Grateful: Meeting Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia by: Dion Flynn

Jerry Garcia cartoon by: Dion Flynn

Robin Williams passing last week has made me think about the deaths of famous people and my lifelong worship of (however misguided) and encounters with celebrities.

I met Jerry Garcia in March of 1993. I was just out of the Army, working nights as a security guard at the Desmond Hotel in Albany, NY and during the day studying classical music and drama at the local community college. On my nights off I was in a rock band called Empire and the Times Union had laid-out a page in their arts section which happened to feature my band and Jerry’s (billion-times-more-famous!) band on the same page. We made press-kits (black notebooks full of our music and stuff about us, used to book gigs at clubs) which featured these articles.

Our band had started to suffer from in-fighting, mostly due to a whacked-out personality (mine) which was emerging from my solitary efforts to wean myself cold-turkey from daily bong hits. So when it was my shift at the hotel, with one of our new press kits tucked under my arm, I got Jerry’s room number from a girl at the front desk and went to his door with the intention of slipping the press kit (which had a cassette of our band’s music velcro-ed inside it) under his door. Maybe I could do something for myself and the band.

At his door, trying to get up the courage to either knock or slide the press kit under, I heard him on the phone inside (read: I eavesdropped).

“Yeah, but…” he spoke with passion. “All those kids (Dead heads) will be out there in the rain and I don’t want that to happen to them. I don’t want them standing around cold in the rain.” Or something very close to this.

Impressed that a (rock) god cared about the comfort of mere mortals
I bent over to place the press kit under the door. But the Fates intervened: I accidentally hit the door so hard with my walkie talkie that I made the split-second decision to morph it into a full-fledged knock.

“Hold, on. Yes? ”
“Hotel security.” I tried to sound official.
“Lemme call you back.” He opened the door.
I tried to dial myself down a bit by muttering something about the fact that while I was, in fact, “hotel security” this wasn’t official business. Abuse of power and all.

It was by shaking his hand I learned that Jerry Garcia had a finger missing. My hand engulfed his. With only three fingers his handshake had 20% less volume than it would have otherwise and I could feel this immediately.

I did some combination of present the press kit and introduce my story about our band. He invited me in. He was in one of our hotel’s two-story suites. I hadn’t ever even been in one before. Nothing but the best for the author of Ripple.

As he opened our press kit I pointed out that we were all mentioned on the same page of the article contained within. My mindset at the time was that we were two guys in two bands sharing war stories.

He received it graciously. And gave me some advice as an up and comer.
“Anybody can be a manager,” he said.
“Really?”
“Yes. The skills required for that job are easy. So it’s important that you hire someone you trust.”
“Okay.”
“Hire a friend from childhood.”

Keeping with the “just two guys in two bands motiff” I said, “Hey, ya know what? I’ve never seen your band play.” I dropped this like we were back stage at Woodstock and I was Crosby speaking on behalf of Stills and Nash.

“Well why don’t you come by for Monday night’s show?” Jerry Garcia asked! “I’ll put tickets at the will call window for you.” I was 24. I didn’t know what a “Will Call window” was and I couldn’t believe how much I was going to be able to impress my lead guitarist with this story and free tickets. And this would hopefully boost my popularity within my own troubled group.

Well…Monday comes. I bring my wary guitarist to the Knickerbocker Arena in the state capitol. We locate the will call window. They ask for my license. They look in some envelopes. The tickets are there. Plus backstage passes. Me and my lead guitarist attend the show. We go backstage. I get stoned with the strangers next to me in the crowd. I tell them the Jerry story. They’re in awe. I sell them the backstage passes for $80. I peel the one backstage pass off my friend’s lapel and sell it right from off him. He’s very upset about this. My logic? I had given it to him…it was mine to sell.

I wouldn’t do the same thing today. I would ask my friend then take the pass back. Progress.

Anyway…rewinding back to that Saturday night two days before the concert, when I first met Mr. Garcia: I escorted Jerry down to the bar where word had already gotten out locally (pre-internet) that he was staying there and so the place started to fill up with Dead Heads. One young woman in particular was all over him, weaving in and out of his beard like some sexy parasite. I had assigned myself the job as his personal security but I quickly realized that this was just for me. He didn’t operate that way. As he sat there enduring a thorough groupie groping, just taking it all in, I leaned up against the nearby wall acting official and thinking…now here’s a guy who’s got it made.

29 months later, Jerry Garcia was dead.

Jerry Garcia was genuinely kind-hearted and chilled out, with the world seemingly at his fingertips. And yet like I learned again last week with the death of Robin Williams: no one, no matter how beloved, is invulnerable; no one has all the answers; no one is without pain or struggle; no matter how good they appear to have it.

“If I knew the way, I would take you home.” Ripple, Jerry Garcia.

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