a Bird Within Him: An Appreciation of Jerry Garciaby Rip Rense
(Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, written the day of Garcia's passing.)
When I turned my radio on a moment before sitting down to write this yesterday morning, the first sound I heard was the voice of Jerry Garcia, singing this line from one of the most exquisite of all Grateful Dead songs, "Crazy Fingers:"
"Who can stop what must arrive now?"
It was one of those myriad moments when a Grateful Dead lyric took on an unexpected profundity. In this case, it was the saddest and most terrible of all profundities.
Garcia had staved off death a couple of times before---first in 1987, following a diabetic coma and kidney failure, then a couple of years ago when he was hospitalized for an enlarged heart and lung problems--- so arguably, all his time after 1987 was a gift. To him, and to millions who loved his music.
In a media world of stunt-guitarists shrieking banal nothings in our ears, Jerry Garcia was practically Shakespeare. He'd laugh at that kind of hyperbole, and shy away from it with a touch of revulsion, but it's a fair statement. Garcia sang with a voice as fragile as blown glass, and evoked noises from guitars that were stately, eloquent, achingly beautiful, and as complex---and brilliant---as anything Miles Davis ever blew.
This was, after all, a musician who was equally at home with Kentucky bluegrass and the far reaches of Pharoah Sanders' saxophonic space. He could lovingly pluck a gentle and understated line in an acoustic folk song like Elizabeth Cotten's "Babe, It Ain't No Lie," or roar out dissonant, nearly-Wagnerian improvisations with Ornette Coleman during the Dead's concert jam staple, "The Other One," or coax characteristically sweet, twinkly underpinnings to Dead tunes like "It Must Have Been The Roses" and American folk bastions like "Fennario."
I don't know of another guitarist able to invest such poetry and technical alacrity into such an array of styles. Garcia was able to do it, of course, because he deeply loved many kinds of music, and his playing welled principally from his heart---not his spinal chord.
I did only a few telephone interviews with him over the years, and sat and talked with him occasionally at concerts and hotels, but he was the kind of person who packed a great deal of life force into small spaces. One meeting with Garcia, as many will attest, was worth a few dozen meetings with someone else. I always found him to have an utterly honest and candid intellect, intractably ironic wit, and a jocular manner that, as I once wrote, caused me to suspect that cats were hiding in his beard.
In 1987, I did the first interview with him following his near-fatal illness. The official word from the Grateful Dead office had been, simply, "pray for Jerry," yet the man roused from near oblivion and was jump-started to life. We sat and talked at a downtown L.A. hotel a mere weeks later, just before a Jerry Garcia Band show (that began with a thunderous, endless ovation accompanying Garcia singing Holland-Dozier- Holland's "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.")
His first words after emerging from the coma and seeing a roomful of friends and family, he told me, were "I'm not Beethoven." This was quintessential Garcia---self-deprecating, funny, wise. It was as if he were saying, I'm not that important---I'm just a guitar player---what are you doing here? It was a quip, for God's sake. Back from the edge of death, and. . .rim shot!
It occurred to me to tell Garcia that he and the Grateful Dead did share something with Beethoven, at least philosophically. Underlying all the Dead's music, especially in the songs written by Garcia's longtime friend and lyricist, Robert Hunter, is an unwavering commitment to the joy and beauty of existence, and the nobler aspects of human possibility. But I didn't want to make him ill at ease, so I kept the thought to myself. He was wary of grandiosity.
Garcia was, of course, forever dogged by an attempt to deify him by Deadheads---something he abhorred and rejected categorically---yet something he also understood and tolerated. He often said that he found one aspect of the colossal Deadhead fixation to be pathetic---that is, that there seem to be so few adventures to have in modern America that the most daring enterprise available for many young people is to go on the road with the Grateful Dead.
During that '87 talk, Garcia remembered the first time he was wheeled outside the hospital to sit in the sunshine and recuperate. He was overwhelmed by the sounds of chirping birds. "I thought to myself," he said with a smile and a chuckle that was never far away, "oh, life is so beautiful."
It brings to mind a Grateful Dead lyric that Garcia particularly loved to sing, written by Hunter about Janis Joplin. It is terribly and poignantly apt today:
"All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while, and then flew on. . ."
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