Fifteen years ago today died one of the most intriguing characters of 20th century music — Jerome John Garcia, who as Jerry Garcia, led the band the Grateful Dead for exactly three decades. Like the title of his band, Jerry Garcia was no stranger to death. Both his parents perished gruesomely: his dad by drowning, and his mom by driving off a cliff. An accident when he was four took two-thirds of a finger (it being right middle finger, it didn’t prevent Garcia from becoming an accomplished guitarist). At the age of 19, he survived a car accident that claimed his best friend. His recovery from diabetic coma was equally miraculous. But on August 9th, 1995, the 1960s counterculture icon finally lost his lifelong fight with diabetes.
Maybe it was just a reflection of their times, maybe it was something their eclectic music style represented, but in their day, the Grateful Dead acquired a phenomenal following. These so-called Deadheads — who even invented their own language — were the music industry’s first (and only) cult. The dedicated fan base which was started in San Francisco and which soon followed the band from concert to concert presented an atmosphere any corporate executive would kill for: it gave the band the bargaining power with the best venues/clubs which were enticed by the potential of sold-out tickets. And the business savvy band knew this and used their broad musical base to their advantage: by creating a rotation of songs that repeated only every 4 or 5 shows, they managed to keep Deadheads on their toes. By the time Jerry Garcia died, the Grateful Dead — for all the counterculture it represented — was already a prominent and profitable enterprise in California.
As for Jerry Garcia, his name-recognition was so indelible that 15 years after his death, his namesake ice cream, Cherry Garcia, remains the best-selling flavor for the Ben & Jerry’s brand.
Above, Garcia backstage at Woodstock, 1969. The photo was taken by the legendary photographer of American music scene, Jim Marshall. Marshall says Garcia just happened to be coincidentally sitting near a Dead End sign.