happy birthday Jerry...

Today is the late Jerry Garcia's birthday: August 1, 1942. He died on an overdose of heroin while at a rehab center in California in August 1995.  I was 15 when I got their first album, a self-titled menagerie of rock, blues and psychedelia that kept me hoppin' the whole summer. I faithfully purchased - and devoured - 10 of their 20 next albums, too favoring the live ones more than all the rest. For part of a summer, I found myself following the Dead from NYC to Washington, DC and then on to Watkins Glen as a mini-deadhead. And when my young family lived in San Francisco in the mid 70s, fate would have it that we would live just three blocks from the fabled Grateful Dead House on Ashbury Street.

More than many, the Dead were truly "an American band." They mixed country with blues, pop with jazz, wild improvisation with increasingly sweet harmonies. They shared a sense of hope and optimism with their fans that spanned 50 years of performing. Like the Stones with the blues, the Dead introduced a variety of Americana musical forms to a young, white audience including jug band tunes, free jazz and hard core country. They also wrote the book on musical risk taking for my generation with their extended jams that became one part prayer, one part bacchanalia and one part soul adventure. Sometimes the result was ecstatic but it could also go south and become a disaster, too.

Five songs have continued to hold meaning for me from the archives of the Dead: 

+ The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion from their debut album in 1967. Can you dig that title? WTF? It is just a fun paean to hippie chicks during the Summer of Love who captured the heart and soul of being playful and beautiful and lost to the joyous music of those early days. It was the first song on their first album and I must have played it 100 times that first summer.

See that girl, barefootin' along,
Whistlin' and singin', she's a carryin' on.
There's laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She's a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.

Hey hey, hey, come right away
Come and join the party every day.

Well everybody's dancin' in a ring around the sun
Nobody's finished, we ain't even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find out where it's at.

+ "Cosmic Charlie" from the 1968 third album Aoxomoxoa. I love everything about this song: the slow, bluesy-rock and roll introduction, the laid back shuffle of the main song, the lyrics and the total vibe of sitting back and letting the groove do all the work. 

Cosmic Charley how do you do?
Truckin' in style along the avenue
Dumdeedumdee doodley doo
Go on home, your mama's calling you…

I just wonder if you shouldn't feel
less concern about the deep unreal
The very first word is : How do you do?
The last: go home, your mama's callin you

+ "Bertha" opens the Dead's second live album from 1971 -  Skull and Cross Bones - and sets the stage for an incredible ride. I fell in love with a girl to this album and it haunted our first summer together. Later, when I was campaigning for the school board in Cleveland, I used to blast this in my Jeep rushing from one gig to another to give me the juice to overcome my stage fright. Just a rockin' ass song with a guitar break to die for. 

+ "He's Gone" from Europe '72 continues to be a lament I hear over and over in my head. Originally written about drummer Mickey Hart's father, the Dead's first manager, but soon took on the quality of homage to the Dead's blues man, Pigpen, as this song aches and weeps and owns the hard reality of death in a way that is sweet while being oh so honest. I think I wore out my first copy of this album playing this song (and almost everything else, too.)

Rat in a drain ditch caught on a limb
You know better but I know him
Like I told you, what I said
Steal your face right off you head

Now he's Gone, Lord he's gone
Like a steam locomotive
rolling down the track
He's gone, He's gone
And nothing's gonna bring him back
He's gone

+ And then there is "Sugaree" - best heard live - but from Garcia's solo album of the same name in 1972. When they did this at Watkins Glenn - with thousands of loving fans singing along with the chorus - I was lifted outside myself. It, too, is bluesy but with a hip gospel sound as well. I know, another slow shuffle, but that's the way it goes. I could have included "Truckin'" or "Box of Rain" or even the accoustic take on "On the Road Again" here. I love Bobby Weir's sound on the Chuck Berry classic, "Around and Around" too  as well as "Ripple" but "Sugaree" is where we need to bring Jerry's birthday celebration to a close.  Thanks for the blessings.


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