Grateful Dead’s Legendary Leader Dies At 53
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Jerry Garcia, the mellow spirit who led the Grateful Dead since the psychedelic 1960s and helped make the rock band a way of life for its hordes of nomadic fans, died at a drug rehab center Wednesday. He was 53.
Garcia died in bed of a heart attack, said Dennis McNally, the band’s publicist and historian for 15 years. Garcia had a history of drug abuse but had been trying to clean up and lose weight in recent years.
The guitarist, composer and singer was mourned by the devoted, anonymous hordes known as Deadheads who made the Grateful Dead a top concert draw into the 1990s as well as by politicians and business leaders who came of age with the band.
``Jerry was the persona of what Deadheads were all about. He was this cute, fat old guy with a beard, you know, he looked like somebody’s grandfather, but when he got on stage to sing to 20,000 kids, everyone would understand it,″ said guitar teacher and Grateful Dead fan Jon Dindas.
Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a 50-year-old Republican and an unabashed fan, called Garcia’s death ``a loss to both my generation and my children’s.″
``More than any one song it was just the consistently mellow approach they took to everything, life as well as music,″ Weld said.
In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the mecca of ’60s counterculture, a single red rose was tied to a tree at 710 Ashbury, where the Dead began their long, strange rock ‘n’ roll trip three decades ago. A crowd gathered, some crying and hugging. One man knelt in prayer.
Word of Garcia’s death also quickly spread on the Internet, where so many fans were sharing their grief Wednesday, the Sausalito-based WELL computer network posted warnings of a system slowdown.
Under Garcia, the Grateful Dead combined rock, bluegrass and folk influences into a unique stew.
Among the band’s best known songs were ``Truckin’,″ ``Casey Jones,″ ``Sugar Magnolia″ and ``Friend of the Devil.″ Its only top 10 hit was the 1987 song ``Touch of Grey,″ with its refrain ``I will survive.″
The potbellied, wild-haired Garcia spoke rarely in concert, making for a Yoda-like presence whose every utterance was given oracular significance by fans eager to spread his message of peace and love.
Garcia branched out in later years, designing silk ties, mens’ shirts and wetsuits. The hippie capitalists at Ben & Jerry’s even named a flavor of ice cream Cherry Garcia for the man they said inspired their business philosophy.
``The Grateful Dead has truly become something,″ Garcia told The Associated Press in 1992. ``I don’t know exactly what we are. But on a good night, it’s still really fun _ really fun. Even for us.″
In concert, Garcia was either spotty or spectacular. On occasion he forgot lyrics or strained to hit high notes in some slow-tempo standards such as ``Sugaree″ and ``Ship of Fools.″
But his intricately improvised guitar solos breathed new life into even overworked numbers, sending dancing Deadheads into paroxysms of glee.
``It might be one of the last great spontaneous bands _ people who were not afraid to experiment as they were doing it. This was not pre-recorded music,″ folksinger Arlo Guthrie said.
On the road, it was the fans who often took center stage, an army in tie-dyed clothes who trailed after the band in a motley collection of Volkswagen vans and beat-up cars.
``He was the leader of a band that was more than a band. It was a scene, it was a lifestyle,″ said Arnie Fagan, 30, who sells T-shirts and other Grateful Dead memorabilia in his Cool Stuff store in Columbia, Mo.
But the Dead also drew people who pulled up in BMWs. Vice President Al Gore is a fan. So was Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said Garcia’s death had him feeling ``like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.″
They rarely recorded (the last Grateful Dead studio album was ``Built to Last″ in 1989) but the band was consistently one of the year’s top touring bands. Their last show was July 9 at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
McNally said Wednesday he was surprised to learn Garcia had checked back into rehab, but attributed the stay at Serenity Knolls in suburban Marin County to ``increased attention to his health.″
Garcia had a history of health problems that caused occasional breaks in the band’s grueling concert schedule. He fell into a diabetic coma in 1986, and after another hospital stay in 1991 for exhaustion, he renounced drugs, slimmed down, stopped smoking and hired a personal fitness trainer.
``It was a meltdown. Too many cigarettes, too much junk food and too little exercise,″ McNally said last year.
Garcia was born Aug. 1, 1942, in San Francisco, the son of a Spanish-born swing-band leader. He was raised mostly by his grandmother, who founded a union for laundry workers _ one reason why Garcia never crossed a picket line.
He took up guitar at age 15, hanging out in coffee bars where he read Jack Kerouac and drank in San Francisco’s Beatnik atmosphere. After a short-lived stint in the military, he formed a number of folk and bluegrass bands, including the Hart Valley Drifters and the Black Mountain Boys.
He later performed with his own group, The Jerry Garcia Band. But the Dead became his life. He founded the band in 1964 along with Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Ron ``Pigpen″ McKernan and Phil Lesh.
Three members have died: Brent Mydland in 1990 of a drug overdose, McKernan of liver disease in 1973 and Keith Godchaux in a 1980 highway crash after he left the group.
There had also been problems at several recent concerts. In Indiana, a crush of gate crashers led to a series of arrests and the cancellation of the following night’s show. A few days later, after a concert in St. Louis, a deck collapsed during a rainstorm at a campground used by Deadheads, and more than 100 were injured.
Garcia is survived by his third wife, filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia, and four daughters: Heather, 32, Annabelle, 25, Teresa, 21 and Keelin, 6.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately disclosed.