Garcia, who died 15 years ago Monday, called fame a “monster … a soul eater … I’ll put up with it until they come at me with the cross and nails”
The head of California’s 39th largest corporation was in full diabetic shock. His blood sugar was the second highest the doctors at Marin General had ever seen. His kidneys had shut down. He was running a 105-degree fever from a systemic infection. He was in a coma.
Outside the ICU, the corridor was packed with family, friends, managers, reporters. And the Hell’s Angels.
Only the patient’s wife was permitted inside. “His heart stopped,” she would later say. ”He died. The hospital didn’t want anyone to know this, but he died. They had to resuscitate him.”
Even if her husband survived, she’d been told he might be brain-damaged and unable to walk again.
While the doctors administered more Demerol, she watched in horror as his leviathan frame convulsed on the gurney.
“My main experience,” the 44-year-old Jerry Garcia (pictured left in 1988) would later reveal, “was one of furious activity and tremendous struggle in a sort of futuristic spaceship vehicle with insectoid presences … big beetles rushing into tubes.”
At last his eyes opened to see the breathless crowd at his bedside. “Why are you looking at me?” he whispered to his speechless wife, Mountain Girl. “I’m not Beethoven. I’m not dead.”
“He was grateful to be alive,” said David Nelson, his bandmate in the New Riders of the Purple Sage. “For him, it was the second time. The first was the car accident in Palo Alto.”
That tragedy had occurred 25 years before. His best friend, Paul Speegle, the driver, was killed instantly; Jerry, his passenger, had miraculously survived with only a broken collarbone.
“I was a changed person,” he said. “It [the crash] was cosmic … It was where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life.”
Several years later, he founded the Grateful Dead. The guitarist was no stranger to the reaper. At the age of five, he had watched his father drown. Not long after the formation of the band, his mother drove off a cliff.
Now, with his miraculous 1986 recovery from the diabetic coma, he was a Lazarus. “The doctors said they’d never seen anybody as sick who wasn’t dead,” he recalled. “I really felt that the fans put life into me.”
He had to learn to walk, talk, and play guitar again.
Five months later, he and the Dead were back on the road. “Garcia’s return was greeted as a veritable Second Coming by his fans,” wrote his biographer, Blair Jackson.
At the group’s debut comeback performance at the Oakland Coliseum, the second song Jerry sang was new to the Dead repertoire – a gospel rendition of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which was greeted by deafening cheers. Adding levity to the resurrection, the Dead cut a live video featuring life-sized skeleton puppets of each band member, which dissolved into their real selves for the climax.
The Second Coming ended when Brent Mydland fatally overdosed on a speedball. There seemed to be a hex on Dead keyboardists. First it was Pigpen in ’72. Then his replacement, Keith Godchaux, had a fatal car crash in ’80. Now, Mydland in ‘90.
The rest of the Dead – funeral fatigued by now — were philosophical. “Hey, s— happens,” said Bob Weir. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
But their leader’s escalating drug abuse was frightening. Jerry had been “chasing the dragon” – smoking Persian heroin – since the early ‘80s. His bandmates tried interventions, fruitlessly. At last, they surrendered to what they called, “a resignation born of futility.”
By this time, Jerry (pictured right in 1995, two months before his death) was calling fame a “monster” and “soul-eater.” The dragon was the only thing that pulled him off the pedestal and deafened him to the clamor around him. He would have given anything, he insisted, to become “just an ordinary guitar player.”
Responding to the worship of his fans, he just shook his head, “I’ll put up with it until they come at me with the cross and nails.”
But he couldn’t avoid beatification even from his own people. “I loved him more than I loved anything,” said his manager, Richard Loren. “I loved him because he was such an almost perfect person. He was unpretentious. He was compassionate. He was humble. In a way, he was a Buddha.”
On their last tour, which Jerry dubbed “The Tour from Hell,” he sang his swan song, “So Many Roads,” at Chicago’s Soldier’s Field. “So many roads to ease my soul. All I want is one to take me home!” he wailed, bringing tears to the eyes of many.
Said his last keyboard player, Vince Welnick, “We were all aware he was pretty sick … I think he knew he was dying.”
After the tour, Jerry phoned all his old friends. “He may have been calling people to say good-bye, more or less in a parallel reality way,” recalled his personal assistant, Sue Stephens.
His old pal, Alan Trist, who survived the Speegle accident with him, added: “There was no sense of regret that he was about to die or of guilt for having created the conditions for his own death.”
Garcia checked into Betty Ford, then Serenity Knolls, a Bay Area holistic health retreat.
On the evening of Aug. 8, a week after his 53rd birthday, his third wife, Deborah, took him to dinner at an Italian restaurant, then drove him back to Serenity Knolls.
Just before dawn, a counselor looked into his room and found the star lying on top of his bed in sweatpants and T-shirt, “cuddling an apple like it was a baby, with a smile on his face.”
Days later, at his memorial service attended by the greatest musical luminaries, his friend, Bob Dylan (left, on his way to Garcia’s service), spoke for all in his eulogy. “There’s no way to measure his greatness … or to convey the loss … He really had no equal.”
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