My Jerry (Dennis McNally Remembers Jerry Garcia)
Here’s a wonderful piece from our August 2005 issue, which focused on the Grateful Dead, 10 years after Jerry Garcia’s death. Here longtime Grateful Dead publicist and the group’s official biographer, Dennis McNally shares some memories…
Just before he was about to walk my bride-to-be, Susana Millman, down the aisle—hey, the officiating “minister” was Wavy Gravy, so it wasn’t exactly a formal affair—Jerry Garcia was extremely fidgety. One of the bridesmaids asked him what the matter was. “I’m nervous, man.” “But Jer, you play in front of 50,000 people,” she replied, shocked. “Yeah,” he grinned, “but I don’t have my axe now.”
Well, he did fine, although it’s true that he and Susana set a land speed record for covering the ground. The point was, Jerry Garcia was a very human guy. He’d put himself in the father-of-the-bride position by acting as our matchmaker, telling both Susana and I that we should check each other out, a move straight out of seventh grade, but it worked. And since Susana’s dad was long gone, he was happy to serve.
Very human. All of us—band, crew, Dead Heads—watched and suffered as he tried to erase his pain in the last years, and a good portion of that pain was the direct result of his fame, of the expectations life had put on him. Fifty people and their families needed him to work so that they could pay bills. A million people needed him and his band to supply their musical fix about 80 nights a year. And at heart Jerry wanted to be Huck Finn, or more precisely an 18-year-old guy gettin’ stoned, playing music, flirting with girls, and having fun. That side came out when he talked about his past—fragments from his boyhood and youth that had molded him, and that were far away from being a star in the 1990s.
One of the few times I ever saw him even a little bit flustered was when I was able to introduce him to one of his heroes, a man named Lucien Carr, who’d been a close friend of Jack Kerouac, one of Jerry’s fundamental cultural icons. Reading On the Road had been a life changing experience for Jerry—so much so that when he read my book about Kerouac and liked it and learned I was a Dead Head, it was enough for him to invite me to be the Dead’s biographer, too.
Lucien had killed a man, served his time, and become a newspaper editor afterward, but as a result he cherished his privacy more than say, Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs. He’d become my mentor in many ways, and I’d gotten him to come to a Dead show in Washington, D.C. When I told Jerry he was there, Jerry reacted most uncharacteristically. A little taken aback, Garcia dithered with an attack of shyness, and then went out and said hello with the remark, “Ah, the real Roland Major,” the pseudonym Kerouac had given Lucien in a book. Jerry had other business at that point, but he made sure to catch up with Lucien and shake hands before the end of the day.
Real heroes like Lucien could make him blink, but not the merely famous or powerful. In March 1993, the tour came to D.C. again, and this time there were Democrats in the White House. Vice President Gore’s Director of Advance, Dennis Alpert, was a Dead Head, and I got a call. “Hey, it’s our house now. Wanna come over?” Most of the band went over, and we admired the White House and then hung with both the Vice President and later Mrs. Gore for a while. But the striking memory I have is of Jerry and V.P. Gore in the Oval Office.
President Clinton was gone that day, but the Veep gave us a special tour of his office, and spent some time on the President’s desk, which had been John Kennedy’s and which almost anyone of our age recalled from famous Life magazine photos of JFK’s son John-John playing under it. In sweat pants and a particularly grubby shirt, Jerry looked like an unmade bed, and Gore looked, well, like a Vice President, impeccable. The sweet thing, I realized, was that neither of them gave a shit about each other’s appearance; they were both enjoying the conversation.
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