Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead Founder, Dies

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Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia, the enduring musical guru for legions of loyal fans over four decades, died early Wednesday morning, just a week after his 53rd birthday.

Garcia died of an apparent heart attack while under treatment at a drug rehabilitation facility in Novato, Calif., where he was reportedly attempting to end a recurring heroin habit. His body was found in his room by a counselor at the Serenity Knolls drug rehabilitation center at 4:23 a.m. Attempts to revive him failed.

Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally said the surviving band members were “all in shock.” They declined to give interviews.


“We loved the man and he’s gone,” McNally said. “The one thing I’m clinging on to is that when he went into the facility, he didn’t tell any of us. He just wanted to regain his health. He went out wanting to get healthy and making a commitment to his art. That’s the way I’m going to remember him.”

Contemporary musicians joined fans, known worldwide as “Deadheads,” in mourning the serene singer and guitarist.

“There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player,” said singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who has toured with the Grateful Dead. “He really had no equal. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss.”

Garcia’s death leaves uncertain the future of the most direct musical and cultural link to San Francisco’s 1960s hippie heyday. Through the intervening years and sweeping social upheavals, the Dead and its following not only have survived but flourished.

That phenomenon was evident in the thousands of tie-dye-clad fans--youths and adults--who followed the band from show to show across the country, reveling in a communal spirit and the band’s lithe, long improvisational mix of rock, blues, country and folk. To those who were not fans, the attraction of a Grateful Dead show was a mystery. But to those who were, it was a near-religious event.

A live Grateful Dead album, titled “Hundred Year Hall” and recorded last year in Germany, had been tentatively scheduled for release in October, and the group had been working on its first album of new studio recordings since 1989. The status of both projects is now uncertain.


Many fans and associates Wednesday said that they could not imagine the Dead continuing without Garcia, but McNally said that no decision about the band’s future would be made immediately. The group has survived other deaths--Ron (Pigpen) McKernan of liver disease in 1972; his replacement, Keith Godchaux, in a car crash shortly after leaving the band in 1980, and his successor, Brent Mydland, of a drug overdose in 1989.

The gray-bearded, Buddha-like Garcia had a long history of health problems stemming from a combination of drug use, cigarette smoking, diabetes, an inability to keep his weight in check and the stress of the grueling tour schedule of the Grateful Dead.

Year after year, Dead tours have ranked among the top concert attractions in the United States. In 1994 the group grossed $52.4 million in concerts, ranking that trek as the eighth biggest such tour in the United States. Through the first half of 1995, grosses reached $29.3 million.

In 1986 Garcia nearly died after lapsing into a diabetes-related coma. He made attempts after that to improve his health, taking up scuba-diving and improving his diet, but his efforts were inconsistent. A 1991 tour was postponed after Garcia collapsed from exhaustion.

In a 1991 interview with The Times, Garcia commented on the tolls of his fast-paced life, which was a marked contrast to his easygoing music and stage persona.

“I’m constantly dealing with my own limits,” he said. “If I choose to take it seriously, it’s way too much on every level. Too much responsibility, too much work and everything. [But] it happens that I love it too. It’s still fun. As long as I still love it, I have no intention of doing anything to make it stop. . . . If someone makes music illegal, they’ll have to drag me off the stage kicking and screaming.”


Garcia’s stay in the rehab center was in preparation for the band’s planned fall tour, which had been scheduled to begin next month and was to include shows Oct. 14 and 15 in Devore.

His final show with the Dead was July 9 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, concluding a spring tour that had been marred by several incidents involving fans, including a rock-throwing confrontation with police in Noblesville, Ind., and injuries to a hundred Deadheads camping out before a concert in Wentzville, Mo., when a porch they were dancing on collapsed.

Those were unfortunate footnotes to Garcia and the Dead’s legacy. Their huge following not only made the group a cultural icon, but put it at the center of an unlikely financial empire in which its communal roots and values translated into capitalist success. In addition to concerts and recordings, the group has a thriving business marketing colorful T-shirts and other paraphernalia--and there is even a line of neckties based on Garcia’s abstract paintings, even though ties were anathema to his casual wardrobe.

Born Aug. 1, 1942, in San Francisco as Jerome John Garcia, the son of a bandleader, he was active in the Bay Area folk and bluegrass scene of the early ‘60s and founded a rock band called the Warlocks in 1965.

The next year the group--at the time including guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboard player McKernan and drummer Bill Kreutzmann--became the Grateful Dead and was established as the house band for the psychedelic, drug-fueled “Acid Test” parties, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

The group signed to Warner Bros. Records and released its first album in 1967. Perhaps the best albums were the early-’70s, country-flavored releases “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” with Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter crafting songs that tapped into the American frontier and underdog ethos.


But fans generally agree that no recordings ever captured the feeling of a concert, even the numerous concert recordings. Its live shows made the Dead a legend--as summed up in the oft-used, fan-coined slogan, “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.”

At the center was always Garcia’s fluid guitar playing, weaving a tapestry as colorful as the fans’ garb. The music at the shows, often held in festival-type settings, often devolved into unstructured jams that served as a sinewy soundtrack for a vivid tableau of free-form dancing fans.

Though albums became more sporadic after the ‘70s, one, “In the Dark” in 1987, spawned the band’s only Top 10 hit. The song, “Touch of Grey,” featured the Garcia-sung chorus proclaiming “I will survive.”

Garcia often toured with his side project, the Jerry Garcia Band, helping Deadheads fill the time between Dead treks. Garcia also was active in the group’s Rex Foundation, a philanthropic organization that gave grants to a variety of cultural, social and environmental efforts.

“The Grateful Dead and Jerry have been the one band that has been about not just the music but the socialization of people, allowing people to assemble and escape the drudgery of everyday life and experience joy, true joy,” said Gregg Perloff, president of the concert promotions firm Bill Graham Presents. The history of the company, founded in San Francisco by the late Bill Graham, was tied directly to the Dead, producing virtually all the band’s shows, including annual New Year’s Eve concerts and 1978 dates at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

“What a lot of people around the country realized today was that this [the Dead culture] was not about one segment of our society,” Perloff said. “Whether a 15-year-old student or a 45-year-old lawyer, there were so many people who would get out of their suits and ties and follow the Dead.”

And what becomes of the hard-core Deadheads now, assuming that Garcia’s death means the end of the Grateful Dead?


“I think they’re going to have to get lives now,” said Toni Brown, publisher of Brooklyn-based Relix magazine, which is devoted to the Grateful Dead and related music and cultural issues. “The band always felt that there was more to life than just them, and people are going to have to face reality. It was great to be able to make the Grateful Dead your reality, but there’s more to it than that.”

In 1991, though, Garcia spoke of plans to postpone that inevitability as long as possible, noting the longevity of many of his blues, country and jazz heroes.

“I went to see [jazz violinist] Stephane Grapelli and he’s 83,” he said. “You see these guys and you say, ‘Goddamn right!’ If I can, then yeah, if I’m alive and moving, I’ll be playing.”

Garcia is survived by his third wife, Marin County filmmaker Deborah Koons, whom he married last year; and four daughters, Heather, 32, Annabelle, 25, Teresa, 21, and Keelin, 7.

Plans for private funeral services or public memorial observances were incomplete.