If Mercy’s in Business, I Wish It for You - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


If Mercy’s in Business, I Wish It for You

month to the day after his bust, Garcia was back onstage with the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Auditorium (newly refurbished and renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center) for three shows celebrating the Chinese New Year. The bust was Topic A in pre-show conversations among Deadheads, and there was a palpable tension in the air. Some of that tension evaporated the minute Garcia came onstage the first night of the series. He looked the best he had in some time—perhaps ten pounds lighter—and in a move that was noticed by every veteran Dead-watcher on the scene, Garcia had replaced his trademark black T-shirt with a more festive reddish-maroon one (immediately giving rise to TROUBLE AHEAD, JERRY IN RED bumper stickers, playing off a line in “Casey Jones”). The shows were raggedly played, but Deadheads took delight in the obvious changes in Garcia’s stage demeanor. Rather than standing stock-still and staring blankly ahead as he had at most 1984 shows, he bopped around and even broke into grins from time to time. The most cathartic moment of the three-show run came during the second night when, during a second set-opening version of “Truckin’,” the band came to the lines “Busted down on Bourbon Street / Set up like a bowling pin …” With every eye in the arena fixed squarely on Garcia, the crowd screamed out the lyrics. Garcia smiled slightly and the crowd roared, then he backpedaled to his amp, shook his head and grinned broadly after the line “They just won’t let you be … oh, no.”

Although he was still addicted to heroin and also using cocaine regularly, Garcia had begun what would be a fifteen-month incremental process of stepping away from those drugs completely. Rather than going into a drug rehabilitation program, Garcia was able to convince the judge in his case, Raymond Reynolds, that he would seek the treatment he needed independently. Additionally, he agreed to attend a Narcotics Anonymous-like drug diversion program just a couple of blocks from his Hepburn Heights house, and to perform a benefit concert for the Haight-Ashbury Food Project.

The changes came slowly at first—sometimes he’d even duck out of his diversion sessions during a break to go home and get high. But by the spring Garcia had made a commitment to change his lifestyle, aided considerably by his housemate, Nora Sage. Nora had worked as a cook in the household since the early ’80s, when she lived down the street. She moved in following Rock Scully’s departure in 1983 and acted as a de facto housekeeper, too, all the while attending law school in San Francisco. In fact, the day he was busted, Garcia had driven Nora to school, which was highly unusual for him, and then gone on to the park and gotten busted. In the weeks after the bust, Nora, in consultation with Jerry, conceived of an unorthodox method of weaning him from drugs that would be less radical than enrolling in a live-in facility.

The first stage was to get Garcia to openly admit he was a junkie and thus stop the elaborate subterfuge and sneaking around to score dope. Part of the household budget was set aside for his drug habit, but it was up to Nora to ration the drugs, cutting Garcia’s usage little by little over a period of about a year. She also tried to get Jerry involved in as many activities as she could to keep him busy. She encouraged him to get into painting for the first time since his art school days, and she also bought him various model kits, because he loved doing projects with his hands. During this time Garcia built seven remote-control cars, which he would take down to a nearby park and race around. He also put together a number of model guns from kits, including an Uzi submachine gun. (Garcia’s love of guns is something he rarely talked about, but at various times from the mid-’60s on he owned a number of different kinds of pistols, including a James Bond-style Beretta.)

“If it wasn’t for Nora Sage,” Tiff Garcia says, “Jerry probably would have been dead a lot earlier. She really tried to take care of him. She turned him back on to art, got him an airbrush outfit and various things, and tried to get him to eat a little healthier. And yeah, she got dope for him, too, if he needed it, but she was really the one who was most responsible for his turnaround.”

Not everyone in the Dead scene was thrilled with Nora or the stepping-down program, which one skeptical member of the Dead organization termed “a junkie’s solution, where Jerry had all the power and could do whatever he wanted.” There were those who felt Nora was excessively controlling and made too many decisions about who could have access to Garcia—always an issue, since so many people wanted or needed to talk to him. Others correctly noted that without some professional guidance and the aid of therapists who could help Garcia understand the root causes of his craving for drugs, he was a poor candidate for long-term addiction recovery. After all, Jerry was someone who was famous for giving in to his appetites—what would change that behavior in the long run?

Nevertheless, even skeptics had to be impressed by Garcia’s gradual transformation from an emotionally closed-off physical wreck, content to while away the hours getting high and watching TV, to someone who enjoyed hanging out with people again and working on different musical projects.

In the spring of 1985 there was still no sign that a new album was forthcoming from the Grateful Dead. The band’s one attempt in the studio since the making of Go to Heaven in 1979 had come during the darkest days of Garcia’s addiction in ’84. It had produced nothing but anxiety over Garcia’s utter lack of interest in the sessions, and, in the case of the drummers, over Bob Weir’s using a drum machine as a click track in hopes of establishing surer rhythms for his songs. There was some talk about trying to delay recording and waiting until Arista threw up their hands and released the Dead from their contract, thus enabling them to sign with a new company for more money. But Clive Davis was always patient and encouraged the group to take their time and record when they were ready to.

Instead of working on the new album, the band decided to make a long-form video (many songs as opposed to just one) with Len Dell’Amico once again directing, aided closely by Garcia. Shortly after a very spirited and successful East Coast tour at the end of March and the beginning of April (marred only by nagging vocal trouble for Garcia caused by a persistent case of his old nemesis, bronchitis), the band secretly gathered in the intimate, 2,000-seat Marin County Veterans Auditorium in San Rafael for three long days of videotaping and multitrack recording without an audience. The group had played superb shows there in 1983 and ’84, so it was a familiar room, and, miraculously, word about the sessions didn’t leak out to the public. Dell’Amico had the band set up as if they were playing a gig, except with Weir facing back toward the drummers, and Garcia and Brent turned more toward each other. A full video crew shot the group from many different angles, while John Cutler, who had been part of the Dead’s sound crew for a number of years, captured the performances in a mobile recording truck parked outside the auditorium. Over the course of three days the Dead ran through most of their recent unrecorded songs, as well as classic Dead tunes like “Terrapin,” “Playing in the Band,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Cassidy,” “Comes a Time” and “Jack Straw.” There were oddities like “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Booker T.’s “Green Onions,” and chilling versions of a new Dylan cover tune Garcia had played once on the spring tour, “She Belongs to Me.” Because there was no audience, the band could start and stop songs when they pleased and play multiple versions of the same song if they wanted. They taped for three days in April and three days in November, hoping to get enough good performances to provide a skeleton frame for the video; from the outset the intention was to combine the Marin Vets footage with other, more conceptual video approaches.

“There was a year of all these different possibilities being explored,” Dell’Amico says. “For example, we wrote an entire script with dialogue, scenes and action involving animated creatures. And an outgrowth of that was an idea of having Jer do the artwork, so we pursued that a bit. He did a lot of drawings, we went to an effects house and animated them. Then, one day, the band decided they didn’t like that approach anymore. For me it was like, ‘Oh, okay. Maybe something else,’” Dell’Amico said with an amused shrug.

Garcia was involved in another prospective film project around the same time. Several years earlier he, Richard Loren and John Kahn had acquired the movie rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan, and through much of 1984 Garcia had been in close contact with Tom Davis as the writer/comedian prepared the first draft of a script. According to Garcia, The Sirens of Titan “occurred to me as a real cogent cinematic experience in my mind’s eye.” By early 1985, Gary Gutierrez, the skilled animator who had worked on the Grateful Dead movie, was preparing detailed storyboards for the film-to-be, which would be directed by Garcia.

“If I’m going to make movies,” Jerry said in March 1985, “I’m going to make them on my terms. I’m not going to become a filmmaker as a career. I’ll do it like Jean Cocteau—do a couple of tasty movies and that’s it. I don’t know if I could do somebody else’s ideas, for one thing. I don’t know if I’d want to. And making a film is a hassle. You have to live with an idea for an awful long time, which means the idea has to have great power. You have to love it a lot or else you have to be really tolerant.

“For me, ideas lose their sheen, lose their exterior real fast; and it’s only the power and longevity of some ideas that have made me want to stick it out to that extent. Sirens is one of those long-lived ideas that has stayed good no matter how much I’ve thought about it and how much time has passed. That kind of freshness, that kind of real love for a piece, is the only thing that would make me want to make a film of a piece.”

In June 1985 the Dead officially celebrated their twentieth anniversary with three shows at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, which after four years of great Dead concerts there had become many Deadheads’ favorite place to see the band—a mecca worth traveling to; ground zero. This momentous occasion did not escape the notice of the mainstream media, either. Beginning with the Dead’s spring tour, newspapers and magazines around the country had started to take note of the impending anniversary, with one perplexed reporter after another sent to wade into the tie-dyed throngs in the parking lots outside Dead shows to explore and then try to explain the mystery of the Dead’s allure. Hippies, in 1985? So the intrepid scribes would find a flaxen-haired young hippie girl named something outlandish like Rainbow Starcloud, selling veggie burritos, and a grizzled, gray-bearded Haight-Ashbury acid casualty sitting by a dilapidated VW van, and those two people would be used to represent all Deadheads. This same type of story, with minor variations in the cast of characters, was written hundreds of times in cities big and small. The American press loved writing about the Dead from the mid-’80s on, mostly because the bandmembers were perceived as leaders of a strange hippie cult dedicated to keeping the supposedly outmoded ideals of the ’60s alive. In 1985 the Dead and the Deadheads were the antithesis of what was considered hip. At best, writers treated them as colorful anachronisms; more often the tone of the writing about both was condescending or downright insulting. There was rarely much intelligent writing about the band’s music, and the rock press, including the once-friendly Rolling Stone, largely ignored the Dead altogether.

But the twentieth anniversary perked up a lot of people’s interest. Twenty years was an achievement in the world of rock ’n’ roll bands. Who else could boast such longevity? The Rolling Stones, but they survived only because they had gone through long periods when they didn’t tour or even see each other. The Dead had toured solidly for twenty years, even gigging during their hiatus. The Beach Boys? By 1985 they had been strictly an oldies act for ten years, cranking out the same twenty hits every night. No, in the mid-’80s the Dead could rightfully claim to be the most successful touring rock band in history, and though they had not put out a record of new material in five years, their following continued to grow across the country, particularly in the South and the Northeast, where they could now sell out more than one show at a time in sports arenas in several different cities.

“The years are starting to pay off,” Garcia commented to one writer that spring when asked about the band’s durability. “It’s like the Budapest String Quartet or the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which had the same horn section for more than twenty years. It matters. Those horn blends are legendary.

“We’re not family,” he went on. “We’re far closer than family could ever be. No matter what we do, the Grateful Dead will always be something we’re involved with. At this point, it’s reflexive.”

The anniversary concerts themselves had an unusually festive air about them. Behind the stage hung a giant banner designed by Rick Griffin depicting a skeleton minuteman holding Garcia’s guitar instead of a musket and standing in front of an American flag. Under the Dead’s name it read TWENTY YEARS SO FAR in ornate Griffinesque lettering. T-shirts bearing Griffin’s design were top sellers throughout the summer and fall Dead tours.

As the band came onstage on the first night of the three-show series, Dan Healy cranked up the opening of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” through the PA: “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play / They’ve been goin’ in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile… .” The Dead kicked off the show with a tune from their early days, “Dancing in the Streets,” and the Greek was a blur of color, motion and white, toothy grins in the late-afternoon sun. Three songs into the set, though, there was a malfunction in the sound system and the band had to leave the stage for a time while it was fixed. How very Grateful Dead for something to screw up on their big day!

Once the gremlins had been chased away, however, the Dead responded by playing three excellent shows packed with neat surprises, including Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep On Growing,” sung by Phil and Brent, remarkably apt for the occasion; the first version of the “Cryptical Envelopment” section of “That’s It for the Other One” in fifteen years; and the return after five years of “Comes a Time.” Garcia’s singing on that last tune was particularly emotive and affecting, no doubt because the words mirrored his own experience of the previous few years so well:

Day to day just lettin’ it ride

You get so far away from how it feels inside

You can’t let go, ’cause you’re afraid to fall

But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand

Says ‘Don’t you see?’ …

The Dead’s tours that summer and autumn were unusually strong, with especially varied set lists, crisp and purposeful jamming and a higher level of energy onstage than anyone had seen in quite a while. From outward appearances, Garcia was a different person than he’d been a year earlier, and his more open and ebullient stage personality clearly affected the other bandmembers—particularly Phil, who was now happily married and the most sober he’d been in years. The Deadheads, in turn, could see the obvious shift in the onstage dynamic, and that contributed to a more upbeat environment in the audience, as the widespread concern for Garcia’s well-being in the wake of the January ’85 bust was slowly replaced by an almost giddy optimism. “We will survive,” indeed.

The downside of the Dead’s renaissance is that on many tour dates, especially on the East Coast, the shows started to attract large crowds of people who didn’t have tickets for the sold-out concerts and who were content to hang around outside the venues, trying to score spare tickets (or spare change), partying with each other and occasionally trying to storm the doors to get in free. In Richmond, Virginia (very strong Dead Country), in early November, gate-crashers ran up against mounted police outside the Coliseum, resulting in a number of arrests and minor injuries. A week later, outside the Brendan Byrne Arena in northern New Jersey, ticketless hordes, aided by drunken, rowdy New York Giants fans who’d attended a football game next door at Giants Stadium, broke through a tight security cordon and clashed with the arena’s security forces. These sorts of crowd-control problems would dog the Dead intermittently for the rest of their days.

Still, this hopeful and regenerative year ended on an up note, as the Dead played their traditional New Year’s Eve concert for one of their largest audiences ever. The second set (the “midnight set”) of the concert from the 14,000-seat Oakland Coliseum Arena was broadcast live nationwide over the fledgling USA cable television network. For East Coast Deadheads, the telecast began at 2:30 in the morning, but it offered them a rare chance to witness one of the sacred rituals of Grateful Dead culture since the late ’60s—a New Year’s Eve show.

Because Garcia was so heavily involved in Grateful Dead-related activities for much of 1985, the Jerry Garcia Band didn’t play as often as they had in ’83 and ’84, when they had undertaken several tours outside of California. Still, the JGB definitely benefited from Garcia’s improved health and disposition. The core lineup of Garcia, John Kahn (who was still living drug-free in Los Angeles during most of 1985), organist Melvin Seals, drummer David Kemper (also a successful L.A. session player) and singers Gloria Jones and Jaclyn LaBranch slowly developed into a formidable unit that carried forward the tradition established by Garcia’s best late-’70s groups, but with even stronger gospel underpinnings. Melvin was more than just a gospel foil for Garcia, however. He had strong rock, R&B and blues chops from playing in Jon Hendricks’s long-running musical Evolution of the Blues, and as a member of Elvin Bishop’s rockin’ boogie band for six years.

“Jerry was so happy when we got to that lineup with Melvin, Jackie and Gloria,” Kahn said in 1996. “They were so easygoing and always in a good mood and they were up for anything. We’d try all these weird songs in rehearsal, every style you can imagine—Beatle songs, Dylan songs, old R&B—and they’d be right on it, even though most of them were songs they didn’t know.”

By April 1986 Garcia had stopped using heroin and cocaine altogether—suffering through a rough withdrawal immediately after kicking—and his transformation back to the ebullient “old Jerry” was complete, much to the delight of his fellow bandmembers, friends and everyone in the crowd, who couldn’t help noticing the change. That said, the Dead’s shows in the first half of 1986 were more erratic than they had been in the second half of 1985. The concerts were full of spirit, to be sure, but there didn’t seem to be as much thought put into the transitions between songs in the second set as there had been six months earlier, and there was not as much jamming in general; it’s not clear why that would be true of this period, and one didn’t hear many complaints—it was enough to watch the happy Garcia.

“By April of ’86 he was straight,” says Len Dell’Amico, “and the ripple effect that this had in their tribe was amazing to see. Think about how hard that must have been for him—being addicted to those substances on that level, and gradually stepping away from them; and the sense of sacrifice to achieve that and how strong, leonine and leaderlike and positive that was. So this flowering was taking place and there was a very uplifting sense of possibilities in the scene.”

When he wasn’t on the road playing with the Dead, Garcia spent much of his time with Dell’Amico choosing songs from the Marin Vets video sessions to be included in their forthcoming long-form video and working on edits of the performances. By the spring of 1986 they had it whittled down to two hours, but another hour would be eliminated before the video was completed in the spring of 1987.

The Dead’s summer tour that year generated more interest than usual outside of Deadhead circles, because five of the shows—all in football stadiums—paired the Dead on a bill with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who also acted as Dylan’s backup band. Garcia had attended a Dylan-Petty show at the Greek Theater that spring and had spent considerable time chatting with Dylan backstage; though Garcia had played with Dylan at the Warfield Theater in 1980, it was this night at the Greek and on the following summer tour that cemented their close personal relationship. They were mutual admirers who shared similar roots in American folk and blues. And they had both carried heavy loads since the ’60s—Dylan as the de facto poet laureate of American music; Garcia as the embodiment of the libertine Haight-Ashbury ethos—and had attracted more than their share of fanatics and devoted followers who placed them on uncomfortable pedestals. Garcia had more Dylan tunes in his repertoire than did any other major American singer: Just in 1985 and 1986, between the Dead and the JGB, Garcia sang “She Belongs to Me,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Visions of Johanna,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate.”

Expectations for the tour ran high, with most Deadheads hoping that Dylan and the Dead would find a way to play together. At the first concert in Minneapolis, they didn’t join forces. But at the Rubber Bowl in Akron a week later (after the Dead had played several shows alone in the Midwest), Dylan joined them during their first set and played some typically odd, off-time rhythm guitar on a version of the blues standard “Little Red Rooster,” and then led the band through stumbling versions of his own “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” This was a period when Dylan’s singing was particularly nasal and unmelodic, and the Dead had a difficult time following his unpredictable phrasing. Still, there were hints that the partnership could produce something interesting.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the band, Garcia began smoking heroin and cocaine again on the tour, using old contacts to secretly score drugs for him—and there was never a shortage of people wanting to get Garcia high, even in the middle of the night, usually in exchange for a backstage pass for the next show or some such perquisite. Why did Garcia slip back to his old ways on the tour after having worked so long and courageously to get clean? Nora Sage, who was on the tour and suddenly found herself frozen out of Garcia’s life—perhaps because he knew she would not approve of his drug use—suggests that he felt a lot of pressure because he was unaccustomed to playing in stadiums, and being on the same bill with Dylan added a layer of weirdness to the proposition. And there was his physical discomfort: In Ohio he was bothered so much by an infected tooth that he had to go to a dentist, who prescribed large dosages of codeine, a narcotic itself.

Two days later, on Independence Day, the tour reached Rich Stadium in Buffalo, and Garcia wasn’t feeling well. The codeine had laid him low; he bowed out of a planned dinner at Len Dell’Amico’s mother’s house and stayed in his motel instead, feeling groggy. He was having kidney problems as well. In the record heat and humidity that had followed the entire Midwest swing of the tour, Garcia had suffered from dehydration, while at the same time he kept feeling the need to urinate, a very uncomfortable sensation he couldn’t shake for days.

Still, Garcia managed to gather enough strength to play an excellent show in Buffalo, including a half-hour segment of the second set that was telecast live across the country as part of Farm Aid, a benefit concert country music superstar Willie Nelson had put together to raise money for financially strapped farmers. During the Dead’s televised portion, Garcia sang fine versions of “The Wheel” and “Uncle John’s Band” and successfully concealed his physical distress. The Farm Aid broadcast also showed a portion of the Dylan-Petty set; Dylan and the Dead didn’t play together at this show.

The Dead-Dylan-Heartbreakers minitour ended with two concerts played in steambath conditions at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., site of the famous Dead-Allman Brothers concerts more than a decade earlier. At the second of those two shows, July 7, Dylan once again ambled onstage during the Dead’s first set and joined the group for tentative versions of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Desolation Row” (which Weir seemed to know much better than Dylan).

“I found myself in the weird position of teaching Dylan his own songs,” Garcia said with a chortle. “It’s just really strange! It was funny. He was great. He was so good about all this stuff. Weir wanted to do ‘Desolation Row’ with him, y’know, and it’s got a million words. So Weir says, ‘Are you sure you’ll remember all the words?’ And Dylan says, ‘I’ll remember the important ones!’”

Though outwardly Garcia’s demeanor at the concert was upbeat, it was clear that something was not right with him physically. On a couple of occasions between songs he left the stage—including during the jam on “Playing in the Band” in the second set. Both sets were much shorter than usual, not surprising since the temperature was in the high nineties even late in the evening.

An exhausted Garcia flew back to California the next day, happy to be heading back to Marin County’s more temperate climate. On the afternoon of his second day back, July 10—a day before the band was set to go down the coast to Ventura for their annual shows at the beachside County Fairgrounds—Garcia became delirious, and eventually passed out in the bathroom of his house, where Nora Sage discovered him. She immediately called an ambulance, but by the time he reached Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Garcia was in a deep coma with a perilously high temperature. The doctors put him on a bed of ice to bring his temperature down, and Nora spent the night rubbing his feet, trying to keep his circulation going. Though he was basically comatose, at one point Garcia came to long enough to yank the tubes from his nose and throat, so nurses shot him up with Demerol to sedate him.

“I felt better after cleaning up, oddly enough, until that tour,” Garcia said a year later. “And then I didn’t realize it but I was dehydrated and tired. That was all I felt, really. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel sick. I just felt tired. Then, when we got back from the tour, I was just really tired. One day, I couldn’t move anymore, so I sat down. A week later I woke up in the hospital, and I didn’t know what had happened. It was really weird.”

What had happened, according to the Dead’s own statement at the time, was that Garcia had slipped into a coma as a result of “the sudden onset of diabetes and a general systemic infection as a result of an abscessed tooth and exhaustion following a road tour.” Although he had no history of diabetes, his notoriously poor eating habits—lots of ice cream and other junk food—coupled with his chain-smoking of cigarettes, his years of serious drug abuse and the process of weaning himself of his heroin addiction contributed to his precipitous decline. He was teetering near the brink of death when he arrived at the hospital, and for the next five days his fortunes went up and down.

“It was adrenal exhaustion which led to a diabetic episode,” says Mountain Girl. “It was really, really hot on that tour; a sweatbath. It was a hundred and four, a hundred and seven; just wretchedly hot. If any medical people had been looking at him they would have caught it. But nobody was there for him. He got into peeing and peeing and peeing and you just start wasting away and dehydrating. But nobody got him to the doctor and nobody called the doctor to say, ‘Gee, Jerry’s having to stop the music and pee every twenty minutes.’ It was driving him nuts. He didn’t know what was happening to him. And that was the beginning of the breakdown. He came home and fell apart.”

M.G. was home in Oregon when she got the news about Jerry’s collapse. “I jumped on a plane at six-thirty the next morning and took the airporter up to the hospital and I got there and the doctor was saying, ‘We’re not sure he’s going to live through the hour.’ They were saying, ‘We’re readying him for a tracheotomy to help his breathing.’ I said, ‘A what? No, you’re not!’ I told them I thought that was a really bad idea. Obviously if it was absolutely necessary as a last resort to save his life that would be one thing, but …

“At first they wouldn’t let me see him. He was a little bit wakey when I went in at about one-thirty. He was just sort of coming to, and he was really glad to see me. He was in pretty serious shape and they shooed me out of there really fast. He was going in and out. He was having a lot of breathing problems. What it was is they’d given him thirty milligrams of Valium IV—he claims to have been allergic to Valium so it stopped his heart and his respiration; it shut his whole body down. His chart is how I found out about that. The doctor admitted to me that when they took him in they didn’t know what was the matter with him and they couldn’t figure it out so they decided to give him a CAT scan and he was sort of thrashing around and moaning during the CAT scan… . It was a diabetic coma, for Christ’s sake; how hard is that to diagnose? Any paramedic should have picked that up, but they didn’t look at it until the middle of that afternoon when they checked his blood sugar and it was just sky-high; it was off the charts. ‘Oh, is that what it is!’ So no tracheotomy, no more heroic measures.

“So the scene in the hospital was a lot of people trying to defend Jerry from the doctors; at least that’s the way it felt to me. Yes, they had him very carefully suspended, but the slightest little thing would set it off, and he had a number of close calls. He had a systemic candida infection that put him back in ICU for four days. It’s a yeast infection of some sort that you can get in the hospital. It comes into your whole body. It’s a very dangerous systemic fungus infection. It was growing in his mouth and throat—this white stuff. Oh, man, it was really bad.

“They had to do all this emergency dialysis and that was unbelievable. And bloody. He had a complete kidney shutdown for ten days. He didn’t pee for ten days. So they did this big emergency dialysis every couple of days. And he was not getting any better and every time they do it it’s very dangerous.”

Garcia was in and out of a coma for four days, and during that period it was not clear that he was going to live. He had a fever of 105 degrees for several hours and his system fluctuated erratically for several days.

“The doctors said they’d never seen anybody as sick who wasn’t dead,” Garcia said just two months after the episode. “So if that’s any indication, apparently I was real sick. Although I gotta tell you, I didn’t experience any pain or discomfort, really, apart from being wired and having tubes and holes and all kinds of things in me.”

“I must say, my experience never suggested to me that I was anywhere near death,” he said in another interview. “For me, it had just been this weird experience of being shut off. Later on, I found out how scary it was for everybody, and then I started to realize how serious it all had been. The doctors said I was so dehydrated my blood was like mud.”

Garcia’s delirium took on a weird, science fiction quality: “My main experience was one of furious activity and tremendous struggle in a sort of futuristic spaceship vehicle with insectoid presences. After I came out of my coma, I had this image of myself as these little hunks of protoplasm that were stuck together kind of like stamps with perforations between them that you could snap off,” Garcia recounted with a laugh. “They were run through with neoprene tubing, and there were these insects that looked like cockroaches which were like message-units that were kind of like my bloodstream. That was my image of my physical self, and this particular image lasted a long time. It was really strange.

“It gave me a greater admiration for the incredible, baroque possibilities of mentation. The mind is so incredibly weird. The whole process of going into the coma was very interesting, too. It was slow onset—it took about a week—and during this time I started feeling like the vegetable kingdom was speaking to me. It was communicating in comic dialect in iambic pentameter. So there were these Italian accents and German accents and it got to be this vast gabbling. Potatoes and radishes and trees were all speaking to me. It finally just reached hysteria and that’s when I passed out and woke up in the hospital.”

Word of Garcia’s calamity spread quickly through the Deadhead community. At first, representatives from the Dead organization called a few well-connected Deadheads to say that someone in the band—they wouldn’t confirm who it was—had fallen desperately ill and that the Ventura concerts that weekend would be canceled, so spread the word—and pray. Of course it wasn’t long before it became known, through sources at the hospital, that it was Garcia who had been stricken, and the news went across the phone lines all night long on July 10, as worried fans broke the news to friends far and near. Unfortunately, the dire news didn’t reach everyone who needed to hear it—more than a thousand Deadheads, many of whom had driven from the East Coast and were expecting to camp outside the venue, arrived in Ventura on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning expecting to see a concert. They were turned away at the gates and had to find other places to camp up and down the California coast. The cancellation was a disaster for Ventura’s many hotels, too: the annual Dead concerts there had become the city’s busiest tourist weekend.

Given Garcia’s well-publicized drug bust in 1985, it was not surprising that there were lurid rumors that the guitarist had OD’d on heroin. The Grateful Dead said nothing publicly about the illness the first day. The following afternoon they released a fairly detailed statement to the press and also put a message about Garcia’s condition on the band’s telephone “hotline,” which usually carried information about upcoming concerts. That first weekend alone, the hotline received more than ten thousand calls from concerned Deadheads, and as the days passed the message was updated periodically with medical reports. Northern California newspapers and television stations gave the story significant play, and by and large the press coverage was very sympathetic. Garcia was that rare local figure whose popularity transcended his actual following. Even people who had no interest in the Grateful Dead knew him as the smiling Haight-Ashbury veteran who was still rockin’ on the road and selling out a dozen or more local concerts every year, the most visible and vocal member of the group.

The first few days after the collapse it was difficult to obtain reliable information about Garcia’s condition. News spread that he had lapsed in and out of the coma several times and didn’t seem to be improving. This led to considerable conjecture that even if Garcia didn’t die from the diabetic episode, he might have suffered brain damage or developed a permanent kidney condition that might require regular dialysis or perhaps even a kidney transplant.

Len Dell’Amico, who was working in Texas when he heard about Garcia’s collapse, says, “When they said the word coma I was stricken pretty bad, because most times that doesn’t have a good outcome—you either stay there or you’re damaged. And the idea of a damaged Garcia was really, really repellent because you’re talking about somebody who’s much more interesting and evolved and beautiful than most people. That was not a happy idea.”

“At one point the doctors said Jerry might not walk again,” Mountain Girl says. “There was talk about nerve damage and heart problems and all sorts of other bad stuff. It was very confusing for a while. Nobody seemed to know what was going to happen.”

Eventually, she says, Garcia came out of the coma and suddenly announced, “I’m not Beethoven,” meaning, “I’m not deaf. I can hear what you’re saying.” After that, “I was pretty scrambled,” Garcia said. “It was as though in my whole library of information, all the books had fallen off the shelves and all the pages had fallen out of the books. I would speak to people and know what I meant to say, but different words would come out. For the first few days it was mostly sort of Joycean inversions of language, and then after a while I started to remember how it worked. But I had to do that with everything. They had to teach me how to walk again… . The bits and pieces were there, but I didn’t have ready access to them.”

Once he was out of immediate danger, Garcia was allowed to begin having visitors, and a steady stream of faces from his past and present stopped by to offer their love and support—band, crew and office members; picking mates like David Nelson and Sandy Rothman; his old childhood friend Laird Grant; brother Tiff; his daughters with M.G., Annabelle and Trixie; and his ex-wife Sara and daughter Heather, whom he hadn’t seen in many years. Sara says Jerry cried when he saw Annabelle and Heather standing together by his bedside.

“I got to see him, I’d guess, sometime within a week,” says Len Dell’Amico. “His brother was there. It was very dark in the room. And he and Tiff were reminiscing about their dad and other things from their childhood. It was a process of reconstructing memory. He was free-associating and they seemed very close. I was teared up anyway, but this was just so great to see. So I had a very warm visit with him and I was encouraged. Then I visited again a couple of weeks later when he’d moved to the cardiac ward. I believe in the power of prayer and he expressed that he had felt the influence of hundreds of thousands of people putting their energy with him; it’s a feeling I don’t think you or I will ever experience.”

Indeed, Garcia said, “I’m not a believer in the invisible, but I got such an incredible outpouring. The mail I got in the hospital was so soulful. All the Deadheads … it was kind of like brotherly, sisterly, motherly, fatherly advice from people. Every conceivable healing vibe was pouring into that place. I mean, the doctors did what they could to keep me alive, but as far as knowing what was wrong with me and knowing how to fix it—it’s not something medicine knows how to do. And after I’d left, the doctors were saying that my recovery was incredible. They couldn’t believe it.

“I really feel that the fans put life into me, and that feeling reinforced a lot of things. It was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been been away for a while, folks, but I’m back.’ It’s that kind of thing. It’s just great to be involved in something that doesn’t hurt anybody. If it provides some uplift and some comfort in people’s lives, it’s just that much nicer. So I’m ready for anything now.”

Garcia called the episode “another one of those things to grab my attention. It was like my physical being saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to put in some time here if you want to keep on living.’ Actually, it was a thought that had never entered my mind. I’d been lucky enough to have an exceptionally rugged constitution, but the thing of getting older, and basically having a life of benign neglect, had caught up with me. And possibly the experience of quitting drugs may have put my body through a lot of quick changes.”

Two days before Garcia was released from the hospital—on his forty-fourth birthday, August 1—Nora Sage was informed by Jon McIntire that Garcia had decided he wanted her to move out of the house, and she was given twenty-four hours to clear out her things. Though earlier in his convalescence Garcia had told several people that he didn’t want to live with Mountain Girl again, M.G., McIntire and and a few others convinced Jerry that it would help his recovery and be good for his spirits if M.G., Annabelle and Trixie moved into the house to help him.

“When he got out of the hospital, Jerry was feeling really, really cheerful,” M.G. says. “Some of his confidence was coming back. Things were looking really bright—he wanted to go for long drives; he wanted to get out. He wanted to eat something besides sandwiches with no mayonnaise. He was ready for life again. But he was pretty weak physically, so it took a while for him to get his strength back again.”

In the third week of August, about six weeks after the collapse, M.G. says, “We went up to Oregon together to get my stuff, and he looked around my place in Oregon and said, ‘Jeez. This is great. Why are we leaving here? Why don’t we stay here for a while?’ So we stayed there for about a week and it was great. We also stayed for a weekend on a houseboat on Lake Shasta at the tail end of that. We met Big Steve [Parish] and Robbie [Taylor, of the road crew] in Packer’s Bay and rented a houseboat. We swam in the warm water. At that point, Jerry hadn’t really played the guitar yet. Steve brought Jerry’s banjo down to the boat and Jerry tried to play a little bit, but it hurt his hands. His calluses were gone. He definitely had a long, long way to go.”

“When I was in the hospital,” Garcia said later, “all I could think was, ‘God, just give me a chance to do stuff. Give me a chance to go back to being productive and playing music and doing the stuff I love to do. Shit, man, I’m ready.’ And one of the first things I did—once I started being able to make coherent sentences—was to get a guitar in there to see if I could play. But when I started playing, I thought, ‘Oh man, this is going to take a long time and a lot of patience.’”

Interestingly, it was not a member of the Dead but Merl Saunders who, at M.G.’s urging, took on what looked to be a Herculean task of helping the physically weak and mentally scattered Garcia recapture his musical abilities. Even before he was ready to attempt to play, Merl helped him get some of his strength back: “I’d take him for a walk. We’d take ten steps, then take ten steps back. His attitude was great. He wanted to get better, but he was scared, too. He got tired very easily, but he never really got discouraged. The most he’d say would be, ‘Oh man, this is harder than it looks!’”

Once Garcia picked up a guitar, “It came back very slowly,” Merl says. “He had to learn chords all over again and he had a lot of trouble remembering how to do even the simplest stuff. And I didn’t want to push him. ‘Man, I’m tired.’ He’d been playing for five minutes. ‘Okay, that’s fine. Put it down. Let’s go for a walk.’ And we’d do that for a few minutes until he’d get tired. We’d talk about music. I’d tell him about songs I was working on and that would get his mind going. We’d talk in musical terms. And slowly he started to get his strength back. But it sometimes took an hour or two for him to get even a simple chord down. Then, as we got farther into it, some things started to come back to him a little, but it took a lot of work. The first song he wanted to learn again was ‘My Funny Valentine.’”

Len Dell’Amico remembers that once Garcia was out of the hospital and back home at Hepburn Heights, “I’d talk to Jerry on the phone and he’d always say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ He’d never say, ‘I don’t feel well.’ You could never tell what his real condition was—or maybe he was being completely honest; I don’t know. I’ll never forget that first time I went and visited him at home. Merl was sitting at the piano—God bless Merl, because that must have taken a lot of strength, because he was there a lot—and they had sheet music out and Jerry had a guitar in his hands, but there wasn’t a whole lot happening that was terribly coherent. But Merl had this very positive attitude that I’m sure was somewhat forced. And Jerry had this lost-puppy look; kind of the opposite of the leonine ‘I know what I’m doing’ look. But gradually what he and Merl were doing paid off.”

“The first couple of times I saw Jerry try to play guitar after the coma, you could see that his mind was working faster than his hands could move,” said John Kahn, who joined in the effort to get Garcia playing again after Merl and Jerry had been at it for a week or two. “But his attitude about it was always so good that I was never that worried that it wouldn’t all come back. You know Jerry—he’d be playing and then he’d fuck up and he’d just laugh; like, ‘Good one, Garcia!’ I remember one night after he was starting to play pretty well, we played ‘Like a Road,’ with him on acoustic guitar and me on piano, and it was so beautiful, we both had tears in our eyes. That was when I knew it was gonna be okay.”

“Gradually everything sort of came back,” Garcia said, “but it wasn’t without a certain amount of work. I had to do everything at least once to remind my muscles about how something worked. It was the thing of making the connection between mind and muscles, because I hadn’t been away from playing for so long that my muscles had forgotten. The neural pathways were there and the reason for doing it and why it worked—the intellectual part of it—was also there, but they were all separated. I had to pick them up like, here’s a hunk of how music works, over here is a hunk of why I like to play it and here’s a hunk of muscles that know this stuff. It was a matter of putting my hands on the guitar and actually playing through tunes and trying to solve the structure of how each tune works—addressing the whole thing.”

Garcia’s illness forced the Dead to cancel their entire late-summer and fall schedule of shows, a loss of several million dollars for the Dead organization. A number of people were laid off for a few months because of the sudden cash flow shortage, and some projects that had been under way, such as the long-form video, were suspended. Ultra Sound, the company that supplied equipment for the Dead’s concerts, had to scramble to find new clients to avoid taking a financial bath, and of course Deadhead vendors of T-shirts and other crafts who relied on the income they earned outside Grateful Dead shows found themselves with no outlet for their wares.

Meanwhile, the band’s fans got their dose of Dead wherever they could. Bill Kreutzmann and Brent Mydland put together a group with former Santana members David Margen and Alex Ligertwood called Go Ahead, and toured clubs in the East and Midwest. In early August Bob Weir broke his shoulder in a spill from a mountain bike, but even with his arm in a sling he managed to play a gig the first week of September with a re-formed version of Kingfish at a festival called Ranch Rock ’86, on the Paiute Indian Reservation near Pyramid Lake in Nevada. That show, which was billed as a healing ritual for Garcia and the Deadhead community, also included Robert Hunter’s first Western appearance in two years, backed by a band featuring Mickey Hart and David Freiberg. And for the occasion, Hart assembled a group, dubbed Mickey and the Daylites, with Freiberg, Barry “The Fish” Melton, John Cipollina and Kathi McDonald, the gutsy and talented singer who had replaced Janis Joplin in Big Brother and the Holding Company.

A few nights later in San Francisco, Bill Graham Presents put on an event called “Night of the Living Deadheads” at BGP’s club, Wolfgang’s. The event was a benefit for the Dead’s recently established philanthropic arm, the Rex Foundation (named for the late Rex Jackson), and featured a pair of Dead-inspired local bands, a Deadheads crafts bazaar and an auction that included such items as books and records autographed by the Dead and even one of Garcia’s humongous T-shirts (size Big Man 4X). Phil Lesh appeared in an interview videotaped that afternoon. He talked a bit about Garcia’s improving health and suggested that when the Dead eventually returned to the stage, “we’re going to have a more flexible format. Some of the things that occurred in the first or second set may be switched around, and we might not take a break—I don’t know. But the whole structure, the whole flow of the concert, is liable to be different when we come back.”

Asked by interviewer Brian Connors (a friend of Phil’s) if there was anything that Deadheads could do to help the band, Lesh replied, “Well, when we get back on the road, it would be very helpful if Deadheads wouldn’t bring drugs around anymore. We’d kind of like to ask everyone to look at themselves, and look at their use of hard drugs, and kind of reconsider it, because it’s not a very good trip. We’ve all discovered that… . Personally, and that’s all I can really talk about, I’m down on it. I’m through with it—forever!”

No member of the Grateful Dead had ever made such a public pronouncement against drugs before, and in fact there were many Deadheads who curtailed or even eliminated their use of hard drugs around this time, at least in part to show their solidarity with Garcia, who had kicked drugs before his collapse and had told friends he intended to stay clean. It’s hard to say to what degree Garcia’s previous use of cocaine and heroin might have influenced some of his fans to experiment with those substances, but it can definitely be said there was a connection between his quitting drugs and many others following suit. Coke and heroin (the latter never widely popular among rank-and-file Deadheads) became branded as “bad” drugs in some circles, as opposed to pot and psychedelics, which were still regarded by their adherents as useful consciousness-expanding agents historically rooted to the social context that spawned the primal Grateful Dead experience. And quite a few Deadheads stopped using drugs altogether.

* * *

By mid-September Garcia was itching to get back to playing in front of people, so he had John Kahn call rehearsals for the JGB, and two shows were scheduled for October 4 and 5 at the Stone, an 700-seat club on Broadway in North Beach that had become a sort of home base for the band in the early ’80s (as the Keystone Berkeley, which had the same owners, had been in the ’70s). “When he first told me he wanted to play some shows, I nearly fell out of my chair,” Kahn said, “because I wasn’t sure he was strong enough to do it at that point. But we had about a week of rehearsals, and he seemed to be doing pretty good, and he was real excited to be back playing with the group. We even learned a few new songs, which we hadn’t done for a while.”

“I hated that he played those shows at the Stone,” Mountain Girl says. “Those shows never should have been played. Jerry was still in terrible shape. It was completely crazy. What happened was we completely ran out of money at that point. There was no money at all. Jerry owed the band a whole bunch of money and he was overdrawn. But frankly, if I wasn’t around to handle the money, he was always overdrawn.”

As soon as the shows were announced on the one San Francisco radio station that played Grateful Dead songs from time to time—KFOG—there was a mad scramble for tickets. All 1,600 tickets—each one trumpeting THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF JERRY GARCIA!—were snapped up in less than an hour, so ducats for a second set of shows about two weeks later were also put on sale. Outside the Stone the afternoon before the first show, hundreds of ticketless Deadheads clogged the area looking for some miracle ticket to appear from a kind stranger with an extra. Inside the hot, low-ceilinged club that evening, the atmosphere was giddy and electric, but tinged with apprehension. Could Garcia still play well? Was he really healthy? No one in the crowd knew for sure.

At about eight-fifteen the curtain rose slowly and there was Garcia, looking considerably thinner than he had before the coma, a big smile on his face, easing into the funky groove of Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” as the packed house exploded in cheers. And as he ripped into his first solo of the evening, the apprehension in the air turned to pure elation. Garcia’s playing was surprisingly strong and confident, and his singing was markedly better, no doubt in part because he had quit smoking (for the time being). The second song of the night was a new addition to the repertoire, a gospel-flavored arrangement of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which Garcia delivered with a mixture of heartfelt sincerity and a dash of irony, given his own circumstances. By the time that song had run its course, there was barely a dry eye in the house, but then Garcia took the heavy moment and transformed it to joy with a rocking version of the old Motown nugget that had been something of a theme song for Garcia’s solo groups dating back to the early ’70s. “How sweet it is to be loved by you!” he sang with a broad smile on his face that was returned by every person in the room.

Garcia introduced two more new cover songs at these shows, both slow ballads given strong gospel treatments—Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and “Lucky Old Sun,” popularized by Frankie Laine in the ’40s and Ray Charles in the early ’60s. “I got it from the Ray Charles version,” John Kahn said in 1996. “He had that thing where he was able to play a song really, really slow—I understand it drove some of his musicians crazy—but they would be incredibly powerful. Jerry and I loved to play ballads more than anything. If we didn’t push ourselves consciously to play fast songs, I think we would’ve ended up doing all ballads. Every time we’d find another song we wanted to do it was like, ‘Oh, no, we have to find a fast song instead!’”

Later that fall the group did introduce an uptempo (almost frenetic) tune, Los Lobos’ “Evangeline,” as well as two midtempo numbers from Van Morrison’s classic Moondance album, “And It Stoned Me” and “Crazy Love.” In fact, Van’s soulful early-’70s groups had certainly been a model for the JGB, deftly mixing R&B and gospel grooves.

So much of the new material Garcia and Kahn brought into the band that fall had spiritual overtones that some Deadheads wondered if Garcia had experienced some sort of religious awakening following his near-death experience. Kahn said later, “He definitely went through something, though I don’t think it was specifically Christian or anything. We talked about it a little. I think he was mainly just happy to be alive and appreciative that he could still play and that people wanted to see him. It was a good time for the group.”

“I think there’s a more spiritual focus to what we’re doing now,” Melvin Seals commented about the mood in the band after Garcia’s return. “Any time you come close to death it makes you think about things differently and it does something to you inside. I can’t speak for Jerry, but I think the band has gotten deeper in feeling each other and expressing it through the music. We’re all more serious about what we’re doing.”

By mid-October the Grateful Dead had confirmed that they were planning to return to the stage in mid-December, with three shows at the Oakland Coliseum. Even so, on October 15 there was a second “Night of the Living Deadheads” event at Wolfgang’s, and this time the hundreds of Deadheads on hand were treated to a videotaped interview with Garcia—his first since the coma—done by the head of the Dead’s ticketing operation, Steve Marcus. Garcia revealed that he had been working on a couple of new songs and that the group would begin recording their long-awaited album in January.

“Our plan is essentially this,” he said. “We’re going into the Marin Vets [Marin Veterans Auditorium] again in January with no audience and use it as a studio [as they had for the video sessions]. It turns out to be an incredibly nice room to record in. There’s something about the formal atmosphere in there that makes us work. When we set up at Front Street to work, a lot of times we just sort of dissolve into hanging out.”

Toward the end of the interview Garcia spoke a bit about his illness and recovery, and when asked the same question that had been put to Phil during his interview a month earlier—“Is there anything you feel Deadheads can do to help out the Grateful Dead when you start touring?”—his answer was quite different from Lesh’s anti-drug plea:

“Well sure, there’s all kinds of things, probably, but it’s not my position to tell anybody what they should do, to modify their behavior in some direction or other to benefit anybody. That’s not what I’m about, y’know—I’m the antithesis of that, hopefully. Everybody does what they want, and I’ll try to stay out of the way if I get in the way.

“That’s in the nature of a personal decision, and I have no business talking about that shit. I’m not a cop. I’m not into tellin’ people what to do, ever—man!” and he burst into a throaty laugh.

The Jerry Garcia Band played the Stone a few more times in November and early December and then, on December 15, the Grateful Dead made their triumphant return at the Oakland Coliseum. The group’s entrance onto the stage was greeted by near-pandemonium—after all, every person in the arena knew how close they had come to losing Garcia and, with him, the Grateful Dead. And when the first chords of “Touch of Grey” rose reassuringly out of the darkness on the stage, the roar from the crowd shook the building. There were tears of joy streaming down the faces of many in the crowd by the time Garcia got to the end of the first chorus and practically shouted, “I WILL SURVIVE!” That was all the 14,000 deliriously dancing people needed to hear. The doubts and fears dissolved. Smiles and hugs all around. Garcia was back.