Jerry Garcia: I Play for My Life

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2017 by Dale Fehringer


Photo of Jerry Garcia.

Jerry Garcia used to tell a story about an incident at a concert the Grateful Dead played in San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Before the concert someone brought in a birthday cake, and Garcia scooped up and ate a fingerfull of frosting. Just then, the guy who brought the cake warned that the frosting was laced with LSD. “Oh no,” Garcia thought, “Now I’m going to be tripping the whole concert.” He did, hallucinating that the audience was filled with members of the mafia, who were going to kill him. “What can I do?” he asked himself. “I know … I’ll play for my life. So I did, and they let me live. Ever since, when I forget what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it, I play for my life.”

Garcia played for his life for more than 30 years, almost exclusively with the Grateful Dead. He was an integral part of the Summer of Love, and a key figure in contemporary San Francisco.

A San Francisco native, Garcia had a tragic childhood, losing part of his middle finger in a wood-chopping mishap and his father in a drowning accident. He was exposed to all kinds of music (“My ears were full of music, man”) and he learned to play the banjo and acoustic guitar. At 18, he stole his mother’s car, and his punishment involved joining the Army, but he went AWOL so often he was discharged after less than a year. He moved to Palo Alto and played music with a jug band, and then with the Warlocks, who became the Grateful Dead. They played a blend of bluegrass, rock, country, and jazz at clubs, bookstores, and Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Garcia was lead guitar, vocalist, and songwriter.

The band released its first album in 1967, just in time for the Summer of Love. They lived in a large Victorian at 710 Ashbury, smack in the middle of the action, and played at key venues; including the Human Be-In, Monterrey Pop Festival, Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles), and San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium. Promoter Bill Graham called Garcia “Big Papa Bear” and admired the way he showed up early to rehearse and check the sound.

The Grateful Dead played concerts and recorded music for more than 30 years and had a loyal following called “Deadheads” who attended their concerts and even followed them around the country. Garcia was asked if he enjoyed it. “Hell yes,” he said, “I get to play music, and I get paid for it. That’s incredible! I mean, I met Bob Dylan, man!”

Garcia was overweight most of his adult life, and he smoked cigarettes and used drugs. When his drug use got too bad his bandmates intervened and Garcia cleaned up, but he always reverted to his bad habits. His lifestyle and drug use eventually damaged his health, and in his 50’s he twice fell into diabetic comas. In 1995, five days after his 53rd birthday, he passed away in his sleep of a heart attack in a northern California rehab center. He had played his last gig, sung his last song. That day, San Francisco and the rest of the world lost its Big Papa Bear – the man who had played for his life.

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