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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

1972 - A Conversation with Jerry Garcia

I met Garcia in San Francisco in June of 1972 and had the great good fortune to have a relaxed one-on-one conversation with him. Here's how it happened:

I was the house guest of a family who lived in a huge place in Tiburon. The father in the household was the chief of surgery at a big Bay Area hospital. I had met his daughter at U.C. Santa Barbara and had been invited up for a few days.

There was a very friendly atmosphere, but a dark cloud was hanging over the household. Lisa's older sister had been arrested two months before for marijuana possession. She was released on bail after a few hours and then proceeded to disappear two days before her court appearance. The police had gotten a bench warrant issued for her arrest in spite of the lawyer's best efforts. Her parents had no idea where she was, but Lisa did.

Lisa simply assured her parents that her sister was "OK" and that she would convey their desperate plea that she turn herself in, first to the lawyer and then to the police. The father was sick with worry. He took me, a complete stranger, aside and asked me to do anything I could to get the older sister to co-operate. I promised him that I would do so as soon as I had the opportunity. I told him I would do my best to convince her that her options were very limited and shrinking fast.

We found Lisa's older sister in an attic room in the Mission District. It was hotter than hell in there and the fan in the ceiling did very little to cool the place down. Lisa conveyed her message and I did what I could - which wasn't a whole lot, to emphasize and encourage common sense. As we were leaving Lisa's sister asked: "Do you two want to see the Stones at Winterland tomorrow night? I've got two tickets and I don't think I'm going to be using them." The answer was yes.

That same night we were walking aimlessly around North Beach in the rain. I recall the reflections of the neon signs and the street lights in the puddles. It was pretty late and we were talking about getting back to Tiburon.

We came to a corner with a little bar. There was a band playing inside. The entrance door was closed and there was a bouncer leaning up against the wall looking bored.

We stopped and listened for a moment. The music was a San Francisco blues - gleaming, high and slow. I heard about four notes of the guitar and said to Lisa: "That's Garcia."

"No way. He's not going to be playing a dump like this!"

"I'm telling you it's him. Excuse me . . . Is that Jerry Garcia playing in there?"


"Can we get in?"

"Sure. They're almost done for the night, though. Give me two bucks and you can go in."

Best "ticket purchase" I ever made.

We walked into a perfectly ordinary bar with a few tables and a one foot high stage. There were two old guys drinking at the bar and maybe three people, tops, at the tables.

We sat down at a table right in front of the "stage" and watched and listened. Garcia, a bassist, a drummer, and a guy with a saxophone who was just standing there listening.

It was a strange, strange feeling. He was playing splendidly. Gorgeous, drawn out phrases that trailed off into one another like fog banks. But still the blues, rooted in the earth, dug down into everyday life. I was accustomed to seeing him play in front of packed, crazed mobs of people yelling their fool heads off. This was different, to put it mildly. We were transfixed. He just played, staring into the frets of his guitar.

And suddenly they were finished: "'Night all!"

The other three guys just walked off, out through a back door behind the stage. Garcia stayed behind alone. He was fooling around with his amp, poking at buttons and twisting the little dials. A thought crossed my mind: "Bay Area musician, just like many others."

I stood up and walked onto the stage. It had a crummy red wall-to-wall carpet and hundreds of cigarette burns.

"Mr. Garcia?"

He turned around and looked up, neutral.

I extended my hand.

"I'm a great admirer of your music and of the Dead."

He smiled and shook my hand.

"Mind if I ask a question?", I said.

The smile disappeared instantly. "Depends on what the question is."

"What was it like playing with Bo Diddley at the Fillmore East in April?"

The smile came right back.

"It was great. We had so much fun and learned a lot of stuff from him."

"Yeah, I can imagine. It was really a treat to hear. What a great combination! Best back-up band Bo ever had."

And we talked for about ten minutes about old Bo, and the blues and (briefly) about the Dead. He seemed happy to talk, relaxed and unhurried. The place was now empty except for Garcia, Lisa, the bartender and me. And the bartender was giving us "I want to close" looks.

"Thanks for the talk, Mr. Garcia. The Dead are a big part of my experience. I think about the music all the time. Please keep it up."

"Sure man. I'll do what I can."

We shook hands again and I walked off the stage, towards Lisa who was sitting in amazement.

And I remember something else in that one tiny moment, the second or two after I stepped down off of the one foot high stage: Garcia said, to my back:

"Thanks, man."

We walked out into the rain.

"What did he say??"

"Gee. I'm trying to remember everything."

I never saw Garcia again.

1 comment:

Bill Harrison said...

J, I may have told you this story before so bear with me if I have. In ''74 the Dead played William & Mary where I was an undergrad. First night was a regular show but they announced at the end of it that they were coming back the next night too. Tickets for the second show were $2 and there were maybe a thousand people in all there. Like a h.s. dance with the Dead playin'. I got into the soundcheck as a member of the college concert committee. Met Garcia and Lesh and had a brief conversation concerning the monstrous sound system and the wonder of roadies. Man, what a long, strange trip its been.