The night I met Jerry
The night I met Jerry
My Grateful Dead stories are different from yours, but I bet a lot of them rhyme. You’re thinking of a great road trip, rewarded by an exceptional show? I’m thinking Hampton, Va., April of ’83. A serendipitous moment? I’ve got a wintry night in Philly when the band opened with “Cold Rain and Snow.” We remember the Deadheads themselves, the twirlers and the freaks and the guy who burst into a crowded men’s room, shouting, “I guess everyone takes a leak during ‘El Paso.’” You know these stories, or versions of them. So I guess I should tell the one where I meet Jerry. It was Easter weekend, 1987. Backstage, between sets, at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Orange County, Calif. I was 24, old enough to know that encounters with famous people can be disappointing. But I was not disappointed. Talking to Jerry was like climbing the mountain and finding the wise man at home. The whole experience was a trip. A business trip, to be precise. A couple of months earlier, I’d pitched a story idea about the Dead to my boss at Forbes magazine. Other bands prosecuted bootleggers, but the Dead encouraged people to tape their shows. People traded tapes, the sense of community around the band grew and endless sold-out concert tours kept the money flowing in. Variations on this strategy became popular during the internet bubble, but it was pretty fresh back in the Reagan era. They put me on the story with a senior editor who did not care much for the Dead. After a couple of shows in Jersey and some negotiations with the band’s management, we flew to LA. We interviewed a lot of people that week. Clive Davis received us in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He ate an entire plate of grapes without offering us one. David Geffen sat down at the Ivy and told our local bureau chief that he needed to lose weight. We came away with a big story about a new technology that was pulling in tons of money — the compact disc. It was fun, but it wasn’t what I’d come for. Finally, we made it to Orange County and checked into our hotel. That night, we went to see the band at the amphitheater — my first California show. The next day, after my maniacal editor woke me up early to play tennis with a couple of salesmen, we hung out poolside with
Brent Mydland, who was still a few years away from the fate that awaits all Grateful Dead keyboardists and Spinal Tap drummers. Later we drank beers and talked for some time with Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in Kreutzmann’s suite. So far, so good. But the rest of the band was nowhere to be found. I knew our story wouldn’t be complete unless we got face time with Garcia, the heart and soul of the group from its earliest days. And from a lessprofessional point of view, Jerry was the one person I really wanted to meet. He was more than a guitarist, he was a guru. That year, as my father was dying back home in Greensboro, I found some solace when he sang that we all wear a touch of grey. I had a job to do, but I was on a pilgrimage, too. Back to Irvine Meadows for another show. We flashed our backstage passes and wandered around the inner sanctum while the stage crew did its thing. I had a brief, unsatisfying talk with Phil Lesh, almost got beat up by a very large roadie and interviewed Bob Weir in his dressing room. During the opening set, I opened a longneck and leaned on an amp, looking over Jerry’s shoulder at the crowd while the band played “Promised Land.”
And then, during the break, we got the summons. In a trailer, on a couch, surrounded by his bandmates and the legendary promoter Bill Graham, sat Jerry, graying at 44, holding court. After some banter — I remember asking him why the band never played “Cosmic Charlie” — we asked if he felt he’d gotten a fresh start after his recent diabetic coma. “I’m not a whole new me but pretty new, not a new me but an extrapolation of the old me,” he said. We talked about work: “If you don’t love it, fuck it, it’s not worth doing. The money part is not the important part, the important part is the opportunity to get your hands wet, to go out there to jump around, fuck around, make mistakes. Try weird stuff, see what works.” And so it went (you can listen to the interview here: edcone.typepad.com/wordup/2003/01/ a_conversation_.html. At the end, he cited Borges, mispronouncing his name as he told the story of a character who longed for a death with “an adventure attached to it.” “That’s how I feel,” he said. We went back to New York and wrote our article, which left out all the good parts. I married the reporter who fact-checked it.
The Grateful Dead performed March 30 and 31, 1989 at the Greensboro Coliseum. (photo by Charles Womack)