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COVER STORY : In the Wake of the Flood : Deadheads are taking Jerry Garcia's death personally. The prospect of Life After Jerry is most troubling to younger fans, many of whom embraced the Dead as a substitute family.

August 20, 1995|Patrick Goldstein and Steve Hochman | Patrick Goldstein and Steve Hochman are regular contributors to Calendar.

We didn't invent the Deadheads.

They invented themselves.

--Jerry Garcia


Longtime Deadheads all, Marty Jacobs and a bunch of his Bay Area friends got together the night Jerry Garcia died to swap stories and listen to favorite concert tapes. As the evening wore on, with everyone trying to grasp the painful concept of Life After Jerry, talk turned to the notion of reincarnation.

The way Jacobs saw it, up in rock 'n' roll heaven, Jimi Hendrix, Pigpen, Janis Joplin and Bill Graham were sitting around smoking cigars, eager to celebrate the arrival of an old friend.

"I think it was a comforting fantasy for all of us," said Jacobs, the 40-year-old owner of Graphic Traffic, an Emoryville- based T-shirt design firm. "The idea was that when Jerry finally shows up, they hand him a cigar and say, 'Hey, we've been expecting you. What took you so long?' "

Deadheads, the lost tribe of America's youth, are taking Jerry Garcia's death, and the subsequent cancellation of the band's summer and fall tour, personally.

"I owe a lot to Jerry--he's always been there for me through the years," said Christa Forslund, a skinny 18-year-old from San Gabriel who'd gone on the road following the Dead in recent summers. "He brought me out of a lot of bad things. He was more than an entertainer. He's been a friend to a lot of us."

Few veteran Deadheads were surprised to hear of Garcia's death Aug. 9, apparently of a heart attack. Diabetic, overweight, a heavy smoker and often battling heroin addiction, the 53-year-old guitarist seemed in uncertain health in recent years. But to a lot of younger fans, Garcia's death came as a shock. Alienated from their parents and society, they embraced the Dead as a substitute family.

"For a lot of fans, Jerry was the Good Father," explained Suzanne Shayne, a Studio City-based psychotherapist whose husband was a longtime Deadhead. "The Dead was a healthy family where you could be different and express your own individuality but still be very bonded and connected.

"To join a big crowd and enjoy great music--it taps into a reservoir of good feeling. There are very few institutions in our culture that can offer that."

Shayne warned that many Deadheads may suffer severe withdrawal pangs during the next few months.

"Once the sharp edge of pain dies down, I think fans will feel very disoriented. They're going to feel orphaned. There could be some heavy depression, drug use, maybe even suicides."

Garcia's death turned out to be unusually personal to Shayne. Her husband, Sherwin, who died of cancer at age 59 in December, had been a great Garcia fan; Shayne still has a collection of her husband's Dead T-shirts in her closet. And so it seemed somehow soothing for her that Garcia died on Aug. 9, her husband's birthday.

"They were so similar, spiritually and physically, it was as if they were twin spirits," she said. "So when Jerry died on his birthday, I thought, 'Hey, now they're together again.' "

Tony Agrusa wasn't ashamed to admit it. "I spent all Wednesday crying," said the 34-year-old prison guard at the California Men's Colony. "It was the first good cry I'd had in three years. I'd hear a song I really care about and I'd just lose it." Agrusa's pals have nicknamed him "5000," a somewhat inflated reference to his collection of Dead tapes and albums.

Actually, Agrusa considers himself something of a closet Deadhead. "My fellow guards aren't especially into the band. In my work environment, it's Rush Limbaugh who's considered God, not Jerry." (The day Garcia died, Limbaugh offered the following tribute: "When you strip it all away, Jerry Garcia destroyed his life on drugs. And yet he's being honored, like some godlike figure. Our priorities are out of whack, folks.")

For Agrusa, coping with Life After Jerry has been made easier by an outpouring of Deadhead support: "I keep getting calls from people with names I didn't recognize. So I'd say, 'Now where do I know you from?' And they'd say, 'The Dead show in '91.' And I'd go, 'Oh, yeah!' "

As news of Garcia's death spread, Dead followers sought solace at vigils in public sites, chanting and dancing and reminiscing about their favorite shows. Wandering among the faithful gathered at Venice Beach last weekend, you felt you'd slipped into an alternate universe. Down by Ocean Front Walk, about 600 people--babies and grandparents, sinewy young skaters and paunchy, middle-aged hippies--formed a big circle, dancing to the steady beat from a crowd of young drummers.

One middle-aged man proudly held aloft a "Vintage Dead" LP, featuring live Fillmore Auditorium jams from 1966. "Some guy just gave it to me," he explained. "He said I was the one person he knew who still had a record player."

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