My Jerry (Dennis McNally Remembers Jerry Garcia)
Jerry’s heroes weren’t all hip literary types, or even musicians. He was a San Franciscan, and although he was never a big-time sports fan, he followed the 49ers and Giants like so many of his fellow citizens. One Sunday afternoon the 49ers were playing the—I think it was the NY Giants. This was during the Joe Montana—Jerry Rice era, but they had a bad day, and were down 3 points with seconds to go. On the last play of the game, Joe throws to Jerry, who runs about 70 yards for a touchdown; 49ers win.
I cheer, and go downstairs to the van for a ride to that night’s gig. As usual, Jerry came down to the early van, but while he could sometimes be quiet, this time it was obvious he was visibly seething. Finally I asked him if he’d seen the final play of the game. “Naah, I got so pissed I turned off the TV.” When I explained what had happened, he immediately cheered up and, as I recall, played a ripshit show that night.
Our most elaborate sports experience, though, was with the SF Giants baseball team. It was 1993, and the Giants had come within a day or two of being sold and moved to Tampa Bay. One of our production guys, Eric Colby, was a maniacal Giants fan, and he passed on to the band an invitation to sing the national anthem on opening day. Now, every music act in history has sung the national anthem—like benefits, it just goes with the territory of being performers. But not the Dead. Ever. Twenty years before they’d talked about doing “Stars and Stripes Forever” at half time of a 49er game, but it hadn’t panned out.
Weir says yes. Like I say, Jerry’s not a serious baseball fan, but this is after all kind of a big moment in SF sports history. “OK, man, I’m in.” Vince Welnick draws up an arrangement—he described it as “Straight Sons of the Pioneers”—and off we go. Somehow, I’ve been elected road manager for the day. We all know that a) the “Star Spangled Banner” has ruined a lot of singers, and b) the Dead are not going to make the rock and roll hall of fame on their harmony singing. And when I call Jerry and suggest a rehearsal, he snaps, “I know the song, man.”
Finally I get a half-bright idea. I call Vince, and tell him to call Jerry and say that he’s freaking and wants to rehearse. Well, an appeal from another musician is not something Jerry can dismiss. I also suspect that he didn’t want to look bad in front of the hometown folks. Anyway, they put in about three hours on the hardest two-minute song ever.
The complication was that the game was at 1pm, and sound check was at 10am—and traffic being what it was, they couldn’t leave the stadium. So for nearly three hours, I had to try, mightily, to entertain them. At first it was easy, because the other singing act that day was Tony Bennett. I think one of Tony’s kids was a Dead Head, and I know that I’ve seen him at least once at a show, where he visited with Jerry, so they chatted about this and that. After a while, though, Tony slid off, and things got boring.
At some point I turned and saw three legends of SF baseball passing by—Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, and Willie Mays. Well, I turn into the introductions king, which works out fine—for a while. It turns out that Perry was Bob Weir’s favorite player, and they get to talking. And Willie McCovey is one of the planet’s gentlemen, and although I strongly doubt he has more than a very vague idea who Jerry is, he’s more than happy to socialize, so that’s cool.
Finally, I go up to Willie Mays, who’s sitting in a golf cart and, it turns out, is impatient to get to the team alumni gathering. “Mr. Mays, could I introduce you to Jerry Garcia, who’s going to sing the national anthem today?” “No,” he barked, and then yelled at Willie and Gaylord, “Come on, I want to get out of here.”
But what you have to dig about Jerry is that after sitting there and simply glowing about shaking Willie McCovey’s hand, Jerry spent five minutes laughing helplessly about how he’d been snubbed by Mays. Of course it wasn’t personal, because Willie Mays was a notoriously grumpy guy, but the truth was that Jerry genuinely enjoyed the idea of being treated like an ordinary person – it just didn’t happen often enough.
My job got a little easier when the Giants’ p.r. person came to ask us to do a press conference. I took the guys to the Giants’ dugout, and a gaggle of press and photographers clustered around them, firing questions. I was slightly startled when I noticed that an attractive woman, who I realized was a well-known local politician named Angela Alioto, had not only slid into the press conference (God, politicians like the spotlight!) but had her hand on Garcia’s leg, but he seemed to be bearing up. When they asked him why the Dead had achieved some kind of status in the city, he said something like, “It’s like bad architecture and old whores—after a while, seniority gets you respect.”
And if you’re wondering, the boys went out and freakin’ pinned the anthem.
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