music / Columns

Jam Central Station: A Look at Jerry Garcia’s Life and Career

September 23, 2017 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski
Jerry Garcia



So often when I find myself in a musical rut, I turn to the music of Jerry Garcia. As time has gone on, I’ve expanded that exploration beyond the Grateful Dead to so many of his great side projects. While sometimes it’ll be Dick’s Picks Vol 2., more often than not I’ll turn to Old and In The Way or Garcia/Grisman or Cats Under The Stars. So much has been written about Garcia’s life, music, and legacy, and sometimes I like to take an opportunity to introduce some folks to the basics that they may not be aware of.

Jerry Garcia was born in 1942 in San Francisco, the son of a Spanish immigrant musician and a nurse. His father died when Jerry was only 5, but left a vast cadre of musical instruments for his son to experiment with. Jerry spent much of his free time as a child experimenting with different instruments in his house. He took some piano lessons as a child, but, according to interviews, he never took them very seriously and never learned to read music. He developed an ability to play music and sing by ear from singing with his older brother, who asked him to sing harmonies on popular songs that he would memorize. Coming from a musical family, he was encouraged to explore music and art from a young age.

He was initially most excited and engaged by art and literature. He began exploring art and art history after being a part of an art class in third grade, and he had a teacher encourage him to read 1984 when he was 12. This turned Jerry on to a whole new world, one outside of his school life. Much of his childhood was rough, however, and he began drinking at a young age and being as he once described it, a “hoodlum.” Outside of his day to day life of spending time drinking on the streets, however, he also led a secret life spending time at the San Francisco Art Institute or reading various books.

He also began following popular music as a teenager. Rock and roll was just getting started, and Jerry was following it passionately. He began yearning for his own guitar, but was disappointed on his 15th birthday when his mom bought him an accordion. He immediately traded that at a pawn shop for a cheap electric guitar and an amp, and began to teach himself to play. He played by ear for a year, then began learning basic chords from friends at school. He also began smoking pot at this time, an experience that he stated helped again to adjust his view of the world.

He started high school, but due to disciplinary problems and a general disinterest didn’t last long. Seeing no prospects for himself, he joined the Army at 17, following in his brother’s military footsteps. The Army gave him an opportunity to get away from home and meet others that shared his interest in music, but he simply wasn’t cut out for military life. He was discharged after 9 months, and he ventured to Palo Alto, where he met up with a number of old friends.

During his late teens and early 20’s, Jerry lived a very nomadic life, spending his time playing music, doing drugs, and hanging out with friends. He was always able to find enough work to scrape by, and there were always people to play music with. It was while living in Palo Alto that he initially met many people that would go on to form the core of the Grateful Dead family, including Robert Hunter, David Nelson, and Phil Lesh.

Garcia spent this time teaching guitar and banjo (despite being unable to read music himself) and playing in a variety of bands. Jerry had the idea of forming an old-time jug band in the early 60’s, and brought in friends Dave Nelson, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and a very young Bobby Weir to join him. The band quickly moved from old-time jug band to electric blues band to a rock band, changing their sound and style in order to find gigs. The band developed some popularity as they settled on a lineup and recorded an album. The lineup evolved as they developed more of a rock sound and, early in 1964, the jug band disbanded and, from the remnants, Garcia, Pigpen, and Weir brought in Bill Kreutzmann and formed The Warlocks.

After a couple of initial gigs, the band finalized their lineup by adding Phil Lesh on bass. After finding out that there was another band with the name The Warlocks, Garcia randomly opened a dictionary and read the words “The Grateful Dead.” With no other names for the band on the horizon, The Grateful Dead stuck.

It was during this time that Garcia initially began using LSD, and experience that he states completely changed who he was. LSD influenced his music, his lifestyle, and his personal philosophy. Garcia began to see an interconnectedness to the world, a truth, as he put it, that what he perceived was not all that was there. He attributed his musical freedom, his ability to experiment and improvise, to the freedom that LSD provided him.

The band began playing “Acid Test” shows, where the entire crowd would be high on LSD. This allowed The Grateful Dead complete freedom during these shows, as the crowd had no expectations that they were there to “see a band.” The crowd was there to be a part of the acid test, and the music was simply one experience of the event. Garcia welcomed this musical freedom, and sought to continue to harness that freedom in his live playing, which led to him becoming a best known for his improvisational guitar work.

The Grateful Dead’s career began to take off in the mid-60’s, with Jerry as lead guitar, vocalist, and primary songwriter. The band quickly rose out of the San Francisco psychedelic music scene, and was one of the main draws for Woodstock. The band became associated with long and diverse live performances, and Jerry was the reluctant spokesperson for the band. Musically, Jerry explored bluegrass, country, rock, psychedelic, and even jazz in his songwriting and his playing, and The Grateful Dead provided a great platform for him to work from.

Garcia didn’t just keep to The Grateful Dead, however. He was associated with the formation of the country-rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage, and joined the band in 1969. The band would often play and tour with The Grateful Dead, and Garcia, Hart, and Lesh would pull double duty with both bands. New Riders gave Garcia an outlet for his interest in playing pedal steel guitar, and was definitely a different feel from Garcia’s work with the Grateful Dead. Garcia’s full-time involvement in New Riders only lasted a short time, as he left the band in 1971 and was replaced by Buddy Cage on the steel guitar. He did return as a guest on their 1972 album, and he was featured on a pair of later releases by the band that included early material.

Garcia also began his solo recording career at this time. He recorded and released Garcia, playing all of the instruments other than the drums. The album included a number of songs that are typically thought of as Grateful Dead songs, since they became part of the Grateful Dead live repertoire. 1974’s Compliments was his second solo album, a collection of covers that he recorded with a vast array of fellow musicians.

Garcia used the increasing popularity of the Grateful Dead to take opportunities to record and work with a variety of his friends. He spent time in the studio with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Tom Fogerty, Warren Zevon, Country Joe McDonald, Bruce Hornsby, Bob Dylan, and others. He even was a part of some of the earliest forms of electronica with other members of the Grateful Dead. He was a guest musician, collaborator, producer, and quintessential artist.

In 1973, Garcia and friend David Grisman formed the bluegrass group Old and In The Way. The band would only record one album with Garcia (they regrouped for a second album after his death). Along with their self-titled album they released three live recordings from the 70’s, again after Jerry’s death.

After disbanding with Old and In The Way, Jerry went on to form the Jerry Garcia Band, which would be his primary musical outlet other than the Grateful Dead. The band would go through a variety of lineups, with Garcia and bassist John Kahn as the only permanent members of the band. The band started as a four-piece, but throughout the years had as many as seven members at any given time. They only released one studio album, 1978’s Cats Under the Stars. Garcia had said many times that Cats was the favorite album he made. The band also released a live album in 1991 and a variety of posthumous releases of live shows.

Jerry had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with his fame. He never accepted the title that was given to him as “leader” of the Grateful Dead or as the “guru” or “spiritual head” of the hippy movement or the Haight-Ashbury scene. His drug use in the 70’s increased, as he moved from pot and psychedelics to cocaine and heroin. Other members of the Grateful Dead were also on a variety of drugs, leading to problems in the band in the early 80’s. Garcia had the biggest problem controlling his habit, however, and was busted for drugs multiple times and had various stints in rehab. Further complicating his health was a weight problem that he was never fully in control of.

The Grateful Dead spent the 80’s recording and continuing their never-ending tour, and, during the down time, Jerry played with the Jerry Garcia Band or with other friends. After a near-death experience from a diabetic shock and coma, Garcia cleaned up again and the band went kept working. In 1987 they released In The Dark, an album that returned the band to the spotlight through the success of the single “Touch of Grey.”

Garcia remained clean and relatively healthy until 1989, when he began relapsing again. The band worked to get him clean, with varying degrees of success. Garcia also began recording with longtime friend David Grisman around this time, and the duo released a pair of albums in the early 90’s. Despite his health and addiction problems, he was still making inspired music in a variety of settings. Along with his musical work, he also began releasing his artwork to fans, including a series of J. Garcia ties featuring his work.

In an attempt to regain a healthy lifestyle, Garcia checked into the Betty Ford Center in July 1995 and then a different center in California a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately, this attempt to get clean proved to be too little too late, as he passed away of a heart attack on August 9. A public memorial drew over 25,000 Dead-heads in San Francisco, including past and present band members and musicians that he had influenced.

I remember hearing about his death when I was in high school and not truly understanding the significance at the time. I knew that the Grateful Dead were an important band, but I didn’t have a full picture as to how important the band and Jerry Garcia were. I know that the music Jerry made wasn’t something that was for everyone, but the people that got it passionately loved it, and Jerry. He inspired love and loyalty in his fans like no other artist has ever done or likely will ever do. Fans followed the band and Jerry on the road, sometimes for months or years on end, simply because they never knew what would happen at a show. Jerry Garcia was a musical genius and legend who was unfortunately lost too soon.



The Festy Experience
October 5-8
Infinity Downs
Arrington, VA
The Infamous Stringdusters, Ani DiFranco, Drive By Truckers, Elephant Revival, Sam Bush Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s, Jerry Douglas, Cabinet, Billy Strings, Beats Antique

Hillberry Music Festival
October 12-15
Eureka Springs, AR
Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Dumpstaphunk, Dirtfoot

Suwannee Roots Revival
October 12-15
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, The Wood Brothers, Peter Rowan Dharma Blues featuring Jack Cassidy, Donna the Buffalo, Steep Canyon Rangers

Hangtown Music Festival
October 26-29
Placerville, CA
Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Dark Star Orchestra, Leftover Salmon, Turkuaz

Suwannee Hulaween
October 27-29
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
The String Cheese Incident, Ween, Bassnectar, The Disco Biscuits, Portugal The Man, Lettuce, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Benevento/Russo Duo, Greensky Bluegrass, Kamasi Washington, TAUK, Dumpstafunk, Spafford

Dominican Holidaze
December 1-5
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Umphrey’s McGee, STS9, The Disco Biscuits, GRiZ, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, TAUK, The Motet, Lotus, Spafford

Strings & Sol
December 8-12
Now Sapphire
Puerto Morelos, MX
Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds in Mexico
January 12-14
Riviera Maya, MX

Gov’t Mule’s Island Exodus
January 13-17
Jewel Paradise Cove
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey & Mofro

Jam in the Sand
January 18-22
Jewel Paradise Cove
Ruanaway Bay, Jamaica
Dark Star Orchestra, Hot Tuna, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Jam Cruise
January 17-22
Medeski, Martin, Scofield & Wood, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Maceo Parker, Lotus, Lettuce, Gramatik, Keller Williams, The New Mastersounds, Dumpstaphunk, Turkuaz, The Main Squeeze

Gem & Jam
January 25-28
Tuscon, AZ
STS9, Greensky Bluegrass, Lettuce, Breaking Biscuits, Emancipator, Railroad Earth

Panic En La Playa
January 26-30
Riviera Maya, Mexico

June 7-10
Manchester, TN


Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!