Today would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. Would have been, had he not been indulgent in the excesses available to a rock star. But he was a central figure in a highly successful band, and he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, so what’s it to me or anyone else the way he lived his life? It’s nothing at all, really.
I saw the Grateful Dead perform live four times, twice in the 1980s at the Rosemont Horizon (they call it the Allstate Arena now) and twice in the 1990s at Soldier Field. The 1992 show stands out in my memory, because Jerry just seemed to go off on every song. I never considered him as a guitar player before that show, certainly not in the archetypal guitar god mode, but he quite literally blew me away that night.
I wasn’t into the Dead before the “Touch of Grey” thing happened in the late 1980s. I can’t suggest otherwise. When people like me started going to Grateful Dead shows, I’m sure that it was never again the same for those who had more time and mileage invested in the band than I did. I never acid-danced during a show, and never sold jewelry or stir-fry or anything else to get the gas money to get to the next show. I soaked up the scene in the parking lot and inside the concert venue, and that was quite enough.
The music stopped, at least for Jerry, after a show at Soldier Field in 1995. That’s 17 years ago now, meaning that anyone who can actually say they saw the band play live is at least in their late 30s, if not older than that. Their music lives on in bootlegs and concert films and satellite radio, but the experience of having been in the crowd during a Dead show is slipping into the past.
I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for the first time this year, and on the top two floors, in a special rotating exhibit space, was a collection of Grateful Dead artifacts. I tried my best to explain it all to my teen-aged daughter, and we watched some footage of “Shakedown Street” that was playing on a screen, but I couldn’t escape the feeling of being old. It wasn’t so very long ago in my mind that we waited through a downpour–and a super-abbreviated opening set by Sting–for what turned out to be my final Dead show in 1993. But nineteen years have indeed passed by, whether I like that or not.
So I remember Jerry Garcia, and I’m glad that his musical gifts entered my life, if only for a few hours in concert, and a few minutes here and there on YouTube videos. I realize now that these kinds of artistic enhancements are a rare and precious commodity, and they appear more obvious in retrospect than when they are actually taking place. So thanks, Jerry, wherever you are nowadays. And just keep truckin’ on.