Jerome John Garcia made the world an infinitely groovier place between his arrival on August 1, 1942 and his departure, at age 53, on August 9, 1995. As the leader of the Grateful Dead and a mammoth cultural icon on par with the all-time greats, Jerry Garcia truly made his time among us count.
Now it’s been 20 years since Captain Trips blasted off our big blue marble for whatever realm follows this one. As Jerry’s Dead bandmates honored him in Chicago this past July with their last so ever, let’s pay tribute to the psychedelic guitar wizard and songwriting visionary with a round-up of odds, ends, and little-known insights into the man turned on multiple generations to the highest possibilities (pun intended) of mind-expanding rock.
Jerry Garcia, to you, we’ll forever be grateful.
1. Jerry is named Jerome in honor of Broadway composer Jerome Kern, who, in turn, is best known for the musical Show Boat and the songbook standards “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Long Ago (and Far Away).”
2. Cherry Garcia was Ben and Jerry’s first ice cream flavor named after a celebrity. The sweet-makers have since put out special editions in honor of Phish, John Lennon, Willie Nelson, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Monty Python, Elton John, Dave Matthews, and more.
3. Punk rockers are reputed to despise the Grateful Dead, reserving special Mohawk-scalped rage for their bearded leader. One glaring exception is Greg Ginn, founder and lead guitarist of punk powerhouse Black Flag, who not only names the Dead as his all-time favorite band, but Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir as his all-time favorite guitar players.
4. Childhood asthma issues laid up young Jerry and instilled in him a love of reading. He was especially fond of comic books, and built up a world-class collection throughout his life. In 1991, he officially launched a line of Grateful Dead Comix.
5. While always questioning of the powers that be, young Jerry did manage to get along okay in the Boy Scouts, earning merit badges for compass reading, knot tying, and life saving.
6. While the Grateful Dead always eschewed corporate sponsorship, in 1987, Jerry recorded a radio commercial for Levi’s Jeans. He later said: “It wasn’t The Grateful Dead. I make that distinction. The reason I did it, really, was because I had some friends that needed work. I had a lot of them out there starving. And when it’s possible to do something to be able to let some of those guys do some work, hey, you know…”
7. Jerry’s ashes were split up and scattered in the Ganges River in India, a country that fascinated him but that he never got to visit, and underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Jerry was quite familiar with that latter locale.
8. Country music’s influence on the Grateful Dead is unmistakable. Jerry credited that to his beloved grandmother, with whom he’d listen to radio shows from the Grand Ole Opry. As he once recalled: “I grew up in San Francisco listening to the Opry every Saturday night on the radio without knowing what I was hearing. In fact, my first 45 was a Hank Williams record, a song called ‘The Love Bug Itch.’”
9. No up-and-coming 1960s musician went untouched by the first storm of Beatlemania. After being electrified in 1964 by the Fab Four’s debut film, A Hard Day’s Night, Jerry informed his bandmates in the all-acoustic Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions to plug in, power up, and rock out. His fellow players Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan ecstatically agreed.
10. Sci-fi fanatic Jerry especially loved the work of authors Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
11. Vonnegut sold Jerry the film rights to his classic novel, The Sirens of Titan. Between 1983 and ’85, Garcia worked on a screenplay adaptation with Saturday Night Live writer Tom Davis. Health complications and other matters delayed Jerry from seeing the movie through to fruition, and it remained one of his (few) unfulfilled dreams when he died in 1995.
12. One science fiction film that Jerry did get to participate in was Philip Kaufman’s acclaimed 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He plays the music that emanates from a banjo being plucked on screen by a homeless beggar. Fans have often erroneously believed that it’s Garcia himself who appears in the part.
13. Another soundtrack to which Garcia contributed was Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 psychedelic cult freak-out, Zabriskie Point. He composed and performs the music during the film’s orgiastic outdoor love scene which was one succinctly summed up by Jerry thusly: “It’s a whole lot of people balling in Death Valley… A friend of mine, in fact, is in that scene somewhere. The guy that painted the album cover for our second album. Nice tie-in, you know!”
14. Aside from The Grateful Dead Movie (1977), Jerry’s most noteworthy big-screen appearance occurs in the documentary Gimme Shelter, which horribly/brilliantly chronicles the Rolling Stones lethally doomed free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway.
The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play the show and the camera depicts Jerry Garcia getting off a helicopter and catching wind of the psychotic violence in the air, specifically regarding the Hell’s Angels, who were serving as “security” knocking out Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin.
“The Angels are beatin’ on the musicians?” Jerry asks, incredulously. When assured they are, Captain Trips states simply, “Bummer!” Then he gets back on the helicopter and flies home.
15. Although the Grateful Dead performed at 1969’s historic Woodstock Festival, the group doesn’t appear in the famous movie, nor are they on the soundtrack album. Jerry simply didn’t feel like the Dead’s playing that day was up to par, and therefore didn’t want it immortalized.
16. Rolling Stone ranked Jerry at #46 in its list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Carlos Santana wrote Jerry’s entry, noting: “Most people who play the blues are very conservative. They stay a certain way. Jerry Garcia was painting outside the frame. He played blues but mixed it with bluegrass and Ravi Shankar. He had country and Spanish in there. There was a lot of Chet Atkins in him – going up and down the frets. But you could always hear a theme in his playing. … Jerry was the sun of the Grateful Dead – the music they played was like planets orbiting around him.”
17. Jerry was an avid abstract painter. Fans who weren’t able to purchase any original work from his first solo show in 1990 at the Weir Gallery have kept the imagery alive and copious by way of Jerry Garcia Ties, which remain a highly popular neck accessory. The ties’ signature image is a print of Jerry’s right hand, noticeably missing three-quarters of the middle finger, which he lost at age four during a wood-chopping accident with his brother.
18. Toward the end of his life, Jerry took up scuba diving with massive passion, noting in 1993: “Diving takes up a lot of the space that drugs used to. It’s an ecstatic experience. I love it almost as much as I love the music.”
19. In 1962, iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce hired teenage Jerry to transcribe his act for documents the comic was creating to battle obscenity charges. Lenny’s essential anti-authoritarianism and free-flowing improvisational expression deeply impacted the young Garcia.
20. Jerry composed the eerie theme music for CBS’s 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone, which was then performed by the Grateful Dead.