Let’s be clear—Joel Selvin’s new book is not about the Grateful Dead.
Technically, it’s about the ruins of the Grateful Dead. It’s about what happened when Jerry Garcia, the band’s lodestar and spiritual leader, died. It’s about the vacuum that Garcia’s death left behind, and the collateral damage that followed.
Rock bands dealing with (or not dealing with) the death of their members is an old and tired story. But the Grateful Dead wasn’t just a rock band. It was an industry, a mission, a society, a stand-alone entertainment empire. And Garcia was no ordinary rock guitarist. He was the embodiment of the hippie principle that gave the band its mystique.
Selvin, the veteran music journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, will come to Bookshop Santa Cruz on June 21 to talk about Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long Strange Trip (Da capo). From his perch at the Chronicle, Selvin has been covering the Dead for decades and he was perfectly positioned to watch how the band dealt with the death of its icon.
Garcia died in his sleep in August 1995 at the age of 53. Despite a series of well-publicized health issues due partly to addiction and bad habits, nobody was anticipating Garcia’s demise, says Selvin.
“They had no contingencies in place whatsoever,” he says. “They had never contemplated life without Jerry. He had almost died, had been in a coma, had been in a long, slow recovery and never returned to healthy living, but continued on in these bad habits. But those guys were stunned. They just couldn’t believe it.”
Today, three of the four surviving members of the Dead—guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and percussionist Mickey Hart—are in the midst of a big summer tour as Dead & Company, which also includes guitarist John Mayer. (Dead & Company comes to Shoreline Amphitheatre July 2 and 3). Also, bassist Phil Lesh has performed in a duo with Weir as recently as last March.
Since Garcia’s death, there have been a number of spin-off bands featuring one or more of the surviving members that sought to fill the Jerry-sized void: RatDog, The Other Ones, Phil Lesh & Friends, Further, The Dead. All four members came together for a hugely lucrative 50th anniversary tour in 2015. But these reunions and collaborations paper over a fraught history, says Selvin. It has taken more than 20 years for the living Dead to find its equilibrium again.
“The first thing they could manage to do—and it took four months to get around to doing that—was to put out a press release saying that they’ll never perform as the Grateful Dead again,” says Selvin of those first weeks post-Jerry. “It just didn’t make any sense. It destroyed a perfectly good asset for these guys. Frankly, it was the same kind of instinctual foot-shooting that the band has specialized in since the very beginning. But it was a product of this immense grief, and that’s what this book to me is about: These guys fell into this incredible pit of grief and their world was so turned over by it that they each had to find out who they were and what the Grateful Dead was to them, and who they were to each other.”
Of the four remaining members of the band, Hart and Weir participated in a series of interviews. Kreutzmann contemplated sitting for an interview, but ultimately decided against it, deciding to “take the high road.” Only Lesh did not respond to Selvin’s requests.
The book also chronicles the Dead’s uniquely communal and democratic way of doing business and managing a multi-million-dollar empire, and how that method crumbled after Garcia’s death. “For the longest time, throughout the entire history of the Grateful Dead, all votes were unanimous,” says Selvin. “One no vote could stop something from going through.” What’s more, the Dead practiced an effective code of silence to outsiders when it came to their relations with each other. That façade cracked after Garcia’s death. Surviving members began writing letters to each other for public consumption. A prominent lawsuit involving Garcia’s estate aired even more dirty laundry. Something—some ineffable Grateful Dead magic—had broken.
Selvin’s story eventually reflects back on Garcia and the way he held the band together by the sheer power of his personality. “Jerry was remarkable, in so many ways. His leadership style in that band was entirely passive,” says Selvin. “And he arranged the situation so that everyone else looked to him for his approval. Each one of those four guys thought Jerry Garcia was their best friend. They had no sense of each other, anything like that. What was it like? Think of spokes and a hub. That’s what it was like.”
Joel Selvin, author of ‘Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long Strange Trip’ will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 21. 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. bookshopsantacruz.com.