Just For Garcia

It was all my friend Ashish’s fault. Sometime in the mid-1970s he handed me those three TDK C-90 cassettes. One had a recording of Steal Your Face and the other two, Europe ’72. I heard them and became a Deadhead. My friend, a few years older and much wiser, filled me in on The Grateful Dead and soon I was on my way to a more than two-decade-long relationship with the band, picking up anything by them that I could lay my hands on in those pre-internet days: a second generation tape here, a scratched vinyl there, a coveted, badly-recorded bootleg that someone got from somewhere. Of course, there was one minor issue: The Grateful Dead were best heard at their legendary gigs but no matter how much they toured there was no chance they’d be stopping by at a venue nearby. They may have played in Egypt but India? Forget about it.

The Grateful Dead

Garcia (front, left) posing for a promotional shoot in Chicago with other members of The Grateful Dead in 1990

In India in the 1970s, the Dead had at best a small cult following of die-hard fans that debated the merits of several versions of their frequently epic tunes and exchanged precious tapes and the occasional vinyl album. They also argued, often about arcane issues (was Aoxomoxoa better than Anthem of the Sun? Did the studio albums matter at all? Which version of Dark Star really rocked?) There was another thing: many people didn’t get the Dead. And a greater number didn’t like them at all. Not for everyone was their endless, going-off-on-a-tangent noodling, with each of the three guitarists (including the bassist), the two drummers and a keyboard player frequently taking off on what seemed to be their own trip. As lead guitarist and main force of the band, Jerry Garcia, once famously said: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

Garcia, had he not died at 53 (tomorrow is his 15th death anniversary), would have been 68 now. And my guess is that if he was alive, the band, which began in 1965 (and has several of its founder-members alive, active and still touring) would have still been around and touring. Indefatigable touring was a hallmark of the band and in the post-Grateful Dead era, the twin legacy of constant jamming and improvisation and touring has been passed on to an entire breed of so-called “jam bands”.

Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia taking a break in San Francisco in 1975

For many of us who loved the music of The Grateful Dead, it was Jerry Garcia who was the central attraction. I still remember how I first heard of Garcia’s death on 9th August, 1995, in Bombay; a friend called up to say: “Do you know Garcia is dead?” We, licorice-lovers, all felt sad and I remember listening only to all my Dead albums and tapes for nearly a week after that. For a band that had been around for 30 years when Garcia died, The Grateful Dead existed under the radar for most people (and I’m talking about people who were die-hard rock and pop music fans). Of course, the fact that, besides not having chart-topping hits, the band’s best tunes were performed live and were typically too long for commercial radio play was also a reason for people not being aware of the band.

In his time Garcia was a counter-culture icon, an icon that was also appropriated by others who made capital of his image. I remember the Volkswagen ad after Garcia died (a sketch of the front of the hippie-favourite VW van, with a tear rolling down one from one of the headlights). From sandal makers to ice-cream brands, everyone was quick to appropriate the Garcia aura.

But more than anything else, it was the music of Garcia and the Dead that made the difference for fans. It was rock music that wasn’t like anything else in those days – the constant improvisation, the intricate lyrics, the several interpretations of their repertoire, which included their own jazz and blues-influenced tunes as well as the band’s take on standards and traditional American classics. If you got The Grateful Dead, chances were you got hooked. And though I don’t listen to the Dead’s music as much now, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow evening: cue up a playlist or two of their tunes and browse through my copy of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by David Dodd. Just for Garcia.

Three to Tango:

  1. Pitchfork: The Playlist. A track reviewed every day by the nose-in-the-air online magazine. What’s more you get to listen to it too.
  2. Kris Kristofferson: An interview with the troubadour/actor/activist. Nearly a year old but interesting nevertheless.
  3. PVT: An experimental rock band from Australia. Three guys who also use a laptop a lot. Try them.

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