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Jerry Garcia: A life in 80 songs

“Instead of making something that lasts forever, I think I thought, ‘I’d rather just have fun.'” – Jerry Garcia

Despite his lack of interest in doing so, Jerry Garcia has managed to create something that will last forever. Even though his only stated goal throughout the entire 30-year existence of the Grateful Dead was to have a good time, Garcia’s contributions to rock and roll wound up creating a body of work that has transcended his life and become canon to the greater lexicon of popular music. Not bad for a banjo player from Palo Alto.

Jerry Garcia’s path towards musical immortality took him through nearly every American genre of music, from folk to bluegrass to Dixieland jazz to country and western to jug music and, eventually, to rock and roll. A talented painter, Garcia found his true artistic calling as a musician after being exposed to acoustic music as a teenager in Menlo Park, California. By the time he had graduated high school, Garcia had settled into the folk scene of Palo Alto and started befriending friends like Robert Hunter, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Ron McKernan.

Thanks to an old girlfriend, Garcia was gifted his first guitar and began fanatically devoting himself to practising the instrument. While playing various folk clubs and coffeehouses, Garcia, Weir, and McKernan were part of an acoustic group called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, but McKernan wanted to play electric music. The trio recruited drummer Bill Kreutzmann and eventually persuaded Lesh to join on bass, forming the first incarnation of what would become the Grateful Dead.

Specializing in garage rock and dance music, Garcia and McKernan took the lead in trying to write original material for the group to play. Garcia’s early efforts like ‘Cream Puff War’ and ‘Can’t Come Down’ featured himself as a lyricist, but Garcia found his talents were better suited as a music writer. By chance, Garcia’s old friend Hunter began sending him poems in the mail, including words to what would become ‘Alligator’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’. Garcia and Hunter became a songwriting team, going on to create some of the best-loved material in the Grateful Dead’s discography.

Through Hunter’s words, Garcia was able to conjure up just about anything: psychedelic freakouts (‘What’s Become of the Baby’), old-timey Americana (‘Dire Wolf’), biting contemporary critiques (‘New Speedway Boogie’), loopy nonsensical whimsey (‘Ramble On Rose’), heartbreaking loneliness (‘Stella Blue’), and even anthemic stadium rock (‘Touch of Grey’). All the while, his lead guitar playing gave the Grateful Dead their unique voice, leading the band into some of the most legendary jams and improvisations that rock music had ever seen.

As he aged and dealt with increasing health issues related to addiction, Garcia’s performances became erratic. What he had lost in vitality, though, he gained in wisdom and weathered experience. Songs like ‘Black Muddy River’ and ‘Brokedown Palace’ started to take on new emotional resonance as Garcia struggled to hold himself together. The Grateful Dead were constantly surrounded by death, but they had always managed to survive any losses that struck them. All except one – Garcia’s death in 1995 put a permanent end to the Grateful Dead.

On what would have been his 80th birthday, we’ve compiled 80 of Garcia’s most essential tracks that best define his contributions to the Grateful Dead. The Dead played literally thousands of songs over the course of 30 years, most of which were covers that quickly became forever associated with the Dead. In order to best represent Garcia and his contributions to music, we’ve only included songs that Garcia wrote and sang lead or co-lead on from the Dead’s deep discography and his own solo career.

The only exceptions two of Garcia’s most essential musical contributions outside of the Dead: the pedal steel guitar playing on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s ‘Teach Your Children’ and his lead guitar playing on Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Today’. Here is a portrait of the life of Jerry Garcia, told through 80 of his most iconic songs.

Jerry Garcia’s 80 best songs:

  • ‘Cream Puff War’
  • ‘Dark Star’
  • ‘St. Stephen’
  • ‘China Cat Sunflower’
  • ‘Today’ (Jefferson Airplane song)
  • ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’
  • ‘Rosemary’
  • ‘Doin’ That Rag’
  • ‘Mountains of the Moon’
  • ‘What’s Become of the Baby’
  • ‘Cosmic Charlie’
  • ‘Teach Your Children’ (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song)
  • ‘Uncle John’s Band’
  • ‘High Time’
  • ‘Dire Wolf’
  • ‘Cumberland Blues’
  • ‘New Speedway Boogie’
  • ‘Black Peter’
  • ‘Casey Jones’
  • ‘Friend of the Devil’
  • ‘Candyman’
  • ‘Ripple’
  • ‘Brokedown Palace’
  • ‘Attics of My Life’
  • ‘Bertha’
  • ‘Wharf Rat’
  • ‘He’s Gone’
  • ‘Jack Straw’
  • ‘Brown-Eyed Women’
  • ‘Ramble On Rose’
  • ‘Tennessee Jed’
  • ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodaloo’
  • ‘Row Jimmy’
  • ‘Here Comes Sunshine’
  • ‘Eyes of the World’
  • ‘U.S. Blues’
  • ‘China Doll’
  • ‘Loose Lucy’
  • ‘Scarlet Begonias’
  • ‘Fire on the Mountain’
  • ‘Ship of Fools’
  • ‘Stella Blue’
  • ‘Help on the Way / Slipknot!’
  • ‘Franklin’s Tower’
  • ‘Crazy Fingers’
  • ‘Sugaree’
  • ‘It Must Have Been the Roses’
  • ‘Bird Song’
  • ‘Terrapin Station’
  • ‘Shakedown Street’
  • ‘Stagger Lee’
  • ‘If I Had the World to Give’
  • ‘Alabama Getaway’
  • ‘Althea’
  • ‘Don’t Ease Me In’
  • ‘To Lay Me Down’
  • ‘Touch of Grey’
  • ‘When Push Comes to Shove’
  • ‘West L.A. Fadeaway’
  • ‘Black Muddy River’
  • ‘Foolish Heart’
  • ‘Built to Last’
  • ‘Standing on the Moon’
  • ‘Valerie’
  • ‘Liberty’
  • ‘So Many Roads’
  • ‘Days Between’
  • ‘Lazy River Road’
  • ‘Can’t Come Down’
  • ‘Deal’
  • ‘Loser’
  • ‘The Wheel’
  • ‘Midnight Town’
  • ‘Cats Under the Stars’
  • ‘Might As Well’
  • ‘Mission in the Rain’
  • ‘They Love Each Other’
  • ‘Comes a Time’
  • ‘Run for the Roses’
  • ‘Midnight Getaway’