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The Days Between Begin

August 2, 2019

        So now we come to The Days Between.

        You don’t have to be a Deadhead to know what that phrase means, but it helps. Those Days begin Aug. 1, the birthdate (in 1942) of Jerome John Garcia, and end Aug. 8, the date in 1995 when the long-time Grateful Dead lead guitarist and vocalist died of a heart attack.

        That coronary occurred in a California drug rehabilitation facility, and was the result of his long-term problems with diabetes, obesity and substance abuse. Garcia’s death marked the end of a downward spiral of addiction and dysfunction, but that should not obscure the musical contributions of a prolific performer and songwriter who was also a sought-after studio musician and a visual artist as well.

        Garcia was born in San Francisco, the city with which his music would be so much associated — the Dead being the one of the epitomizers of that city’s psychedelic sound — and was named after composer Jerome Kern. He was the son of a professional musician who was thrown out of the musician’s union for moonlighting, becoming a bar owner instead. 

        His father, who drowned while fishing when his second son was about five, was of Spanish descent; his mother had Irish and other northern European roots, and an attachment to bluegrass and country. That would resurface in Jerry Garcia’s early musical efforts — the banjo was the first stringed instrument he played, and the first groups he played in were bluegrass, jug band and old-time.

        Those groups were where he met the artists and musicians he would work with for three-plus decades: Robert Hunter, who would be Garcia’s co-songwriter for much of that time; and Bill Kruetzmann, Phil Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and Bob Weir. The latter four were members of the jug band that in 1965 became the Warlocks, who were quickly renamed when they learned that another rock band (which would later become the Velvet Underground) was using that monicker. Garcia came up with a new name — the one that would stick for 30 years — in a dictionary.

        Over the next three decades, the Grateful Dead would tour relentlessly — sometimes disastrously. There were two drug busts, including the one immortalized in “Truckin’,” several interventions staged to get Garcia straightened out, members departing, etc. The group built a reputation as the ultimate jam band, grew a following that was more a way of life than a fan club, but also recorded many memorable albums.

        The endless touring took its toll on Garcia, and his health declined and his abuse problems continued despite several get-clean rehab stints. (It appears that Garcia also did some side-project touring solely to support his expensive drug habits.) His final health collapse and death also killed off the band, although some of its surviving members continue to perform under several different names.

        Garcia’s personal life, besides the drug issues, was a mess. He did a substantially-AWOL stint in the Army in his late teens, — compulsory, because he had stolen his mother’s car — and a few years later survived an ugly car accident that killed one of the other passengers.

        It’s hard to keep track of his marriages and relationships, some of which overlapped; several of his spouses and significant others made return appearances in his life. His wife at the time of his death was a girlfriend from 20-plus years earlier, who barred his other exes from memorial ceremonies. (One of them was a former member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the group that organized the Acid Trips, the LSD-fueled San Francisco-area parties that featured the Dead.)

        Despite all the drugs and dysfunction, Garcia and the Dead created an amazing body of work. That included only 13 traditional studio albums (one of which is both studio and live), but the band used its numerous live albums as vehicles to release  new material, blurring the line between studio and live LPs.

        The band performed more than 2,300 live concerts, of which nearly 2,200 were recorded. That, and the 1,000 Jerry Garcia Band concerts caught on tape, make Garcia the most-recorded guitarist in history — including his studio sessions, some 15,000 hours of his guitar playing have been preserved.

        The Jerry Garcia Band was one of several groups that Garcia played with contemporaneously with the Dead. The others included the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Legion of Mary and the bluegrass outfit Old & In the Way, plus his collaborations with mandolinist extraordinaire David Grisman, and a number of solo projects.

        Garcia also contributed to other artists’ work as a session musician, playing for musicians as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, Country Joe McDonald and Warren Zevon. His pedal steel guitar features prominently on the Crosby Stills & Nash classic “Teach Your Children Well,” and he played on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.

        Garcia’s guitar work is considered distinctive and eclectic, mixing elements from bluegrass, country and western, early rock and jazz, among other styles. Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” ranks him No. 13. His voice was distinctive, but not particularly great, in my opinion — limited in range and a bit adenoidal.

        But it was as much about what he sang as how he sang it. The songs he wrote, or co-wrote, for the Dead included some of the band’s most memorable: the aforementioned “Truckin’,” “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band” from Workingman’s Dead and “Attics of My Life,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” from American Beauty. Hunter, also an exceptional songwriter, contributed much of the Dead’s lyrics.

        I saw Garcia and the Dead live once, at the Sound Storm rock festival near Poynette, Wis., in late April 1970. Didn’t see them up close — we were on the bluff above the stage, hundreds of feet away, but the sound system was so good it was like they were right in front of the tent.

        At that time, although some in my circle of friends owned their music, I hadn’t been exposed to the Dead much, except perhaps on the six-month-old Radio Free Madison, the “underground” FM station. That changed not long after the festival, when Workingman’s Dead — I think one of their best, and definitely one of my favorites — was released.

        I prepared for writing this post by listening to my Dead albums on shuffle the other night. I don’t own a lot of the band’s LPs — American Beauty, Workingman’s, Terrapin Station, Wake of the Flood and the Skeletons from the Closet compilation — but there are plenty of good examples of Jerry Garcia’s work therein.

        The last song to play during that session was probably my favorite Dead cut, “Stella Blue.” Perhaps before The Days Between are done, I will take a tour through those albums again. And maybe add an LP or two to the collection.

 

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