Christ. Not Garcia.
These were the first three words on every Deadhead’s lips the day of August 9, 1995. They are also the first three words that open Joel Selvin’s book, Fare Thee Well, documenting the remaining band members’ musical lives post-Garcia. Immediately following those three words, Selvin posits, “Deadheads, especially the canny older guard, were not so surprised…some simply stopped attending, convinced they were watching him kill himself.”
The spiritual leader of the Grateful Dead had longed been plagued by poor health, due mostly to bad diet and bad lifestyle choices, including (of course) drugs, and an arduous tour schedule. And many of those shows were dark, often in danger of falling apart. Still…Garcia had recently survived a diabetic coma and had to re-learn how to play guitar. The band had resumed touring again to sold-out stadiums, with a new, younger audience — admittedly, a different breed — but the response to Garcia’s return was overwhelming. So while not a shock, it was…well…a shock to hear he had passed at a rehab center.
The Grateful Dead had long stopped being just a band. They were now big business, a corporation with board members, and one of the hottest and most iconic music brands on the planet. With Garcia’s death — and no obvious place to turn — it was time to take care of that business. Layoffs up and down the ladder were made, as this now group of individuals tried to determine how to move on, if at all. To say A LOT of people depended on the Grateful Dead for a paycheck would be an understatement. That was one reason the band toured so relentlessly, even when band members were in less than stellar shape.
Selvin digs in on one of the first things the band's survivors dealt with that would foreshadow the turbulence that lay ahead. Seeing through Garcia’s post-life wishes would be the first of many disasters, and would highlight the deep divisions within the band, and its extended families. Garcia requested his ashes be scattered under the Golden Gate Bridge, so on a windy and rainy day, the extended family gathered at a dock in Sausalito to carry out those wishes. However, Deborah Koons Garcia, Jerry’s widow, would not allow Garcia’s legendary longtime companion Mountain Girl to board, although she and Jerry’s three daughters were already on board. They pulled out, leaving Mountain Girl sobbing on the dock. It didn’t get any better, as Bob Weir had to lean over to wash off his friend’s ashes that became stuck to the side of the boat. Soon, the infighting would consume the surviving members of the good ol’ Grateful Dead, four people who, according to Selvin, “had little in common other than their fates as members” of the Dead.
The band itself reacted in different ways to Garcia’s death. Some — Weir and drummer Mickey Hart — would immerse themselves in music. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann would decamp to scuba diving in Hawaii. And Phil Lesh, probably the most lionized member after Garcia, would immerse himself in the Deadhead culture and experience, something the band had avoided, and even mocked,in its heyday. However, now off the road, Lesh watched the Deadheads, “with growing fascination.” “This is really something,” he said, according to Selvin. In fact, it “was nothing short of a revelation.” Unfortunately, “as Lesh’s understanding of Dead culture grew from his experiences, he took bold, definitive steps to capture “the banner that the others left where it fell” after Garcia died.
I would warn Deadheads that Phil does not come off well in Selvin’s book. Arrogant, petty, and demanding, perhaps the only person who comes off worse than Lesh is his confidant and seemingly sole ally, Jill, his wife. In a shocking encounter, the band is “summoned” to the Lesh house, where Jill explained “the new world order,” while Phil largely stayed quiet. She began by telling them, “it was clear that she and Phil now were the protectors of the spirit of the Grateful Dead,” and, at one point, told the other lifelong members of the Dead “You don’t know anything about the Grateful Dead.” Thankfully, Weir “exploded,” asking Jill “Wait a minute…how many Grateful Dead shows have you played?” And that’s less than a hundred pages in. Wow. Buckle up.
Selvin digs into how Dead 2.0, variously called Furthur, The Other Ones, Phil and Friends, RatDog, and The Dead, ventured forward with the music to varying degrees of success, resentment, and animosity. He is relentless in bashing Phil’s vocals, which the bassist started to demand more of in any iteration he played in. Deadheads know Phil’s voice isn’t great. It was the rare experience of seeing “Box of Rain” live that mattered. But, to Selvin's point, is a couple of hours of Phil singing too much? Probably.
The author also explores the band’s visionary “vault” and the exploitation of those live recordings and merchandise that would help keep the band in the black — and green. “Terrapin Station,” an early theme park idea floated almost immediately after Garcia’s death, thankfully, never came to fruition. The exhibition aimed to “recreate the atmosphere of Dead concerts without the band itself.” Yuck. What’s the point in that?
The books focuses on a lot of the "bad" and the "ugly," but what about the "good?" Thankfully, Selvin winds down on the spiritually and musically uplifting note that many found in “Fare Thee Well,” three nights that saw the band celebrated their songs and music, reclaiming both the past and future on the same site of Garcia’s last show, while cementing the decades old bond with the most unique fans in music. Many claimed it was simply a money grab, but here Selvin is 100% behind the band, the gig, the Deadheads and the mutually rewarding nature and intent of these gigs.
Deep down, this book is about family, and how members of that family grieve, move forward and reboot their lives after a devastating loss. Anyone who has lost the patriarch or matriarch of the family knows that uneasiness of suddenly feeling unmoored. Siblings fight. They lose their way. And, if they’re lucky, the find their way back to each other. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead seem to be doing just that. In fact, to my ears, the current incarnation of Dead and Co., featuring John Mayer, is the closest thing musically to their former band. The members of this ensemble, — sans Phil, of course — seem to be enjoying exploring their body of work, with a very capable and curious new guitar player. As Bill Graham once said “They are not the best at what they do. They are the only ones that do what they do.” And the very fact that they continue to find a way to do that without Garcia is a good thing if you love the music of the good ol’ Grateful Dead.
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