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Published: 2005/10/13
by Brian Gearing

Out of The Jar: Garcias Silver Lining and Cobains Touch of Grey

For a small but unified chunk of the American population, 2005, August in particular, marked two important anniversaries. Throughout the year, Deadheads celebrate forty years since the beginning of the Grateful Dead, and in an ironic twist of fate, August 9th also marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Jerry Garcia, the man many would consider the impetus for the former celebration. One could say that this, and every middle year of every decade for at least one or two more generations, is the year of the Dead.

Despite the feelings of loss that were surely revisited over the summer, Deadheads will be able to take a certain satisfaction from 2005. Once every ten years, their life’s love and obsession, alternately ignored and bullied by much of the mainstream and major alternative music press for decades, will get the respect it deserves. Chances are the adoration lavished upon Jerry Garcia and the music and culture of the Dead phenomenon will not equal the fawning, heartbroken grief bestowed upon Kurt Cobain last year, but at least we can walk away from 2005 knowing that we got some credit.

If the critical hardheads and the fanatical devotees on both sides of the cool war could take a couple steps back for a moment, however, they would realize that despite the polarities of their respective congregations, Garcia and Cobain have more in common than most would like to admit. What most separates them is not the tones and moods of their music, nor is it some superficial fashion war between tie-dye and flannel. What lies in the gulf between the two icons, put most simplistically, is life and death.

The story of Cobain’s death was told and retold last year from a myriad of perspectives, each offering its own take on the cultural significance of the Nirvana leader’s life, death, and legacy. He was given every title imaginable, from unfortunate loser to rock messiah, and the biographical and psychological analyses offered up made all of them seem plausible.

There will always be those who will ask the question, “Would he have been so great if he hadn’t died?” but the question is pointless. What ifs aside, Cobain was great. That’s what made his death so tragic. If he hadn’t passed, perhaps twenty years down the line, he would be a living legend, a Dylan or a Neil Young. As it is, he walks in the company of Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Like rock’s fallen heroes before him, Kurt Cobain was not defined by his death, but his legacy is.

Garcia, however, lasted longer than many expected him to. The statistics are unbelievable. The man’s life was so full at times that he couldn’t handle it. Like Cobain, the happiness of those he touched often fueled his own misery. It’s only fair then to ask the opposite question: “Would he have been so great if he had died?” Again, the question is pointless, but it does hint at something inherent in our vision of Garcia. He did die, but not before spearheading the biggest and longest counter-cultural movement in history with nothing but a guitar and some brokedown vocal chords.

Whereas Cobain is eternally dead, Garcia, to those of us who knew him, even if only vicariously, is still alive. While Cobain’s life has been analyzed over and over again in terms of his death, and his death in terms of his life, Garcia’s death doesn’t really seem to matter much, aside from the fact that it happened ten years ago. His life was what was important to so many of us.

So do obsessive Nirvana fans have some morbid fascination with death and misery? Are Deadheads neurotically consistent optimists? Maybe, but we all have our preferences. While I eagerly anticipated Relix magazine’s Garcia tribute issue, I groaned when I got my April 2004 issue of Spin. “Enough!” I thought. “Haven’t we buried Kurt Cobain already?” But as the wisdom of age digs holes and builds ladders around the crumbling wall of eternal youth I’ve attempted to construct around my life, I find myself digging around the ground inside, looking for nuggets I may have been ignoring for years, and what I’ve realized is that we all need a little misery now and then.

In the ninth grade, I was still attempting to reconcile my appreciation for both Metallica and The Beatles, nowhere near the point when one realizes that the two are not, in fact, mutually exclusive, so looking back, it’s no surprise that Nevermind was the single greatest thing I’d ever heard. I remember the soothing, swimming pool green that failed to steady my trembling hands as my teeth ripped through the cellophane on my way out of the mall. I recall appreciating, if not necessarily understanding, the irony of the swimming/drowning infant immersed in the cool warmth of the pool’s suburban womb. Most of all, though, I remember my urgent need to share this music.

We got in the car, put it in the stereo for as long as my mother could bear it, then waited endlessly until we finally returned to Sam’s house. With no one home, we pointed the fan out the window, lit cigarettes, and spent the next two weeks playing Nevermind over and over againin cars, in our rooms, at school, in friend’s rooms, in our heads. I knew every word, riff, shriek and thud by heart. Nirvana became the sound track to my freshman year in high school.

For every skater punk’s knee-skinning riff, there was a bubble gum melody that made the cheerleaders want to listen, too. Nevermind made it OK for metalheads to relax again, and for prom queens to be angry every once in a while. It’s no coincidence that every nineties teenager owned a Nirvana album at some point in their lives. They were the only band that it was cool for everyone, even me, to listen to.

Until I got happy. Forgive me for enjoying high school, but as I breezed through my adolescent growing pains with relative ease, the freshness of my new grunge discoveries began to stale. I got my driver’s license around the same time I discovered beer, so I spent almost every weekend driving with a car full of friends out state route 33 to Rawley Springs with a tent, a sleeping bag and a case full of Milwaukee’s Best. I don’t remember exactly what we did out there besides get drunk and fish, but I do remember that what I experienced during my adolescence was nowhere near the excruciating torture that I hear of from many of my contemporaries. I had a great time in high school, and at some point, Nirvana just stopped being relevant.

Their frustrated aggression only satisfied when I was feeling the same pains: after a break-up or before some sporting event, Cobain was perfect, but after the adrenaline thrill wore off, Nirvana became just another part of my CD collection, right alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan or Garth Brooks, or even my parents’ Three Dog Night or Motown records.

Unfortunately for many music fans, it is decidedly uncool to listen to their parents’ music. Blessed with just enough self-esteem to make my own decisions, if only in private, I managed to absorb my father’s record collection quietly, but despite my affection for 60s rock and soul, I craved rebellion just like any other teenager. My parents probably voted for Nixon, so I figured a fascination with the late 60s dope-smoking hippie culture was a pretty safe place in which to invest my mutinous spirit for a while.

While I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my life, I didn’t hate it, so the peace-and-love-can-change-the-world hippieisms of the Summer of Love 60s, combined with the intellectual leanings of bands like Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, seemed like the only logical alternative to everything else available to me in a practically radio-free Shenandoah Valley, VA town. Skeletons from the Closet was the perfect bridge between my rural country roots, my insatiable hunger for classic rock and the open spaces of psychedelic music, and during my freshman year in college, after years of running behind, I finally hopped on the bus.

For me and many others in my generation, however, Skeletons was not the first glimpse of the Grateful Dead. Vague pre-teen recollections of tie-dyed babysitters and dancing skeletons on car bumpers fill the memories of my North Carolina childhood. When I first felt heavy metal’s scalp-peeling power, having never heard the Dead, I just assumed they were another Metallica or Anthrax. What self-respecting hippie band would mention death in their album and song titles, much less their name? That same contrast between happiness and misery, peace and destruction was what struck me the first time I saw the video for “Touch of Grey.”

The first time I saw it, I was in seventh grade. The Cold War was almost over, and I remember making tie-dyed t-shirts, and drawing peace signs, and studying nuclear weapons, and not really understanding it all, but knowing which side I was on. I only saw the video a couple times, because my parents didn’t let me watch MTV, but I remember thinking, “How ironicskeletons dancing to a happy song.” I had no idea what ironic meant, but I knew that that was ironic.

This was the Jerry Garcia I knew and loved from a distance: the sad, grey man with a smile on his face. For the original Deadheads, Garcia was a rock star: a bearded, transcendental mystic who played a mean guitar. For those in my generation who noticed, Garcia was Uncle Jerrythe guy we wished our fathers could have been and the relative whose troubles we never knew until it was too late. The grey beard, the tranquil glow in his eyes, the easy, flowing guitar: who better to follow than this man, who seemed to be totally at peace?

Kurt Cobain was not ironic. He was just plain sad. “Touch of Grey” could have just as easily been his swan song, but he ever would have written “I will get by. I will survive.” Cobain chose not to survive, and perhaps that, more than anything else, is why I left him behind for so long.

Both Garcia and Cobain will forever live on as tragic figures in the history of rock and roll, because they both unselfishly gave us something we needed without ever satisfying their own desires. Despite the adoration and love they received from their fans, the void that was left in their own lives was too large. While Garcia spent much of his life trying to fill that void with cocaine and heroin, Cobain realized early on that he would never be able to fill ithe saw his touch of grey before he ever noticed the silver lining. They are two sides of the same miserable coin: Cobain gave us sympathy; Garcia gave us hope.

Many of us, unfortunately, get too much of one and too little of the other. When I first heard Nevermind, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heardliterally the greatestand I still appreciate its greatness; but it hasn’t stayed with me like Jerry and the Grateful Dead. Part of the reason for my preference lies in my attempt to maintain some semblance of optimism as I approach middle age (I try my hardest to focus on the silver lining), but mostly it’s just pride.

It took me almost ten stubborn years to reconcile the fact that I love both Nirvana and the Grateful Dead. For some reason, it never seemed possible for life to be both wonderful and miserable. I felt I had to embrace one or the other, and I never wanted to be miserable. But without despair, there is no reason for hopewhat’s the point of hoping for good when things can’t get any better? I had been lying to myself for ten years.

I still have several tie-dyed t-shirts at the bottom of my drawer. They’re faded and ugly, and my wife won’t let me wear them out anymore, but I refuse to wear the delicate relics to paint or exercise in because I don’t want to ruin them forever. I’ll never throw them away, but I’ll probably never wear them again, either. My favorite oversized flannel shirt from high school, however, after hundreds of washings and shrinkings, is still going strong. It’s the perfect cover for a late fall chill, still fashionable for a casual trip to the bar for beers and wings, and the multi-colored paint splashes only add to its character. Flannel, while mostly grey after so many years, seems to have a silver lining after all.
While I bemoaned it at the time, I know now (and knew then) that every bit of attention Cobain received was one hundred percent justified; my only wish is that he had gotten more from those writers and fans outside of the sphere of so-called alternative rock. When 2006 comes around, I will be saying the same thing about Garcia. Both he and Cobain had an immeasurable emotional impact on thousands of people. The world has lost two beautiful voices that had the power to lift countless numbers of people out of the drudgery of their every day lives and into a spiritual place beyond any they would have otherwise ever known. Our biggest loss, then, may not be their two extraordinary lives, but our stubborn refusal to listen to both men equally.

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