16 years ago today, August 9, 1995, is the day that Jerry Garcia died. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out: I was working at a Counseling center in Santa Barbara, I was answering phones, among other things. I answered the phone that morning and it was my mom calling. She said "did you hear?" and I, at the time, was working and busy and didn't really have time for what I thought would be gossip (sorry Mom) and I said, impatiently, "hear what?" And I don't remember her exact words but I remember my reaction, which was to say "what?" The room I was in was filled with people, my boss, the Executive Director of the place, and a few of the counselors, and I guess the tone of my voice when I said "what" was enough to make everybody stop what they were doing and look at me with concern (it was a counseling center, after all). I remember my boss, Patricia, put her hand on my shoulder, because she knew something was up. I don't remember the rest of my phone call but I remember hanging up, explaining the deal to the folks in the room, and then trying to make it through the rest of my day in this dull kind of fog. I don't think I lasted more than an hour when she sent me home. At the time I was a member of a Grateful Dead online forum on AOL (probably the first of its kind) and I spent the rest of the day talking to people all over the world about it.
Now, you might think it unusual that the death of a musician would have such an impact, I've considered before trying to blog about how weird I thought it was that somebody I'd never met and never would meet could influence my life so much, but I was never really able to put it into words. I still don't think I can, but I'll certainly try. Hey, that's what blogging is for, right?
It's hard to explain, really, what it was like being a deadhead. You might think it was about the drugs, but for me, it wasn't. Sure, I tried one of everything, but I never actually found one that I liked enough to keep doing, so, no, it wasn't about the drugs. Was it about the music? Well, hell yeah, it was about the music, I mean come ON!
For me, though, it was more than that, it was about the community. The parking lot scene before the show started, the wait on the floor once we were inside, set break, the parking lot scene afterward, and all the general milling about in whatever town we were in, usually Oakland. Because it wasn't just one show we would go to, it was a weekend event; 3 shows in a row, if we're lucky, and then off to Sacramento or Mountain View for some more, if we were lucky. And driving up the 101 on our way to a show became a completely different experience from the usual driving on the freeway. Other cars with dead stickers contained friends we just hadn't met yet; we waved to each other because we knew where we were headed. I'll never forget something somebody said to me once: I had asked him "where are your friends?" and his response, "everybody here is my friend. Do you mean the people I came with?" And it was true, everybody there was your friend, even if you hadn't met them yet.
I had a hard time in high school; I was always fat, and I was really sarcastic, and people didn't always get that so they just thought I was a bitch. It was tough, trying to figure out who to be so that people would like me. (Man am I glad I'm older and just don't give a shit anymore!). One night, before I had ever been to a show, I was taking a walk with my brother and he asked me if I had ever been; I said no. He said I really should go because "a Grateful Dead show is the only place in the world where you can do and be whatever you want and nobody will judge you or care." I said, "the Renaissance Faire is kind of like that." He said "yeah, but can you do this at a Renaissance Faire?" and proceeds to start wiggling him arms and legs all over the place and yelling "WOOOOOOOOOOO." He was a wise man, that brother of mine, and if you knew him you can just imagine the crazy kind of dance he was doing. I was lucky and I eventually got to go to a few shows with him.
He was right, though; it WAS the only place in the world where you were free to be whomever you were. There was no trying to figure out who to be so you could fit in, because you would fit in no matter who you were. The stranger sitting next to you was your best friend for the 2+ hours that you were inside that show; the stranger who sold you your veggie burrito after the show was your best friend for as long as you stood there talking. There was nothing confusing about it, it was all just acceptance and love. And it wasn't about the drugs you were on, despite popular opinion, because I didn't take drugs.
And then the shows were over and we would go back to our lives as students or receptionists or music store clerks or whatever it was that we did, and we waited for the next shows so we could do it all again (and called that 1 800 number because there was no internet yet; does anybody remember that?) But then one day we found out there there would be no "next time," because Jerry was dead, and it was all over.
It seems odd that a community can live and die with one person, it kind of sounds like a cult. But when Jerry died, the Dead stopped touring and we had no place to gather. There were other bands, but it wasn't the same. For so long whenever I heard those first 4 notes of Touch of Grey on the radio (because that was the only song that ever got any radio time in Santa Barbara) I had to turn it off, I just couldn't listen to it. I went about a YEAR without listening to Eyes of the World because it was just too painful. I mourned for a long time, I still mourn, but eventually I found a community of my own, with my family.
So, that's my story, that's how a musician I never met or ever would meet had such an impact on my life. I don't know if I've done justice to his memory with this description of my experience, but, hey, I tried
Here are those two songs I referenced above, in case you've never heard them....
Touch of Grey, Bill Graham Memorial Concert, 11/3/91. I was at this show.