Jerry Garcia was the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, a rock band formed in 1965 in San Francisco that forever changed how music is written, performed, distributed, and engaged with on a global scale. The Grateful Dead performed their last show on July 9, 1995, and Garcia was found passed away on August 9, 1995. He had just turned 53 years young.
Garcia lived a life dedicated to music, and has inspired my own life to be as musically-centric as possible. While many considered him the leader and spokesman of the Grateful Dead, he resented such responsibility and insisted that the group operated without leadership.
Garcia was also part of many different musical projects throughout his career, including his own band The Jerry Garcia Band, as well as various bluegrass and folk ensembles. Garcia contributed the pedal steel guitar solo to Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children,” and worked with other Bay Area rock bands such as New Riders of the Purple Sage and Jefferson Airplane. The Dead would often perform in collaboration with other musicians, wherever they were in the world, such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Hamza El Din, Ornette Coleman, Etta James, and Branford Marsalis, just to name a few.
People tend to pigeonhole the Dead as being one single thing, whatever that is for people who haven’t opted to give them very much ear-time, but they played the blues, straight rock, folk and bluegrass, jazz, and spent time exploring experimental approaches to sound-making and studio recording, and part of what made their live shows so incredibly unique given what else was happening in the ’70s and ’80s, was this sense of unpredictability and exploration.
The Dead also revolutionized concert promotion by allowing their fans to tape their shows and distribute them amongst each other freely, without worrying about obtaining rights or permission. This has since led to hundreds of “bootleg” live concerts being mixed, mastered and released commercially, further cementing the band’s influence on millions of listeners.
Garcia was a wonderful intellectual, and always had profound and interesting things to say. He struggled with his vices for most of his life, and ultimately passed away due to a number of long-standing health issues. While nothing would satisfy me like a detailed retelling of the history of the his life and the Grateful Dead, I’d rather focus on Jerry Garcia the guitarist, and highlight a few musical moments of his that changed my life personally. So let’s check out some music!
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” from Live/Dead (1969)
Live/Dead was the band’s first live concert recording, and it also happened to be the first album ever recorded to 16-track tape. This recording features passionate performance from Garcia and the rest of the band, an incredible demonstration of their early blues-band model as it was filtered and experimented with through their acid test years. The album itself is notable for bringing the energy and abandon of their live shows directly to people’s homes, as they had struggled to find artistic fulfillment in the studio up until that point.
“Box of Rain” from American Beauty (1970)
It never ceases to amaze me that the band you heard in the previous recording put out this record just a year later. The Dead explicitly decided to work hard to put out an album of American music that they could be proud of, one that focused on songs instead of wild exploration. American Beauty and it’s companion record, Workingman’s Dead, were both released in 1970, the result of a wonderfully prolific writing period, out of which came songs that were staples in their live shows for the next 25 years. Choosing between all of the songs to represent this album was a challenge, but I settled on “Box of Rain” for it’s sublime chord progression, haunting guitar solo, and lyrical imagery. This lead vocals were sung by the band’s bassist Phil Lesh. Other standout tracks include “Candyman,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” and the band’s hit single, “Truckin’,” but the entire album is a masterpiece and a necessary companion for your next road trip for sure!
“He’s Gone” and “Morning Dew” from Europe ’72 (1972)
Speaking of road trips, the album Europe ’72 features material that blends the band’s experimental, psychedelic comfort zone mixed with their newer, roots music influence. “He’s Gone” and “Morning Dew” were both released for the first time on this album — these live versions are considered definitive among die-hard Dead fans, although with the prevalence of live concert recordings, Dead fans have a wealth of material to sort through for argument’s sake. “Morning Dew” emerges after over 7 minutes of free jazz weirdness, and is a Dead favorite. The story of this recording is also told in the 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip, but you’ll have to see it to find out!
“Crazy Fingers” from One From the Vault (1975, officially released 1991)
This concert was widely circulated as a bootleg among Dead fans until it was officially released as One From the Vault in 1991. In fact, it was the bands first ever official release of a full, unedited concert recording. The Dead had taken a brief pause and come back with a few new albums worth of material. This concert showcases music from their 1975 album Blues for Allah, which saw them writing in a more jazz-fusion color palette and writing complex, through-composed bridges. “Crazy Fingers” has always been a favorite of mine, and I love the way this one segues into a drum jam, and eventually into ‘The Other One” (always keep listening!).
“Terrapin Station Medley” from Terrapin Station (1977)
In 1977, the Dead had signed with Clive Davis’ new company Arista, and he insisted on pairing them with an outside producer, Keith Olsen. While the band was not particularly satisfied with the glossy production, I’ve always loved this version of the title track — a multi-part jazz-rock odyssey, complete with lavish horn and string arrangements, crisp and dry ’70s drum tracks, and some gorgeous lead guitar harmonies courtesy of Garcia. If you’re looking for a live version, check out any concert release from the band’s Spring 1977 tour, fans tend to consider this their “tightest” period, and the performances from this time reflect this.
“Althea” from Go To Nassau (1980)
“Althea” first appeared on the Dead’s 1980 studio album Go To Heaven, and I reserve a special place in my heart for this particular performance of the song. In fact, the whole concert was released in 2002 and spent most of my senior year of high school in the CD player of my car. Not much more to say about it, the ’80s would prove to be the Dead’s most commercially successful decade, so enjoy this nice slice of prime Deadery.
“I Shall Be Released” from Garcia Plays Dylan (1987, released in 2005)
Garcia also had a prolific solo career, and a band of his own that would tour with relative frequency. To say the guy never took a day off from music is an understatement. Garcia also loved singing the music of Bob Dylan, one of his great influences. This version of “I Shall Be Released” is from a compilation called Garcia Plays Dylan, and features a variety of performances by Garcia, some with the Dead, but mostly featuring his solo band. This 1987 performance features his JGB collaborator Melvin Seals on organ.
Garcia once said of the Grateful Dead, “we’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Well, I like licorice, too, and I love the Dead. The more I learn about the band, the more I develop a deeper appreciation for their willingness to take risks, have fun and also get serious about creating music that would last forever, in addition to improvisations that are over the minute they happen. I also love how witty and hilariously out of touch they were in interviews. Check out this gem from Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.
This is just the tip of the Grateful Dead iceberg, of course!
For those curious to learn more, Amir Bar Lev’s documentary Long Strange Trip was released last year on Amazon Prime, and the book Dark Star: An Oral History of Jerry Garcia are both fantastic resources, as are YouTube, Spotify, and the incredible, somewhat insane, wealth of freely listenable fan recordings on archive.org.
Happy trails, friends!
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