Remembering the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on the 20th Anniversary of His Death

Seeing the Dead in concert wasn't always a rosy experience, but the iconic frontman's legacy lives on.

Twenty years ago today, on Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia passed away at Serenity Knolls, a rehab facility 30 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. He’d just turned 53 and it was exactly a month since the Grateful Dead played their final show with Garcia in Chicago on July 9.

Just a week earlier, only July 2, Deadheads crashed the gate at Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana, leading the band to issue their famous “This Darkness Got to Give” statement on July 5, which concluded:

A few more scenes like Sunday night, and we’ll quite simply be unable to play. The spirit of the Grateful Dead is at stake, and we’ll do what we have to do to protect it. And when you hear somebody say “F--- you, well do what we want,” remember something.

That applies to us, too.

As it turned out, Garcia made the decision for the band to stop performing for their legion of traveling fans. He wasn’t well. On stage during the summer tour Garcia forgot lyrics and was “less animated than usual,” according to Chicago Tribune music scribe Greg Kot. Drugs, touring and diabetes had taken their toll.

After so many years on the road, Garcia was tired and he needed a break, just not his last break.

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My final Grateful Dead show was on Sunday, June 18, 1995 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (a.k.a. the Meadowlands). It was the first of two Jersey dates. The parking lot was crowded with excited ’heads and vendors -- a veritable “Shakedown Street.” They opened the second set with my favorite Dead song, “China Cat Sunflower,” and closed with the crowd pleaser “Not Fade Away,” then encored with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Though I knew the tour had its problems, I hardly expected it would be the last time I would ever see the Grateful Dead this close to its original form, with Garcia at the helm.

Afterwards, my friends and I huffed a few nitrous balloons in the lot as we went through the set list in our heads that also included “Eyes of the World,” “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat” and a first-set closing “Deal” (a solo Garcia number).  

When I think about it now, I had come full circle with the Dead that night in New Jersey. Twenty-four years earlier, I attended my first Grateful Dead show on Aug. 26, 1971 at, of all places, an Irish football stadium, Gaelic Park, in the Bronx, New York neighborhood where I grew up. I literally walked to my first Dead show, which featured a “China Cat/I Know You Rider” second set opener, just as they did in 1995. “China Cat” is the Dead at their most sublime -- an intricate Garcia/Robert Hunter song that sounds like jazz and reads like Beat poetry: 

Look for awhile at the China Cat Sunflower
proud-walking jingle in the midnight sun
Copper-dome Bodhi drip a silver kimono
like a crazy-quilt stargown
through a dream night wind

Krazy Kat peeking through a lace bandana
like a one-eyed Cheshire
like a diamond-eye Jack
A leaf of all colors plays
a golden string fiddle
to a double-e waterfall over my back

Comic book colors on a violin river
crying Leonardo words
from out a silk trombone
I rang a silent bell
beneath a shower of pearls
in the eagle wing palace
of the Queen Chinee

I always loved when they played “China Cat,” which was recorded originally on Aoxomoxoa, the band’s 1969 album; it was like they were playing it for me. My second show, at the Berkeley Community Theater on Aug. 24, 1972 also included “China Cat/Rider,” as well as “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew.”

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As I learned more about the band I understood not only their role in the psychedelic revolution, but also their link to the Beat Generation. Garcia, who started as a banjo picker before he got serious about guitar, took us on extraordinary flights of six-string fancy, nimbly navigating scales in his pursuit of glorious perfection, and prompting epiphanies and great realizations on our parts (especially if one was under the influence, which I was).

Garcia and Hunter led the way, producing most of the great songs in the Dead catalog, from “Truckin’” to “Touch of Grey.”

Captain Trips (Garcia) certainly was the band’s focal point. If he and the band gobbled mad doses of acid, then so would the followers. In later years, fans mimicked Garcia’s heroin use as well.

The day Garcia died, I was sitting at my desk at High Times magazine when I heard the news. His long, strange trip was over, I sighed, and started to write an obituary that ended up a cover story. I may not have been an over-the-top Deadhead, but the band was a big part of my life. With Garcia gone, I knew that would come to an end as well.

I didn’t make it to Fare The Well. Neither did Jerry Garcia. But the band played on. It always does. It always will. That’s how Jerry would’ve wanted it.

Update: Dates of the Bronx, Berkeley and East Rutherford shows were corrected.