EDITOR’S NOTE: This obituary appeared in the September 25, 1995, issue of National Review.
If I ever heard a song played by the Grateful Dead I wasn’t aware of it. If I had been, I’d have pricked up my ears and listened real hard because I have a memory. It is of a young man who came to work at my shop. He had just graduated from Harvard, wanted to do some opinion journalism, and qualified for a summer internship that stretched into two or three years.
It was toward the end of the decade of the Sixties that he drew me aside one day, after we had gone to press. He said that he had been to a concert by the Grateful Dead and that it was a wonderful experience, and that he would go again whenever the group was in reach, and he invited me to join him at one of the concerts, which I wish I had done.
I have to suppose that, like so many others, I would have survived the experience without such harm as finally came to Jerry Garcia and, 25 years before Garcia, to our young intern. He did his work, but with progressive listlessness. His editorial paragraphs had never been razor sharp but they had been trenchant and readable, and now they were murky.
Things got worse, and now came the trappings, which were conventional. It began with sandals, then went in the usual direction, though I don’t remember that he ran a ring through his ear. When an anniversary issue was planned for the magazine he suddenly demanded that his ‘generation’ be represented, so I told him to go ahead and write what he thought would be a useful essay.
I don’t remember seeing it myself, but I was told not that it was unsuitable, or unfinished, or unprofessional, but that its meaning was impenetrable. At about that time an associate ten years older reported his (informed) opinion that our intern was going off the deep end. At a collegial staff lunch he once excused himself so abruptly as to provoke the melancholy conclusion that he had needed a quick jolt of whatever drug he was taking. One day he announced that he would be married, and soon brought in an addled flower child dressed as he dressed. One weekend they just faded away. A few years later we received formal invitations to a second marriage, to a South American. He went with his new bride to her country and taught English. In due course he sent us an article submission. It was potentially publishable but needed work, and the managing editor sent it back to him with recommended changes. We did not hear from him again, except after another interval of five years or so, when we learned he had married yet again, this time to a native, and gone off to live in the hills. Question before the house: Is Jerry Garcia in some way responsible for this?
The issue of Newsweek that put Garcia on the cover quoted in huge type the words of a 21-year-old college student. ‘It’s a free life when you’re at a show. It’s all about happiness. I’d just take my watch off and want time to stop.’ It isn’t easy to rail against anyone who brings happiness, and one has to assume that many, perhaps the majority, of those who heard ’shows’ by the Grateful Dead achieved their highs without the use of intoxicants. But something unusual accounted for the young Americans, pictures of them reproduced in the days just gone by, exhibiting Dionysiac pleasure in their role as Deadheads. Exuberance finds its forms throughout the world and concentrates its energies on the young. But is the joy unconfined? Ought it to be?
Jerry Garcia died only a week after leaving the Betty Ford Center. He is quoted as having said two years ago that, really, he needed to do something to restore his health, otherwise he would be dead, like “two years from now.” He went on schedule, and is said to have died with a smile on his face, no doubt because he was a happy man but also because he made so many others happy. But he also killed, if that’s the right word for such as our intern, a lot of people. And although he had a pulsating forum world wide for thirty years and knew from his own experience what his habits were doing to him, he never went public on it, not really. One has to suppose, sadly, that in his case, going public on his problem, extending a truly firm handshake to his legions, would have required the dramatic gesture of retiring from the stage. If he had done so, it would not have been wounding to those of us who were never exposed to Jerry Garcia’s special intoxicant, but, if he had done so, how many would have had better prospects for health, love, and longer lives?