Garcia: An American Life (2000)
So Many Roads to Ease My Soul
ithin a week of Brent’s funeral the Dead got their first bit of encouraging news in a while: Bruce Hornsby agreed to play with the group, if only temporarily, while they broke in a true successor, who would be chosen from several auditioning candidates. Hornsby’s solo career was so successful at that point that it was unreasonable to expect him to abandon his own music completely. But he was familiar with many of the Dead’s songs already, he’d played with the band on several occasions and his dynamic musicianship and effervescent stage presence were certain to make the transition into the post-Brent age a little easier.
Hornsby had deep roots in Grateful Dead music long before he shared a stage with them. As a teenager in the early ’70s the Williamsburg, Virginia, native was introduced to their music by his older brother Bobby, who lived in a Deadhead-dominated fraternity at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Bruce was already developing into a fine pianist with diverse musical interests—his influences included Leon Russell, Professor Longhair, Bill Evans, Otis Spann, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. But for kicks, he and his brother formed a band—Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids—that played a slew of Dead tunes (mostly material from “Skull and Roses” and Europe ’72) and other cover songs by the Band and the Allman Brothers at fraternity parties and dances.
“I was way into them from ’71 to ’76,” he says. “About ’76, I got really into jazz music and ended up going to school and becoming sort of a bohemian jazz musician in college. I was more into ’Trane and Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. I kept track of the Dead a little bit, but not nearly as much as I had.”
Hornsby’s own career didn’t take off until the mid-’80s, when he scored a smash single with the socially conscious “The Way It Is,” followed by a succession of popular AM and FM radio hits, including “Mandolin Rain,” “The Western Skyline” and “Valley Road.” Hornsby was the first pop pianist since Elton John to attract a large following. But he was more than some lightweight pop confectionaire. His love of jazz came through in his playing and, like the Dead, he loved to improvise and connect songs. His singing showed more folk and country influences—it’s not surprising to learn that he grew up listening to Bill Monroe and George Jones. The Dead influence in his music was subtle, more evident in his approach to soloing than in what he actually played, though he performed the Dead’s arrangement of “I Know You Rider” in his own sets.
“The Dead heard that there was this band riding around the country playing Dead songs, and Garcia and Phil became fans of the record,” Hornsby said. “So we got a call saying they wanted us to open a couple of shows. I was just mad for this. So in May of ’87 it was Ry Cooder, us and the Dead at Laguna Seca [in Monterey, California] for two days. It was a great time for me, because I had been a fan.”
The next summer, at Buckeye Lake in Ohio, Hornsby’s band opened again, and this time Bruce played accordion on “Sugaree” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” to Garcia’s obvious delight—he and Bruce beamed at each other practically the entire time Hornsby was sitting in. The Range appeared on several other bills with the Dead in 1989 and ’90, and Bruce and Jerry’s offstage relationship also deepened during this period. In 1989 Garcia played on Hornsby’s A Night on the Town album and appeared in a live concert video based on the record.
“My band opened for the Dead in Louisville and Raleigh a couple of weeks before before Brent passed away, and I sat in with them a bunch and had a great time,” Hornsby remembers. “So when Brent passed, I was in Seattle and I got a call from my production manager, a guy named Chopper who’s friends with a lot of Grateful Dead–related people. He called me at about six in the morning and told me about it. Of course I was really shocked. Three hours later I was walking down the street in Seattle and some guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey Bruce, you going to join the Dead?’ It was that quick. To be honest, I was a little fazed by it, and then the rumor mill really started runnin’ rampant. I was on a tour with my band and all of a sudden I was hearing that everywhere I went: ‘You gonna join? You gonna join?’ At that point I hadn’t heard from the guys in the band yet.
“A few days later I got a call from Phil—he wanted to talk about it a little. A week later we were playing the Concord Pavilion and Phil, Garcia and Cameron [Sears, Grateful Dead road manager] came out and they basically gave me the pitch. It was pretty low-key—‘Hey, you want to come play with us? We’d like to start something new here, see what happens.’ I think they wanted me to actually join the band. And if they’d caught me in 1984, before I got my own career going, I probably would have lived happily ever after as a Grateful Dead piano player—I think that would have been great. But they caught me in 1990. I had three records out, I’d sold a couple of million records and I didn’t feel I could give that up completely.
“So I sort of mulled it over a little while, and then I called ’em up and said, ‘What the hell—let’s give it a go.’ So we made plans for me to start at Madison Square Garden, a few shows into the tour, because I already had shows booked all the way up through that Friday night, which was the second Garden show.”
Meanwhile, the Dead were auditioning keyboardists for the permanent slot in the group. Dozens of names were kicked around at Club Front, at the Dead office and among Deadheads. These ranged from sentimental “family” favorites like Tom Constanten and Merl Saunders to hot players like Little Feat’s Bill Payne and Santana’s Chester Thompson. In the end, only a few serious candidates were considered: onetime Dixie Dregs ace T. Lavitz; ex– Jefferson Starship members Tim Gorman and Pete Sears; and veteran Tubes and Todd Rundgren keysman Vince Welnick. Each was sent tapes of a half-dozen recent shows and then asked to come down to Club Front to see how they fit in musically with the Dead. This process took longer than anticipated, so the band had to cancel some scheduled shows at Shoreline Amphitheater—as they explained on the group’s telephone hotline, Brent’s shoes were big ones to fill, “and we haven’t found the right foot.”
Near the end of August the band unanimously agreed that Vince Welnick was the strongest candidate. He was a fast learner with a good feel for the range of the Dead’s material, and he was easily the best harmony singer of those who auditioned. About a week after his tryout, Vince says, “I got a call from Bobby and the first thing he said was, ‘Is your insurance paid up?’” evidently a macabre joke about the fate of his predecessors in the keyboard chair.
The job offer couldn’t have come at a better time for Vince. A journeyman rock ’n’ roller who had played in every imaginable situation during his years with the ultra-theatrical Tubes (best remembered for their mid-’70s anthem “White Punks on Dope”) and then with Todd Rundgren, Vince by 1990 was finding it harder and harder to make ends meet playing music, and he and his wife, Laurie, were seriously thinking of leaving the Bay Area to live more cheaply in Mexico. Then Mimi Mills, former secretary for the Tubes who was working for Bob Weir in 1990, suggested to Laurie Welnick that Vince should try for the Dead’s vacant slot.
Once the band settled on Vince, the real work began for him—a serious crash course on the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, in preparation for the band’s Eastern tour, set to begin outside of Cleveland on September 7. “Bob Bralove made a series of ten tapes, and each tape had ten songs on it and they were from recent live gigs, ’89 and ’90,” Vince says. “First they sent me a case of CDs, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t own a CD player. Then Jerry thought it would be a better idea to send the live tapes. So I’d be at home and I’d get my list of ten songs and I’d get the tape, and I might just write the title and what key it was in; others I had to completely chart out, like ‘Help on the Way,’ for instance, just to learn them. For a song like ‘Terrapin’ I had sheets that contained the chords for the three main movements, and some of the time changes. I had to work everything out myself, playing the tapes over and over again. So I’d do that for the ten songs and then hopefully the next day we’d go over those ten songs and then Bralove would give me another tape.”
Since the Dead had an active repertoire of somewhere between 120 and 150 songs, Vince had his work cut out for him—ten days to catch up on twenty-five years of history. But he was a diligent student and he loved every second of it. “Every song I’d learn was like opening a new Christmas present,” he says. “I’d go home and listen to tapes and sometimes I’d be so elated that I’d have tears running down my face. I’d be raving about how great this tune or this jam was and making copious notes on it.”
The bandmembers gave Vince very little specific musical direction, though “sometimes Jerry would give me a little history of the song. He’d say, ‘This one is a cousin of that other song,’ meaning it was closely related structurally. He was like old Granddad sitting Sonny Boy down and telling how the feel of it should go. But mainly he’d say, ‘Play anything. Have fun.’”
The mood inside the Richfield Coliseum (near Cleveland) the first night of the September tour was hopeful, even jubilant. Someone in the crowd passed out little stickers that said YO VINNIE! and a big banner hanging opposite the stage proclaimed, WELCOME VINCE! Vince was understandably quite nervous before his first show, but once Garcia hit the downbeat for “Cold Rain and Snow” to open the concert, it was immediately clear that the Dead had made a good choice. For the entire first tour Vince used chord charts to help him remember some of the more complex tunes, and the Dead also took the unprecedented step of playing from predetermined set lists, “though of course we didn’t stick to them exactly,” Vince says. In contrast to Brent’s setup, which included the Hammond B-3 organ so prominently, Vince had just a single electronic keyboard—one of Brent’s synthesizers—and a library of sounds that had been developed primarily by Bob Bralove. If there was a common complaint about Vince’s early tenure with the group, it was that some of the sounds he and Bralove chose were unappealing or somehow inappropriate, whether too garish a texture for a delicate song like “Stella Blue” or an organ sound on another tune that was thin and reedy.
That first show at Richfield, Vince dived headlong into jamming tunes like “Bird Song,” “Truckin’” and “Playing in the Band,” and most agreed that he acquitted himself quite well. The second night, the band fell into a smoldering jam after “Terrapin” that sounded as if it could have come from the Carousel Ballroom, circa 1969, and that was an encouraging sign. Vince’s harmonies caught some people off guard because on a few tunes he adopted Donna Godchaux’s old part rather than Brent’s, but his voice blended well with Garcia’s and Weir’s and he wasn’t shy about using it. His only real deficiency was that he was not a very effective soloist at first—not too surprising in light of the fact that he hadn’t had much opportunity to solo in the Tubes or Todd Rundgren’s band. But he was a sympathetic ensemble player who found his place in the group’s sound fairly quickly. And just as important, he was an instantly likable presence who brought a tangible lightness to the band, especially in contrast to his sometimes dark and brooding predecessor.
After Richfield, the tour headed to the Philadelphia Spectrum for three shows, then to Madison Square Garden. Deadheads generally gave high marks to the band’s first few concerts. There were some detractors and a few, mainly younger fans, who believed that Brent was irreplaceable. (This was the ’90s version of the mid-’70s sentiment “There is no Grateful Dead without Pigpen.”) But nearly everyone agreed that when the band—including, for the first time, Bruce Hornsby as second keyboardist—hit the stage at Madison Square Garden on September 15 and opened the concert with an ebullient “Touch of Grey,” the Grateful Dead had turned “it” up a notch.
Sitting animatedly at a concert grand piano directly to Garcia’s left, Hornsby instantly became Garcia’s main foil. Here was a really top-drawer pianist, with a style as distinctive as Garcia’s, ready and eager to jump into the musical fray with ten fingers blazing. He says he knew about a quarter of the Dead’s songs when he hooked up with the band, yet he went out onstage the first night with no rehearsal. Like Vince, he used some charts at the beginning. But it was apparent from the first minute that he understood the Dead’s music and had internalized their approach to playing. He seemed to be overflowing with confidence yet not at all arrogant. He and Garcia traded grins and musical licks all night. With Bruce occupying an imposing pianistic midrange in the group’s sound, Vince was forced into the upper register more often, and to synth sounds that could cut through the band’s suddenly dense forest of textures. Bruce was definitely a star in the best sense of the word—charismatic and talented. And that took getting used to for some Deadheads who were not accustomed to having such a commanding pianist onstage, taking nearly as many solos as Garcia—at Garcia’s urging. Hornsby’s presence allowed Garcia to lay back a little—which he undoubtedly appreciated, but which disappointed some fans—but he also pushed Garcia and the other bandmembers musically in ways no keyboardist ever had. In so doing, he fundamentally changed the group’s sound.
As the six-show series at the Garden progressed, the concerts got better each night. The jams were longer and more powerful with Bruce thickening the stew, and as the week went on the music became increasingly experimental. Before “drums” the band would split into little subgroupings—“We’d break the group down to Phil and me and Garcia,” Hornsby said, “or just Bobby and me and Garcia; different little side trips they weren’t doing before.” And the last two nights of the run were two of the best Grateful Dead concerts of the modern era—played with breathtaking abandon and conviction, and featuring great musical surprises at every turn. The music was dense but majestic, and unarguably new. The last night, when the band played a transcendent “Dark Star” in the post-“drums” segment for the first time ever, and closed the show with “Touch of Grey” followed by a “Lovelight” encore, the Dead hit a musical peak that had every Deadhead in Madison Square Garden believing that the band was beginning a new golden age.
That warm, sunny feeling lasted all the way until . . . the very next Dead show, at the Ice Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden, in mid-October. This was just about as bad as a Dead show could be—low-energy, sloppy and completely lacking in inspiration. Bob Weir later joked that the Dead had been replaced that night by the famous Swedish band “Jetlag.” It didn’t help that right before the show Garcia had gobbled a potent pot cookie, so by midpoint of the first set he could barely stand up, let alone play well. Hornsby was lucky enough to miss the show because of a prior commitment in America, “but when I got to Europe I heard how awful it was from everybody,” he says. “I guess it was almost funny.”
The Dead’s fall 1990 Europe trek was their first trip across the Atlantic since 1981. The band did have an album to promote—the live double CD Without a Net—but they seemed to view the tour more as a paid vacation than an important promotional jaunt. In a sense this trip was a reward for the band’s hard work between 1987 and 1989. Spouses, lovers and children were welcome, and the accommodations were deluxe every step of the way. The band traveled mostly by bus, but there was none of the zaniness that had marked their European adventure in 1972. There were more peaceful outings and expensive meals this time around. In Paris, Garcia, Manasha and Keelin, along with helpers Vince and Gloria DiBiase and their son, Chris, went on what Jerry called “the Top 40 Tour,” visiting the Louvre, Notre Dame, the carousel at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and other classic tourist destinations.
The tour provided a great excuse for thousands of American Deadheads to travel overseas and experience the shining capitals of Europe (Stockholm! Paris! London! Berlin! Essen?), and to see the band in smaller venues than they usually played in America. It’s a good thing those Americans came along, too—the Dead had a minuscule fan base in Europe and couldn’t possibly have filled the medium-sized halls that were booked without the traveling Americans. (Were the Dead too “American” for European audiences, or simply absent from the Continent too long?) Smaller versions of the Grateful Dead bazaar sprang up outside each venue, down to the pitiable ticketless hippies with raised index fingers hoping to score “miracle” ducats.
The concerts varied in quality, but none hit the heights the band achieved those last few nights at Madison Square Garden in September. The group worked up two of Bruce’s songs—“The Valley Road” and “Stander on the Mountain”—but generally stuck to the tried and true. The last couple of days of the tour, at venerable Wembley Arena in London, Garcia was sick, and he could barely sing at the final concert on November 1. Nevertheless, it was one of the best-played shows of the tour.
Garcia was obviously run-down physically when he returned from the European tour, but just eight days later he went ahead with two weeks of already booked Garcia Band shows in L.A. and the Bay Area. The shows were spirited and well-played for the most part, with Garcia exhibiting surprisingly little wear and tear from the previous months’ pressures of finding a replacement for Brent and then touring the East Coast and Europe with the Dead. Perhaps he felt momentarily energized just being away from the Grateful Dead.
That fall Garcia reconnected with David Grisman for the first time in many years. Through the latter part of the ’70s and the ’80s Grisman had stayed away from Garcia and the Dead, apparently holding a grudge for perceived financial transgressions related to the Old and in the Way album. Grisman had gone on to become the most important mandolinist in modern folk music, an innovator whose distinctive fusion of bluegrass, jazz, old-timey and various ethnic styles influenced an entire generation of pickers. His groups were a training ground for some of the best players in acoustic music, including Darol Anger, Rob Wasserman, Mike Marshall and Tony Rice; sort of the folk equivalent of the Miles Davis or Bill Monroe bands that spawned so many great musicians. After not seeing each other for fifteen years, in early 1990 Garcia and Grisman found themselves working together on a song for an album by Pete Sears called Watchfire.
Later, Grisman said, “Jerry came over to my house one day, checked out my home studio and asked me, ‘How about putting out some more Old and in the Way tapes?’ I said, ‘Frankly, Jerry, I’d rather see us put out something new. We can put out the old tapes when we’re in wheelchairs.’”
A couple of weeks later Grisman received a call from the Dead office informing him that he was to be the recipient of the Rex Foundation’s 1990 Ralph J. Gleason Award, a cash grant given to someone who has made a significant contribution to music. “Later, I found out that Jerry was responsible and I called him to thank him,” Grisman remembered. “We made a date to get together at my house, and he showed up with his acoustic guitar. I mean, he just walked right in and said, ‘We should make a record and that would give us a reason to play.’ I asked him if he was under contract to a record company. Garcia told me, ‘I can do anything I want; only the Grateful Dead is under contract.’ When I told him about my small record company [Acoustic Disc], he said, ‘Great, so we can do it for you.’ When I asked, ‘When do you want to start?’ he said, ‘Now!’”
The first day’s recordings were just a foundation for a CD that would eventually include Grisman’s superb rhythm section—percussionist-fiddler Joe Craven and bassist Jim Kerwin—and cover quite a range of styles: a peppy string band workout on the B. B. King hit “The Thrill Is Gone”; Hoagy Carmichael’s sleepy “Rockin’ Chair”; Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”; the folk blues “Walkin’ Boss”; and “Friend of the Devil,” which was one of the two songs from American Beauty Grisman had played on back in 1970. A song Garcia and Grisman wrote together called “Grateful Dawg” was a fanciful marriage of their two songwriting styles, filled with the sort of intricate melodic runs that are Grisman’s specialty, and the bright, country-influenced chording that marked Garcia tunes like “Bertha” and “Touch of Grey.” In an interesting twist, Garcia wrote the “Grisman” part and Grisman the “Garcia” part. But the true centerpiece of the CD—titled Jerry Garcia–David Grisman and released in the spring of 1991—was a sixteen-and-a-half-minute multipart instrumental written by Grisman called “Arabia,” which artfully blended Arabic and Spanish themes into a dramatic mood piece.
For Garcia, playing with Grisman became an avenue to explore some of their shared roots, and it also allowed him to venture into new territory, investigating Grisman’s longstanding fascination with unison melody lines, for example. Garcia was game for any style that came up, and he always managed to inject his personality into the music through his improvisational soloing.
Garcia, Grisman, Craven and Kerwin first played together live in mid-December at a private Christmas party at Village Music, a Mill Valley (Marin County) record store that specializes in hard-to-find discs and American roots music of every kind. The group’s real coming-out, though, was at the Warfield Theater in early February 1991, where in addition to tunes from their forthcoming album, they played such songs as Miles Davis’s “So What,” the Civil War–era tune “Sweet Sunny South,” the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and “Ripple.” The group had a warm, gentle camaraderie onstage, and Garcia seemed to be unusually relaxed, perhaps because Grisman was such a commanding instrumentalist that Garcia wasn’t in the spotlight every second. In interviews, Garcia freely admitted that his acoustic guitar chops weren’t nearly up to the level of Grisman’s mandolin playing—not surprising given the fact that Grisman is one of the best mandolinists ever, and Garcia was mainly an electric guitarist. But Grisman inspired Garcia to play cleaner and more fluidly than he had back in 1987 in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band (which was Jerry’s first serious acoustic outing in many years), and the pair’s easy onstage manner made for a friendly and intimate concert experience. The shows took place during the peak of the military buildup for the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States was pouring armaments and soldiers into Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. So songs like “Arabia”—which Grisman admitted had been inspired in part by the recent events there—and the sad old war ballad “Two Soldiers” seemed particularly resonant.
It was difficult not to think about the Gulf War, too, when Garcia surprised the crowd at the first Grateful Dead concert of the year, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in late February 1991, by playing the churning, apocalyptic “New Speedway Boogie” for the first time since 1970. All the doubt and confusion inherent in the lyrics, originally penned in the wake of Altamont, seemed apt for the Persian Gulf crisis, down to the closing lines, which in this new arrangement featured Garcia, Weir and Welnick singing in harmony: “One way or another / One way or another / One way or another, this darkness got to give . . .”
Those three Oakland concerts were all played without Hornsby, who had been nominated that year for a Grammy Award and elected to attend that ceremony rather than appear with the Dead. This was the way it went during the pianist’s twenty-month tenure with the group. He was there most of the time, and when he was he gave his all, but he also missed certain series because of his commitment to his solo career. So it was difficult for the band to build the kind of momentum from tour to tour that they were capable of because of the uncertainty in the keyboard slot. The Dead was two different bands—with Bruce, and without Bruce. This made things doubly hard for Vince, because his role in the music was completely different if Bruce was playing, and switching back and forth between roles was difficult. On the spring ’91 tour, for example, Bruce played the four-concert series at the Capital Centre in Maryland, then missed the shows at Knickerbocker Arena in Albany and Nassau Coliseum, but returned for the Southern swing, which took the band to Greensboro, Atlanta and Orlando. However, Garcia expressed gratitude that Hornsby played with the Dead at all: “It’s a wonderful gift to the band to have him in it now,” he said that summer. “It’s a lucky break for us.”
* * *
That spring, partly at Manasha’s urging, Jerry reconnected with his ex-wife Sara and his daughter Heather, whom he had seen only once—fleetingly, when he was in the hospital after his coma—during the preceding seventeen years. First, Sara saw him alone.
“Manasha was extraordinarily supportive of my making contact,” Sara says. “And Jerry was so grateful that I’d come and he so looked forward to seeing and meeting Heather again.
“He had planned to go see her alone, but he chickened out and called me up saying, ‘I can’t do it by myself, man. You gotta come with me.’ It was terribly moving to see them together after all these years. I took the roses he’d brought her off to the kitchen to put into water, to give them some time together and so I could cry with relief at this momentous occasion. There they were in the other room, finishing each other’s sentences—they have this uncanny similarity in certain ways, of interests and a sense of humor and the way they think. It must be genetic. He was so proud that Heather was a musician, and they talked about music together, about how he would take her to the Smithsonian to play those Stradivarius fiddles and about composers they both loved.”
Heather is a classical violinist who plays in chamber groups and in the Redwood Symphony on the Peninsula. Later that year, Jerry and the conductor of the Redwood, Eric Kujawsky, hatched a plan for Garcia to commission several short works for guitar and orchestra, which he would perform with the Redwood. With great glee he told Sara, “I let him think I was doing him a favor, but I’ve always wanted an orchestra!” Heather would be the musical liaison between the composers and the orchestra, and would help her father learn the music. Although Jerry did contact some composers and Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco was tentatively booked for the performance, this was one of the great plans that Garcia never managed to complete.
Sara had been totally out of touch with the Dead scene since the early ’70s, though she occasionally heard news about Jerry (much of it bad and drug-related). In the intervening years he’d become a wealthy rock star and a cultural icon, which she observed firsthand:
“I remember Leon [Day] driving us in the limo to a restaurant in Berkeley that first day we went to see Heather. Going down Telegraph Avenue we saw all the hippies and the tie-dyes and I said to him, jokingly, ‘You know, you’re responsible for this!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, man, I’m so sorry!’” she laughs. “And the people on the street were saying ‘It’s Jerry! It’s Jerry!’ ’cause he’s got the window open for his cigarette. People were handing him gifts—‘Here, man’—and he was embarrassed by it. But he was really gracious. He never hurt people’s feelings, even though it must have been incredibly annoying to be so trapped in his celebrity and have no privacy.”
* * *
In the spring of 1991 a flood of CD releases kept Garcia’s visibility high in the press. Jerry Garcia–David Grisman was an immediate success. It sold more than 100,000 copies and essentially paid for the operation of Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label for the next few years. The duo granted a number of joint interviews to promote the record, mostly in guitar magazines, and in a move that was unusual for acoustic music, they also shot a conceptual video for a song, “The Thrill Is Gone,” directed by Bill Kreutzmann’s son, Justin. The arty black-and-white film featured the Garcia-Grisman group playing in a ’30s nightclub setting, complete with couples decked out in night-on-the-town finery, cigarette girls and dancers. Garcia wore a suit and a fedora for the video, which was shot at the On Broadway club in San Francisco’s North Beach. “Jerry’s quote to me was, ‘I’d never do this for the Grateful Dead, never in a million years,’” Justin said with a laugh. “We cut his hair, put him in a suit and tie, and had him there for twelve hours. There were Deadheads lined up outside trying to get autographs. It was a real scene.”
Around the same time that album came out, the Garcia-Grisman group, augmented by keyboardist–harmonica player Howard Levy of banjoist Bela Fleck’s band, went into Club Front to provide some improvised musical accompaniment for a CD by ’50s “word jazz” pioneer Ken Nordine called Devout Catalyst. It had been many years since the deep-voiced Nordine had made an album of his hip, strange, funny and scary poems, stories and observations; for decades he had made his living primarily as a voice-over announcer. But through David Gans, Nordine did some work on the Dead’s 1990 New Year’s Eve broadcast, and Dan Healy was so excited about meeting this hero of his youth that he offered to record a new word jazz album with him. Garcia, too, had been a huge Nordine fan back in the ’50s and offered his services.
“You’ve got to go back to seventeen-year-old me growing up in the Bay Area when I first heard Ken’s records—Word Jazz and Son of Word Jazz,” Garcia recalled. “For me, listening to those records was like a religious experience. It was not only a completely different way of thinking, but a fantastic combination of words and music that wasn’t songs. It wasn’t poetry and it wasn’t songs exactly and it was wonderfully peculiar. It was like the kinds of things you think that only you think about, maybe. That was from a time in my life that I was reading Kerouac and I first started smoking pot somewhere in there; a lot of things that were formative and significant and helped build my own sense of aesthetics come from right there.
“I had no idea what had happened to Ken Nordine in that intervening thirty years or so, but I was really delighted to find out he would have anything to do with us, much less come here and work with us. So for me, that was more than an honor.”
In May Arista Records put out a two-CD live set called simply Jerry Garcia Band, culled from six performances at the Warfield Theater in 1990. The two discs, expertly recorded by John Cutler, captured the full range of the JGB’s repertoire of covers—gospel songs, Dylan and Beatles tunes; a dash of Motown; one song each by the Band and Los Lobos; and the group’s lone extended jamming number, “Don’t Let Go,” which Roy Hamilton originated in the ’50s. Like a real JGB show, the CD was ballad-heavy, but the rocking tunes—“Deal,” “Evangeline” and “Tangled Up in Blue”—showed the spark the band was capable of. The album was an excellent showcase for Garcia’s unadulterated guitar sound at a time when so much of his Grateful Dead work was being colored by MIDI timbres. Though any number of the JGB’s tunes could’ve benefited from a Garcia “horn” part, he chose to leave his playing essentially effect-free in that setting.
Since the introduction of compact discs in the early ’80s, Deadheads had been pressing the Grateful Dead to put out CDs from the band’s archive of thousands of live tapes. Everyone in the group agreed it was probably a good idea. But no one in the band was interested enough to actually go into the Dead’s tape vault and wade through God knows how many shows to choose some for release. In his later days Garcia almost never listened to old tapes. He said he didn’t want to look back; that he found it “embarrassing” to hear his playing from the late ’60s: “I hear what I meant, as opposed to what I played.” So he put no energy into the idea. After years of disinterest and inaction, Dan Healy finally sifted through some of the Dead’s live multitrack tape masters and, in consultation with Phil Lesh, chose the Dead’s 1975 appearance at the Great American Music Hall for a CD, entitled One from the Vault, that was released in the spring of ’91. That show featured some of the first performances of material from Blues for Allah, as well as sparkling versions of jamming favorites like “Eyes of the World” and “The Other One.” Released through the Dead’s own merchandising company, the album sold more than 150,000 copies, making it a highly profitable venture. By the end of 1998 the band had put out more than a dozen other vintage CDs, most of them chosen by the band’s vaultkeeper/archivist Dick Latvala with little input from members of the group. In 1994 Phil said, “I’m really glad there’s a demand for it because that’s our old-age insurance in a way.” Once Garcia died, the pace of releases quickened.
Despite this flurry of exciting CDs, Garcia’s upbeat pronouncements in the music press and the optimism rippling through the Dead scene because of the high quality of Dead and JGB shows, by the spring of 1991 Garcia was privately beginning to express some dissatisfaction with the Grateful Dead status quo. Since his death-defying recovery in 1986 he’d been working at a dizzying pace, with scarcely any letup, even after Brent’s death. The number of gigs the band played didn’t change much from year to year (about seventy-five), but the sheer size of the Grateful Dead touring machine seemed to grow each season. By the early ’90s the Dead were one of the top-grossing bands in the world, bringing in tens of millions of dollars just in tour revenue, and more on top of that in merchandise and record sales. Salaries and overhead rose every year, along with employee lifestyles. The only way to support the dozens of people directly or tangentially connected to the Dead was to play more large gigs, and Garcia made no secret of his unhappiness with that state of affairs.
“We discussed that a lot and I wish everyone had heeded his warnings,” Manasha says. “But he went along with the organization’s agenda. People’s survival was tied up in his level of output.”
Did he feel burdened by that? “Yes,” she says. “I don’t think he expressed it to that many people, but he expressed it to me. He definitely loved the Grateful Dead, but it was very tiring for him. He was hoping to do something small with his own band for a while. He also loved that band and that collection of people and for some reason that wasn’t tiring to him.”
“He wanted to take a break; it was very clear,” said another Dead family member who asked not to be identified. “There were some very forceful statements made in board meetings that I heard. There was one meeting where they were talking about the stadium tour of ’91 and he stopped everybody and said, ‘Am I the only one who thinks that stadium shows suck? I don’t ever want to play in another stadium. Does anybody else feel the way I feel?’ And nobody said anything. But they were trapped: big overhead, big family, dates are reserved. Who’s gonna say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Let’s cancel the stadium tour’?”
The 1991 summer tour turned out to be one of the Dead’s best in the post-Brent era, with one adventurously played show after another. Hornsby was a provocative musical prankster the entire tour, dropping musical quotes from “Dark Star” into the middle of all sorts of Dead tunes and engaging Garcia at every opportunity. There were jams at Giants Stadium, Soldier Field in Chicago and Sandstone Amphitheater in Kansas that ranked with the best moments of the first Madison Square Garden series with Bruce. And in general the band was taking chances—placing songs in unusual spots (for instance, opening a first set with “Eyes of the World,” opening a second set with “Jack Straw”) and steering the jams into some different directions. Later that summer, three songs from one of the Giants Stadium shows were shown on the late-night ABC-TV music series In Concert, so a huge national audience got to see the new Grateful Dead in full swing; quite an impressive sight.
But there was a big problem with that tour. Garcia was strung out on heroin again. There are a number of different views about the nature and degree of Garcia’s drug use in the late ’80s and early ’90s. A few suggest that from the middle of 1987 on, Garcia dabbled with Persian on and off, mostly during tours, taking just enough to relax him a little and maybe escape some of the pressures associated with being an integral part of the accelerating Dead machine and his own manic schedule. Others, some of whom spent long stretches alone with him, swear that Garcia wasn’t using at all in the late ’80s. Some people observed Jerry’s penchant for falling asleep at odd times and wondered if he was nodding out from drugs. But he’d had bizarre sleep habits for years, and all through 1987–90 he was usually so lucid, funny and engaging that his behavior didn’t fit his mid-’80s profile as an occasionally surly, antisocial drug abuser. Whether he did or didn’t take hard drugs during those years, Garcia was extremely productive and played some of the best music of his life.
Mountain Girl says, “I only learned fairly recently that during that period Jerry was taking all these pills for his teeth. After he recuperated and got back out on the road and they did ‘Touch of Grey’ and all that, he started to experience quite a lot of dental problems and he went in and got some implants. I think it was excruciatingly painful, so he would get these mega-prescriptions for painkillers from his dentist. So he was taking those. I couldn’t figure it out. He kept falling asleep, yet I could never find his stash [of heroin] and he always denied that he was taking anything.
“Then, when he would go out on the road, someone would ring up a dentist or oral surgeon and get this pain prescription for Jerry. So I guess they had multiple dentists that they went to. So basically he went legal with his drug use, but I think ultimately it was at a pretty bad price, because he was kind of dopey some of the time. That’s a word you don’t hear much anymore for someone who’s just a little bit off their game and not quite all there.”
“When I got in the band,” Vince Welnick says, “nobody in the band came out and said it, but I was under the impression that the whole band was clean, and they knew I was clean—I don’t count herb as a drug—and I assumed no one was on drugs. I just thought Jerry was fragile, healthwise. He could really hold up his end when he was up onstage, and he could run through a hotel lobby faster than anybody. I’d heard stories about his health problems and the heroin thing, but I thought it was pretty much behind everybody. Particularly after the way Brent died, I’m sure the last thing they wanted was to have another drug scene.”
This much seems to be clear, however: sometime after Brent’s death Garcia secretly started using Persian again with increasing regularity, and by the summer ’91 tour it was a matter of considerable concern within the band. His playing might still have been crisp and inventive for the most part, but he began to revert to his old junkie posture onstage—not moving as much, smiling less and not interacting with the other bandmembers to the same degree.
Offstage, various members of the band and the Dead organization approached Garcia about getting treatment after the tour, but Garcia reacted angrily to what he believed was an unfair intrusion into his personal life. He also was mortified that if he sought treatment Manasha would learn that he had been lying to her about his drug use. Nevertheless, once the tour was over, Garcia enrolled in an outpatient methadone program in San Francisco. Seven days a week for three weeks, either Jerry’s regular driver, Leon Day, or Vince DiBiase, who became Garcia’s personal manager around this time, picked up Garcia at his house at 8 A.M. and drove him in his BMW to the edge of the gritty Tenderloin district to get methadone. According to his doctor at that time, Randy Baker, Jerry also underwent some counseling “to explore the psychological aspects of drug addiction.”
Embittered by the latest intervention attempt, Garcia reportedly lashed out at his fellow bandmembers at a meeting sometime after the summer tour, essentially saying that playing with the Dead wasn’t fun for him anymore.
Asked in September 1991 about the meeting by James Henke of Rolling Stone, Garcia explained, “We’ve been running on inertia for quite a long time. I mean, insofar as we have a huge overhead, and we have a lot of people that we’re responsible for, who work for us and so forth, we’re reluctant to do anything to disturb that. We don’t want to take people’s livelihoods away. But it’s us out there, you know. And in order to keep doing it, it has to be fun. And in order for it to be fun, it has to keep changing. And that’s nothing new. But it is a setback when you’ve been going in a certain direction and, all of a sudden—boom!—a key guy disappears.
“Brent dying was a serious setback—and not just in the sense of losing a friend and all that. But now we’ve got a whole new band, which we haven’t exploited and we haven’t adjusted to yet. The music is going to have to take some turns. And we’re going to have to construct new enthusiasm for ourselves because we’re getting a little burned out. We’re a little crisp around the edges. So we have to figure out how we are going to make this fun for ourselves. That’s our challenge for the moment, and to me the answer is this: Let’s write a whole bunch of new stuff, and let’s thin out the stuff we’ve been doing. We need a little bit of time to fall back and collect ourselves and rehearse with the new band and come up with some new material that has this band in mind.
“We’re actually aiming for six months off the road. I think that would be helpful. I don’t know when that will happen, but the point is that we’re all talking about it. So something’s going to happen. We’re going to get down and do some serious writing, some serious rehearsing or something. We all know that we pretty much don’t want to trash the Grateful Dead. But we also know we need to make some changes.”
Garcia’s playing on the first part of the Dead’s September Northeast tour was much more erratic than it had been during the summer, an indication to those close to him that the methadone regimen didn’t stick. Bruce Hornsby notes, “Truthfully, I didn’t really notice Jerry having problems until the fall of ’91. Or maybe I noticed it, but it didn’t start pissing me off until the fall.”
He continues, “I remember we played nine nights at Madison Square Garden and I thought except for a couple of really great nights, to me it was really a dogshit run. Garcia was in this place I couldn’t understand. He was starting to get to that place a lot the last two or three years when I’d watch them—he’d put his head straight down and look at the floor the whole time; hunch over and not communicate with anyone. And that wasn’t like him, at least as far as I was concerned. We’d always had a lot of eye contact and interplay, really a lot of good feelings onstage. But it wasn’t just that. He sort of wasn’t listening and starting to run roughshod over people’s solos—certainly mine—and I thought at times the music just seemed strangely lifeless. I asked Bobby about it and he explained it to me. I’d heard about it, but had never experienced it firsthand. There were nights when I wanted to push the eject button. What I would have done in my band is try to play in a different way that maybe would have jacked everybody up, tried to take a little more charge of the thing. But in this band I didn’t feel it was my place. So I was caught. I felt, ‘Damn, this music is not happening; the music is not going anywhere.’
“Then we got to Boston Garden and I was pretty bummed. We played this first set and it wasn’t happening again, so I just said, ‘Oh fuck it!’ and I started playing this stuff that was very unmusical. I was playing hard and pounding and basically driving it up their ass. And sure enough, the gig got jacked up. There was a lot of energy in the set and it was a pretty good set. But I thought I was playing like crap. I was playing a way I didn’t want to play.
“At the end of the set I went into Garcia’s tent and he says, ‘Man, I love the way you’re playing tonight!’ And I said, ‘Garcia, I’m playing bullshit tonight. I’m playing crap, but it’s all I can do because there’s nothin’ happening here and I really resent your coming to this gig and not putting anything into it,’ or words to that effect. And he said, ‘Well, man, you don’t understand twenty-five years of burnout!’ I said, ‘Garcia, I may not understand twenty-five years of burnout, but you know what my schedule is like . . .’ because in that time period I was doing stuff with my own band, playing on records all over the place—Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger, Robbie Robertson—working on Ron Howard’s movie, basically getting a lot of nice calls. The year 1990 I spent 18 days at home—I was gone 347 days of the year. The next year I spent 30 days at home, 335 days on the road. I said, ‘You know, there are lots of nights I don’t feel like playing because I’ve been playing for the last 28, but I feel it’s my responsibility to get it up.’ So we had it out about this. We had a good discussion, and from then on, man, the shit was happening! To me it was a great run, and I’m not trying to say that this is the reason; I’m saying that was my experience.”
Indeed, the September 1991 six-show series at the Boston Garden is widely considered one of the latter-day Dead’s best runs; some even consider it the group’s last unarguably great run. On the sixth night, the band opened the second set with “Dark Star,” segued smoothly into Weir’s “Saint of Circumstance” (“This must be heaven, tonight I crossed the line . . .”) and then settled into the fat groove of “Eyes of the World” before “drums.” Out of “space” the group rolled into “The Other One,” which went back into “Dark Star,” then fell into “Attics of My Life,” followed by “Good Lovin.’” The double encore paired “Brokedown Palace” with the Dead’s final version of “We Bid You Goodnight.” Garcia, Hornsby, everyone played their hearts out, and by the time the band left town the Deadhead grapevine was buzzing with excitement again.
On the night of October 25, a month after the tour was over, and just two days before the Dead were to begin a four-concert stand at the Oakland Coliseum, Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his girlfriend, Melissa Gold, and his pilot, Steve “Killer” Kahn. Graham was flying from a gig at the Concord Pavilion in the East Bay back to Marin County in a driving rainstorm when the helicopter struck some power lines and plummeted to earth, instantly killing all three occupants.
For a moment there was some question about whether the Dead would proceed with their scheduled shows, which were being produced by Graham’s company. But carry on they did, and the next four nights became the Dead’s memorial to their longtime friend. An hour before the first concert, Garcia, Weir, Hart, Wavy Gravy and Graham’s grown son, David, staged a news conference for local television and newspaper reporters to fondly reminisce about the promoter.
“He’s a large part of us,” Garcia said. “And on a lot of different levels. We’re carrying along some piece of him into the world and the future as we go along. So there’s a certain part of his energy that’s a part of us; it’s integral. And we’re pretty determined to hang in there and cover for him.
“The thing about Bill is his relationship to us is on a lot of levels like our relationship to each other. It was intimate. There’s a certain kind of friendship that you have when there’s somebody who understands you, and Bill was there from day one just about. We miss the personal thing—the guy who understands us. That’s what hurts.”
Onstage that night, the Dead opened with one of Graham’s favorite songs, “Sugar Magnolia,” and during the middle of the second set the band was joined by two other members of the first generation of San Francisco rock bands, Carlos Santana and Quicksilver guitarist Gary Duncan. Garcia sang and played brilliantly all evening, and the encore, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” couldn’t have been more poignant.
At the final show of the series, Ken Kesey, dressed in a somber black suit, strode onto the stage in the middle of “Dark Star” and in a booming, urgent voice began talking about Graham, about his own son Jed, who had died in an accident in the mid-’80s, and about how the Dead’s music “reaches across the distance” to talk about heavy life-and-death issues. The music behind Kesey was driving and dissonant, with Lesh thundering above Garcia’s and Weir’s sonic squall. Kesey closed by reciting—actually, roaring—poet e. e. cummings’s “Buffalo Bill,” which concludes with the chilling question: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy now, mr. death?” Then he left the stage as the band reached a noisy crescendo that seemed to express the rage so many felt about Graham’s senseless death.
A few days later the Dead took part in the city’s official memorial observance for Graham—a star-studded Sunday afternoon free concert in sun-kissed Golden Gate Park that drew 300,000 people; ironically, the biggest crowd ever for a BGP production in Northern California.
Two days after the Graham memorial, Garcia went back out on the road for a two-and-a-half-week East and Midwest arena tour with the Jerry Garcia Band. This did not sit well with some people in the Dead organization, given Garcia’s public statements about wanting to take a break from touring. Garcia clearly felt the same sense of obligation to support the livelihoods of the people connected to that group as he did to the Dead. But at the same time he never viewed playing with the JGB as “work,” exactly.
“I think our band was a refuge for him,” John Kahn said. “The Grateful Dead was so big and took so much of his energy, I think he enjoyed having a place where maybe not so much was demanded of him and he could relax a little but still play music he loved. I think he was a little disillusioned with how big the Dead became, but it’s hard to turn that kind of situation around. I mean, how do you become less popular?”
“The problem with the Garcia Band is that’s where his [drug] connection was,” Tiff Garcia says. “It wasn’t with the Grateful Dead—they were pretty clean. John Kahn was the problem. Compare John Kahn and, say, John Cutler [who, in addition to recording the Dead’s albums, was the JGB’s live sound engineer]. It’s black and white. Cutler would do everything he could to keep Jerry away from drugs. Kahn, on the other hand, made sure Jerry would be provided with, so he could be provided with, because he’s the one who had the problem. Jerry definitely liked John a lot, no question, but Jerry was also the type who would feel sorry for somebody and take them under his wing. Everyone needs at least one person in their life that they think needs them, and John was that person for Jerry; he fit in that.”
Actually, Garcia didn’t have any problem contacting drug connections on the road with the Dead, either. Dealers always managed to find their way to him, even if it meant going to the luxury hotels where the band stayed in the ’90s, or sending drugs to him through overnight package couriers.
If Garcia was either tired or strung out on that fall JGB tour, he didn’t show it—the band sounded as fresh and vital as they had on their last national outing in 1989. This was at least partly due to a much-needed infusion of new material during 1991: uptempo numbers like Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” and Norton Buffalo’s charming “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox.” Plus he added Eric Clapton’s mellow “Lay Down Sally,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones,” “What a Wonderful World,” a tune popularized by Louis Armstrong that Garcia sang as his encore most nights on the tour, and the consistent showstopper—the Manhattans’ “Shining Star,” a sappy but heartfelt ballad that let Jerry play the soul crooner to the hilt, even with his scratchy voice.
In early December the Garcia-Grisman group got together to do some recording and to play three shows at the Warfield Theater, and Garcia seemed happy and relaxed throughout the run. That group’s repertoire had expanded since their last gigs, too: new songs included the traditional folk tunes “Shady Grove” (popularized by Doc Watson), “Louis Collins” (Mississippi John Hurt) and “The Wind and Rain” (from Jody Stecher, recorded and performed previously by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band); Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo”; and the seasonally appropriate “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” played as a jazzy instrumental with a long jam in the middle.
The Grateful Dead ended the year with four shows between Christmas and New Year’s, sans Bruce Hornsby. And though the band played reasonably well, the New Year’s Eve concert felt strange without Bill Graham presiding over the reverie (and making a spectacular midnight entrance dressed as Father Time as he had in years past). For several years, members of the Dead had been saying they were tired of playing New Year’s Eve; that they wished they could have a normal holiday season like most people. But Graham always managed to persuade the group to play the year-end shows. It was his favorite tradition. New Year’s 1991–92 showed how important Graham was to the spectacle. His death loomed large over the show, and to no one’s surprise, the Dead never played on New Year’s again.
It doesn’t appear that the Dead ever seriously considered taking the six-month sabbatical Garcia had alluded to in Rolling Stone. By the time January 1992 rolled around, the band’s touring schedule for the year was largely plotted and it looked an awful lot like the previous year (and the one before that), right down to the summer stadium shows in New Jersey, D.C. and Chicago. Did something specific happen to change Garcia’s mind? Or had his frustrated outbursts the previous summer just receded over time? Garcia had talked about wanting to work up some new songs as a precondition to carrying on with the Dead, and in February, when the Dead (again, without Bruce) reconvened for the first time since New Year’s, he got his wish. The band learned four new songs: “Corrina,” written by Hart, Hunter and Weir; Hunter and Lesh’s “Wave to the Wind”; Vince’s maiden songwriting effort for the Dead, “Way to Go Home,” with lyrics by Hunter; and Hunter and Garcia’s “So Many Roads.”
“So Many Roads” sounded as if it had been penned by (or for) some weary troubadour in the autumn of his life. It was essentially an electrified folk song—an appropriate description given Hunter’s lyrics, which refer to various old folk blues: “Call me a whinin’ boy if you will” (as in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Whinin’ Boy Blues”); “Thought I heard that K.C. whistle moanin’ sweet and low” (after “K.C. Moan” by the Memphis Jug Band). One verse works neatly as autobiography for either Hunter or Garcia:
Thought I heard a jug band playing
“If you don’t—who else will?”
From over on the far side of the hill
All I know the sun don’t shine,
The rain refuse to fall
And you don’t seem to hear me when I call
Garcia ended the song with a big vocal buildup similar to ones he’d written for “Believe It or Not” and “Standing on the Moon,” and it never failed to ignite the crowd. It would start with him quietly singing “So many roads to ease my soul,” and then the music would swell and Garcia would play with different phrasings of the line, à la Van Morrison. For the first year after he introduced “So Many Roads,” Garcia often had trouble remembering the words, mitigating some the song’s power, but during the last two years of his life it was one of his most consistently powerful tunes, and obviously one that spoke to him personally.
The Dead’s 1992 spring tour turned out to be Bruce Hornsby’s last with the group. At the end of January his wife gave birth to twin boys and he wanted to spend as much time as he could with them. And, truth be told, he was somewhat discouraged by Garcia’s ongoing drug problems and by what he saw as a disturbing complacency and stasis within the band. Bruce hadn’t been in California when the band learned the new songs, and he seemed to have some difficulty finding a place for himself in the arrangements. These tunes sounded tentative for most of the spring tour, and the shows were only intermittently brilliant.
“That spring tour was not great,” Bruce says, “but beyond that I got the sense that Vince was starting to feel more comfortable and I heard from the guys that there were a few shows there that I didn’t make that were great nights. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just had twin boys. I don’t want to be an absentee father. And I do want to return the focus to my own stuff. Something needs to change here.’ I think they had gotten to a point where they felt comfortable with Vince, and he was comfortable and really contributing well. So I thought it was time for me to go.
“About the last week of the tour, I said something about leaving to Cameron, maybe Mickey and a couple of guys, and it was a drag because I wanted to tell Garcia myself, but this news spread quickly through the tour ranks. And I remember sitting at my piano during a soundcheck and Garcia yelling from his tent, ‘Bruce! come over here, man!’ So I went in there and he was very jovial and he basically just said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re takin’ off! It’s been great. Good luck.’ He was very gracious about it and so was everyone else. These people are great people.
“And I told them then that I’d still play with them from time to time when it worked out, and I did. I played with them at RFK on the very next tour and it was great—they even played ‘Casey Jones’ for the first time in a while [since 1984]; I loved it!”
Hornsby’s high opinion of Garcia’s guitar playing never wavered, and today he remembers his former bandmate as “one of the most distinctive and original players ever. To me, what he did as a soloist that was really unique in rock was his use of chromaticism. He used the five notes in the chromatic scale that aren’t in the standard scale more often and more creatively, and he made more sense with them, than just about anyone. Some of it probably came from his interest in jazz, I guess, and in atonalism. Wherever it came from, he had a clearer vision of playing chromatically than any guitarist in the rock world that I know. Even on a simple song like ‘Iko’ he would play some shit that was like, ‘Man, I wish I thought that way!’
“To me, though, one of the best parts about his playing was his sound; purely his tone,” Hornsby continues. “He could play just one note and the sound moved me so much. There was a very emotional, soulful quality to his tone that to me is very important when you talk about Garcia as a musician. It was very expressive. Great phrasing and articulation. It was nothing contrived. It was a very natural-sounding electric guitar.”
By the middle of 1992 Garcia was receiving almost as much attention in the mainstream press for his artwork as his guitar playing. Galleries around the country (and one in Japan) were exhibiting his paintings, drawings and lithographs, and in the cities where Garcia would show up for an opening, there was always copious press coverage. He now had two people representing his artwork to galleries and the public—Nora Sage, who handled the art Jerry made through the middle of 1991, and Vince DiBiase, who was his rep from 1991 to 1995. Sales of Garcia’s art were brisk, and a book devoted entirely to his work, entitled J. Garcia: Paintings, Drawings and Sketches, was a popular item among Deadheads in the fall of 1992. The book collected seventy-two different works, from intricate color airbrush paintings to graceful watercolors obviously inspired by Japanese art to simple pen-and-ink doodles, some whimsical, some serious.
Garcia seemed bemused and slightly embarrassed by all the attention his art received. As he noted, “I never saved them. It’s only in the last five years that somebody said, ‘People might like these things.’ I thought, ‘Gee, you think so?’ It never occurred to me. I’ve never done them for any purpose. I only do them because they sort of spill out of me. I never intended for people to see them.”
“He was very shy about showing the work at the beginning,” says Roberta Weir (no relation to Bob), an art dealer who put on several shows of Garcia’s artwork. Though Weir believes that more thought could have been put into deciding which of Jerry’s pieces were good enough to exhibit, she notes, “I think he was an incredibly brilliant and talented man who, had he pursued art more deeply, would have developed a very strong personal style. My hope was that he would do that and cross over from being just a celebrity artist to being taken seriously as an artist, because he certainly had the potential for that.”
Weir says she saw a connection between the way Garcia approached music and the way he executed some of his ink drawings: “Many of the drawings show that same mental state of improvisation that you find in the music. It’s like, ‘I’m just wandering with my pen line; I wonder where it will go.’ Looking at them that way, they’re not necessarily logical. Sometimes you can even turn the paper upside down and find another picture. So there’s that kind of wandering, serendipitous experience of the music in the drawings.”
In the summer of 1992 Garcia’s artwork entered a strange new dimension when Stonehenge Ltd. introduced a line of twenty-eight-dollar silk neckties with colorful pattern designs extracted from Jerry’s paintings and drawings. TIE-DYE GURU TURNS NECKTIE DESIGNER, shouted one newspaper headline reporting on this highly unlikely turn of events. After all, except in the Garcia-Grisman video, when had Garcia ever been seen wearing a tie? Garcia and the Grateful Dead represented a culture that was vehemently anti-tie. When he was first approached by Stonehenge in 1991, Garcia was adamantly opposed to the idea, but as was often the case with him, eventually he was convinced that the tie business would be handled tastefully and he relented. However, he refused to get involved in the promotion of the ties, and Nora Sage, who was his liaison with Stonehenge, said at the time, “We did ask him about wearing one for an ad, but he said, ‘It’s bad enough you want me to design them, now you want me to wear them?’” (Later, Garcia did reluctantly pose in his ties—he looked good, too.) Until his dying day, however, “Jerry hated being referred to as a tie designer,” Roberta Weir says. “That used to really upset him.”
Incongruous or not, the tie line was an instant success—more than 150,000 were sold in the first few months after the ties appeared in Bloomingdale’s and other upscale stores. The main buyers were white-collar Deadheads who, far from feeling that Garcia had sold out his hippie values, enjoyed the ties for their subversive nature: if you had to wear a tie in your job, you could at least wear one designed by someone far removed from Fortune 500 culture. Aside from appearing in corporate boardrooms, law offices and wherever cravats were required, J. Garcia ties started turning up on all sorts of prominent people, including basketball analyst Bill Walton, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, Al Franken (who wore one during his coverage of the 1992 Democratic Convention) and even Vice President Al Gore, who was photographed wearing one in a New York Times Magazine article. (Gore, his wife, Tipper, and one of their daughters attended the Dead’s June ’92 show at RFK Stadium, a mere eighteen days before he was selected to be Bill Clinton’s running mate. In a newspaper story around this time, Tipper noted that she’d recently purchased Europe ’72 on CD and that she and Al were longtime fans of the group.)
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The Dead’s summer ’92 tour was considerably stronger than their spring tour, in part because they played their new songs with more confidence, but also because Vince was able to assert himself more now that he was the sole keyboardist. He abandoned a few of his tackier synth textures in favor of more piano sounds, and he was also responsible for the season’s most interesting new cover tunes: the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which he shouted with appropriate Roger Daltreyesque gusto, and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the trippy classic from Revolver. That pairing of tunes, played as the encore, was a huge hit at several of the summer stadium shows. Spicing up a few of the Dead’s second sets, too, was Steve Miller, whose band opened all of the stadium shows. Miller jammed with the Dead at seven different concerts, tearing confidently through versions of “The Other One,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Not Fade Away” and other rockers, and also providing silky contrapuntal lines to more delicate tunes such as “Morning Dew” and “Standing on the Moon.” And at Soldier Field in Chicago, Miller invited blues harmonica great James Cotton to jam with him and the Dead on outstanding versions of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “Love Light” and “Gloria.”
Outwardly, Garcia seemed to enjoy himself for the most part on the summer tour, but unbeknownst to him or anyone else, his body was beginning to rebel against him again. By the time the tour was over he appeared tired and pale. But rather than taking the rest of the summer off to relax and recharge, three weeks later he went on a six-show California amphitheater tour with the Jerry Garcia Band. Fans at the first couple of shows noticed that Garcia didn’t look good and that his energy seemed to come and go at random during the concerts. People who were concerned about Garcia’s drug use would always be doubly worried when he would go out on the road with the JGB because of his history with John Kahn, and on this tour the rumors flew more than usual.
On Garcia’s fiftieth birthday, which he celebrated with a show at Orange County’s Irvine Meadows, he admitted to Manasha and others that he was feeling strange, almost as if he’d been dosed with LSD. He still managed to finish the tour with a reasonably strong performance at Southwestern College, outside of San Diego, but something was clearly wrong with him physically.
As soon as Jerry and Manasha got back to the Bay Area they moved into a spacious house in rural Nicasio, in western Marin County. This was easily the most luxurious home Garcia had ever lived in. The 7,500-square-foot pink stucco Spanish-style house was situated on a ten-and-a-half-acre plot overlooking miles of beautiful rolling hills dotted with live oaks and other trees. It was accessible only by driving up a long, twisting, single-lane private road through dense forest, yet it was still only about twenty minutes from the Dead’s San Rafael headquarters. Vince DiBiase says, “It had a black-bottom pool with a circular hot tub built into it, and a fiber-optic colorwheel that changed colors around the perimeter. Jerry loved swimming in that pool. In the living room there was a ten-foot TV screen that automatically lowered down from the ceiling when the TV projection system was turned on. It was like being in your own private movie theater. Jerry also had art, music and computer studios at the Nicasio house.”
Within twenty-four hours of moving into this palatial showplace, Garcia became extremely ill, exhibiting many of the same signs that he had before his diabetic coma in 1986. Garcia was later diagnosed as having an enlarged heart and chronic lung disease, and his other vital organs weren’t functioning very well, either: he had little energy, in part because his system was overloaded with toxins again.
“He nearly died,” Manasha says. “I had to do some quick thinking, because he didn’t want to go to the hospital because his last experience there was so unpleasant for him. He was pleading for me not to call the ambulance. So I called Yen-wei Choong, the acupuncturist, and it was almost miraculous what happened—Yen-wei gave him some Chinese remedies in tea, which Jerry drank through a straw, and gave him an acupuncture treatment. And then I called the doctor, Randy Baker, down [in Santa Cruz] and he came up for a few days. He set up a vitamin drip IV and we also brought in some other doctors—Dr. McDougal for diet, Jonathan Shore for homeopathy. And I tried to keep them all coordinated. It was quite a scene!”
“He had massage therapists, personal trainers and, a little later, hypnotists to help him stop smoking,” says Vince DiBiase, who, with his wife, Gloria, moved into the Nicasio house for six weeks to aid in Garcia’s recovery. “During this time he was happy, looking good and feeling good, and his attitude was optimistic.”
Adds Gloria DiBiase, “Manasha worked hard to coordinate this health program and to keep Jerry on it. He was taking Chinese and American herbs and vitamins and eating organically grown foods. They were buying lots of top-quality stuff from the health food stores.” All in all it was quite a change for such a notoriously sedentary consumer of junk food.
This was also a particularly good time for Jerry’s relationship with Keelin, who was nearly five. “I have memories of them at the Nicasio house with her on his lap at the computer and they’d be drawing something on the computer together,” Vince DiBiase recalls. “Or they’d be outside watching the sunset together; or feeding the goats that roamed the property. It was just a wonderful time.”
“Keelin loved dressing up in my belly-dancing scarves, veils and finger cymbals,” says Gloria, who had studied belly dancing for nineteen years. “One time Keelin danced while Jerry played guitar and I sang.”
The Dead canceled their late-summer and early-autumn shows, and the JGB scrapped an unannounced tour planned for November, so Garcia could take more time to get himself healthy. And he did precisely that, losing sixty pounds in five months. By the time he returned to performing, at a JGB show on Halloween 1992 at the Oakland Coliseum (with Vince Welnick’s deliciously trashy but short-lived psychedelic cover band, the Affordables, opening), almost everyone agreed that Garcia looked the best he had since the late ’70s. Once again, the change was plainly visible in his body language. He stood more erect, rocked on his Reeboks instead of standing stock-still, and with his new, thinner frame he could bend over easily to adjust his sea of guitar effects pedals—something he did not do when he was heavy and out of shape.
Comeback II continued in early December, when the Grateful Dead went back on the road for a short tour that took them to Colorado and Arizona for two shows each, and then returned to the Oakland Coliseum for five midmonth shows in place of the group’s usual year-end stand. There were two new additions to the repertoire: the Beatles’ “Rain,” sung and played virtually note for note, down to the song’s famous backwards vocal line, which Weir, as the designated dyslexic in the Dead, handled nicely; and “Here Comes Sunshine,” which returned to the band’s rotation for the first time since 1974, though in considerably different form. The impetus for the new version had come from Vince’s arrangement of the tune for the Affordables, which opened nearly a cappella, eliminated the lilting singsong guitar riff and sped the song up to a chugging midtempo rhythm. “It’s better than our old arrangement,” Garcia enthused. “The original feel of it was a little bit dated. I prefer the stronger, rock ’n’ roll feel of the new arrangement.” Most veteran Deadheads disagreed, preferring the spacier, more open-ended mid-’70s arrangement, but nearly everyone was happy to hear the song in any form again. It was a bright, optimistic number that in many ways symbolized Garcia’s latest renaissance. The energetic and well-played Oakland concerts had Deadheads buzzing once more about the “new” Garcia.
Offstage, however, Garcia’s personal life was in turmoil. Though he appeared to be healthier than ever, Manasha learned that he had started to dabble with hard drugs again, and she made no secret of her disappointment:
“In December we went to Colorado, and by that time I knew the symptoms of the substance problem,” she says. “He’d get sleepy and perspire a lot. He’d have disappearances into the bathroom. So I noticed these things were happening again and it worried me a lot because we’d almost lost him the prior summer. So Yen-wei came to Denver and Randy came to Denver. I was concerned; it was a big issue with me. I asked Jerry about it and he didn’t care to be confronted about it, and I understand that, but I was worried. And I think that sort of led to our separation. I was concerned and there was nothing I could really do. So I told him we were going to leave and he asked me not to go. But it continued and I said, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to make a decision about what you want to do. We have a five-year-old. . . .’”
What Manasha did not know was that Jerry had fallen in love again with Barbara Meier, his girlfriend from back when he was just nineteen and living in Menlo Park. (He had had other girlfriends during his time with Manasha, too, including one out-in-the-open relationship with a Deadhead that lasted several months.) After nearly three decades apart, Barbara and Jerry reconnected in 1989, after Robert Hunter gave Garcia a book of poetry Barbara had written entitled The Life You Ordered Has Arrived. According to Barbara, Jerry wrote her a letter saying how much he loved the book and that all these years later, he still loved her. By this time, she was a poet, painter and occasional program coordinator at the Naropa Institute, the Boulder, Colorado, school founded by the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. When the Dead came to Denver toward the end of 1990, Barbara and Jerry nearly got together backstage, but at the last moment Garcia backed out of the meeting—she says he later told her it was because he was strung out at the time.
Then, half a year later, when Barbara was in the Bay Area to do some poetry readings, the two did meet backstage at Shoreline Amphitheater for the first time in twenty-eight years, and as she said to Robert Greenfield, “My heart chakra exploded. Aside from the fact that he was in a different body with white hair and white beard, nothing had changed at all. He was sitting there and he was very nervous and smoking, but we entered a timeless space and we were right where we left off.” In Denver at the end of the June 1991 tour they got together again under the pretense of Barbara interviewing Jerry for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, and then, “I started creating every opportunity I could to go to the Bay Area, where we’d go out to lunch or just hang,” she said.
When the Dead came to Denver in December 1992, Garcia promised Barbara that he would figure out a way to extricate himself from his situation with Manasha, so he and Barbara could have a relationship again. He said he didn’t want to drop this bombshell on an unsuspecting Manasha before Christmas, so he waited until a couple of days before New Year’s—and then had someone else give Manasha the news. In what even the most charitable Garcia apologists would have to admit was an act of extreme cruelty and cowardice, he left his Nicasio home one afternoon and simply never went back. Instead, he hooked up with Barbara at Hunter’s house and the two lovebirds flew to Hawaii for nearly a month, leaving poor Vince DiBiase to deliver a breakup note to Manasha. Garcia never saw Manasha or Keelin again.
If guilt was eating away at Garcia in Hawaii he didn’t show it. He and Barbara had a blissful time on Maui and the Big Island, taking long beach walks, diving and spending endless carefree hours reconnecting with each other, trying to understand the twists and turns their lives had taken in the intervening decades. They shopped at a health food store to find the proper nonfat foods for Jerry’s strict diet (fortunately, Barbara was already a vegetarian), and after a few days they met some hippies who regularly brought them meals. For the last two weeks the couple was joined by Robert and Maureen Hunter. It was a happy and creative time for Garcia and Hunter, who worked on several new songs while they were in the Islands.
“That whole month we were in Hawaii was so unbelievable,” Barbara says. “It really did feel like we had created a time warp and we were right back where we left off. He called it ‘psychic fascia’ that we had that between us. And that really was true, and continued to be true. We were able to have this great month together, and he even asked me to marry him.”
A day before Jerry and Barbara returned to the Bay Area, Gloria DiBiase found the couple a furnished condominium rental on Red Hill Circle in Tiburon, with a spectacular view of the harbor there, and for a couple of months things went along smoothly. Garcia spoke effusively to anyone who would listen about how he’d finally found true love and how his life was heading in the right direction.
People throughout the Dead family remarked that they hadn’t seen Garcia this happy in years, and because of this Barbara was welcomed warmly wherever she traveled in Grateful Dead circles. This had not been the case with Manasha, who was never really embraced by some members of the inner circle and largely stayed apart from the Dead family by choice. Barbara even befriended Mountain Girl, Sara, and Jerry’s daughters.
Annabelle Garcia remembers, “He introduced me to Barbara and told me they were engaged to be married and he was happier than I’d ever seen him. Ever. It made me so happy. It seemed like perfection. I’d never seen him glow like that. He was jumping around introducing her to everybody. I was all for it.”
“Everyone around Jerry at that time kept saying that it felt so good,” Barbara says. “It really felt like a rebirth of those early Menlo Park days, that same energy. It was there. It was happening. I thought, ‘M.G. loves me, Sara loves me, the girls love me; we can all work together. There’s all this love around, and Jerry’s writing songs again with Hunter and it’s all coming together.’ Everyone was saying it. Even he was saying it: This is going to be the golden age of the Grateful Dead. We’re really going to sail off to the sunset now, and everything’s going to be healed and resolved, and we’re going to do all these great things—we’re all going to rent a live-aboard dive boat. It really felt like the community was coming together in a way that it had not for many, many years.”
“Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you get to have the feeling that you’ve been given another chance and it’s like you get a clean slate,” Garcia said in early 1993. “That’s the way it feels to me now with Barbara.”