Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead, and Their Spiritual Legacy

5 Aug

Jerry Garcia #1016Jerry Garcia,

The Grateful Dead and Their Spiritual Legacy

By: Bob Gersztyn

Jerry Garcia passed on to the next level twenty years ago on August 9, 1995, at the age of 53. The Grateful Dead disbanded after he died, since they felt that it wouldn’t be the same without him since he was the lead guitarist, a lead singer, and the primary songwriter and composer since the Warlocks became the Grateful Dead in 1965. They had some reunions where they played under different names like “The Other Ones” and “The Dead,” but in 2015 they did play a series of concerts celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the formation of the original “The Grateful Dead” and the 20 year anniversary of their final show with Jerry Garcia.

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At the time of Garcia’s death, “The Grateful Dead” was the highest grossing rock band in the world, beating out “The Rolling Stones” and “U2.” They had a rabid following of dedicated fans who would work day jobs in the Fall and Winter so they could nomadically follow the band’s annual Summer tour. Sometimes as many deadheads would follow the shows from city to city as the venues that the “Dead” played at held. They would occupy the parking lot and set up shop selling everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to tie dyed T-shirts. If you didn’t have the bucks you could barter goods for food or vice versa.

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If you were looking for something a little out of the ordinary to put you in touch with the roots of the “Grateful Dead” during the summers of 1966 and 1967, then you could always score some good weed or LSD. You didn’t even need to buy it sometimes, as joints and pipes were openly passed around at concerts. On Memorial Day 1965,Β as an independent journalist, I was covering the last “Grateful Dead” concert in Oregon through a connection that I made through a fellow postal worker. I took my 21 year old son, Michael, to the event and at one point a half naked, pupil dilated, wide eyed hippie approached us and offered us what he said was “a hit of acid, LSD, free, take it!” I declined and told him that I had to work that night and my son Michael was incredulous saying “I thought that this only happened in the 1960s.”

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“It never stopped happening,” I told him. “It’s just not big news anymore.”

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So when “The Grateful Dead” ceased to exist as a touring band, a vacuum formed and “Jam Bands” filled it. The “Jam Bands” already existed and toured on the coat tails of “The Grateful Dead,” who were the original “Jam Band.” A “Jam Band” is a music group of some kind that uses improvisation like a jazz musician would. Songs are no longer 3 minutes long, but may last 10 or 15 minutes. Each performance becomes a unique experience that may never be replicated again, when everything clicks.

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Some of the bands that were sucked into the vortex to fill the void when the Dead disbanded were Blues Traveler, The Dave Matthews Band, A String Cheese Incident, Phish, Widespread Panic, and the Zen Tricksters. According to Wavy Gravy, the official hippie ambassador of the 1960s era, “the 1990s are the 1960s standing on their head.” In retrospect, that pre-9/11 decade did fulfill Romney’s description. (Hugh Romney was Wavy Gravy’s original name. He was a stand-up comic and night club manager in Greenwich Village, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, who was managed by Lenny Bruce and helped out young newcomers like Bob Dylan.)

Bob Weir

The 1990s had two Woodstock Festivals, that were meant to be commemorations of the original event, but this time for Generation X, the children of the Woodstock generation. The first Woodstock was held in 1969 with The Grateful Dead and dozens of others that were the biggest bands of that era performing. Twenty-five years later the first of two Generation X Woodstock festivals took place. One in 1994 without incident that was an overall positive event. This was while The Grateful Dead were at the peak of their career, commercially, with gate-breaking concert attendance sales.

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However, five years later in 1999, four years after Garcia’s death, a second and final Woodstock event took place and ended in violence after punk rock fans of Limp Bizkit burned down some vacated concession stands. In retrospect the incident was prophetic as an omen of what would occur in the same state two years hence. This observation is obvious in retrospect, however at the time everyone was either in denial or sensationalizing it for the wrong reason, not knowing the future and not wanting to embrace a negative portent blindly.

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I interviewed Wavy Gravy, who was an emcee at all three Woodstock festivals, the day after Woodstock 3 ended on, July 26, 1999. He was his normal upbeat self and called me after he got home in Berkeley, California upon returning from New York. I sent him one of my new post cards that featured his photo along with a quote that he gave me to use. He liked it and wanted to tell me in person, so I decided to ask him a couple of questions about Woodstock 3, since he was just there and I was still editing his interview that I was going to submit to the Wittenburg Door magazine, which they published in their Nov/Dec 1999 issue. The following is an excerpt from that interview:
DOOR: The main point of interest concerning Woodstock 3 seems to be the rampage on the final day. What happened?

Wavy Gravy Postcard

WAVY GRAVY: It wasn’t the final day. The show had been over for half a day. It was 200 people involved. There were seven arrests. They set the concession trucks on fire. The police came in with the fire department — like they should with that going on. There were seven arrests. There were 200,000 people. This is such small potatoes; they just have good photographs of skinheads prancing around blazing stuff.

DOOR: So it was the skinheads?

WAVY GRAVY: Yeah, punks, skinheads, Limp Bizkit freaks.

DOOR” Not the Neo-Nazi sort of skinheads?

WAVY GRAVY: No, not exactly. Mohawks, another audience. Limp Bizkit’s.

DOOR: So this time the band Limp Bizkit is the culprit?


DOOR: The scenario that the news media presented is that Altamont would pale in comparison.

WAVY GRAVY: It sucks and it won’t hold up.

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As I look back at that incident and what it meant to that crowd of 200,000 along with the population of the rest of the USA, it seems obvious. When you consider that this blog is an examination of the spiritual side of rock & roll, in retrospect it becomes obvious that Woodstock 3 prophesied 9/11, by using the same street theater medium to convey its message that their parents had used a generation earlier.

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In a little over three years after Woodstock 3, the USA would be going to war in the Middle East for the second time in ten years, which would result in the collapse and restructuring of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with revolutions and Jihad in other Arab nations. Ironically, rock & roll in the form of rap became an integral part of the Arab Spring and beyond, as non Western cultures embraced our musical form to communicate their own message of freedom.

Rock and Roll is the greatest weapon that the United States and Western Civilization have ever produced to peacefully spread its message and ideology. It has infected the entire globe with its insidious beat and has been embraced by Nations that are in opposition to America. Therefore the performance of rock & roll is a patriotic act as important, if not more important than the dissemination of bullets and bombs.

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Which brings us back to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead who led the charge as some of the greatest American patriots since George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The Grateful Dead became the most enduring of all the 1960s bands, with continuous performing and recording for 30 years. They didn’t even have their biggest hit until 1987, 20 years after the “Summer of Love.” “Touch of Grey” was recorded for the Dead’s “In The Dark” album and transcended them across any generational gaps that may have occurred. In the middle of this era, the famed “Dylan and the Dead” tour took place, which paired America’s two most influential music artists representing the 1960s legacy.

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The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan were twin engines spearheading the ideology and energy of free expression into every corner of the earth, along with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and a myriad of other musical artists all expressing their interpretations of the world that they lived in or imagined. By the early 1990s the Iron Curtain of Soviet Communism dominating Eastern Europe collapsed. The event that proceeded its demise was the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989, a full 20 years after the first Woodstock festival.

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When Jerry died on August 9, 1995 it was the symbolic death of the 1960s, but then everything that dies is resurrected in a new form. So the jam bands continued the charge as the music of the new generation filled in the gaps, as globalization occurred through the universal medium of music that transcended geographical, national, and political boundaries. Alexander the Great once dreamed of a universal culture under the banner of the unification of all humanity as brothers and sisters. Today, through the medium of music, we are closer to that dream than ever before.

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