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THE NATION : PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Jerry Garcia on Tour: The Way We Were

August 13, 1995|Paul Krassner | Paul Krassner, who edits the Realist, is author of "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture" (Simon & Schuster)

Even though President Bill Clinton occasionally wears a Jerry Garcia designer necktie, Garcia himself never wore a tie. But he did have a drawer filled with black T-shirts, along with a copy of the "Urantia Book." He once told me that anyone who read that 2,097-page sci-fi/spiritual tome from cover to cover, which he had done, would receive a mysterious visit from three elderly women. They never arrived at his door.

In 1985, I asked him how he remained optimistic. "There's 48 wars going on now, simultaneously, and yet your music is joyful. Even 'Please Don't Murder Me' is a joyful song."

"Well," Garcia answered, "when things are at that level, there's kind of a beauty to the simplicity of it. I wrote that song when the Zodiac killer was out murdering in San Francisco. Every night, I was coming home from the studio, and I'd stop at an intersection and look around, and if a car pulled up, it was like, 'this is it, I'm gonna die now.' It became a game. Every night, I was conscious of that thing, and the refrain got to be so real to me. 'Please don't murder me, please don't murder me . . .' "

It was 1967, and there was a concert in Pittsburgh, with the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs and myself as comic relief. I soon found myself in the lobby talking with Garcia. As people from the audience wandered past us, he whimsically stuck out his hand, palm up. "Got any spare change?"

A passerby gave him a dime, and Garcia said thanks.

"He didn't recognize you," I said.

"See, we all look alike," he replied.

In the course of our conversation, I used the word evil to describe somebody.

"There are no evil people," Garcia said. "There are only victims."

"What does that mean? If a rapist is a victim, you should have compassion when you kick him in the groin?"

After the show, some local folks took me to a restaurant that, they told me, catered to a Mafia clientele. As I glanced around at the diners, I wondered if anybody had killed anybody. Then I remembered what Garcia had said about evil. So these guys might be executioners, but they were also victims.

It was the Summer of Love.

Cut to 1978. Bob Weir looked up at the Great Pyramid and cried out, "What is it?"

Actually, it was the place for locals to go on a cheap date. The Pyramids were surrounded by moats of discarded bottle caps. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play on three successive nights at an open-air theater in front of them, with the Sphinx looking on. An air of incredible excitement permeated the first night. Never had the Dead been so inspired. Backstage, Garcia was passing along final instructions to the band: "Remember, play in tune."

The music began with Egyptian oudist Hamza el-Din, backed up by a group tapping out ancient rhythms on their 14-inch-diameter tars, soon joined by Mickey Hart, a butterfly with drumsticks; then Garcia ambled on with a gentle guitar riff, then the rest of the band, and as the Dead meshed with the percussion ensemble, basking in total respect of each other, Weir suddenly segued into Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."

"Did you see that?" Ken Kesey said. "The Sphinx's jaw just dropped!"

Every morning, my roommate, George Walker, climbed to the top of the Pyramid. He was in training. It would be his honor to plant a Grateful Dead skull-and-lightning-bolt flag on top of the Great Pyramid. This was our Iwo Jima. In preparation for the final concert, I was sitting in the tub-like sarcophagus at the center of gravity in the Great Pyramid. I had heard that the sound of the universe was D-flat. So that's what I chanted. It was only as I breathed in deeply before each extended Om that I was forced to ponder the mystery. The secret of the Dead would finally be revealed to me, if only I paid proper attention.

There was a full eclipse of the moon, and Egyptian kids were running through the streets, shaking tin cans filled with rocks in order to bring it back. "It's OK," I assured them. "The Grateful Dead will bring back the moon." And, sure enough, a rousing rendition of "Ramble On, Rose" would accomplish that feat.

The line between incongruity and appropriateness had disappeared, along with the moon. The music was so powerful that the only way to go was ecstasy. That night, when the Dead played "Fire on the Mountain," I danced my ass off with all the others on that outdoor stage as if I had no choice.

"You know," rock impresario Bill Graham confessed, "this is the first time I've ever danced in public." "Me, too," I said. That was the secret.

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