The pursuer

By Sergio Ariza

In 1959 Cortázar wrote a story called The Pursuer in memory of the great Charlie Parker, where a saxophonist tries to penetrate reality through the notes of his sax, it seems to me a good analogy to Jerry Garcia, an insatiable pursuer of notes, (possibly the rock guitarist with the most hours recorded) not always inspired but in search of nirvana through music, a search summed up in a phrase of one of his most iconic songs, “what a long strange journey it has been”.

Jerome John Garcia was born August 1, 1942 in San Francisco, son of a Spanish immigrant, who came to the USA as a child , a jazz musician who called his son Jerome t in memory of the composer Jerome Kern. Evidently he started to study music as a child and at 15 got his first guitar after falling in love with rock and roll. However,  when he moved to Palo Alto in 1960 his interest turned towards folk. He joined the musical revival of this music and began his professional training on this path together with poet Robert Hunter, who would become fundamental to his career, playing an acoustic guitar and the banjo, immersed in folk, country and bluegrass. In 1964 he formed the band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, a band that included Bob Weir on rhythm guitar and keyboard vocalist Ron McKernan, known as Pigpen. But after seeing A Hard Day’s Night Garcia thought nothing would be more fun than forming a rock band and his group changed their name to The Warlocks, adding another two friends, Bill Kreutzmann on drums, and Phil Lesh on bass. By then Jerry had become a regular among  the group called The Merry Pranksters of writer  Ken Kesey, who would become the cornerstone of the hippy movement.

On December 4, 1965, The Warlocks became The Grateful Dead and did the soundtrack for one of Kesey’s acid trips. What started out as being a simple garage rock band turned to composing long improvisational instrumentals influenced by the effects of LSD. Before long The Grateful Dead was the emblematic band of San Francisco and was the visible head of a new movement that would go global. In January 1966 that hippy, psychedelic movement was going to have their first anniversary event, the Trips Festival , where they played along with  Big Brother & The Holding Company. Without having much of their own material the Dead’s setlist consisted of covers of soul/blues/R&B that they would use as a pretext to their long improvs. The concert was a success and Garcia turned into Captain Trips, the face of the movement and the city.

However, it wasn’t The Grateful Dead who first brought the new sound to the country and world at large. Reluctant to sign a recording contract, they watched how another band from the city, Jefferson Airplane, became the first to sign to a label. After a first record that was unconvincing, closer to folk/rock than the flourishing psychedelica, Airplane decided to trust Garcia on the second record, Surrealistic Pillow. Recorded in November 1966 and released in ’67, it was the record that placed San Francisco on the musical map and was got ahead of the ‘summer of love’. Garcia worked as a kind of backstage producer  and is mentioned as “musical and spiritual guide” on the record. Among his contributions are the new arrangement of Somebody to Love, some of the guitar bits and the inspiration for the title. That same month the massive HumanBe-In event was held at Golden Gate Park, which  put psychedelica and counterculture vernacular in fashion in the U.S. The bands that performed there were: Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Blue Cheer. At the time, the Dead were busy recording their debut homonymous album, Jerry had replaced Pigpen as lead singer and was the only one to bring his own song to a repertoire which until then was still just covers. His guitar solos were still the main thrust of the band but they were a long way from obtaining that wonderful live sound in the studio. On June 18 they took part in the first great festival in rock history, Monterey. In San Francisco they were heroes but it was here where they found a much larger public.

Their second record, Anthem of the Sun, was a step forward but they still couldn’t get the full effect onstage, yet songs like That’s it for the Other One became fixtures on their setlists. The record brought 2 important new things, the first was the appearance of Hunter as lyricist on one of the songs, who together with Garcia would form a composing tandem that would create the most brilliant work on their repertoire. The second was the addition of Tom Constanten on keyboards and Mickey Hart on 2nd drums. Their live shows were reaching a level of a ‘happening’ and had hordes of faithful fans known as Deadheads that wouldn’t miss one of their shows. One of their new songs, Dark Star, arranged by Garcia with Hunter’s lyrics was a new draw for the faithful, a number that  went from 3 minutes in the studio version to 30 minutes live.  On February 27 they played a fiery version at the Fillmore West, where they were pretty much the fixed band, which showed their incredible virtues as improvisors, especially Garcia’s. They had become a cult band par excellence with their long jams where Garcia’s guitar always stack out (a guitar that, as Santana said, was the Sun of the band , the astral king around  which the rest of the components/planets revolved). At the time, that guitar was a Gibson SG with a wah wah pedal Vox Crybaby plugged into Fender Twins.

Around that time they were recording their third record, Aoxomoxoa, which was composed entirely by the Garcia/Hunter duo. It was their best record to date, with 2 crucial songs in their discography: St.Stephen and China Cat Sunflower, as well as others like Mountains on the Moon which shows the evolution towards the roots that would they would produce on their following studio records. The record was released in June 1969, two months before their performance at Woodstock, where Garcia once again used his SG. St. Stephen and Dark Star were again the focus but the fact that Mama Tried by Merle Haggard appeared on the setlist says a lot about where the new influences were going.

By this time Garcia had begun to play the pedal steel guitar and had shown a real knack for it, without taking lessons, or reading about it, Garcia had got hold of a  ZB, and had started to practice for hours on end. Before long he was playing with his friend John Dawson in juke joints and having such a good time, they  decided to form a band, New Riders of the Purple Sage. In the footsteps of Dylan and The Band, the psychedelic icon got back to his roots and sought inspiration in country and the bluegrass of his beginnings. 

When the legendary Live/Dead was released, where you find a version of Dark Star from February ‘69, Garcia had put aside the long improvs and focussed on the songs themselves. He took a new interest in the vocals and harmonies which led them  to contact Crosby Stills & Nash to get some lessons from theml, in turn, Garcia offered his heavenly pedal steel at the band’s disposal, which had already been joined in by Neil Young, and the result was immortalised in Teach Your Children. He had already left samples of his innate capacity on The Farm with his friends Jefferson Airplane. At a time when country/rock was in its infancy, Jerry Garcia defined his sound with the pedal steel as he had done  with psychedelica before. The two albums that came out in this time of the Grateful Dead can be considered without a doubt their best studio work, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, 2 records wherein you find the band’s best compositions, antologic numbers such as Uncle John’s Band, Dire Wolf, New Speedway Boogie (where they talk of the Altamont disaster), Casey Jones, Box of Rain, Friend of the Devil, Sugar Magnolia, Ripple, and Truckin’, with Garcia’s acoustic out front, a Martin D-18. The two were edited in 1970 and the next year the first release of New Riders confirms Garcia’s genius on pedal steel.

They were also the most successful records of his career to date and the Grateful Dead would go on to touch tens of thousands of people for the rest of their career. In 1971 they released another live record known as Skull & Roses by the album cover, and a year later Europe ‘72 came out, a live triple album on which keyboardist Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna on vocals, made their debut. It was the third live record in 4 years and proved that the Dead still thought their shows were their main thrust. By then Garcia had switched to a Fender, specifically a Stratocaster with a ‘57 neck and body from 1963 that Graham Nash had given him for playing on his first solo album (in fact, Garcia had played on the 3 debut records by Crosby Stills & Nash). The guitar was known as the Alligator and was the first of a series of legendary guitars that Garcia used until the end of his career, and the last three would be made by luthier Doug Irwin: Wolf, Tiger and Rosebud. To understand their value, just recall that in June of last year, Wolf went to auction and fetched 1.9 million dollars, making it the 3rd most expensive guitar in history. 

Not surprisingly, Garcia actually slept with these guitars, they were a natural extension of his arms and fingers. Together they would explore a thousand and one cosmic trips with The Grateful Dead, his solo projects, and insatiable rehearsals at home. Robert Christgau reckons he was the best rock musician ever to improvise and maybe he’s right. Garcia was an obsessive musician to the end and always pursued a connection to his instrument. There were moments where the magic didn’t shine thru, but when it  did, few things were more intense.