Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia was a larger than life figure, the musical and spiritual leader of the Grateful Dead—a band so beloved that many fans devoted their lives to following them from show to show. And when he died, millions mourned as if they had lost a family member.
Originating as the house band of the mid-‘60s San Francisco acid freak-out, the Grateful Dead built a cult following of stoners and vagabonds, flower children and closet deadheads with day jobs. By the late 1980s the travelling circus was so huge it could stop a city in its tracks. And Garcia was the driver, “Uncle Jerry” or “Captain Trips,” whose wildly improvisational guitar style melted the minds of generations of fans.
He also shared his fans’ love of cannabis; when the house lights at a Dead show went down, the whole audience lit up. But it was heroin Garcia was battling when he checked himself into rehab after the summer 1995 tour. He died there of a heart attack at the age of 53.
More than 20 years later, the music is as popular as ever, kept alive by a voluminous online archive of concert recordings; surviving band members who have continued to tour in various incarnations; and dedicated fans who refuse to let go. Some 70,000 of them turned out in the summer of 2015 when the band played what was billed as their last show together ever.
CULTURE recently caught up with two of Garcia’s four children, Trixie, 40, who represents the Garcia family in the Grateful Dead organization; and Annabelle Garcia, 44, an artist and painter. They talked about the man behind the songs and why his music will never go away.
What is your earliest memory of the Grateful Dead?
Trixie: I suppose it was probably being surrounded by people dancing and spinning and hugging and stuff like that. I just remember a general air of festivity, just being in the crowd, seeing everybody you know, that kind of thing.
Annabelle: It’s probably my very first memory period. I have a memory of being held in my mom’s arms and looking out over an audience and my dad on stage, so probably like 1 year old.
What was it like to go to the concerts, to see the way people revered your father and his music?
Trixie: It made Jerry uncomfortable, the way some people fixated on him. To me, I was always fascinated . . . I used to just sit on the side of the stage and watch the peoples’ faces, watch them go through the motions of a song or I’d find that one person who is really dancing their heart out and just be amazed by how free they were, how expressive they were, and how enraptured they were.
How did Jerry balance the constant touring and spending time with his family?
Trixie: I don’t know that he did a great job of balancing those things. It was kind of a given that music was his life. That is his purpose. That is his thing and I never really held it against him, for being on the road, because I didn’t really know any different. He wasn’t a perfect person. He was very human and I think he was so exhausted when he got off the road he had to rest for a while.
Annabelle, at his funeral you called him “a great American but a shitty father.”
Annabelle: He was a shitty father but he was also my best friend. He never made me brush my teeth or do my homework, none of that. He was like the most killer friend you could have as a kid growing up. He never wanted to sell himself as a great father, like, “Who am I to tell you what to do, kid?” He just could not be a parent in that way.
Jerry has been called a workaholic when it came to music. Do you agree?
Annabelle: Completely dedicated to the task. He sacrificed pretty much everything to keep playing because that’s what he understood best. He wasn’t really cut out t to be anything else other than this creative exultation of music and spirit. It’s pretty awesome on that level. He’s my dad but he’s also this positive force for so many other people that you kind of separate the two in your head a bit.
It’s no secret cannabis was everywhere at Dead shows. Did your parents try to shelter you from it?
Trixie: No, not at all . . . I was sheltered from hard drugs, cocaine and heroin and stuff like that, but not from cannabis. And drunk people were definitely not welcome around the scene.
Annabelle: We were rolling weed when we were kids because little tiny fingers could clean up stems and seeds better. Every kid I grew up with, we all have the skill of digging the seeds out, which is a lost skill nowadays. I have very fond memories of the smell of weed, everything about marijuana. My mom wrote the first book about how to grow at home, called “The Primo Plant,” and we were part of her experimental garden, so it was totally 100 percent with us our whole lives.
How do you think he’d feel about it being sold legally in stores?
Trixie: He’d be amazed. It’s such a huge deal for everybody what watched their friends spend their lives in prison for an ounce or whatever . . . There are so many things Jerry would be delighted about these days and weed for the people is definitely one of them.
Annabelle: He was a firm believer in using cannabis and our culture to kind of further his own ability to explore the guitar. It was a huge part of how they got to where they were . . . It was one of the reasons he decided to have fun instead of becoming a really square, normal person. He got turned on early and realized there was a more positive way to get things done than the grind. I think weed in general was kind of the seed for all of that.
How do you explain the Dead’s popularity more than 20 years after Jerry’s death?
Trixie: I think there’s just something timeless about the music they composed and played. Hopefully going forward, like a fine wine, it’s just going to become more and more special as time goes on. The whole Baby Boomer generation, this is the music of their lives and everyone is trying to reconnect with that time when they felt connected with something, a bigger picture, and that’s why the Grateful Dead has such an enduring legacy.
Annabelle: I met so many amazing 18-year-old kids last year at shows . . . and I ask them, “How did you come across the Grateful Dead? You’ve got tattoos? You’re only 18.” And they say it’s the one thing that made them feel like they belong somewhere. The fact that it still has that value is really humbling to be a part of on our end.
How did it feel to see so many people come together to celebrate the legacy of Jerry and the Dead (at last year’s concert?)
Annabelle: I had a great time. It was amazing, incredibly sentimental and overwhelming on too many levels I can’t even put into words. I was sad at first, and by the end of it I was so happy with this incredible spirit that was going on with the crowd . . . Here’s 70,000 people having this incredible moment together and it’s hard not to tear up talking about it.
Jerry’s guitar style has been credited with helping to create an entire genre of music, jam rock. Do you see that as his greatest musical legacy?
Trixie: That’s definitely a thing. But he was composing. His playing style was amazing and he wrote that music. We have (The Jerry Garcia Symphony Tour) and we’ve orchestrated a lot of the music Jerry and (lyricist Robert) Hunter composed and it’s fabulous with an orchestra and it really makes me appreciate Jerry as a composer and to think about what he might have accomplished had he lived longer and branched out, done more jazzy stuff, symphonic stuff.
Annabelle: That’s the kind of stuff that will get you shot on some corners of Haight-Ashbury (Laughs). On one hand, he was a great improvisational guy. He was out there. On the other hand he wrote some of the most amazing guitar riffs, perfect power pop songs. He’s part of this gigantic cultural movement . . . I don’t think we’re going to know for a few hundred years his true impact, or this band’s impact.
How do you remember him best, as the father, the guitar player, the friend?
Annabelle: The father, for sure, the giggler, the sly chuckler. He could crack a joke in under point-zero seconds and devastate anyone with the most hilarious joke you ever heard, yet with a benevolent smile. The smile is the first thing. Just a hilarious person. He could’ve been a great stand-up comedian.
Trixie: He had this way of kind of not giving a f**k and also being like really happy and amused about it. He was always finding the joke, finding the way to make it not heavy. It was just nice to be around him. He was also a great artist. He also innovated all these business models for the music industry, with free shows, and (audience) recording. It’s a large impact he’s had in our culture.
Were you worried about his declining health in his last years?
Trixie: We were all worried and I’d hear stories from the road about how bad he looked and it was progressing, but what do you do? . . . Drugs are bad. Heroin and coke are bad news. Stick with your psychedelics and weed.
Annabelle: We would have interventions and he would promise to be better and he would try. He just wasn’t into accepting how bad he felt or how sick he was. I certainly witnessed a whole lot of pain out there on the road because those years were his declining health years. Then he got the reprieve after his coma (in 1986) and had this amazing rebirth. Then I think he kind of gave up after that. He’d been through a lot, health-wise. He really wasn’t as strong as everyone seemed to think. He was kind of a frail guy.
After Jerry’s death, there was a great outpouring of grief, public gatherings in cities around the country and world. What does that say about how Jerry and his music impacted people?
Trixie: People still come up to me and cry about how much they miss Jerry, 20 years later. He meant more to many people then their own families, for whatever reason, for that experience they had with him in the audience that one time, or whatever it was, these deep emotional connections. It’s overwhelming how deeply connected the fans are.
Do you find yourself comforting fans or do you cry together?
Trixie: We cry together . . . I’m helping to help manage Jerry’s legacy so I’m trying to desensitize myself with exposure, so I can enjoy a concert without crying, which is very difficult for me. But I went to see Prince last night and I cried there too, so maybe it’s just not a Grateful Dead thing.