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This first appeared in the August 25, 1995 issue of BAM Magazine, and has since been reprinted in The Grateful Dead Reader (2000. ISBN 0-19-512470-7) from Oxford University Press. Copyright 1995, 2001 by Mary Eisenhart and BAM Media. All rights reserved.
The phone rang a little after dawn this morning. Fred, an English
Deadhead I hadn't seen in eight years, was calling to convey
the Brits' condolences to the Yanks. I told him the memorial in
Golden Gate Park had been beautiful, but that once Bob Weir started
weeping in mid-eulogy, the truth was inescapable.
In England, Fred said, they'd gathered for their regularly scheduled monthly Deadfest. They'd played the newly arrived tapes of Garcia's last show with the Dead, at Chicago's Soldier Field on July 9th. They'd shared their memories. And then they'd played "Ripple," Garcia's voice sweet and strong:
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand, then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way, I would take you home.
Whatever you say about Jerry Garcia and the next months are sure to bring Rashomon-like tales of love, brilliance, generosity, and self-destruction he wasn't interested in following anyone, and he wasn't about to be anybody's leader. Not the Grateful Dead's, and not the Deadheads'. There was a big crazy universe out there and he was too busy checking it out.
True, he could convince you in about six notes that jumping off this musical cliff with him and the guys was the best possible thing you could do. True, a few hours with him and the guys could leave you questioning the entire course of your life to that point and revising it drastically. But you had to figure it out for yourself: nobody could do it for you. And if Jerry Garcia couldn't stop his adoring audience from making him an icon in absentia, he made it clear that he was nobody's guru.
"I know better, you know?" he laughed when we did an interview in 1987. "You know yourself for the asshole that you are; you know yourself for the person who makes mistakes, and that's capable of being really stupid, and doing stupid things. I don't know who you'd have to be to believe that kind of stuff about yourself, to believe that you were somehow special. If I start believing that kind of stuff, everybody's going to just turn around and walk away from me. Nobody would let me get away with it, not for a minute. That's the strength of having a group. For me it's easier to believe a group than it is a person. Certainly one of the things that makes the Grateful Dead interesting, from my point of view, is that it's a group of people. The dynamics of the group is the part that I trust."
Garcia's death on August 9th was surely the worst blow the group has sustained in its 30-year history, and the Dead's future to say nothing of that of the Deadheads remains an open question. But, as Garcia said in 1987, "Remember who we are? We are in reality a group of misfits, crazy people, who have voluntarily come together to work this stuff out and do the best we can, and try to be as fair as we possibly can with each other. And just struggle through life."
Drummer Mickey Hart drew wild applause from the assembled Golden Gate Park mourners when he said, "If the Grateful Dead did anything, we gave you the power. You take it home and do something with it. We didn't do this for nothing."
But when Garcia's daughter Annabelle added that as we move through life's trials we should ask ourselves "What would Jerry do?" the guy next to me muttered, "Yeah, and do the opposite!"
No point turning the man into a role model now that he's not here to defend himself.