20 Years Ago: Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia Dies
Nobody knew Jerry Garcia was at a rehabilitation clinic in Forest Knolls, California in the summer of 1995. Not Robert Hunter, his long-time writing partner, and not Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally. But that’s where the iconic singer and guitarist would suddenly die on Aug. 9.
Garcia’s health problems were, of course, legendary and his final concert – held on July 9, 1995, at Chicago’s Soldier Field — was decidedly ragged. Still, no one knew. “He said,” McNally told the New York Daily News, “he was going to Hawaii.”
It was a week after Garcia had turned 53. But he’d put far more wear and tear on his body than your average middle-aged guy. Rampant drug use and a bout of diabetes had taken their toll, leaving Garcia in a coma in 1986 and forcing him to cancel a 1992 tour – citing “exhaustion.”
“All I can say is that it more or less ruined everything, having Jerry be a junkie,” Hunter later told Rolling Stone. “I remember a time when ‘junkie’ was the nastiest thing Garcia could call anybody. You had such contempt for anybody that would get involved in that. But what are you going to do when you’re elevated the way he was? … You’ve got to understand the whole weight of the Grateful Dead scene was on Jerry’s shoulders, to support all the families and everything as well as the audience’s expectations. There were times when I just drove him through the wall.”
Born Jerome John Garcia in 1942 in San Francisco’s Mission District, Jerry’s father and mother worked as a ballroom jazz musician and a nurse, respectively. During his teen-age years, Garcia began to rebel against that solidly middle-class upbringing. Then he heard Chuck Berry, and was enamored enough with rock ‘n’ roll to continue practicing guitar through a nine-month Army stint at 17.
By 1964, he’d met Bob Weir, and they formed a precursor band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Over the next few years, the Grateful Dead’s initial lineup and sound emerged. Some 30 years later, after emerging as one of the central figures in ’60s pop culture, Jerry Garcia became the fourth member of the group to pass away – following a trio of keyboardists. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan died in 1973 of liver disease, Keith Godchaux followed after a 1980 car accident and Brent Mydland overdosed in 1990. Garcia’s heart simply gave out.
Weir eventually led the Grateful Dead back to Soldier Field in time to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary during consecutive sold-out July 2015 shows. But it took two guest stars, both Phish‘s Trey Anastasio and Bruce Hornsby, to fill in for a badly missed Garcia.
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