Fear and Jerry Garcia


I’ve been a fan of the Grateful Dead for a long time, though far short of being a Dead Head. I just started rereading an interview conducted with Jerry Garcia in 1971, when the band was still expanding in reach, technique, and material. Comparing what he was then and later is instructive.
In the interview he seems enlightened, though that might be exaggerating. At least he seems happily engaged in his music, the band, and with his common-law wife, in spite of money and other problems with the band.
He speaks, at one point, of how some people fear, and put up walls to protect themselves, and says this isn’t necessary. Ironically, a few years later, he would begin putting up some very high walls around himself when he began using heroin. Why was that?
There seem to have been several reasons. One is a fairly unhappy childhood: his father died when he was quite young, he didn’t get along well with his stepfather(s), and rarely found school very interesting. So he joined the army at age 15, didn’t last very long, and then lived on the street. He had an unsuccessful marriage, then emerged into the Grateful Dead.
He was lead guitarist there, wrote and sang most of the songs, was very smart and articulate. That made him the focus of a lot of people’s interest in the band, something he always felt at least ambivalent about. No doubt it helped him pick up women (he did his share of running around), but he didn’t like the demand on him to be something like a messiah. He wanted to just play his music and be able to live like a normal person.
Accordingly, he began using heroin, left his wife, and became more and more isolated as he descended further into that process. The band, which had been expanding for its first ten years, seemed to begin to contract.
I base that at least somewhat on their studio albums, which was never the best way to judge them. But as Garcia got more strung out (and he wasn’t the only band member with drug problems), their outstanding performances got fewer too.
According to his friends, he never entirely lost his optimism and interest in the world, even though his darker impulses had surfaced and become stronger as he gave into them. Later he seems to have become cynical, perhaps (at least in part) due to his shame at his own behavior. In a much later interview, he said that there was a part of him that always said, “Fuck you!” when he tried to get himself onto a more positive path, and that he was reluctant to force the issue, since he felt that part of him was important.
But as he allowed heroin to take over more of his life, it began to detrimentally influence his health. Getting busted in the mid 1980s influenced him to quit heroin, and a severe diabetic coma that left him extremely weak influenced him to get healthy again. That only lasted a few years, though. He slipped back into heroin use and other bad habits.
Who knows if it was necessary for him to experience the negative side of life as he did? It seems a shame, as he appeared to be such a positive voice, and also seemed to recognize his shortcomings, without allowing them to take over–until he did allow them.
His story is probably not so unusual, it only happened in circumstances few of us experience. It takes something to resist our less appetizing desires, something we see quite clearly today, when so many of us are activated primarily by fear. Fear may not be necessary, but it’s a barrier difficult to surmount.


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