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Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead Founder, Dies

August 10, 1995|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those were unfortunate footnotes to Garcia and the Dead's legacy. Their huge following not only made the group a cultural icon, but put it at the center of an unlikely financial empire in which its communal roots and values translated into capitalist success. In addition to concerts and recordings, the group has a thriving business marketing colorful T-shirts and other paraphernalia--and there is even a line of neckties based on Garcia's abstract paintings, even though ties were anathema to his casual wardrobe.

Born Aug. 1, 1942, in San Francisco as Jerome John Garcia, the son of a bandleader, he was active in the Bay Area folk and bluegrass scene of the early '60s and founded a rock band called the Warlocks in 1965.

The next year the group--at the time including guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboard player McKernan and drummer Bill Kreutzmann--became the Grateful Dead and was established as the house band for the psychedelic, drug-fueled "Acid Test" parties, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

The group signed to Warner Bros. Records and released its first album in 1967. Perhaps the best albums were the early-'70s, country-flavored releases "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," with Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter crafting songs that tapped into the American frontier and underdog ethos.

But fans generally agree that no recordings ever captured the feeling of a concert, even the numerous concert recordings. Its live shows made the Dead a legend--as summed up in the oft-used, fan-coined slogan, "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert."

At the center was always Garcia's fluid guitar playing, weaving a tapestry as colorful as the fans' garb. The music at the shows, often held in festival-type settings, often devolved into unstructured jams that served as a sinewy soundtrack for a vivid tableau of free-form dancing fans.

Though albums became more sporadic after the '70s, one, "In the Dark" in 1987, spawned the band's only Top 10 hit. The song, "Touch of Grey," featured the Garcia-sung chorus proclaiming "I will survive."

Garcia often toured with his side project, the Jerry Garcia Band, helping Deadheads fill the time between Dead treks. Garcia also was active in the group's Rex Foundation, a philanthropic organization that gave grants to a variety of cultural, social and environmental efforts.

"The Grateful Dead and Jerry have been the one band that has been about not just the music but the socialization of people, allowing people to assemble and escape the drudgery of everyday life and experience joy, true joy," said Gregg Perloff, president of the concert promotions firm Bill Graham Presents. The history of the company, founded in San Francisco by the late Bill Graham, was tied directly to the Dead, producing virtually all the band's shows, including annual New Year's Eve concerts and 1978 dates at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

"What a lot of people around the country realized today was that this [the Dead culture] was not about one segment of our society," Perloff said. "Whether a 15-year-old student or a 45-year-old lawyer, there were so many people who would get out of their suits and ties and follow the Dead."

And what becomes of the hard-core Deadheads now, assuming that Garcia's death means the end of the Grateful Dead?

"I think they're going to have to get lives now," said Toni Brown, publisher of Brooklyn-based Relix magazine, which is devoted to the Grateful Dead and related music and cultural issues. "The band always felt that there was more to life than just them, and people are going to have to face reality. It was great to be able to make the Grateful Dead your reality, but there's more to it than that."

In 1991, though, Garcia spoke of plans to postpone that inevitability as long as possible, noting the longevity of many of his blues, country and jazz heroes.

"I went to see [jazz violinist] Stephane Grapelli and he's 83," he said. "You see these guys and you say, 'Goddamn right!' If I can, then yeah, if I'm alive and moving, I'll be playing."

Garcia is survived by his third wife, Marin County filmmaker Deborah Koons, whom he married last year; and four daughters, Heather, 32, Annabelle, 25, Teresa, 21, and Keelin, 7.

Plans for private funeral services or public memorial observances were incomplete.

* RELATED STORIES: D1, F1

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