On Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away. The void left in the lives of millions of fans, Deadhead and otherwise, has yet to be filled.
For this unrepentant Deadhead, that space looms large. My former spouse and I spent many years attending Dead shows — we even pledged our troth at one. We bathed our spirits in the music and legend of the band’s then-30-year history, we reveled in the communal atmosphere of the concert parking-lot scenes, and we remain ever grateful for all of the lifelong friends we made while riding the bus.
We especially admired and loved Jerry Garcia, the supposed leader of the band. Despite his many demons, he told us stories, taught us lessons, and gave us myriad joy and sorrow as we watched him live his tumultuous life and listened to his heartfelt singing and his singular guitar riffs. The spouse and I are so lucky: We are among those who “get it,” the Dead-inspired love-peace-kindness-and-music philosophy that ruled at the band’s shows. If you grok it, you know what I mean. That inspired way of living and thinking still provides a strong foundation for our lives. It is the thing that keeps us going and gets us through times good and bad.
When Jerry passed away in the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 9, just eight days after his 53rd birthday, my ex and I hosted a vigil in the musician’s honor. We took over Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Park — we didn’t need no steenkin’ permit, man — and decorated it with flowers and tapestries and candles. I spread the word via the Internet and progressive-freeform terrestrial radio station WRNR. (GDPR kicked off a mere six months later.) Then we waited to see what would happen.
At 9 PM, hundreds of people flocked into our tiny neighborhood park. With then, they brought guitars, drums, paintings and photographs, and Dead-show tapes. Even more importantly, they brought along their indomitable spirit, their gratitude and love. Police were on hand; they had gotten the word that the Deadheads were coming to Mount Vernon. But there were no problems, even if a front-page Baltimore Sun story erroneously reported that the aroma of burning marijuana was in the air. There wasn’t, as the local TV stations reported when I appeared on “live at 11” standup reports. The Deadheads kept it real and were on their best behavior. (In fact, neighbors later thanked us for keeping the junkies out of the park that night.)
So no, there was no bad behavior. But there were good vibrations a-plenty: love and music, drumming and singalongs, laughter and tears. And miracles — one grateful attendee thanked me by handing me a tape recording of the Dead’s final performance from a month before at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Our daughter, then six years old, was on hand. (Interestingly, we believe our son, in 2014 about to enter college, may have been conceived that very night.) She had never attended a Dead show and was curious to know: Was this jovial vigil anything like a Grateful Dead concert?
When she asked the question — it was long past her bedtime, which I was about to say — I paused and instead scanned the park and all of the visitors who had come from far and wide to pay their respects. The August night was crisp and unseasonably cool. The haunting strains of Dead tunes swirled in my ears. The sight of people consoling one another and hugging and laughing brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips. “Yes,” I replied finally, “it was very much like this.” The memory of that night — and countless similar nights before it — will never die.
Sometimes it feels as if a lifetime has gone by. Today, though, it feels like yesterday. And missing Jerry, a man I never met, but who has touched my life at its very core, well, like the music, it never stops.
As always, thanks, Jerry… for everything.