Share this article

print logo


An American Life
By Blair Jackson
498 pages, $34.95

In the beginning, the Grateful Dead was the house band for the famous "acid tests," the LSD-powered performances that had begun as parties hosted by Ken Kesey and friends in La Honda, on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Almost 30 years later they were at Candlestick Park, on the San Francisco Giants' opening day, to sing the national anthem. They were preceded by Tony Bennett.

What a long, strange trip that was. Along the way they became the most durable group to emerge from the 1960s and, at the height of their celebrity as a touring band, one of the most profitable ever in America, grossing $52.4 million in 1994. As Blair Jackson notes, they were "an improbable corporate giant -- a millionaire band that still had a hippie image in the straight world."

This is all documented in a long-awaited (by Dead fans) biography of Jerry Garcia. It is a fan's biography and a companion to the music, rather than, say, a psychologist's or a muckraker's, being largely oblivious to -- or is it respectful of? -- Garcia's private life. It treats Garcia as a musician first and last, and except for side notes on Garcia's erratic relations with women and brief allusions to the four daughters he fathered, stays focused on Garcia's music, both with the Dead and with other groups that came and went in his life: Old and in the Way, the Jerry Garcia Band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Jerry Garcia-David Grisman duo.

Jackson knows this history as well as anyone, having been publisher from 1984 to 1993 of the Dead fanzine Golden Road and author of two previous books: "Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped" and "Goin' Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion." At its best, "Garcia: An American Life" is a musical history of the great upheaval of the 1960s, making the case implicitly that in the cultural revolution it was music, with its promise of freedom, wonder and transformation, that fueled the politics, not the other way around.

At less inspired moments, Jackson's book is a monotonous recital of cities, concert dates and playlists, especially in the last 10 years when the band's musical evolution came to a standstill and life for its members -- Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and a succession of keyboardists -- became a hectic blur of stadium concerts taken on to meet a mega-payroll that included Garcia's costly alimony and mortgage payments. Indeed, if the book is about something it is about success as a juggernaut that rolls over the unprepared, including Garcia himself, who died of a heart attack while in drug treatment in 1995.

In this the book resembles one of those rueful Hollywood biographies about the tattered lives behind the hype and glitz, and if Jackson gives short shrift to Garcia's inner life, it may be because at a certain point the inner life became an obstacle to truckin', and truckin' took priority.

I don't think Jackson set out to write a fable about the evils of cigarette smoking and drug use, both of which contributed mightily to Garcia's death. He does, however, draw a vivid picture of a life in which drugs were the necessary and inevitable ingredients in the musical cauldron.

Early on it was marijuana, LSD and the other hallucinogens that, as transformers of consciousness, enabled the abandon, the recklessness and the turbulent mysticism of Dead performances, which at certain magic moments became musical shamanism, as the Dead led the audiences through experiences of primordial, frightening intensity and then eased them gently back to earth.

By the mid-1980s, however, Garcia was deep into the naked lunch of cocaine and heroin, which damaged his music as much as they damaged his health.

There had been other fallen soldiers, beginning with the band's original keyboardist, Ron ("Pigpen") McKernan, who gave the group its blues licks and its good-mornin'-little-schoolgirl sassiness, but whose alcoholism ravaged his body before he was out of his 20s. The band's second keyboardist, Keith Godchaux, was let go because of his heroin addiction, and his successor, Brent Mydland, died of an overdose in 1990. Jackson details the pressures of the touring life and quotes Garcia's second wife, Carolyn Adams (a k a "Mountain Girl"), on what was happening to Garcia in the 1990s: "It just felt like there was this machine -- the gears were in gear -- and there was no way to stop it."

Playing nearly non-stop requires inner resources you can't develop on the road, and Garcia spoke of this after Mydland's death:

"He didn't have much supporting him in terms of an intellectual life. I owe a lot of who I am and what I've been and what I've done to the beatniks from the '50s and to the poetry and art and music I've come in contact with. I feel like I'm part of a certain thing in American culture, of a root. But Brent . . . wasn't a reader, and he hadn't really been introduced to the world of ideas on any level. So a certain part of him was like a guy in a rat cage, running as fast as he could and not getting anywhere. He didn't have any deeper resources."

Garcia did make efforts to break free, by developing his graphic arts skills, by becoming a necktie designer, by playing more with Grisman and the Jerry Garcia Band (where, ironically, fellow musician John Kahn, himself a heroin addict, fed Garcia's habit), and by hopscotching unpredictably between the women in his life, Mountain Girl (mother of two daughters), Manasha Matheson (mother of another daughter), Barbara Meier (a teen-age girlfriend rediscovered late in life) and Deborah Koons (his wife at the time of his death).

But none of these stuck, and he told one of his daughters on the eve of her own marriage that the key to marital bliss was to live separately.

If "Garcia: An American Life" seems at times more assembled than written, that is in the nature of biographies, which are always wrestling with their own loose ends in order to resolve them into narrative chords.

Jackson had a wealth of music and testimony to pull together and has done it with remarkable agility, balance and a keen ear for the music: its inner dynamism, its folk and urban roots, its breakthroughs into something else; call it the shadow life.

He comes out of Deadhead culture, a loose-knit community of adoring fans and concert-hardened critics, and his biography of Garcia is a product of a culture that embodies the faith, which Garcia nurtured in his audiences for three decades, that the shadow life could sometimes be coaxed out into the open, in the right company, at the right moment, with the right music.

There are no comments - be the first to comment