Credit: Carl Lender

How Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia battled childhood trauma to become a rock icon

What do jazz legend Django Reinhardt, Dr John and Grateful Dead’s leader, the late, great Jerry Garcia have in common? Yes, they were all amazing and influential guitarists (Dr John was also a pianist) but they achieved that feat without the full complement of digits on their hands.

Reinhardt lost two fingers on his left hand as the result of a horrendous fire, going on to teach himself how to play the guitar without the missing fingers. Dr John, AKA Mac Rebennack, lost his finger as he tried to protect a friend in a fight and had his left ringer blown off by a gun. But how did Jerry Garcia lose his finger?

The Grateful Dead’s loyal followers, AKA the Deadheads, will already be well aware of this fascinating tidbit, with Garcia losing his right middle finger. The band has a fandom like no other, a fandom which has kept the Grateful Dead as one of the most revered bands of all time. But while they will know Garcia’s own special take on flipping the bird, they may not know how he lost it.

For some time, in fact, a rumour had spread that Garcia had taken the finger off himself as a way to dodge the draft—but that was simply a fallacy. Instead, the real story is a little more plausible.

In 1947, in the Santa Cruz mountains, a tiny Jerry Garcia, just four years old at the time, was chopping wood with his brother when a mistimed chop ended with Garcia missing two-thirds of his right middle finger. It was the kind of accident that could scar a child and certainly one that would make your teenage years that extra bit difficult.

But The Grateful Dead man wasn’t like just anybody and when faced with adversity decided to overcome the only way he knew how—by making fun of it. Garcia confessed that he would often use the missing digit to his advantage, playing tricks on people and generally showing it as a gross-out the other kids in the neighbourhood.

It was the exact kind of confidence that saw him not only pick up a guitar unperturbed by his perceived disadvantage but also create the kind of music that made the Grateful Dead famous. The kind of mercurial, malleable and ultimately magnificent sounds that suggested despite bum notes and misalignment, the band could pull through anything.

Garcia was even happy to continue the joke about his finger on many occasion, even participating in a joke with comedian Al Franken on Saturday Night Live during his appearance, which you can see below.

While it would be irrational to suggest that Garcia’s childhood trauma was the only factor in his meteoric rise to prominence. But it would be equally irrational to suggest that such a devastating injury didn’t have any effect on the young Garcia. Given his strength of mind, even at a young age, Garcia’s childhood trauma was added to just a matter of months after losing his finger when his father drowned while on a fishing trip.

The fact that he accepted it a humongous amount of determination to succeed in spite of it, proves he was every bit the legend we thought he was.

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