Jerry Garcia died at age 53 in 1995 while in treatment for a heroin habit. The toll taken by drugs on so many talented artists of the 1960’s is a story whose depths have yet to be plumbed. Yesterday was the anniversary of Garcia’s birth and an appropriate occasion to remember his contribution to American popular music.
Garcia made his mark as a musician and songwriter with the Grateful Dead, but at heart he rermained an unreconstructed devotee of folk, bluegrass and country music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music in particular. Garcia’s devotion to traditional American music was the source of the Dead’s breakthrough on the “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” albums in 1970 .
Garcia had a long friendship extending back to 1964 with the virtuoso mandolin plalyer David Grisman based on their mutual love of bluegrass music. In the mid-1970’s Garcia played distinctive Scruggs-style banjo with the outstanding bluegrass ensemble Old and In the Way, where I believe he first recorded with Grisman. They continued recording together mostly for fun over the years. In the atmospheric video above they play a jazzy version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.”
UPDATE: John Reinitz is professor of applied mathematics and statistics at the Center for Developmental Genetics at SUNY Stony Brook. He writes to provide an informed perspective on my statement that Garcia was a drug casualty:
It’s true that many creative people, from Jerry to Scott Fitzgerald have consumed a lot of drugs and alcohol, sometimes with ultimately fatal results. Moreover, we can’t do the control experiment to see if the creative output would have been as good if the artist’s drug consumption pattern were like that of, say, Orson Scott Card.
When you write “Jerry Garcia died at age 53 while in treatment for a heroin habit in 1995. The toll taken by drugs on so many talented artists of the 1960’s is a story whose depths have yet to be plumbed,” think that you are falling into cliches — healthy ones, perhaps, but not really truthful. Two actual Grateful Dead related examples of the above are Pigpen (death by alcoholism related liver disease) and Brent Mydland (heroin overdose). Jerry made a true, very incisive, almost cruel remark after Brent’s death that Brent was killed by a lack of deep cultural connections caused by growing up in the East Bay.
My own opinion of Jerry’s death, one that would meet with tremendous disgreement from David Gans and Phil Lesh (at minimum), but may nevertheless be true, is the following. Jerry had adult onset diabetes, but he nevertheless ate a lot of junk food and smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day. This is plenty unhealthy. Shooting up heroin, although I personally don’t recommend it, is surprisingly nonhazardous if equipment and drug is clean and the dose
is controlled (cf. Keith Richard, Hermann Goering, and see www.heroinhelper.com). Jerry was not taking heroin when he died, and in fact died from a heart attack in his sleep. His third wife, whom he had recently married, had pushed him into getting treatment.
There is a famous risk factor chart for heart disease that allows you to add up points connected to different events leading to heart attacks. Getting divorced is number 1, but getting married is number 3 or 4. Withdrawl from heroin isn’t listed, but I think it would rank high. I think Jerry got his heart attack because he *quit* taking heroin, and with a steady supply of junk he would have lived longer. I certainly don’t expect you to agree with any of this, but perhaps it is a different perspective than you get from your other readers.
Professor Reinitz adds that he’s not a conservative, but rather a libertarian who strongly supports the war. He further describes himself as a scientist who makes up equations about fruit flies. I appreciate his expanding on my overly brief comment about Garcia as a drug casualty. I don’t think Professor Reinitz means to imply that the history of the Grateful Dead supports the larger point I was trying to make, but I think it does.