If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.
—Christopher Robin, “Pooh’s Grand Adventure”
Every life is a story. And every story requires a soundtrack. For life is a sensual experience, and among the senses, the sounds — and, particularly, the music — that accompany life’s experiences provide a context that enriches and completes them.
Music has the unique power to evoke the thoughts and feelings that were present in an experience, even many years after the fact. And in the infinite and enigmatic wisdom that we, as humans, possess, we create musical soundtracks on a continual basis for every moment of our life, should we ever have the need to remember, truly remember, one or more of the experiences that comprise our life.
The music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead has been the soundtrack of my life for almost 40 years. And on the occasion of Jerry’s 70th birthday, Aug. 1, 2012, I feel compelled to pay tribute to the man who provided a marvelous musical context for millions that has endured for more than 50 years, including the last 17 years following his untimely, but hardly shocking, death.
The Grateful Dead was hardly the first and certainly not the only musical soundtrack of my life. In my early childhood years I came under the spell of the ancient music of my Jewish heritage — the joyful blessings over the Chanukah candles, the haunting melodies of the liturgy in the synagogue, the celebratory Klezmer tunes from Eastern Europe. The first records I played on the turntable in my boyhood room were classical — Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Shubert come to mind. Within a short period I was listening to 45s of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Monkeys and countless others. Then came my marching band years, with ultra-patriotic military band melodies such as John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
All of that set the stage for the summer of my 20th year, when I first began listening to the Grateful Dead’s “Skull and Roses” album. There was a spirit and joy in the music, particularly the melodious and innovative lead guitar parts played by Jerry Garcia, that moved me in a way that I had never been moved before. And when I relocated to the Bay Area in central California and became steeped in the “hippie” culture that was still very much thriving there in the mid-’70s, I became fully immersed in the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and adopted it thematically as the predominant soundtrack of my life.
Exactly what it is about Jerry Garcia that has moved so many is a subject that has filled countless pages. But as the 70th birthday of this legendary figure has grown imminent, I have given the matter some thought. Indeed, Jerry and his enigmatic and enduring legacy were on my mind recently as I was listening to “Scarlet/Fire” (an often-played medley of the otherwise unrelated Grateful Dead tunes “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain”) from the famous May 8, 1977, Ithaca show, while enjoying a classic ride from Boulder to Jamestown and back. What came to me is the talent that Jerry had for creating an elegant balance of non-conformity and community building — a seemingly oxymoronic notion.
Jerry Garcia was a staunch non-conformist who mastered the art of living life on his own terms. His childhood and family life — in which he lost his father at the age of 4 and lived with his grandparents — were anything but traditional. He began smoking cigarettes and marijuana at the age of 14, was constantly in trouble in school and never graduated from high school, stole his mother’s car, joined the Army, accrued numerous counts of AWOL and was quickly discharged.
Through it all, Jerry knew he was an artist and a musician, and lived his life authentically and purposefully. Despite the turbulence and tragedies of his childhood, Jerry Garcia became one of the most accomplished and beloved musicians of his time. He did this by following his passion for his true calling as a musician and by never giving an inch in being his truest self and in breaking with convention, as necessary.
Among the many examples of this is the Grateful Dead’s groundbreaking policy of allowing fans to make recordings of their live shows and to freely share these recordings. This notion flew in the face of what was traditionally held to be a fundamental principle of the music business:
Musicians must retain the copyright and control of their music at all costs. Breaking with this “sacred cow,” the band created a new paradigm that turned out to be a game-changing marketing strategy. By allowing fans to freely record and share their live performances, the Grateful Dead built a community of millions and became the highest grossing band in the U.S. in 1991 — ahead of the Rolling Stones and The Who.
In 1976, a Deadhead buddy and I hitchhiked cross-country with just one precious cassette tape containing parts of the Oct. 18, 1974, and Aug. 13, 1975, Grateful Dead shows. By contrast, because of this revolutionary policy, a terabyte disk has been making its way through the Grateful Dead community that contains more than 1,900 complete Grateful Dead concerts, which comes staggeringly close to representing all of the band’s 2,314 live performances. I am the proud owner of a copy of this catalogue, and I have shared it with my 1976 Deadhead buddy, as well as numerous others.
As a former “hippie” and 30-year self-employed entrepreneur, I have been endlessly inspired by the example of Jerry Garcia as a non-conformist who lived life on his own terms, built a community of inestimable size and created a new business model that revolutionized an industry. Which brings us to Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.
Jerry: The “tomorrow when we’re not together” has lasted 17 years so far for all of us who love you more than words can tell. We are braver, stronger and smarter for having known you. Thanks for providing such a splendid soundtrack for our lives. You will always be with us.
Happy 70th, Jerry!