It was hot and strangely quiet when we rode into Bertucci’s in Amherst, Massachusetts, on our Harleys. Once inside it quickly became clear that we were the only customers. The waiter finally came around and, when I inquired where everyone was, his downer of a response was, “Oh, man. Jerry died.” “That’s too bad,” I thought, “but who is Jerry?”
I had never paid any attention to the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, being a Blue Note Jazz and Memphis R&B fan. The early bluegrass-influenced music of the Dead held zero interest for me. So I just never got started with the whole Deadhead thing. Over the Dead’s 30-year history with Jerry, the band went through five distinct periods, each featuring a different style of keyboard player. First up was Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. He died of liver failure on the job. Next up was a mini-stay by Tom Constanten. Next followed Keith Godchaux. He would die in a car crash. Next came, for my money, the most vital Dead keyboardist as well as powerful singing force, Brent Mydland. Brent was with the band for 11 years before dying of a drug overdose in 1990. The Dead’s final Garcia-era keyboardist, Vince Welnick, died in 2006, to suicide. As you can see, the keyboard chair with the Grateful Dead is a little like the electric chair. Bad things happen.
As noted, I never got started with the Dead in the Pigpen era. I like Constanten but, once again, just did not get into the Dead while Tom was in the band. Godchaux was primarily a piano player, not a Hammond B3 guy, and his work never drew my attention. Finally, just this year I began listening to the Dead’s music due to the inclusion of a Lowell George (founder of my highly favored Little Feet) lead vocal on an alternate take of Good Lovin’ on the Dead’s 1978 Shakedown Street album. That got it started with me. I decided to pick up some representative Dead albums and see if I had really been missing out on a good thing. The short answer is that for the period Brent Mydland was with the band, I rate the Dead to be the best rock ’n’ roll era band in North America.
The band’s 1989 Truckin up to Buffalo album featuring Bertha Greatest Story Ever Told and Cold Rain and Snow will convince you that the Grateful Dead had few peers. The three disc video/audio CD set Crimson White and Indigo will put the final touch on convincing you and is the 2010 musical reissue of the year. Jerry Garcia, as you will witness in the DVD, is at his best. Check out his very special, one of a kind Tiger guitar.
Bob Dylan said about Jerry, “There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player.” Branford Marsalis said about Jerry, “There’s not a sentence in the world that respectably justifies the life and music of Jerry Garcia.” David Crosby said about Jerry, “He was an amazing guy, probably one of the brightest, most articulate musicians alive.” Finally Grace Slick said of Jerry, “Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead did as much for mankind as any president.” Jerry said of himself, “I feel like I’m part of a continuous line of a certain thing in American culture, of a root.” In a Rolling Stone interview with Jerry just after he turned 50, Garcia told interviewer Bill Barich, “I have no fantasies left.” RIP, Jerry.
Dick Young, August 9, 2010.