The Bergen Record, August 10, 1995
By Neil Reisner
When I heard that Jerry Garcia had died, I had this thought: “It’s over. What will we do?”
Then I thought about a clear, crisp day in early March a couple of years back. I was somewhere in Maryland, tooling down I-95 with my friends Danny and Susie and Susie’s 12-year-old daughter, Rachel. We were on our way to the Capital Center Arena near Washington, D.C., where we would settle in, as we had scores of times before, to commune for a few hours with the Grateful Dead.
In real life we were respectable professionals with jobs, mortgages, and families — Danny, a government lawyer, Susie, a PhD biostatistician, and I a journalist. But in our off hours we were Deadheads and this was to be a special show.
It was Rachel’s first. In Rachel’s family, the children went to see the Dead only after their bar or bat mitzvahs. We hoped fervently the band we usually just called “The Boys” would have a good night.
As it turned out they did. They sang and played in tune, stretched their musical chops, took chances, risked failure, and transported Rachel and the rest of us to a place where for 30 years their unique blend of rock, country, bluegrass, blues, jazz, folk, world music, and improvisational jamming combined into something that — at its best — touched the soul.
It was an ephemeral thing — so ephemeral that the band encouraged its fans to tape shows for posterity — and Jerry Garcia was at its heart. But Garcia was not the Grateful Dead. Like anything that is greater than the sum of its parts, Garcia was a necessary but not sufficient component of the Dead experience. What he brought to the mix is hard to explain because when the band played well it was seamless.
That Garcia was was simply one of the finest guitarists of the era, a man who honed his craft at the feet of the muse of music and whose brooding melodies and mournful tones lent weight to the Dead’s mix.
When Jerry was on, when his warbling guitar and plaintive voice meshed with his bandmates the way it could only sometimes, it was as if, as one of their songs put, “the music played the band.”
All this must sound strange, I’m sure, to those who’ve never been there or who were not especially touched by the Dead. But is it strange? Is it different, really, from being moved by Mozart or Picasso or Mikhail Baryshnikov or John Lennon or any artist who takes risks on our behalf in pursuit of beauty?
Let me try and explain.
For me, it was about the music above all. The Dead played music unlike any other, an American music influenced by virtually every American music tradition. From there, they journeyed off into outer space, a place where they composed on the spot, trading riffs and musical ideas almost telepathically. There was a spirituality to it, a feeling that wherever they went they would end up where they wanted to be, always completing the circle. At its best, it was miraculous. And at its worst?
Well, one of the reasons I liked the Dead so much was that sometimes they were so damned bad. They forgot lyrics and couldn’t keep their instruments in tune, but they got out there and played anyway, taking the chance that in reaching for the brass ring — the times they reached what they called the “zone” — they could fall miserably short. To me that was always a metaphor for life and how it should be lived. Never be afraid to fail.
It was to catch those moments that for nearly 22 years, whenever it was convenient and sometimes when it wasn’t, I doffed my tie for tie-dye and went out with the Dead.
It started at my first show, Nov. 17, 1973, at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, where I was a student. I knew the band then, but I wasn’t what you could call a Deadhead. At least not until the band did something I never heard or saw them do again.
Communicating with one another musically, not in words or by way of a set list, they moved from song to song, launching into “Playing in the Band,” leaving it half finished to move into their anthem, “Uncle John’s Band.” They played half of that, before moving into the anti-war dirge “Morning Dew.” They played all of that before reversing the process and finishing the first two songs in reverse order. It was a kind of mathematical equation brought to music and I was hooked.
In years to come my passion grew. It got stronger as I entered my 40s and began going to shows with my friends and their children, watching the Dead became a family affair. I would see them maybe a dozen times annually, ranging from Albany to Washington and west to Cleveland. It would end some day I knew and I wanted to suck up as much of it as I could.
I’m glad I did. I was never so at peace and comfortable with myself than when I was at a show, the music washing over me, setting my soul on fire.
But it’s over now. Even if the band goes out on the road — I hope they don’t — it will only be a pale imitation. We’ll just have to get by on our memories and our tapes. Good-bye, Jerry. Thanks for coming and, as you sang to us so often, “May the four winds blow you safely home.”