He Had to Die

by Christian Crumlish

In, I think, 1988 I stood in some upper-level Phil-side seats in the Kaiser, I believe it was, with one of my friends named Ted, and the band played a monumental Dear Mr. Fantasy. The tension had built through solo and duet singings of the verses, through successive instrumental breaks and here now rarely Jerry Garcia's guitar became a singing sword jumped a key octave plane of existence and seared that melody, or rather an instantly improvised embellishment of the basic melody, cutting loose without leaving the rest of the band behind but glowing. I turned to Ted and we smiled with our eyes at each other. Words are slow and clumsy beasts in such musically alive moments. Jerry prefered to blend in with the rest of the band most of the time, and ultimately I suspect that is his legacy. Not his near-virtuosic skills, his mastery of and ongoing engagement with improvisation, his voraciously eclectic interests, or even his singular tone. His greatness as a player had more to do with his collaborative inclusiveness, his possibly acid-inspired egolessness when playing.

More Than Just Ashes

A couple weeks after Jerry died I walked into a casino just on the Nevada side of the North Lake Tahoe line. The casinos there are smaller and less uptight than those in Reno and Las Vegas, but the aesthetic is the same. The mirrored, stale-ashtray smelling hallway leading in was decorated with fliers for the band playing that night (name so innocuous I forgot it instantly) and a Beatles cover band with a guy who really sorta looks like John and either wigs or they really have those old mop top hairdoes. So I had my ear out for the music. I love even bar music, lounge music, in a sick way.

The band was actually jamming when we passed the threshold. I figured it was something cheesy, Fly Like an Eagle maybe. Then the singer in some generic white whiskey blues voice sings "Trouble with you is the trouble with me, got two good eyes but we still don't see..." with such weird phrasing that it was a couple country guitar licks later before I realized they were playing Casey Jones. Later on a real old guy with a sax joined them as I backed away from the $3 blackjack table and they played among other thing Turn On Your Love Light.

I even saw a guy in the casino wearing a Steal Your Face t-shirt which sort of completed the eerie we-are-everywhere feeling till I wondered if maybe he had requested that they play a Dead tune and they played the original "hit" (probably the catchiest, actually). That wouldn't explain Love Light though.

With Our Dreams Close Together

At Laguna Seca (a venue we lost partly because some campers insisted in setting up on a rifle range) one year, I forget which, I stood on the hillside in the middle of the raceway and baked in the sun. For me these shows those two years (the first year with Ry Cooder and Bruce Hornsby --incidentally, the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between the Dead and Hornsby, ironically brokered, originally, by Huey Lewis -- the second with David Lindley and Los Lobos; every single act of both runs was fantastic) were my quintessential California Dead Shows. Everyone was so tanned and beautiful. I sat in a Rock Med tent at one of them, trying to calm down a British friend who was bad-tripping on pot and also trying to hear the beautiful bass melodies flowing up the hillside during Tennessee Jed. But I digress.

At one of those Laguna Seca shows I stood on a hillside in a beating down sun but occasionally slight breezes sprung up briefly and the wilting crowd would perk up slightly. Then this cascade of breezes flowed up the hill. I had goosebumps. My hair stood up on my arms. This all happened in under a second mind you. I felt everyone else tickled by the wind and in that same moment, in the middle of some fluid guitar solo, in a song such as Fire on the Mountain, I heard that same note of ahhhhhh that we were all thinking or literally saying just then. This memory has become my metaphor for the dropping of barriers that could happen at shows. I am he as you are he as you are me as we are all together.

Find Out Something Only Dead Men Know

In his music it was impossible to escape the images motifs and songs of death. As Bob Weir's cover of El Paso is sung from the point of view of a dead man, so did many of the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia originals dwell in the shadows of death looking forward or back across that line. In their early days the Dead were cosmic explorers and their approach to music always reflected that. Some interpretations of two of their acid epics, Dark Star and That's It for the Other One, explain them as tales of ego-death.

Over and over, Jerry sung his own epitaphs. He even got to attend his own funeral in 1986. I saw my first show in 1984 and I sort of look on the last 9 years as a gift.

A local Dead-baiting rock journalist made a gracious apology for years of snottiness about the Dead and more particularly their fans, and for specifically responding when asked for comments on Garcia's death "I wish Kurt had lived that long." I wish that too. I felt a variation on this sudden pain in the stomach when I heard the bad news about Cobain a year or so ago. Was it John Donne who said every death diminishes me?

A Dead Head friend in college told me about his first show. It was one of the famous acoustic/electric shows at Radio City in 1980. The encore was Brokedown Palace, a song they encored with regularly. As they sang "Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell," he cried, thinking it was their final show and he'd missed all his chances to ever see them again. When they sang "this may be the last time," we all knew it was true.

A Short Baseball Digression

In the days between Jerry and Mickey's deaths, the comparisons to Mantle were legion. Heroes, decades, addictions. But wasn't Jerry more of a Babe Ruth figure, in terms of his appetites? Still that seems wrong. Garcia was no showboat. He had something of the Gehrig in him too, or maybe these days one would say the Ripken. He was an iron man, played many straight shows.

The Whole Damn World Looking Back at Me

And he was not comfortable with fame, much as he bore it well. He expressed fears of fascistic power over crowds, isolated himself. I always interpreted his song Standing on the Moon, one the last great Hunter/Garcia ballads, as addressing these issues, maybe even the isolating and relationship devouring effects of certain drugs: "A lovely view of heaven but I'd rather be with you." Hunter's lyrics often seemed to be directed at Jerry himself, and Garcia admitted that he sometimes flashed on the meanings of lyrics himself years after singing them.

You Know Better But I Know Him

That a body has weaknesses, that freedom risks self-indulgence, that summers fade and roses die, the pundits were quick to point out. That acid cocaine heroin are all different things, that cigarettes and booze are drugs, that admitting to your frailties is preferable to hiding them, these points were generally overlooked.

There's an irony in our society's closeting attitudes about drugs, about addictions, about vices in general, about desires, about needs. He was rich and successful enough to generally avoid the scrutiny of the law, but to live outside the law you must be honest.

This episode of Enterzone is about censorship (among other things) and I've thought about the subject a lot over the last few months. I am convinced that many of the most sensitive arguments in our culture are locked into false dichotomies. Take the censorship vs. pornography polarity. Where in that structure is the side for people who want to criticize the attitudes prevalent in pornography without seeking to censor anyone? The timeworn "sides" of the argument serve mainly to shut off discussion.

So with the issues of intoxication and addiction has the hypocrisy of American society, the idealization of sobriety and the closeting of substance use, contributed to the suffering of addicts. Openness can be painful. I am mindful of that. But secrecy and denial enable problems to fester underground, cause them to flourish unchecked. What some would stamp out with draconian laws and others would defend as doing your own thing, I would suggest we discuss in as wide ranging a way as possible. Give people the words to say "I need help. I'm in over my head. Help me." without taking away their dignity.

Looks Like the Old Man's Getting On

The day Jerry died my email in box exploded. Communication criss crossed my eyes, some of it personal, some of it sent to large lists of people. I needed to touch the flesh. I went to San Francisco when the rest of my zombie day was done (work was actually a respite from the shock disappointment and grief). I reached the apartment of some Dead Head friends. We hugged. We held a wake. It was the first of several ceremonies that proved extremely helpful to my psyche. That evening I drew steadily in the book I always carry with me, noticed the missing candle in a candelabra on the mantle and drew it, thinking of Jerry's missing finger. It occurred to me that he had been reunited with that finger at long last and so I drew a new icon, a variation on an old one, naturally.

I drew a cartoonish version of a memory of when my friend Griffin revealed his new red lightning bolt tattoo on really for us the first day of spring at the Frost. As I listened to whatever tape we had playing I started drawing hall dancers out of my mind, letting the pen dance across the page. Even someone who just bought a soda sashaying into the middle of the frolicking crowd.

Of course I came up with various top hatted and skeletal doodles as well but I couldn't really conjure up a faithful image of Jerry's face, even with photographs and icons all around me. The best I could do was a sort of Dionysian Ghost of Christmas Present with tinted glasses.

Late at night, after 1 o'clock, after the official curfew in Golden Gate Park, I dragged my friends to the Polo Fields so I could see the impromptu shrine for myself. They had been there in the afternoon when the people had first gathered. Standing around the sort of shrine that appears in a ghetto neighborhood when a homeboy's been shot down, I felt the fellowship or at least smelled the patchouli I associated with shows. There were drummers and I went to feel the beat. Guitarists compromising on fake book versions of songs. I felt the need to add to the offerings. I pulled a page out of my book and quickly drew a bust of the man and his guitar. The lines were elegant and steady and the effect was slightly cartoonish as in all my best art. I dated it and signed it and added it to the pile. I coveted that picture for myself and I left it.

By now there was a loudmouth talking shit to a little kid, doing his own weirdo trip all over everyone around him and it was cold and we headed back. A few days later at the sad and cathartic official memorial there was another bad-tripping human being spreading anxious vibes. I spoke to her under my breath, made reassuring sussurations. She responded, slightly, but I felt like the entire range of the scene was there, even if the umbilicus had been cut.

My friend Juan used to say that the only thing better than "Live Dead" is live "Live Dead," because of all the tapes his friends had lying around claiming to be live. Dead Heads are beginning to consider the legacy of the tapes and the fact that there might won't be any more live live Dead. We can be thankful that Jerry's and the boys' (and, for a while, the girl's) music was recorded probably more often than that of any other musical group in history. Just as this quintessential touring band played to more human beings live than, I believe, any other performers of any type.

The Punch Line

After a while many morbid thoughts came to me. The whole "phenomenon" of Jerry dying, a huge outpouring of grief, the sudden visibility of Dead Heads across the nation and across the class structure had to eventually resolve itself into a personal matter, had to speak to my own sense of personal loss, of mourning, and of consciousness of death. Hence the gallows humor. Now that there'll be no more Dead shows, I remarked to a grieving friend, I'll have to catch more Jerry band shows (joking about how we used to take the various Garcia bands' constant gigging around the Bay Area for granted).

And I thought, during the memorial, during the playing of a show dedicated to the memory of Neal Cassady, during the Cryptical Envelopment portion of the Other One, with its chorus "He had to die," that there's a terrible irony in this that the Gratefuls always understood, that illuminated their songs from below. We're all mortal. No matter how great or shoddy or fine or common our accomplishments, all of our life stories get the same punch line: And then he died. And then she died. Yes, a subsubculture stumbled into a new era, a convenient leaning post was suddenly taken out from under us. Ain't it always that way?

Ripple in Still Water

Dylan said it best: "No eulogizing will do him justice." What gives the dead one cause to be grateful? When his debts are paid? When his children are taken care of? When he is finally allowed to rest?

When does a life end? When the motions stop emanating from the center? When the ripples finally peter out galaxies and aeons away?


Copyright 1995
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