MUSIC IN BOOKS: BLAIR JACKSON – Garcia: An American Life (Penguin, 2000)

ISBN: 978-0-14-029199-5 (paperback)
Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

The week between the anniversary of Jerry Garcia‘s birth (August 1, 1942) and his death (August 9, 1995) is called The Days Between by deadheads, after a latter day Grateful Dead song. For many music fans, it’s a bittersweet time, because Garcia was a good guitarist and songwriter, but allegedly also a lot more than that. For many people he was a cultural icon. He was like the epitome of love and peace, “being free and being true to oneself and a tremendously positive force. This is a time of year to celebrate him and his art”.
Yeah right. You wouldn’t know it from reading Garcia – An American Life by Blair Jackson. Blair knows the Dead inside out, having edited a fanzine for 10 years, having written several books about the Dead. And in the last few years he wrote several liner notes for releases from the Dead’s Vault. He’s a fan, a friend, very knowledgeable and a good writer.
The book is strictly chronological and devotes attention to Jerry’s personal life from his birth to his death, but also to new (Jerry) songs as they start to appear in the repertoire. An index and a discography (up to date until the original publication date, 1999) are provided as well. It’s an entertaining read, about Haight-Ashbury, the acid tests, the 60’s in San Francisco in general, the evolving Grateful Dead and its (unwilling) leader.
But, unfortunately, Jerry comes across as not necessarily very sympathetic and as being rather weak in business decisions as well as in his personal life. Whenever he wanted somebody out of the band (or out of his side band) he let others (band members or managers) do the dirty job. As a husband and father you cannot say he, unfortunately, failed, you’ll have to conclude he just did not try. Although he supported each and everyone of them financially, emotionally he treated his wifes and girlfriends terribly and he neglected his children, sometimes for years. Not because he was psychopathically antisocial, but because he took ‘freedom’ to its noncommittal extreme, and was afraid to take (responsibility for) decisions.
Does this take away from his musical achievements? (OK, such as they are, but I happen to be a HUGE fan of the Grateful Dead, having close to 350 official releases on cd). Of course not, but it does influence the way you see him as a person. Yes, he is a great guitar player, and in many ways still underrated, because many people can copy a David Gilmour lick or a Jimi Hendrix solo (yes, after they did it first), but not many people can improvise the way Jerry does (i.e. compose ‘on the spot’ and create a new solo just about every time you play that particular song), and do this with a feel for the song (blues, bluegrass, jazz, (hard) rock, prog, or whatever). And a nice enough singer (who doesn’t always memorize his lyrics properly…) and a good to great songwriter he may be, but his status as 60’s icon and all round great chap seems rather overrated.
In fact, I think this weakness ties in with his unwillingness to be considered and treated as band leader. Musically, yes, definitely, and immerse yourself in his music. But in all other aspects he preferred to stay on the fence, in the background, and let others take responsibility or action. 

Verdict: read this book if you like the Grateful Dead, the (late) 60’s, West coast pop culture or the origin of the jam band scene, but do not read it if Jerry Garcia is your personal hero or guru and you want to keep it that way.