Here in Haight-Ashbury, where rock music and alienation whipped up the early drug-fueled fires of the ‘60s hippie movement, Jerry Garcia’s faithful streamed in throughout the night and all day Thursday.
They turned a trash can into a tombstone and laid flowers and lit candles around it. Mark Gentry showed up in a psychedelic bus with tepee poles lashed to the roof, having come straight from a hippie gathering near Mt. Shasta. David Kimberling found a battered hubcap and joined a street corner percussion group, chanting and drumming long into the night at the venerable juncture of Haight and Ashbury streets.
Word of the death of the Haight’s home-grown rock icon, who strummed his guitar here for flower children in the Summer of Love 28 years ago, touched off a pilgrimage home for many of those who saw Garcia’s band, the Grateful Dead, as more than just a musical and commercial phenomenon. The Dead and their bearded, 53-year-old lead singer stood as symbols of an era--a vibrant, difficult, idealistic time that slowly is fading from the scene.
To the generation he helped to shape, Garcia inspired a degree of devotion that many struggled Thursday to express. It was a connection between a man and his time and a way of life. To see it end, as it most likely did Wednesday with Garcia’s death of a heart attack in a drug rehab center, left many of his most ardent admirers needing to trace their roots, to see where it all started, to somehow find a way to fill the void.
“Jerry brought to focus the way we all want to be, in our hearts,” said Bruce Geer, who stood teary-eyed on the steps of the gray Victorian home at 710 Ashbury St., where Garcia lived during the Grateful Dead’s formative years. “And we lost that. We will never have that again.”
Geer was among the many thousands of fans--40- and 50-somethings as well as younger converts--for whom the Grateful Dead contributed major cuts on the soundtrack of their lives. For the past eight years, Geer has traveled the country, attending Dead concerts and selling pancakes to finance his travels.
Among those zealous legions--the Deadheads--there suddenly is enormous uncertainty about what they will do, where they will turn for meaning in life, Geer said.
“That’s what people are crying about--what’s next?” he said, adapting a line from one of Garcia’s contemporaries, Bob Dylan: “The times are a changing.”
But the nomadic Deadheads were not the only mourners who felt the sting of losing Garcia, and the need to return to hippie roots.
Nob Hill resident Trish Roberts, 48, heard about Garcia’s death from a friend late Wednesday night and confirmed it with a call to a radio station.
“I just fell apart,” she said.
On Thursday, she reported to her job as a word processor, but her boss saw how she looked and wouldn’t let her stay. “I said, ‘I’ll get it together.’ She said, ‘Go home and get it together.’ ”
So Roberts came down to the Haight, a short-haired, professional woman now reflecting on her hippie days--the happiest times of her life.
Lesley Segedy felt some of the same compulsion. Though she is nearing 50 and holds down a job at a science library, Segedy spent the morning at Haight and Ashbury taking pictures of a sidewalk memorial: bouquets, candles, photos of Garcia tacked up next to written tributes: “Thanks for everything, Jerry. Much love.”
Segedy was wearing a beaded necklace and psychedelic cap.
“It’s hard to imagine,” she said of a San Francisco without Garcia. “I can’t imagine how this will affect the Haight.”
While she spoke, two men showed up to offer their own tribute: Jorge Molina playing a conch and Paul Pena blowing into a five-foot-long digeridoo, an Australian instrument crafted from a hollow eucalyptus branch. Stopping to chant in what he called a Tuvan style, still practiced in a part of Siberia near Mongolia, Pena brought an extra touch of the surreal to the Haight’s avant-garde strip of funky shops and pizza eateries: “Aaaaaa-iiii-aaaaaaa-iii-eeeeeeeeiii . . . “
The two performers, who inevitably drew the curious despite their requests for solitude, called themselves neighborhood regulars since the ‘60s and emulators of Garcia’s artistic freedom. Part of Garcia’s legacy is a musical style bearing the influence of rock, folk, country and other forms, and a willingness to encourage free expression among younger bands and singers.
Molina was a traveling Tourhead for awhile before veering off into musical experimentation with the conch. Pena, a guitarist, said that during the ‘60s he opened for the Dead a few times at such places as Keystone Berkeley, Keystone Palo Alto and other Bay Area clubs.
“I’m just saying goodby, thanking him for all he’s done for me,” Pena said. “I wanted to say goodby and give him whatever energetic support he needs on his transition--and I hope someone will do the same for me when I check out.”
The mood on the street sometimes seemed at odds: people in tears, others laughing and dancing. On Wednesday night, while mourners staged candlelight memorial gatherings in Golden Gate Park and in other major cities, about 200 people jammed the sidewalks at Haight and Ashbury, some just watching, some beating fiercely on overturned buckets and conga drums.
“People are taking this hard,” said Tyler Downey, 21, a college student who lives nearby. “Their god is dead.” Downey remembered seeing one teen-ager in tears, lashing out at others who did not seem to feel his devastation.
“He was like, ‘You don’t understand--it’s the end of an era.’ And it kind of is. . . . The Grateful Dead represents the end of the ‘60s, basically.”
To their fans, the Dead’s shows were a communion of the spirit. The concerts were about having fun, pursuing art, sharing, being tolerant. Though sometimes plagued by drug overdoses and arrests, the shows gave fans a sense of community and closeness that many felt they might never find again.
“I think there was a purity in the way he played,” said Forest Harlan, 45, who attended his first show in 1972 at the fairgrounds in Eugene, Ore. Harland said he was able to make it to about 25 shows over the years, when not selling vitamins at his shop in San Francisco. Wednesday after work, he listened to a few Garcia CDs, then drove to the Haight, where he stood gazing at pictures of Garcia illuminated by black light in a shop window.
“For me, it feels real special being here tonight,” he said.
Craig Raggio, 26, spoke of feeling pain, but was philosophical.
“I think the guy gave a lot of people a lot of joy,” Raggio said. “I think it’s a sad day, but I don’t look at it like it’s a negative thing. He lived the way he wanted to live, and a lot of people followed his lead. Now he’s gone.”
Raggio had been in a bar across town but came to see the crowds gather and sort through what it all meant. He said there were a lot of bands better than the Grateful Dead but that the Dead reached people with their down-to-earth style. They ended up creating a lot of pride among their followers in the Haight, and developing a base of fans that reached across generations.
Teen-agers and college students professed much of the same shock at Garcia’s death that older fans experienced. Sarah Aylesworth, a 20-year-old student from Massachusetts, remembered being introduced to Garcia years ago by her mother, Deborah, who took her to a concert.
“He stole my heart,” she said.
Just by chance, Aylesworth had arrived in San Francisco last week and had made it a point to visit the Haight because of her love of the band. Garcia died the next morning. Now, she was back, gazing thoughtfully at the window displays, with roses and carnations wedged between the black bars on the windows of closed shops.
Patty Reyes, 26, a technical writer from Los Angeles, took time off work to make the journey here.
“I felt it was something I had to do,” she said. At first she was “hysterical, inconsolable” that Garcia had died, but she understood that life would go on. She would keep working, keep paying her rent. There would be other bands--maybe Phish or the Blues Travelers--that would earn the attention of former Dead fans.
But Garcia would never be replaced.
“There’s just going to be that void,” she said. “I can never go to another show. . . . [The concerts] were the best thing that ever happened to me--there’s no doubt. I think there are going to be a lot of people who are lost, who don’t know what to do.”
Band spokesman Dennis McNally said Thursday that a “very, very private” memorial service was planned. Details on a public service were pending, but he hoped that it would not be held until after this weekend.
Deborah Koons Garcia, who was married to Garcia last year, said memorial contributions should be sent to the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics, which Garcia had supported since their inception in the Summer of Love.
Rumors circulated that a tribute concert might be staged--maybe with Dylan, Carlos Santana or others--in celebration of Garcia’s life. True or not, many of the Dead’s followers were expecting more of their kind to drift into town over the weekend and head for the Haight.
Gentry, who said as many as 40 busloads of fans might depart the “Rainbow Gathering” near Mt. Shasta for Haight-Ashbury, called Garcia the patriarch of his time, a man who connected everyone else by what he did.
“I don’t go to funerals,” Gentry said. “I didn’t go to my Dad’s funeral. But this is just too awesome.”