Blair's Golden Road Blog - Where Were You When You Heard the News?
by Blair Jackson
Summer flies and August dies / The world grows dark and mean…
—Robert Hunter, “Days Between”
On the morning of August 9, 1995, I was driving to my job as an editor at Mix magazine, listening to our local classic rock station and caught the end of “Uncle John’s Band.” A nice way to greet the day, I thought. But when the DJ came on right after and very solemnly intoned, “In case you haven’t heard…” Well, I hadn’t heard. Then came his unbelievable announcement that Jerry had died earlier that morning. I practically ran my car off the road. My wife, Regan, was on her way to work in San Francisco, so I couldn’t reach her (this is pre-cell phone for me), so I kept driving to work, flipping the radio dial to see if I could learn more. Through the years I’ve talked to many people who said they were not surprised by the news at all, that they’d actually expected it for some time. But I was completely shocked.
There had been warning signs, of course. Jerry seemed listless and out of it during a lot of 1994, and he looked terrible. That autumn, I was sufficiently depressed by a frighteningly bad Garcia band show in Oakland and a pair of concerts at Madison Square Garden that I abruptly backed out of an agreement with a major publisher to write a book of essays about the Dead, celebrating their 30 years together. In the first 1995 issue of Dupree’s Diamond News, I wrote that something was clearly wrong with Garcia—Was it physical? Drug-related? We didn’t know. Even so, I remained hopeful that he could bounce back from whatever maladies were afflicting him, as he had after the coma in ’86 and the second scare in the summer of ’92.
The shows I saw in ’95 were a mixed bag. The three February Oakland Coliseum shows were so-so; the third special because it featured another festive Mardi Gras parade and an appearance by saxophonist David Murray (who, alas, was not miked well). The June Shoreline Amphitheatre run was better, with the first two good enough that I felt more hopeful about the future of the band than I had for some time. From afar, we followed the infamous summer ’95 tour, with its seemingly unending disasters—the gate-crashing in Vermont, fans hit by lightning in D.C., the death threat to Jerry at Deer Creek, a porch full of Dead Heads collapsing near the group’s Missouri venue. It all had a nearly Biblical, wrath-of-God feeling to it.
Shortly after the tour, word spread that Jerry had gone into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic in Southern California, which I took to be excellent news. No more of those “Honest, Doc, I can kick it on my own, just leave me alone” cures. Maybe this would be the program that could really whip him into shape and convince him to change his ways. As we all know, however, he didn’t stay there as long as was recommended, he came home, fell back into his bad habits, then checked himself into another facility—Serenity Knolls in West Marin—and died of a heart attack his first night there. It still hurts to recall it.
Back to that day. I arrived at work, and one by one my colleagues stopped by my office to talk about the terrible news and to console me, as if I’d lost a family member (that’s not far off). I talked to Regan by phone at the San Francisco Chronicle, were she worked, and she was understandably shaken up. She wanted to come home, but as the resident Dead Head on the copy desk, instead had to answer questions from Chronicle reporters covering Jerry’s passing and then copy-edit their stories. No escape.
I’d only been at work about an hour before I got a call from someone at the San Francisco public radio station KQED, asking if I would appear on the NPR program All Things Considered to talk about Jerry. Joining me were my friends and fellow Dead scribes David Gans and Steve Silberman. As I recall, they were brilliant and articulate, as always, and I chimed in just a few times, offering nothing particularly profound, as my brain was mush at that point. I derived quiet satisfaction from the fact that the local TV news seemed to be all-Garcia that night. It wasn’t just important to us. Family members back East and in the Midwest called that night to offer their condolences. They, more than most, knew what the Dead and Jerry had meant to me.
Over the next couple of days, I was corralled into doing a whole bunch of short radio interviews with various news and music stations to talk about Jerry and his legacy. In retrospect, I have no idea how any of these interviews came to me—maybe Dead publicist Dennis McNally, who was inundated by press in the days and weeks after Jerry died, suggested my name. Whatever the case, it was all very surreal, and I never felt like I was saying what I wanted to say or what I thought needed to be said. If only my words did glow…
I also felt as though I couldn’t really let Jerry’s death sink in, because I was constantly having to be even-keeled and analytical about it, rather than emotional. People were falling apart all around me, but I didn’t allow myself to. At that point I was more numb than anything else.
All that changed five days after Jerry died. With our 4-year old son, Kyle, and his 1-year old sister, Hayley, in tow, we joined a few thousand other Dead Heads at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park for a big public memorial celebration. An enormous, colorful portrait of a smiling Jerry playing his guitar hung above a stage that had been erected beneath the tall cypress and eucalyptus trees that ring the field. An impromptu shrine collected hundreds of flowers, photos and objects of every variety (jewelry, stuffed animals, odd knick-knacks that had special meaning to the givers). A giant sound system pumped out one Dead tune after another (chosen by Dick Latvala and David Gans) and people smiled, danced and sang along as if the band were playing. We saw many folks we knew, shared hugs and stories, and vowed we would stay connected.
There were uplifting and heartbreaking speeches from Jerry’s family and each band member, and momentarily the overwhelming feeling of community on that field pushed back the grief. You had to believe we would get by, we would survive, if only because we had one another.
There was plenty more Grateful Dead music as the late afternoon sun started to cast long shadows across the field. Our young children were getting a little antsy, so we reluctantly decided to depart. But I vividly remember the four of us stopping for a couple minutes on a grassy berm above the Polo Fields and looking down longingly at the sea of tie-dye and swaying dancers, Jerry’s portrait and assorted banners waving gently in the wind. The music was still clear as a bell, wafting on the breeze, carrying so much joy, mystery and, yes, sadness on its flight to the heavens. In my very hazy recollection, some intense Anthem of the Sun-era tune gave way to the aptly dubbed “Beautiful Jam” from the 2/18/71 “Dark Star,” and I remember in that instant feeling the remarkable continuity of the Dead’s history, from the Human Be-In, in that very spot in January 1967, to this sad, sad day in 1995. This was my tribe, in happiness and sorrow.
That’s when it hit me. The finality. Nothing like this will ever come our way again. It’s over. Nothin’s gonna bring him back.
And for the first time in five days I cried.
I was working road construction that summer before grad school. It was a hot summer and my crew was mostly working at the Madison (WI) airport, which allowed us to start early and get off work early on the hot days. I was on my way home listening to 105.5 when I heard-- I still remember the spot and think of it when I drive past there.
Like most who saw the GD that summer, it was not shocking but sad. Friends and I went to the 7-8-95 Soldier Field show and were stunned at how bad Jerry looked and the US Blues from that show was undeniably bad. We spoke on the way home about Jerry's condition and hoped he would take care of himself.
Side note: I wore the same tie-dye to that concert that I bought at Brent's last show and wore to the Clapton/SRV show at Alpine Valley in 1990. It was known as the "Death Shirt" to me and my friends-- I think I have worn it one or two times since, but never to a concert again.
I was at home listening to the show Lost and Found on WMBR in Cambridge. The DJ who liked the Dead but didn't play them alot was playing an unusual amount I thought. And then he came on and relayed the news. I thinkl we all remember it as if it were yesterday. The reality hits me deep every now and again and bring me to tears. Writing this is not easy. I remember this clearly and where I was when I heard of Frank Zappa's passing. Two giants that are gone. I'm often remind that Jerry is no longer with us when I go see Furthur. There are things you can replace and others you cannot.
I was home, grading student papers, the phone rang, and old and dear touring buddy give me the news, he was heading to Central Park in NYC for a gathering of Heads, I was far, far away. It had seemed for some time to me that Jerry was passing over to the other side, and so I was not shocked per se. What it effected in me was, however, rather profound. It sort of placed a ribbon around memories--of shows, trips, fun had, adventures undertaken--and tied a neat bow. These were now all in the past, only to live as memories, they would not happen again. A formative part of my life was now just that--something that was, but would never again be. It also made me take more control over my own musical life--a guide was gone, time to musically grow up! I had already left the scene, and now there was no turning back. I miss Jerry profoundly, and wonder often what he would be doing musically now were he still here. Yet for all the joy he gave some many of us, for so long, it is also hard not to conclude that he himself was rarely happy or at ease, a tormented soul, whose passing, if not intended, was surely not wholly feared.
What a lot of great posts here in this thread. It really takes me back to '95/'96 when there was such a shared sadness among Deadheads, friends and strangers alike, and also a shared appreciation for the good times we were fortunate enough to have had.
It was a sad time, but as the months went by, I couldn't help but find some humor in the fact that while the Grateful Dead disbanded after Jerry's death, the Jerry Garcia Band continued touring. Saw them in Peoria, IL, I guess it was '96 and they were really good.
I was in the 4th grade when JFK was killed, the 8th grade when RFK was killed, when NASA landed on the moon, I was about 15 and it was summertime; I don't remember that at all. I remember the assasinations vaguely.
I remember Loma Prieta, I was driving home from work living about 13 miles from the epicenter.
On 08/09/95 I was at work in Santa Clara County. I had just finished my set up and was begining the job and turned my radio on to KFOG. They were playing Grateful Dead, not unusual for them; however, when they kept playing Dead, at 1st I thought 'This is cool', I don't remember if I had to wait for the announcement or not. Probably had to wait, I don't think I put 2+2 together that day.
I remember it well. The passing of my favorite musical hero. For many of us it left an unfilled void.
I thank the powers that be for all the recorded music that is part of Garcia's musical legacy.
I heard it from a Swedish Deadhead friend. He called me about 8 pm local Swedish time (11 am Pacific California Time). I had recieved a CD from UK that day (John Coltrane live in Comblain-La-Tour, Belgium on August 1st, 1965) and had just about finished listening to it when the phone rang.
My friend was really devastated with grief. I have a Christian belief and to explain his feelings my friend said that "his Jesus Christ" had left the living that day. He'd become a Deadhead in 1970 when he was 16 years old and now at 41 he'd lost his main musical icon and "saviour".
I too felt really low on hearing the bad news but I didn't cry like I did when I heard about the death of Brent. It was shocking news of course, hearing Jerry was gone but the last couple of years I thought he had grown really old. It felt like he wasn't going to live to see the change of the millennium but I didn't thought he was going to go in 1995. It felt more like 1998 or something like that. But I always mentioned Garcia in my prayers and hoped he was going to pull through and start a healthier life.
When his death had sunk in, I wrote a letter to the Grateful Dead office begging the band to continue existing. I had thought about it and wanted "the best guitarist in the world not yet known" (Steve Kimock) due to Garcia in 1988, to take over as guitarist with Robert Hunter as the new band singer.
But I was selfish of course and didn't wanted the story of The Grateful Dead to end with the death of Jerry Garcia. Also I wanted to get more chances to see the Dead in concert as well as Jerry solo.
I still miss him.
The wife and kids and I were driving home from Sesame Place in PA., on the Jersey Turnpike. WNEW was playing one Dead tune after another, after maybe the tenth song, I thought "uh oh"...sure enough the DJ (I believe it was Dennis Elses) said those awful words" in case you haven't heard" as we were passing Giants Stadium, where I had seen my last show the previous June.(and Jerry had thrown up his arms, and left the stage during "The Other One") Earlier that morning, I woke up from a dream that I was at a Grateful Dead concert, (I had a lot of those over the years) we were at a Holiday Inn, as I groggily woke up, I looked at the clock, it was 7:30AM. From what I read later, Jerry passed on at 4:30AM Pacific time...I swear it's true! That made me feel...well I don't know, weird? Comforted? Spooked? We got home, and I just listened to the radio for hours, had a few beers, and cried. My late wonderful, big brother Frank turned me on to the Dead way back in '72, and I've listened every day since....hope Frank and Jerry are doing some acoustic jammin' up there. God bless 'em!
Peace to all,
I was in grad school at the time driving into the lab and I turned on the local NPR station and they were playing--of all songs--Jerry's version of "Cigarettes & Coffee" from the movie soundtrack to Smoke. In a split second I knew then and there--it must have been the dirge in that song. Was a strange feeling but I just knew he was gone. The shock didn't hit me until I received a call from a friend who asked if I had heard. Up to that point, I hadn't received an official word via radio or other media. But just the same, I had already known in my mind but hadn't yet let it sink in as reality. The phone call changed all that...Very sad, but the music continues to live on through memory, recordings, and new interpretations by other great musicians.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. Funny how 17 years goes by so quickly.
Soon it will be 27 years later, and 37 years later and 47 years later.... etc
Time is a strange thing!
It's weird but when the phone rang too early that morning I knew it was because Jerry had died. One of those strange synchronicities. Now that I care for people with health problems similar to his I wish I could have helped him before his body failed him, but I know he never would have let me. He lived the uncompromising life of a true artist. I'm just happy there are so many who keep the chain unbroken.