The Shaman: Jerry Garcia

50 years after the Grateful Dead's acid-drenched formation, its bearded leader's spirit is more alive than ever.
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50 years after the Grateful Dead's acid-drenched formation, its bearded leader's spirit is more alive than ever.
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You think you know Jerry Garcia: a plump hippy with a Santa Claus beard who played loose, jammy lead guitar for the Grateful Dead. The truth is, Garcia, who died in his sleep in 1995 while seeking treatment for a longtime heroin addiction, was a stone-cold genius, one of the most creatively restless, innovative, durable and truly American guitarists and songwriters to emerge from the 1960s.

The Dead formed in San Fran first as a bluegrass outfit and then as the house band for Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady’s Merry Pranksters, and they were anything but hippies. Instead, they were gun-toting drug fiends (the Dead’s soundman, Owsley Stanley, perfected the manufacture of LSD) who were hounded by the police, and who, over the years, left a trail of drug and alcohol casualties, including Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, and Garcia himself.

However, under Garcia’s leadership, the Dead performed more than 3,000 concerts during its 30 year run, and, by allowing concert-goers to tape and distribute their music for free, inadvertently invented the Spotify-dominated and tour-driven business model that defines today's music industry.

“Anybody who thinks I'm God ought to talk to my kids."

Garcia was a man of simple tastes—his main extravagances were a BMW 7-series and china white heroin—who avoided the public eye, hated confrontation, and never felt all that comfortable with the near-religious adulation of the army of Deadheads following the band from stadium to fairground and back. “Anybody who thinks I'm God ought to talk to my kids," he said.

He played a guitar style that evolved from (literally) acid-soaked blues to screeching psychedelia to finger-picking bluegrass to a virtuoso freeform rock style that’s been copied with limited success for generations now. There are many imitators, but none as troubled or soulful. His death at age 53 left a gaping hole in the world of anti-commercial rock and roll, and in many ways marked the beginning of the end for the role of the lead guitarist in popular music.