Jerry Garcia was the principal songwriter, lead guitarist and vocalist of Californian rockers Grateful Dead. He was a founding member of the iconic troupe, and the band along with Garcia would become prominent figures in the countercultural movement of the 1960s, culminating in their legendary status. Garcia also gained fame as the de facto leader of the Dead, a role he frequently downplayed.
Garcia fronted the band throughout their mammoth 30-year career spanning from 1965-1995. However, his musical output did not stop there. He started and participated in numerous side projects which included the Saunders-Garcia Band with longtime friend Merl Saunders, The Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In the Way, The Garcia/Grisman acoustic duo, Legion of Mary and New Riders of the Purple Sage. His prolific output knew no bounds as he also released various solo albums, and added his expertise as a session musician to works of other artists over the years.
In addition to being the face of Grateful Dead and a countercultural icon, Garcia primarily gained fame due to his musical ability. This was best demonstrated by his mastering of a variety of instruments including the banjo and the long-improvised passages Grateful Dead would embark on during their live sets. Garcia was a huge supporter of improvisation and believed it to be an effective tool to destress him when playing. He once said: “My own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along. The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that’s difficult for me.”
The adherence to improvisation originated from the days of the now-iconic ‘Acid Tests’. The Acid Tests were a series of parties organised by author Ken Kesey in the mid-1960s which centred around experimentation with LSD and advocating its use. The parties were highly influential on the transition from the beat generation to the hippie movement. More significantly though, these parties often featured performances by the Grateful Dead, and it was here they would perfect their improvisational skills.
Later in life, Garcia’s health struggles would catch up with him. As he had got older, he had increased issues with diabetes, culminating in a diabetic coma in 1986 that nearly cost him his life. Whilst his health improved to a degree after the scare, Garcia was plagued by obesity, smoking and longstanding heroin and cocaine addictions. Sadly, he was staying in a Californian drug rehabilitation clinic when he passed away from a heart attack in August 1995, aged just 53.
While his legacy will forever be ingrained into the annals of rock and roll, his influence can be spotted across varying degrees of contemporary culture. In fact, it is a testament to his stature that in 1987 Ben and Jerry’s launched their classic Cherry Garcia flavoured ice cream in dedication to him. Furthermore, in 1996, Soundgarden released the instrumental ‘Jerry Garcia’s Finger’ as a B-side to the single ‘Pretty Noose’.
Alongside the swathes of fans he gained over his career, infamy surrounding drug use or his very own ice cream, Garcia gained notoriety for another reason. In 1994, Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Possibly owing to his countercultural sensibilities, he declined to attend the ceremony as he was not a fan of the Hall of Fame concept. However, his fellow band members accepted the award and jokingly brought a cardboard cutout on stage in the frontman’s absence.
It seems as if the trend of Garcia’s friends picking up awards in his absence carried on. Long after his premature death in 2015, Garcia and Grateful Dead lyricist Rober Hunter were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The now late Hunter and Garcia’s daughter, Trixie, accepted the award.
Watch the hilarious footage of the Grateful Dead accepting their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction below.