I’d heard the news by 9:00 a.m. Jerry Garcia had been found dead of natural causes at a rehab center in Marin. A former roommate who currently lives in L.A. had called me to gloat about it, hanging up and letting the phone ring four more times in order to wake me rather than merely leave a message.
“Ha ha ha!” she jeered jubilantly. “You live in the eye of the storm. I bet they’re parading up Haight Street right this minute. I bet Ben & Jerry’s [the tie-dye-friendly ice cream parlor on the corner of Haight and Ashbury] is mobbed. I bet they drum annoyingly all day long. I bet CBS News calls you up for a quote any minute.
“Better quick think of something gracious,” she added, “or else you’ll need to go in a witness protection program by nightfall.”
We hung up, and the phone rang instantly. It was CBS News, asking for a quote. Luckily, I came up with something. “I just wish,” I said as carefully as I could, “that Kurt Cobain could have lived so long.”
Of course it’s sad that Jerry’s dead, at least when you consider him as a human being as opposed to as an icon. I feel sorry for his family — his three wives, four kids, and the bandmates whose gravy train will now grind to a halt without him.
But as a Bay Area native who’s lived two blocks from Haight Street for more than a decade, it’s difficult for me to think of him as human.
This was life on Haight Street, B.J.D. (before Jerry’s Death). Any time the Dead were coming to town — or Jerry was playing solo with the Jerry Garcia Band — for a week before and after the gig: Legions of stringy-haired girls sit cross-legged at every corner, asking if you want them to wrap your hair for $10. Equally hairy guys, the owners of sad-faced, poorly groomed, probably hungry dogs wander about asking if you want to buy some bud. All of them blocking the pavement, 24 hours a day, going,“Spare some change, spare some change, spare some change? We need gas to go to Vegas. A ride to the Oakland Coliseum. Tickets for Sunday’s show.”
Need, need, need. Give, give, give. What did these Deadheads give back to my community? Mess. Noise. Traffic. Bad LSD, overpriced bracelets, and an atmosphere of fuzzy-headed dissipation diffusing itself throughout the land. Just the sight of them makes me want to yell, “Get a fucking job or go back home to your rich, white Marin County parents.”
Greil Marcus says that the Grateful Dead provided a ready-made identity for young people searching for one. I don’t object to that so much; that is, after all, the role of punk, goth, rockabilly, and every other form of music. It’s just that I found the ready-made identity that the Dead provided to be illusory, conservative, out of touch, and — this is the real rub — aesthetically unpleasing.
What on earth was its appeal? Music notwithstanding — to my mind, the Dead were merely a competent cover band that played meandering white-folk blues — what could anyone find attractive in the smelly and passé?
The Dead are supposed to represent some hearkening back to the ideological ’60s. And they do, fashionwise. (Don’t get me started on the artistic transgressions of R. Crumb, Kelley Mouse, and Jerry’s line of ties.) Also ’60s-like, they support saving the rainforest and blind children in Tibet, two worthy issues that are, nonetheless, totally irrelevant to life in America.
Concomitantly, many Deadheads are the type of people who act all PC and bitch about various political ills (mainly that marijuana isn’t legal) but still don’t bother to vote because “everyone’s corrupt, maaan.” FYI, I have seen the Dead perform five times. The first time I was four years old. Pigpen went to my high school. My brother is a Deadhead.
- Q: Why do Deadheads space dance?
- A: To keep the flies off.
- Q: What’s a Deadhead’s favorite color?
- A: Guatemalan.
- Q: How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb?
- A: They don’t change it, they just wait till it burns out and then follow it around for 30 years.
- Q: What did the Deadhead say when the acid wore off?
- A: Heeeey, this music sucks! Q: What’s Ben and Jerry’s newest flavor? A: Berry Jerry.
My real objection to the Grateful Dead? The drugs. Three band members’ deaths in 20 years — now four, if you count Jerry — and countless other rumors, episodes, stories swirling around the band, heightening the already out-of- control atmosphere of condoning that surrounds this band’s “long, strange trip.” How glamorous and romantic, huh?
At this point, my hatred of the Dead phenome- non has become so intense and profound that I sometimes think I must secretly love them. You know, how the things one hates about oneself are always the most repellent when viewed in other people? When I was living right off Haight Street in the mid-’80s, living my most underground, counter-cultural, non-consumer-oriented, punk-rock life, I thought my outlook was as far removed from Deadheads’ as it was possible to be. My friends and I abhorred the Deadheads who plagued Haight Street; but to outsiders, we all probably looked exactly alike: junk-store clothing, weird hair, and so forth.
Plus, there was a similarity of purpose between the grunge and the hippie scene that even now I am loathe to acknowledge. “Our little group has always been and always will until the end...” Come off it, Gina. Who are you kidding? You and your punk-rock pals were also rich, white countercultural types looking for a community to belong to. Minus the negativity and the fact that we didn’t panhandle, there wasn’t that much difference.
The truth is, joking aside, I feel sorry for Dead- heads. I know what it’s like to lose the center of your scene. And heroes are hard to find. Musically, I don’t think the Dead’s legacy will be all that meaningful, so they will not haunt us through the ages like Elvis and Kurt and the Beatles. But nevertheless, the death of Jerry is the end of an era. And that means today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Hallelujah!