the Grateful Dead were a cultural and musical phenomenon. You pretty much loved them or hated them. Back when Cal Expo was open, half my department at work would show up in their t-shirts and tie dye and take the afternoon off whenever the band came to town. The other half of my co-workers would shake their heads. At its best, a Grateful Dead show was a unique and extravagant celebration of life.
In August, 1995, Garcia, who was overweight, diabetic, and exhausted from touring, checked into rehab to detox from heroin. Sometime in the early morning of August 9, his heart stopped beating. He was 53 years old.
This is one of my favorite concert clips, for it hints at the joy the musicians could evoke in a crowd. It’s from the Bill Graham Memorial Concert in Golden Gate Park in November, 1991.
I know the rent is in arrears,
Dog has not been fed in years,
It’s even worse than it appears,
But it’s all right.
Oh well a touch of gray,
Kinda suits you anyway,
That was all I had to say,
And it’s all right.