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No Simple Highway

Posted on Jan 16, 2015

By Peter Richardson

Photo by Hypnotica Studios Infinite (CC BY 2.0)

The following excerpt is from Truthdig contributor Peter Richardson’s critically acclaimed new book, “No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead.” In this section, Richardson recounts the media reaction to the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

On the morning of August 9, 1995, Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent-Journal was showering when his wife told him he should get to work: Jerry Garcia was dead. It wasn’t the first time Liberatore had heard such a report, but this one was authentic. A counselor at a Marin County drug rehabilitation facility had checked Garcia’s bedroom early that morning because he could no longer hear Garcia’s loud snoring. The counselor found Garcia dead with a smile on his face. As that news spread, Liberatore worked overtime. “I reported my ass off for a week,” he said. The Gannett news group owned the Marin County newspaper, and because management wanted to attract younger readers, editors had discouraged stories about the Dead. Liberatore tried to reason with them, but at one point, an editor threw Garcia’s photograph on the floor, saying he wouldn’t run it. Liberatore’s instincts were confirmed when Garcia’s death produced the best-selling issue in the newspaper’s history. “The numbers were off the charts for days,” he said.

Garcia’s life, music, and death quickly dominated other Bay Area media outlets. The San Francisco Examiner ran three Garcia stories on the front page, three more on the front page of the style section, and two more on the front page of the business section. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “American Beauty” noted that the one adjective that ran consistently through commentaries on Garcia’s life was integrity. “In a popular culture that sacrifices every value to mercenary pursuit,” it continued, “Garcia never lost the romantic ideals of San Francisco in the 1960s, the special era that spawned his music and nurtured it into the 1990s.”

San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan ordered the city’s flags to be flown at half-mast, and heartfelt eulogies appeared from the expected sources. Ken Kesey called Garcia “a great warrior, battling for hearts and souls way out on the dangerous frontier.” Bob Dylan also praised Garcia and lamented the loss. “To me he wasn’t only a musician and a friend, he was more like my big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know,” Dylan said. “There are a lot of spaces between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly, and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic, and subtle. There’s no way to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep.” Departing Garcia’s funeral, Dylan reportedly told music promoter John Scher, “That man back there is the only one who knows what it’s like to be me.”

In the national media, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime Dead fan, said the news made him feel as if he had been kicked in the stomach. Wearing a black ribbon on his lapel, Governor William Weld of Massachusetts called a news conference to express his grief. He told reporters that he discovered the Dead in the 1960s and listened to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty the previous night. Only protests from veterans groups persuaded him not to fly the state’s flags at half-mast. A lengthy New York Times obituary quoted Stewart Brand, who had hosted the Trips Festival in 1966 and published the Whole Earth Catalog: “Some of the things the hippies got right came out the strongest and clearest in the Grateful Dead.” Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, and People quickly produced cover articles or special issues. People also followed up with a major story on Garcia’s funeral and public memorial in Golden Gate Park, where 25,000 fans gathered.

Even the tabloids tried to capitalize on Garcia’s demise. The Globe reported sloppily that Garcia and his wife, who had been married less than two years, “went through a lot together before he finally died after a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.” Garcia’s death also revived media stereotypes about the Dead Head community. When writer and Dead aficionado Steve Silberman appeared on CNN, he was asked if he “dressed like a Dead Head.” “Yes,” Silberman replied. “I wear whatever I want.”

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