The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and his 10 greatest songs
Anyone who has come into contact with Jerry Garcia will already be unsure of this list. Much of what made Garcia and the rest of his bands, first with The Grateful Dead and then with the Jerry Garcia Band, is his mercurial nature. To pin him down to just ten songs is almost impossible—but we like a challenge.
That’s why we have chosen today to take look through the guitarist and singer’s extensive back catalogue and pick ten of our favourite songs. While a lot of Garcia’s magnetism was generated on stage with a guitar in his hand and without a care in the world, the ten songs below show that was easily transferred on to record too.
As the founding member of The Grateful Dead, Garcia performed with the group for the entirety of its 30-year career. As well as participating in a range of side projects, Garcia was the unofficial leader of the band and his attitude towards music permeated everything the band did.
For Garcia music was about the moment. Whether that moment took him off course for the chorus was by the by, for Garcia it wasn’t the destination but the journey that was important. This attitude, complemented by the band’s impressive musical chops, meant the group welcomed an unparalleled fandom.
Below we’ve got ten songs which show Garcia off as one of the prominent voice of his generation.
Jerry Garcia’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘Althea’ (Go To Heaven, 1980)
Featuring on The Grateful Dead’s 1980 record Go To Heaven, the meticulously arranged ‘Althea’ acts as a gateway to the brilliance of the Dead. Lyrics from Robert Hunter were inspired by Minerva while the music adds a sensational backdrop.
As with all songs in this list, when performed live ‘Althea’ turns into a swampy and marauding number. It allows Garcia and Weir to take the song into brand new spheres using Hunter’s lyrics as the guideline.
9. ‘Touch of Grey’ (In the Dark, 1987)
The 1987 single ‘Touch of Grey’ is undoubtedly one of the band’s best numbers and is widely known for the iconic refrain “I will get by / I will survive” which is just an insight into the dark lyrics.
The joy of those lyrics is the juxtaposition they enjoy balanced by the upbeat pop sound. With music composed by Garcia, the single remains one of the band’s few moments swimming in the mainstream. The song gained major airplay on MTV and saw the band’s notoriety grow once more within a new generation.
8. ‘Sugaree’ (Garcia, 1972)
Despite writing for Jerry Garcia’s solo album Garcia, the guitarist still employed the talents of Robert Hunter to compose this song. The song had been played live by The Grateful Dead since 1971 but found a place on Garcia’s first solo record.
A lilting kicked-back number is all sunshine and hazy evenings and sees Garcia straddle the line between hippie credentials and country soul. Garcia is the typification of Americana.
7. ‘Ripple’ (American Beauty, 1970)
Robert Hunter’s lyrics were composed in London in 1970 for this, the sixth song on The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, ‘Ripple’. Hunter said that Ripple contained the lines of which he was most proud: “Reach out your hand, if your cup be empty/ If your cup is full, may it be again/ Let it be known there is a fountain/ That was not made by the hands of men.”
Garcia’s music is gentle and in-keeping of the transcendent lyrics, gently guiding you down the road and putting an arm around your shoulder as you both stride along.
6. ‘Wharf Rat’ (Grateful Dead, 1971)
This track, perhaps more than most, offers the key to unlocking the wonderful partnership between Hunter and Garcia. Taken from the band’s second live album Skull and Roses, ‘Wharf Rat’ depicts and down and out man only a few steps away from desperation.
It allows Hunter to get down and dirty in the realism of everyday life rather than taking his audience to another dimension altogether. The song is the beginning of the songwriting period in which Hunter and Garcia collaborated on a series of great story songs set in an America peopled by outlaws and other vagrants. A joy.
5. ‘Bertha’ (Grateful Dead, 1971)
Taken from The Grateful Dead’s self-titled album, the track is a distillation of everything that was fascinating about the band in the early days. The track, not named after a mechanical fan in the band’s rehearsal room, was according to Robert Hunter, “some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of nonsense like that.”
With this interpretation, the song manifests a much larger thematic discussion and makes references to Buddhist teachings as well as evoking the feeling of reincarnation. What’s really magical about the song, in our opinion, is the way Garcia’s takes these lyrics to brand new and impressive heights, mirroring the sentiment and providing moments of ethereal joy.
4. ‘Friend of the Devil’ (American Beauty, 1970)
Another track from 1970s American Beauty sees Garcia continue to use his acoustic guitar to devastating effect as he matches the lyrical content of the song. Apparently inspired by the band’s road manager, the track is full of tender moments.
The track is one of the most covered of the Dead’s tracks and according to Robert Hunter, “the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song”. The track was performed as part of the band’s live show for some years and has been gradually slowed down over the year allowing for more keyboard and guitar solos.
3. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ (Workingman’s Dead, 1970)
First appearing in the band’s live arsenal as early as 1969, The Grateful Dead have always kept this gem from Workingman’s Dead close to their heart. Naturally involving the Garcia and Hunter partnership, this song has become one of the band’s most famous.
Though the single saw The Grateful dead reach some wide audiences, Garcia was particularly let down by Warner Bros.’ cut of the single and called it “an atrocity”. Later saying, “I gave them instructions on how to properly edit it and they garbled it so completely.”
With that, we’ll give you the live version instead.
2. ‘Eyes of the World’ (Wake of the Flood, 1973)
The sixth studio album from The Grateful dead saw their first record without Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and it was one of the few times the band made a big dent on the charts, hitting number 18. Much of that success could be centred on ‘Eyes of the World’.
Appearing in concert for the first time in 1973, the track has gone on to become a message of hope from the band. Though Hunter’s lyrics border on the fantastical, Garcia’s performances of the track are beautiful.
1. ‘Dark Star’ (Live/Dead, 1969)
With our final pick, we’re addressing the elephant in the room. The Grateful Dead weren’t exactly the greatest band on record. Their real power came from their iconic “jams”. One song which lends itself most perfectly to these jams and therefore takes the top spot as Jerry Garcia’s finest is ‘Dark Star’.
One of the band’s first big hits, released in 1968 and later featuring on Live/Dead the following year, ‘Dark Star has often been praised for its ability to carry the band into a new musical space. It quickly becomes the vehicle for musical exploration and must be considered the best because of it.
With lyrics written by Robert Hunter and music from Garcia, the track marked the band as ones to watch during their incendiary beginnings in the house parties of San Francisco. It also allowed the group to really let go and go on tangents that some bands would call entire shows. Just to prove our point he’s a 48-minute ‘Dark Star’ jam.