Twenty-five years ago, when Jerry Garcia passed on this day in 1995, I was jaded and angry. Still reeling with unprocessed grief from the death of my only sibling a few years earlier, I had distanced myself from the scene I had once felt an affinity to (which had grown increasingly sketchy in the 1990s anyway). I refused to leave my apartment, stayed in bed most of the day, steadfastly avoiding the vigil in the park down the street from me filled with people tearful over somebody they “knew” as an abstract entity. He was deified as a free-spirited messenger of peace and harmony while nursing a decades-long heroin addiction, the antithesis of freedom. I felt like that dichotomy between a starry-eyed expanded consciousness and a hedonistic enslavement to the pleasure principle could have very nearly ruined my own life if it hadn’t been for the actions of a few people, my lost sibling among them, which took me off that path. Famous musicians driving themselves into early graves through hard living — Garcia was barely 53 but looked about 80 when he died – was nothing new. I couldn’t or wouldn’t empathize with the collective eulogizing because all I could think was that it seemed in some way profoundly stupid for people who “had everything in life” to careless throw it away – I’d thought the same thing about Kurt Cobain’s suicide a year earlier even though I had only a passing interest in his music — while all over the world, parents had to bury children lost to horrible circumstances – accidents, diseases, murders – inverting the “natural order”, things weren’t supposed to happen that way. Those families, and mine, didn’t have crowds holding vigils in the park. They got awkward attempts at soothing from friends or relatives, often with platitudes like “he / she is in a better place now” or “God has called home another angel” and insipid shit like that.
I knew then, as I know now, that those are empty phrases, that there is no “everything happens for a reason” to the workings of the universe, that The Creator Has No Master Plan (Pharoah Sanders notwithstanding). Pointless suffering is a basic condition of life on this planet and the most anyone can do is try not to add to it unnecessarily. I developed a skepticism about the business of music and an industry that turns alienation or angst, rebellion or even utopian glimpses of alternate ways of living into just another commodity, simultaneously building up and tearing down an endless parade of creative souls beset on all sides by vampires. I spent another twenty years carrying not just a chip on my shoulder but a mountain ringed with thunderclouds. There would always be an empty space that can never be filled by the things of this world, and it’s only taken me nearly thirty years, and a few close calls teetering on the brink of my own self-destruction, to see that this is actually liberating and not oppressive. And the intervening years have granted me the maturity not to rush to judgement about anyone else’s inner turmoil and how they chose to deal with it.
Along the way, I eventually stopped resenting Garcia and the Frankenstein he created, and reconnected with the essence of what drew me to his music in the first place. While there are plenty of original compositions that serve as examples, the appropriation of the Bonnie Dobson folk song “Morning Dew” also has that essence in spades. Written as a reflection on a post-nuclear apocalypse, it occupied an unique place in Garcia’s body of work which largely shunned social commentary in favor of the fruitful writing partnership with fellow ex-beatnik & folkie Robert Hunter, and his wistful open-ended, every-listener-has-their-own-interpretation approach to lyrics. Lots of rock bands had mastered the soft/loud/soft trick since the late 60s but few had as masterful a command of all the dynamics in between those extremes as the Dead had in their best moments, and few rock bands before or since could take a listener from existential melancholy to exhilaration in the space of a few bars. I found myself listening to this tune in April of this year, wandering around the deserted streets of a normally bustling city, wondering “where have all the people gone this morning”, and maybe finally really understanding the gooseflesh that it gave me. The clip above is from the film directed by Leon Gast (“When We Were Kings”, “Our Latin Thing” about the Fania All-Stars) who really had a knack for capturing a performance on celluloid, documented in 1974 but not released until several years later.