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The rolling legacy of Jerry Garcia’s $700 per day drug habit (not adjusted for inflation) arrives at its final resting place
This coming Sunday night, Dead & Company, the assemblage anchored by founding Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, plus Mickey Hart (who joined the band in 1967) and sob rocker, John Mayer, will play their final show at Oracle Park in San Francisco, the city where it all started almost 60 years ago.
Free love ‘em or hate ‘em, the final tour is among this year’s biggest cultural “moments.”
From 1965 to 1995, The Grateful Dead played over 2300 official shows, many of them likely scheduled (in part) to finance lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia’s $700 a day drug habit (that’s well over two grand in 2023 dollars, FYI). A truly staggering figure. And as the addiction doesn’t stop when the music stops, Garcia continued to tour even more with his Jerry Garcia Band when the rest of the Dead stayed home.
In a tragic twist of fate, the fans who loved him the most—who paid the most hard earned dollars to attend his shows—contributed the most to Garcia’s demise.
I don’t bring this up to troll Deadheads or Garcia or his bandmates (enablers often become interventionists when things get too rough). It’s more out of a total mystification, awe, reverence even, that one man’s unabashed decades-long diabetic coma induced death spiral could lead to so much life.
The Dead is more than a band. It’s a movement embraced by boomers, Gen X, millennials, and even Gen Z—notably clamoring for Dead merch by the psilocybin-friendly LA fashion label, Online Ceramics. Note: Z is a generation that began the year after Jerry Garcia died. Unlike most of us obsessed with music from our youth, this youth is obsessed with music from their grandparents’ youth.
Part of that is no doubt the branding. The Dead is probably the best branded musical act in history. Skeletons. Roses. Lighting bolts. Dancing bears. Tie Dye. Beat that.
People identify with this band so hard. And these are people from vastly different backgrounds, economic realities, age cohorts, even politics. The Washington Post ran a story a few years back titled, “Grateful Dead Fans: Surprisingly Republican.” I mean, Ann Coulter has been to over 60 Dead shows. FML.
And somehow, despite all the drug rugs and black lights and LSD tabs, the Dead is also inextricably linked to the culture of sobriety. There were the Wharf Rats, of course. A 12-step meeting will be held at the set break of the final Dead & Co. show. Just like all their shows. Sober Deadheads even have their own logo. Shit, the cliché allusions to sobriety are everywhere. I mean, the band has “grateful” in its fucking name.
The Dead first found me around the same time marijuana did. Definitely no coincidence there. The Dead Set poster on the wall and lava lamp on the dresser and crocheted hacky sack in the pocket indicated a readiness to toke (which later became that golden gateway to drivin’ that proverbial train (do not tell my mother she was right about that one)).
But I didn’t really appreciate the Dead until I got sober.
“Touch of Grey” is a kind of unofficial official anthem for the Snake Dog lifestyle. “We will get by, we will survive” is both a promise and a prayer. It’s a pithy encapsulation of the death-defying power of sobriety.
That the guy singing those words didn’t survive doesn’t even matter.
Robert Hunter, who co-wrote the song with Garcia, said, “A friend brought over a hunk of very good cocaine. I stayed up all night. And at dawn I wrote that song. That was the last time I ever used cocaine. Now I listen to it and it’s that attitude you get when you’ve been up all night speeding and you’re absolutely the dregs. I think I got it down in that song.”
So it is a coke song! Or perhaps a no coke song. Makes sense. Glorification and condemnation are always present together, opposite sides of the same coin.
How someone so wrapped up in the doom of addiction could sing so many hope-laced verses is telling. The death obsession is a kind of life obsession, isn’t it? “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” That’s it. The devastating realization that this life is fleeting and brief. For Jerry Garcia. For you and me, too. Where that lyric hits me now wasn’t available when I was Canadian Club and klonopin dulled. But as a sober parent of a young child watching the days just fly by, it kills me now. That that lyric even aptly applies to a band that’s been on the road—in one form or another—for sixty years is bananas. The decades are blips.
And while “Box of Rain” will be forever accessible to me on Spotify or its someday shinier replacement, I wonder what happens to the culture when the (live) music stops? Is it just the drugs, then? From a slice of muddy river Americana standpoint, it’s been kind of comforting to know that the Dead was still going, still holding onto some ethereal wisps of the long-lost promise of the Love Generation, now fully swallowed up by the soul-crushing morass of their gross consumerism.
Another oft sung Dead refrain comes to mind, “I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone.” I will miss them when they’re gone. But I wonder if the Dead really are gone. I’m not sure I believe it’s really over. Could a band go on without any of its original members? In this case, I don’t see why not. The Dead—in a bizarre form of longtermism—is way bigger than its human founders. What other band in the history of rock n’ roll could still be going this strong thirty years after the death of its famous frontman? Imagine Guns N’ Roses without Axl. The Stones without Mick? C’mon. Not fucking happening. As we stand on the precipice of so much dramatic technological change, maybe this is only the end of the Dead here on Earth. Maybe it’s just the beginning somewhere else.
Text by Andrew Smart
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