My Jerry (Dennis McNally Remembers Jerry Garcia)
As I said, in his last years Jerry battled a lot of demons, and he battled them by using drugs to insulate himself from feeling them. Since at the same time he was doing that he was not dealing with things like raging diabetes, he was experiencing fairly serious mood swings. It wasn’t as though he was rampaging around yelling at people—he was usually too civilized for that—but he was grumpy and moody and posting big “leave me alone” signs with his body language.
So I left him alone. As far as doing press went, Jerry had a professional attitude. He felt that part of his job with the Dead was communicating with Dead Heads via the media—we didn’t have a website yet—but if he’d never had to do another interview, he’d have been happy. But he was the best of all bosses. He trusted me to recognize if something was necessary or even potentially interesting or cool, and then he’d do it. So when he got profoundly unhappy—pretty much from 1993 on—I let him be, either steering stuff to other band members or just saying “No” as nicely as possible.
There was one interview in his last years that I knew was worth asking about. One day I got a call from the American Movie Channel, AMC, about a show they did called “The Movie That Changed My Life,” or something like that. Well, Jerry had been a film nut since he was a kid. I’d found the silent 8 mm home movies he’d shot around 1963 during my research (one of them was a cartoon made by shooting stop action on a chalkboard that was clever and quite funny) in the early 1980s. He’d made the _Grateful Dead Movi_e, of course, and I’d talked with a lot of people about that. And then I’d watched him and Len Del’Amicco have a lot more fun using video and computers rather than real film and razor blades to edit So Far.
So when I got the call, I figured it was something he’d enjoy. I hadn’t pitched an interview to him in months, but I braced him before a Garcia Band show at the Warfield one night and told him about the idea. Boy, was I right. He proceeded to do the interview with me right there, going on for 20 minutes about the first movie that had grabbed him— Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It had scared him so silly that he could still remember the pattern of the fabric on the seat in front of his that he stared at when he couldn’t watch the screen, and consequently hooked him on both movies in general and horror movies (and other manifestations of horror) in particular. I certainly can’t remember what interview was the last one I arranged for him, but I’m pretty sure that was the last one he really, really enjoyed doing.
In addition to being human and generally a lot more normal than Dead Head folklore might necessarily acknowledge, Jerry was… Jerry. Which is to say incredibly erudite, thoughtful, funny, and wise. Off the stage, one of the times I was most impressed with him was when he met the celebrated lyricist Mitchell Parish, the man who’d written “Stardust,” “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Moonlight Serenade”—the real deal. We were at Madison Square Garden with the Jerry Garcia Band. Steve Parish, Jerry’s long-time roadie and the manager of the JGB, was a cousin of Mitchell’s, and invited him to the show. Mitchell was 90, and his knees were shot so he was in a wheelchair, but he was sharp as hell and definitely ready to rap.
Well, he met his match that day. He and Jerry started raving about old songs—songs that Parish or people he knew had written—and Jerry matched him tune for tune. Not an ego thing, just two amazingly knowledgeable music historians (one with the advantage of having lived through the era!) swapping stories. The room was so packed that the Vice President of Arista, in a $2,000 suit, was sitting on the floor—but it was quiet, as everybody just listened to this amazing conversation. Parish started one sentence with, “When I wrote the songs for the Marx Brother’s “Coconuts” in 1928,” and you knew he wasn’t b.s.ing. And obscure as it got, Jerry was there, jamming on the rap the way he did on his axe.
Game to the end.
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