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I ever really wanted to be was a Bluegrass Boy,” Jerry Garcia once remarked of his boyhood ambition to play with the legendary Bill Monroe. That he became the often brilliant lead guitarist for a fairly decent psychedelic jug band should have been enough.
But not for the Deadheads. No, they made Garcia into their guru, personal savior, tie designer, and full-time Reason To Keep On Truckin’.
Last week at the Lincoln Memorial, the cotton-swaddled faithful gathered with their skunkweed, incense, and candles to ponder Life Without Jerry. Like a Dead show, it was an improvised, low-key affair including fans of all ages—a far cry from the ghoulish teen crowds spawned in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death.
Still, the spectacle of these meek, mellow sheep without their bearded shepherd was truly pathetic. They were forlorn, lost, totally bummed out.
On the marble steps where Marion Anderson once sang, two guitar-wielding Deadheads croaked an off-key version of “Friend of the Devil,” as scrawny maidens did their patented whirling-skirt dance of the Dead. Others joined in group sing- alongs or simply sat silently flicking their Bics in some collective nervous tic. A middle-aged man in a tie-dyed shirt held a newborn in one arm and his toddler’s hand in another—a baby bottle stuffed in his back pocket.
It didn’t seem like the time or place to point out that a slew of ’60s Frisco bands blew the Grateful Dead away: For crissakes, Moby Grape had three guitarists as good as Garcia. Nobody followed them around barefoot like extras from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Granted, Garcia was a charismatic and unique figure. He never carried himself like some spoiled, rich rock star, instead remaining a devout, enthusiastic student of American music, from bluegrass to jazz. Even more to his credit, he was the most humble of reluctant messiahs, always praising other musicians and mostly wondering what all the fuss was about.
But Deadheads couldn’t settle for that: They turned Garcia into a living icon, cheered his every solo, and—with help from drugs, booze, and cigs—finally ushered him into an early grave.
So when they came to honor the fallen god, they weren’t simply mourning the fact that Garcia was dead (or rather, as one Deadhead explained, “part of the cosmic energy”) but something much more painful to confront.
No more Dead shows. No more road trips. No more air-guitar solos. Gotta finally face that big ol’ empty chunk of before-and-after concert time called life.
And we are left with an even more terrifying prospect: An eternity of Dead cover bands.