“We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.” – Jerry Garcia.
I was carried away in a rapture. And so i am a Deadhead now…” —Joseph Campbell
With all due respect to Don McLean, the music died on August 9, 1995, the day we lost Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and most easily recognized member of the Grateful Dead. Between 1965 and 1995, the Dead played an average of 77 shows a year. Though volumes have been written about the experience, it is difficult to put into words. Joseph Campbell was friends with several members of the band. In a 1986 symposium with Garcia, drummer Micky Hart, and several Jungian analysts, Campbell said:
“The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course…This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence…This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about!”
The Dead were always a touring band, and the shows were unique events that people loved or hated – I’ve never met anyone who was indifferent. When they played Sacramento or Oakland on weekdays, half of the people in my department at work – and we’re talking electrical and software engineers – would arrive in the morning in tie-dye and take the afternoon off to attend. The other half could not have cared less.
Campbell’s assessment reveals the “innocent joy” I felt after my first few shows, captured by the lyrics of “Scarlet Begonias:”
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,
Everybody’s playin in the Heart of Gold Band.
In reality, you don’t get that close to Dionysus without paying a price. Thirty years on the road took its toll on Garcia. In the summer of 1995, he checked himself into a rehab facility and died in his sleep of heart failure a week after his 53d birthday.
Jerry and the Dead left us a huge musical legacy, with at least one song, “Truckin,” designated as a National Treasure by the Library of Congress. Surviving members of the band continue to release the best concert tapes, and everything has just been remastered for iTunes. You can look at the collection here: Grateful Dead on iTunes.
In the end, maybe Joseph Campbell, with his eyes of innocence, saw it most clearly when he said, “It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether it’s a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”
Rest in peace, Jerry, and thanks for the ride!