Full name, Jerome John Garcia; born August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Calif.; son of Jose (a bandleader) and Ruth (a nurse) Garcia; married first wife, Sarah (divorced); married Carolyn Adams; children: (second marriage) Annabelle, Teresa. Education: Dropped out of high school at the age of 17. Addresses: Home-- Mann County, Calif. Office-- The Grateful Dead, 1492 Pacific, No. 4, San Francisco, Calif. 94109.

Something strange started to happen to rock and roll during the mid-1980s. Respected performers from the sixties, many of whom had become archival during the intervening years, began showing up on the charts again. Paul Simon won a Grammy Award for his Graceland LP, and Steve Winwood had a hit with "Higher Love." Yes scored its first Number 1 single--"Owner of a Lonely Heart"--and the rest of the comeback list included such venerable names as George Harrison, Deep Purple, and the Band's Robbie Robertson. The next thing you know, one pop music critic told some colleagues, the Grateful Dead will have a hit single. That brought a few chuckles.

But in 1987, the Grateful Dead---a 22-year-old group known for its fanatical devotees, despite a lack of commercial success since its West Coast origins in the psychedelic sixties--recorded its first hit ever with "Touch of Gray," a song about aging that the group had been performing for at least six years. The album it came from, In the Dark --the group's first studio recording in seven years---became the Dead's biggest seller ever, raising the eyebrows of those who had written the band off long before. Only two years earlier, Jerry Garcia, the Dead's spiritual leader, admitted to the Detroit Free Press that the group's lack of commercial success was "of some concern to us. We make records at least partially with commercial intentions." But in that same interview, he expressed a certain amount of resignation towards the band's fate on the charts. "We're just different," he explained. "It's hard to describe how, but we are, and a lot of people don't understand that." In fact, when In the Dark was released, Garcia told United Press International that the album represented "us on a good night. Not necessarily on a great night, though."

So what happened? How did Garcia & Co. go from a formidable cult band to mainstream success? There's no single answer, but definitely a few factors--not the least of which is Garcia himself. In the early 1980s, in the wake of the film The Big Chill, radio programmers came up with a new format called Classic Rock. Playing music from the first generation of FM rock radio, it attracted legions of 25- to 54-year-old listeners who were turned off by the heavy metal direction album-rock stations had taken and by the slick, disco-oriented approach of Top 40. They wanted their Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane and Doors--and they also got the Grateful Dead, whose music was long gone from those other formats.

That little musical reminder made what happened next all the more important. In July of 1986, about 15 months after going through a drug treatment program, Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma brought on by his drug use. "I didn't feel any pain," he told Rolling Stone. "I just felt tired.... One day I couldn't move anymore, so I sat down. A week later, I woke up in the hospital, and I didn't know what had happened." The coma actually lasted five days, and it nearly claimed Garcia's life. And although he recovered, it also put his career in jeopardy; after being released from the hospital, he had to take lessons to get his guitar playing back in shape.

This event touched more than the group's most devout fans, a sizable group known as the Deadheads. Baby boom adults--coping with new roles as parents, partners, and providers--related to the tribulations of one of their generation's cultural leaders as further proof of their mortality. Reacquainted with the Dead through classic rock radio, they started to care about the band again, going back and embracing what rock critic Mikal Gilmore called the Dead's "ideals of humanity, benevolence, unity and even spirituality that most other Sixties-born bands long ago forgot and that most modern rock artists have forsworn in favor of more caustic values." Then came In the Dark, an album that hit the issues of aging right on the head; "Touch of Gray," with its chorus declaration that "We will survive!" became a veritable yuppie anthem and gave the Dead its place in the eighties rock pantheon. "We're ready for anything now," Garcia told Rolling Stone when "Touch of Gray" was well on its way up the charts. "It just took a while, that's all. I swear, it's like the Grateful Dead are the slowest-rising rock 'n' roll band in the world."

For Garcia, it was just another part of the "long, strange trip" he sang about in "Truckin'," the Dead's best-known song before "Touch of Gray." Born August 1, 1942, in San Francisco, Garcia was the product of music. His father, a Spanish immigrant named Jose, was a respected reeds player and swing bandleader in the Bay area, but he was blackballed by the local musicians union during the Depression because he was playing with two bands while other musicians had no jobs. He died in a fishing accident in 1952. Garcia's mother, Ruth, a nurse, moved the family around the Bay area after that and continued to foster her son's musical training. Garcia had started to play piano when his father was alive, but that was hampered by a lack of interest and a physical disfigurement--his older brother, Clifford, accidentally cut off half of the middle finger on Jerry's right hand when he was four. He had, however, developed an interest in the guitar and decided to move on it when, for his 15th birthday, his mother presented him with an accordion. "I said, 'God, I don't want this accordion. I want an electric guitar,'" he told Rolling Stone. "So we took it down to the pawn shop and I got this little Danelectro, an electric guitar with a tiny amplifier, and, man, I was just in heaven. I stopped everything I was doing at the time."

That included schoolwork, which had never been his forte during his years of moving around. "I was a f--k-up," Garcia--who began smoking marijuana when he was 15--told Feature, according to Blair Jackson's book The Music Never Stopped. "I was a juvenile delinquent. My mom even moved me out of the city to get me out of trouble. It didn't work. I was always getting caught for fighting and drinking. I failed school as a matter of defiance."

When he was 17, he finally dropped out of school, but he took a curious route from there--he joined the Army. After basic training, he was assigned to Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco and began a tenure much like his time in school. "I treated the army like it was school or a bum job," he told Feature. "I was a nothing. I had been court-martialed twice and had tons of extra duty and was restricted to barracks.... I had seven or eight or nine AWOLS, which is a pretty damn serious offense in the Army." After nine months, he was discharged at the suggestion of the fort commander. There was an up side to Garcia's time in the service, however. He picked up an acoustic guitar and became enamored with traditional American folk and blues styles, using his ample barracks time to practice. "I was stuck because I didn't know anybody that played guitar," he told Rolling Stone. "I used to do things like look at pictures of guitar players and look at their hands and try to make the chords they were doing, anything, any little thing."

Upon his discharge, he traveled to Palo Alto to hook up with some friends and there he found a burgeoning coffeehouse scene supported by the student body of Stanford University. It was there that he met Robert Hunter, another Army vet who would go on to become the Dead's chief lyricist. Also part of that scene were such future Bay-area rock stars as Janis Joplin, Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and future Dead bassist Phil Lesh, a trained jazz musician. There was also Ron "Pigpen" McKenna, a youth from San Francisco with a deep interest in the blues who would become the Dead's first frontman.

Together and separately, they played at clubs like the Chateau, the Tangent, and St. Michael's Alley in Palo Alto; the Boar's Head in San Carlos; the Off Stage in San Jose; the Jabberwock in Berkeley; and at several coffeehouses along San Francisco's North Beach area. Garcia--who was married briefly to a woman named Sarah--began playing banjo and indulged his interest in bluegrass with such ensembles as the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, the Hart Valley Drifters, the Wildwood Boys and the Black Mountain Boys. When not playing music, Garcia worked at Dana Morgan's Music Shop in Palo Alto, where he sold equipment and gave lessons with future Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. And he hung out at the Palo Alto Peace Center, where he and other musicians, whom he dubbed "the opportunistic wolf pack," would talk with local teenagers, "preying on their young minds and their refrigerators," as he told Rolling Stone.

Like the rest of the world, the Beatles turned the Bay area upside down when they hit America in 1964. "All of a sudden there were the Beatles," Garcia remembered in Rolling Stone. "'Hard Day's Night,' the movie and everything. Hey, great, that really looks like fun." That coincided with the early consolidation of the Dead lineup. Joining Garcia, McKenna, Lesh, and Kreutzmann was Bob Weir, who came from an affluent family in nearby Atherton but who, like Garcia, didn't take to school. They started as a jug band, but the Beatles' influence shifted their interest to rock and roll and--as the Warlocks--they played their first show in a pizza parlor and honed their repertoire from British rock hits and standards from American blues performers like Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins.

LSD also became an influence around this time. Robert Hunter, the lyricist, was part of a government drug testing program at Stanford, where he struck up a friendship with author Ken Kesey. By 1965, the drug--soon to be made illegal by the U.S. government--was on the streets and in the hands of area musicians. "The whole world just went kablooey," Garcia told Rolling Stone. "It freed me because I suddenly realized that my attempt at having a straight life and doing that was really fiction and wasn't going to work out.... It was like a realization that just made me feel immensely relieved." It would take time before LSD would really influence the music, but its impact would be substantial. "Over the years, I've denied that it had any influence in that way," Hunter told Rolling Stone. "But as I get older, I begin to understand that I was reporting on what I saw and experienced.... Looking back and judging, those were pretty weird times. I was very, very far-out."

Things became exceptionally strange when Kesey formed his Merry Pranksters, an anarchistic, communal society based in nearby La Honda. The Warlocks began hanging out with Kesey and playing at his parties, and before long the two entities co-sponsored the famous Acid Test gatherings, which Dead biographer Blair Jackson described as "a night of having the senses assaulted in more ways than most people thought were imaginable." In Jackson's book, The Music Never Stopped, Garcia described the affairs as "open, a tapestry, a mandala. Anything was O.K. The Acid Tests were thousands of people, all hopelessly stoned, finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of."

Because these gatherings attracted people from all over the Bay area, the Warlocks' audience began to spread and grow. Other bands were forming--including the Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society (with Grace Slick) and Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)--and throughout 1966, San Francisco was awash with concerts that would make any music fan's mouth water, the biggest of which was probably the three-day Trips Festival in January of that year. Meanwhile, Kesey and the Warlocks took their Acid Tests on the road, rolling as far south as Los Angeles.

Somewhere along the line, the Warlocks, who had heard of another band by the same name, became the Grateful Dead. "We never decided to be the Grateful Dead," Garcia told Rolling Stone. "What happened was the Grateful Dead came up as a suggestion because we were at Phil's house one day; he had a big Oxford dictionary, I opened it up and the first thing I saw was The Grateful Dead. It said that on the page and it was so astonishing. It was truly weird, a truly weird moment."

The Dead was perfectly positioned for 1967, a watershed year that saw the Bay area become a center for the international youth culture with the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park and the developing hippie populace of Haight and Ashbury streets. Record companies, looking for the next big thing to sell to teenagers, began signing local groups: RCA took the Airplane, while Columbia scooped up Joplin's Big Brother & the Holding Company. Because of its threatening name and skull-and-roses logo, there was some initial reticence to sign the Dead, but Warner Brothers finally offered a pact that was considered revolutionary at the time. "Basically, what we did was tear up the standard contract and write our own." Garcia told Billboard, according to Jackson. "We entered the business at a time when it was taking a 360-degree turn."

The Gratetul Dead, released in 1967, got the band off to a slow start. Even Garcia told biographer Jackson that "it was mediocre performances of material we were able to do much better. It was uninspired, completely." The two following albums-- Anthem of the Sun in 1968 and Aoxomoxoa in 1969--were more experimental (and more drug-influenced), complex, and inaccessible. The Dead simply weren't a hit singles band, and it had difficulty transferring the magnetic qualities of its live performances onto album. Appropriately, then, it was Live Dead, also released in 1969, that really showed what the Dead could do, with a 21-minute, improvisation-laden version of "Dark Star" and quintessential takes of several other tracks, including "St. Stephen" and "Turn on Your Love Light." It was a big seller; and, not surprisingly, the Dead's top selling releases in the future would also be live albums. "Our income doesn't come from records," Garcia told the Detroit Free Press. "It comes from [live] work. Making records is a different thing. It's not playing for warm human beings. It's a very artificial situation, with the overdubs and everything. In my mind, it's never really been making music."

But in 1970, the Dead turned out perhaps the best two studio albums of its career, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. With acoustic instrumentation and country-oriented material, these records carried a relaxed, easygoing ambience that marked a pleasant departure from the comparatively labored late sixties albums. "We were into a much more relaxed thing about that time," Garcia told Rolling Stone. "We weren't feeling so much like an experimental music group but were feeling more like a good old band."

Hard times were ahead, however. McKenna died in 1973, the result of alcohol abuse. The Dead had a falling out with Warner Brothers in 1972 and started the misbegotten financial venture of its own record company. The group spent a considerable amount of money on a new sound system--comprised of 641 speakers and a deafening 26,400 watts---that proved to be underwhelming. There were personnel changes, and the group even announced a "retirement" from performing in 1974. "Basically success sucks," Garcia told Boston After Dark, as reported by Jackson. "We've unconsciously come to the end of what you can do in America, how far you can succeed. And its's nothing. It's nowhere.... It means high prices and hassling over extra-musical stuff. It's unnecessary, so we're busting it."

It turned out to be a short break, but it did give the group members time to work on projects away from the band. Garcia, who released his first solo album in 1971, came up with some of his best work during that period, captured on albums like Old & In the Way and Reflections. But it also ushered in what would be a long period of creative malaise that wouldn't be broken until 1987.

Those circumstances would have caused the end of lesser bands, but the Dead had a secret weapon: the Deadheads, unquestionably the largest, most devoted, best organized, and most varied group of fans ever assembled for one band. In his 1985 hit, "The Boys of Summer," ex-Eagle Don Henley sang of seeing "a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac," an indication of just how broad the Dead's fan base really was. "My experience with the Deadheads is there's a tremendous width to them," Garcia told the Detroit Free Press. "There's all kinds, from three-PhD holders to bikers."

The group first began organizing its fans with the 1971 Grateful Dead album. Inside was a message from the band: "Dead Freaks Unite. Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we'll keep you informed." The reaction was overwhelming, and by 1972 there were newsletters that kept Deadheads in touch with the band and with each other, making it easy for fans to follow the Dead from city to city and to trade the bootleg tapes they made, with full cooperation from the band.

By the early eighties, the Deadhead network was considerably more sophisticated. The group started telephone hotlines that were kept busy day and night, and the advent of personal home computers spawned a batch of Deadhead electronic bulletin boards. The group's management also began offering ticket packages to guarantee Deadheads seats during the group's tours. "We're starting to pick up common and low-key ways to continue to do what the band wants to do, which is play and have a simple relationship to their audience," explained group publicist Dennis McNally to the Detroit Free Press.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the Deadheads were the first to sound the alarm about Garcia's deteriorating condition during the mid-1980s. Calls to the hotlines asked about his health, noting that he was putting on weight and that his playing was sluggish. The concern was well-placed. Garcia--the friendly, graying, Smurf-like father figure of the band--was indeed using cocaine and heroin, scaring those around him. "I was very afraid that Garcia was going to die," said Wyoming farmer John Barlow, the group's other lyricist, to Rolling Stone. "In fact, I'd reached a point where I'd just figured it was a matter of time before I'd turn on my radio and there, on the hour, I was going to hear, 'Jerry Garcia, famous during the sixties, has died.'" The scuttlebutt even prompted Garcia's bandmates, who Barlow said had drug problems of their own, to shift from the traditional laissez-faire attitude towards each other's habits and confront him. "Just before I got busted," Garcia told Rolling Stone, "everybody came over to my house and said 'Hey, Garcia, you got to cool it; you're starting to scare us.' There was something I needed or thought I needed from drugs.... I don't know what it was, exactly. Maybe it was the thing of being able to distance myself a little from the world.... But after awhile, it was just the drugs running me, and that's an intolerable situation."

Garcia never got a chance to act on his promise to the other Dead members to curb his drug habit. On January 18, 1985, he was arrested in Golden Gate Park and charged with possession of cocaine and heroin. A month later, a judge agreed to let him undergo treatment rather than serve time in jail. But after an early summer tour in 1986, his weakened system fell prey to his diabetes, resulting in the coma. Like the arrest, Garcia called the coma "another one of those things to grab my attention." But this was much more serious. "It was like my physical being saying, 'Hey, you're going to have to put in some time here if you want to keep on living.'" Garcia's new regimen included a set of guitar lessons from a Bay area friend, Merl Saunders, and by fall Garcia was back to playing and full of resolve to complete the In the Dark album.

Since it became a hit, Garcia--who continues to live in Marin County with his wife, Carolyn, and their daughters Annabelle and Teresa--has been enjoying his new health and new fame. In 1987 the Dead toured with Bob Dylan and on its own, and in the fall of that year, Garcia played a two-week stint on Broadway with his own bands. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dead continued to tour, and Garcia took part in the Blues for Salvador benefit concert in San Francisco and worked with jazz artist Ornette Coleman.

But, he claimed in his infrequent interviews, the success of In the Dark had not modified his outlook on life or his musical ambitions. "No matter what happens," he told Rolling Stone, "if all these things fail, fall completely to the ground and shatter into a million pieces, it's not going to fundamentally affect us or what we do. We're going to keep on playing. It's just great to be involved in something that doesn't hurt anybody. If it provides some uplift and some comfort in people's lives, it's just that much nicer. So I'm ready for anything now."


Jerry Garcia's Career

Interest in music began with piano lessons as a child; later studied guitar and banjo; played in various folk and bluegrass groups in California and worked as a salesman and teacher at a music store in Palo Alto, Calif., 1959-65; founding member of rock group the Warlocks, 1965, and the Grateful Dead, 1966--; has also worked as a solo performer, 1971--. Military service-- U.S. Army, 1959.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

October 29, 2005: The City of San Francisco celebrated the opening of an amphitheater named for Garcia. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/10/31/showbuzz/index.html#2, November 1, 2005.

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

1) You have misidentified Pigpen: He is (according to Wikipedia): Ronald C. "Pigpen" McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973) was a founding member of the band Grateful Dead. His musical contributions to the Grateful Dead included vocals, Hammond organ, harmonica, percussion, and occasionally guitar. He died at the age of 27. 2) The album title is Reckoning (as in Dead Reckoning) not Beckoning. Otherwise a worth piece.