Jerry Garcia and his band alongside Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, Phil Lesh, Ron McKernan, and many more different contributors, the Grateful Dead, are traditionally mercurial in everything they do and did. Through their enigmatic live shows and noodling jams, the band forged themselves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame through creativity and never, ever, standing still. It was an evolution that has seen the band gain a fandom like no other and a catalogue that is always under review.
Equally, founding member Jerry Garcia has never stood still either. He always kept his music, both with the band and during his solo projects, as moveable feasts that never hung around. It makes picking out the songwriter’s favourite song by the band he helped form an even more difficult task than it is for most musicians. After all, as a huge music lover, it was very likely that from one day to the next, Garcia would have a different favourite song, like the rest of us.
The guitarist’s stance on music has sometimes overcome Garcia. The singer has often spent moments of reclusive self-isolation after putting out a record, largely chastising himself and engineers for not capturing the essence of what he intended to create. Taking himself out of public viewing after his vision for an album or song has not been enacted to perfect detail was a common trait. He once told Steve Witzman in 1974, “I hate all my records,” as he refused an aftershow interview. Seemingly concluding any hope of an interview with “The Grateful Dead don’t make good records.”
If you’re a longtime fan of Garcia you will know this demeanour well. When a Grateful Dead show finishes what leaves the auditorium is a slow-moving glob of exhausted audience members, dazed and confused by the myriad of mythical yet memorable moments that had just transpired. The same can be said for Garcia and the band too, especially back in 1974 when the drugs were in full flow and the Dead came with an explicit warning.
Weitzman’s conversation in 1974 may have been ill-timed. But he was right on the money when he was invited to speak with Garcia during some downtime from the Dead and a tour of his new solo material two years later. In this retrospective on the interview on Relix, Garcia speaks in-depth about the trials and tribulations of being in a band like The Grateful Dead and what he meant by his earlier remark on their studio albums.
One point of contention in the chat, and where a lot of his frustration around the Dead’s records lies, is that Garcia’s meticulous vision was never be matched by the technology at his and the band’s disposal. He says, “Often I want to do something that you can only do by developing or interfacing a certain number of existing possibilities. With Blues For Allah, there was a thing I wanted to do that had to do with an envelope shaper and stuff like that didn’t come together the way I wanted it to.”
“And so, when I listen to it, I think, ‘Well shit, it isn’t quite where I wanted it to be.’ But in the long run, after, like, however many records – nineteen records or something like that – you feel that at least your percentages are getting closer and you’re able to score on other levels. Like on our earlier records, if I listen to them now, they are embarrassing for reasons like they’re out of tune.”
We can’t imagine what Garcia thought of the Dead’s back catalogue from the early days before his death in 1995. With thirteen studio albums to their name and a host of other material, a catalogue denser than you’re ever likely to imagine, it’s hard to imagine Garcia having a single, stand-out favourite song.
Jerry Garcia’s favourite Grateful Dead song
Weitzman asks the singer whether the popularity of songs within their audience resonates with them as performers, “can you tell which ones maybe become classics with your audience, like ‘Sugar Magnolia’ or ‘Truckin’?” It’s the kind of question that rock stars are not only faced with at regular intervals but also, largely, detest being asked.
Garcia’s reply is expected for an artist who has made a career out of channelling internal creativity above all else, “Uh…not really. I can’t. ‘Cause often, the ones that get me don’t get anybody but me (laughs),” it’s a fact that has endeared him to the hearts of fans who equally quibble from day to day about the values of a certain song on a certain set. But which song was his most loved?
“I really loved ‘Row Jimmy Row’. That was one of my favourite songs of ones that I’ve written. I loved it. Nobody else really liked it very much—we always did it—but nobody liked it very much, at least in the same way I did.”
There a few others too, after Weitzman shared his love of ‘Scarlet Begonias’, Garcia replies, “Yeah, that’s another song too. That’s a song I like. ‘Ship Of Fools’ is a song I like an awful lot. But my relationship to them changes. Sometimes I really like a song after I’ve written it and I don’t like it at all a year later. And some of them, I’m sort of indifferent to, but we perform it and find they have a real long life. For me to sing a song, I really have to feel some relationship to it. I can’t just bullshit about it. Otherwise, it’s just empty and it’s no fun.”
Of course, this interview was conducted nearly 20 years before Garcia’s death and the chances are his opinion may have changed once or twice in that time—especially considering the volume of music he and the band created during those two decades, arguably some of their most commercial work—it could have even changed once or twice a day had he given it much time to think on.
There’s also a fair chance that ‘Tennesee Jed’ or ‘Jack A Roe’ or ‘Wharf Rat’ or any number of different Dead songs could well have been his favourite. In fact, we’d likely lay a bet that if you had asked Garcia the very next day what was his favourite Grateful Dead song, he may have changed his mind again.
After all, if there’s one thing Jerry Garcia did better than almost anybody, it’s change with the winds.