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Jerry Garcia: Portrait of an Artist as a Tripper

by Jeremy Alderson on August 08, 2014

During the "Days Between" Jerry Garcia's birth on August 1 (1942) and his passing on August 9 (1995), we share this interview which originally ran in our August 2008 issue.

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I met Jerry Garcia in a hotel room in Buffalo, New York on July 3rd, 1989. Right from the start, he was friendly, warm and open, like we were just a couple of guys chatting over some beers. The room was very plain – no flowers, no paraphernalia, no silver trays with notes from admirers. I can’t say, though, what was in the adjoining room, which I knew was his as well, because at one point the connecting door opened and his girlfriend Menashe walked in. She too, was very friendly, and when I said I would be done soon, she told me not to worry, that she just needed something, but I should stay.

At one point I even mentioned that I had heard he had some Jewish ancestry, but he assured me it wasn’t true. “Well, I’ll skip all the Jewish questions,” I said. “Oh, go ahead,” he chuckled. It was clear that he wanted to talk and maybe that was only partly because of the subject. The rest of it may have been because, well, vegetating in a hotel room before a gig isn’t the most fun. In fact, at one point he just out-and-out said, “Talk as long as you want. I don’t have anything else to do.” It was all very relaxed. I finished up the interview and that was that.

Then about ten years later, I got a call from Dennis McNally, the Dead’s publicist. He was preparing to write A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead and had come across the transcript of the interview that I’d sent him years before. “How did you get this?” he asked. “What do you mean?” I questioned in return. “You’re the one who set it up.” True, he said, but no one else had gotten Jerry to open up that way about his psychedelic experiences, and could he, he wanted to know, use a few quotes in his book. I gave my okay, and then said, “You know, it was funny. It seemed like Jerry wanted me to stay, like he wanted the company, but I was just there as an interviewer, and I couldn’t go beyond my role.” “Tell me about it,” he answered, surprising me, “I felt that way for years.”

In retrospect, I think I know why Jerry was so forthcoming.

When I met him, I was working on a (still unpublished) book about LSD, for which I had already interviewed Albert Hofmann, who discovered it, Timothy Leary, and numerous other people, famous, infamous and unheard of, who had had memorable roles in psychedelic history. I think the project appealed to him, because as he put it, “There are a lot of questions that it would be nice if somebody would address them in a serious way.” I told Jerry a little bit about what I’d learned, the most important point being that the supposed dangers of acid were all hype. He asked me why I was writing about it at all. I told him that LSD had meant a lot to me and I was just being loyal to it. He said he thought that was a good thing. For him, he said, LSD had made it “easier to not fit” into society, and that instead of feeling damaged, as a result, he felt that, “In fact, my life has turned out to be really amazing.” I think Jerry gave me the interview, because, in the end, he was loyal to it, too.

When was the last time you took psychedelics?
Some time in the last year, maybe mushrooms, because I think it’s milder, easier to handle. The nervous system stress is something that a younger body handles better.

You’ve slowed down to what? A couple of times a year?
Yeah, irregularly. It’s not something I plan for. It’s something that I’m likely to do on impulse. But I always keep some psychedelics around. I like to have some DMT. I like DMT ‘cause it takes you a long way and it’s short. It doesn’t take a day and you’re back to reality in like an hour, but in the meantime it sort of blows out the tubes. In terms of the psychedelic requirement – that you experience some kind of supernormal perception of some sort or even imagine that you do, whether it’s in the mind or whatever – if that’s the criterion, then to me there’s times when that’s helpful. It’s like a coffee break almost, you know what I mean?

Does legality make a difference?
To me it does. I don’t think it does in the long run, but it does in the sense of the encroachment of the world at large, the interference of it with the flow of your experience whatever it may be. The modern world I find more frightful, that’s why the high energy mass is a little bit hard to handle, because everything I hear is a siren or a helicopter or something. It’s like immediate paranoia of some sort – sometimes high energy paranoia, full of lots of overlapping horror fantasies and sometimes it’s just interference. And that has to do with something to do with my connotation, that’s my own personal stamp on what the world is like. I don’t feel that it’s a kinder, gentler world.

I’m hoping that people will get a better idea about LSD and psychedelics just from the collective sense of what it really means to people.
For me it was a profoundly life changing experience. It has a lot to do with where I am now and why I’m here and why I do what I do and it all fits in and it was all happening as I was making the decisions to become who I am, you know what I mean? So it all steered me directly into this place.

Were there specific insights? Does it reduce to any kinds of things you can actually talk about?
Well, a couple of like cute one-liners, but basically they don’t translate out here. They have to do with my personality and the voice that’s speaking to me had the same sense of humor. It isn’t like I can’t talk about it. For example, there was one time when I thought that everybody on earth had been evacuated in flying saucers and the only people left were these sort of lifeless automatons that were walking around, and there’s that kind of sound of that hollow mocking laughter, when you realize that you’re the butt of the universe’s big joke. There’s a certain sardonic quality to it that I recognize as my own personality.

You’ve talked about there being a scary side.
For me some of the scary ones were the most memorable. I had one where I thought I died multiple times. It got into this thing of death, kind of the last scene, the last scene of hundreds of lives and thousands of incarnations and insect deaths and these, like, kinds of life where I remember spending some long bout, like eons, as kind of sentient fields of wheat, that kind of stuff. Incredible things and these sort of long, pastoral extraterrestrial kind of cultures, kind of bringing in the sheaves sort of things.

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