Biography of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)

Jerry Garcia was Born in San Francisco on August 1, 1942. Known as the Spanish-American kid with a missing finger, he didn't have a very good childhood. He saw his father drown when he was five and was unable to save him. Also around that time he lost the finger. His mother tried to teach him to play the piano, but Jerry hated keyboards. He was ecstatic, however, when she finally got him a guitar. He dropped out of school possibly because he was too non-conformist to march around from class to class at a typical high school (the same thing happened to me) and possibly to concentrate on his music.

Sometime in the late 50's Jerry migrated to Palo Alto. He served some time in the Army in order to avoid serving time in jail (I have no idea what kind of trouble he had gotten into). In Palo Alto, Jerry met Pigpen (Ron McKernan). The two were practically blood brothers, they had so much in common. Like Jerry, Pigpen came from a family with a musical background and he had also dropped out of school. Both of them pretty much lived life on the wild side, and Polo Alto was pretty wild in those days. For one thing, Ken Kesey was there, and for another, LSD experiments were going on at both Stanford University (where Allen Ginsberg first took LSD) and at Menlo Park (where Ken Kesey first took LSD). Then, there was the scene going on on Perry Lane, but Jerry didn't connect up with any of this until almost the mid sixties.

In the early sixties, folk music was the thing among the college students of the day and it pretty well stayed that way until the day Kennedy got shot and the Beatles caught on like the plague. Before that happened, Jerry was into kind of a folk-bluegrass-country thing. Jerry and Pigpen played together as early as 1961 and continued to play together for the next 11 years. At first, they had a jug band going, but at the start of 1965, Pigpen was able to convince Jerry to put a rock and roll band together, and that was when the Warlocks formed. They used that name throughout 1965, but near the end of the year, they found they had an identity problem. Another band already had that name. That's when Jerry opened up the dictionary and found the words The Grateful Dead and in the sixties, you couldn't come up with a better name for a band, especially one with Pigpen and Jerry in it. 

Sometime during 1965, Jerry took LSD for the first time, but Pigpen preferred his beer and whiskey. I'm not sure who turned him on. Then Jerry somehow connected up with Ken Kesey, who needed a rock and roll band for his Acid Tests, and the Grateful Dead turned out to be the perfect band. Owsley saw the band but didn't like their sound system, which was more or less what all the bands were using. He got the band some Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater speaker cabinets, professional low-impedance microphones and mixing console. This equipment could blow away anything any other band had, including the Beatles. With the better sound systems, the Grateful Dead could perform in front of bigger and bigger audiences, and this probably had a major role in kicking off the music scene in the Haight-Ashbury.

Although the Dead started attracting a major following from the very start, a series of setbacks occurred during the next 10 years that were so bad, they almost finished off the Grateful Dead. The first thing that went wrong was the bust at the Dead's pad at 710 Ashbury. Jerry lucked out on that one but Pigpen and Bob wound up in the slammer.

The next trouble happened with the Dead's first album. They had more trouble with Warner Brothers than any band in the history of rock and roll. They made the Dead record it on an old four-track vacuum tube mixing console that looked like it dated back to World War II, and it was the only Grateful Dead album not recorded in stereo. The technical quality of that album was not up to par with the other band's albums, and as a result, it didn't sell very well. The next album, Anthem of the Sun went better and sold better, but the next recording session, which was done live at the Shrine Auditorium, was such a disaster that it took 20 years to rescue the recording, which is just great when they need to pay the bills now. Then, in 1970, Jerry's mother died. 

Like many bands, the Grateful Dead had management problems so serious that they threatened to finish off the band and it may have led to Pigpen's death. They seemed to have a problem making payments on Pigpen's Hammond organ and it had a nasty habit of being repossessed right before some important show. They had also bought a fleet of cars for the band and Pigpen really loved his, but they couldn't make the payments on them, so they got repossessed. I think there were two events that finally finished Pigpen off. The first was he got dosed really badly at Fillmore East and the second was the death of Janis Joplin, who he loved. I think it was pretty close to then that he got so sick that he had to be hospitalized for alcoholism treatment. Although he never drank again after that, he didn't survive.

Up until Pigpen's death, he was the soul of the Grateful Dead, since he more or less took over the stage while the rest of the band played behind him. People would come to the shows to see Pigpen do his thing and they went nuts over him. He was the main Icon of the Dead, and his picture appeared on many of the posters for the Dead shows. When he died, all of this changed and Jerry became the soul of the band. The Grateful Dead became a different band when they lost Pigpen. 

Mickey Hart was so hurt by his father running off with the band's money that he had to leave the band for a year. I think the next disaster the band had was with the Wall of Sound sound system they were so proud of. Although it sounded great, the band soon discovered that they couldn't make a profit as long as they used it. It was just too big and it took too many roadies to set it up and too many trucks to move it from gig to gig. I'm not sure when they got rid of it but they only did four gigs in 1975 and took the rest of the year off to try to work things out. For a while, there was some doubt that Grateful Dead would continue, but somehow, they worked everything out and went on. Things seemed to go smoothly until the end of the 70's, when the Dead had to fire their keyboard player and his wife.

The only trouble the Dead seemed to have in the 80's was when Jerry got sick and almost died. Somehow, he pulled through, took better care of himself and improved. Near the beginning of the 90's Jerry got sick again and had to lay low for a while, but again, he bounced back. Close to this time, the band's third keyboard player died and had to be replaced. This last time Jerry got sick, I knew he probably wouldn't be around much longer. Somehow, I could just feel it. Even so, his sudden death caught me (and probably a lot of people) totally off guard. I never thought about what it would mean when he actually did die or how many people it would affect. I can think of only four important icons of the Haight-Ashbury era, which are Ken Kesey, Hugh Romney, Allen Ginsberg, and Jerry Garcia. Of those four, only Jerry Garcia gave his full time to the events happening in the Haight-Ashbury. He clocked more hours there than anyone else, with the only exception being the other original members of the band, but it was Jerry who made the band work.

On August 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia was found dead at 4:23 am PDT and all attempts to revive him failed.


Copyright © 1995-1998, Colin Pringle