Note: This entry is courtesy of John Shaski, a friend from Franklin & Marshall College. ‘Ski and I were super fortunate in that we got to see the band tour Europe together in October 1990. Today, Ski and his family live in The ABQ, where he works in food waste recycling.
“He really had no equal.”
Thus commented Bob Dylan on the passing of Jerry Garcia in the late summer of 1995. I could read Dylan’s considered line a few different ways, but what strikes me is how unassuming Jerry was, both on and off the stage.
Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #6: Be Kind
I recall moments, not uncommon, with Jer’ layin’ out, standing outside the spotlight, strumming rhythm, searching for the most appealing complimentary chords. Not just turning the rudder over to another musician but putting a shoulder to the effort. The star toning it down, creating “space” in his composition, then encouraging some other artist to grab the opening and run with it, jazz style.
Another example from an otherwise unsatisfying show — where the open musical canvas that was most Grateful Dead shows had to be prettied-up and chopped into segments, as guest after guest paraded to the stage for a cameo — was the Rainforest Benefit at Madison Square Garden. September 24, 1988. Suzanne Vega was center stage, head bowed, strumming chords on an acoustic guitar. She waited for the downbeat, the cue for her to begin the arranged progression and set the tempo with the first verse of lyrics. Then, there was that awkward moment when the band, and then the audience recognized that the cue was missed. A smirk. A few knowing glances. No problem. This is show business. Play it off and wait for the downbeat again.
But Vega missed it again. Oops. Strike two. Tension was creeping in. Will she or won’t she handle the pressure of the moment? Then, right when he was needed, Jerry worked his simple magic. Garcia leaned forward with his head slightly cocked, eyebrows raised, searching for Vega’s eye. She met his gaze, smiled and…viola! He rocked the neck of his guitar gently forward and fingerd the chords. She picked it up, found the one, and was once again herself, with a helping hand from Jerry.
Dylan also said, “To me, he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know.”
Action from humility and compassion has always been natural for me. Yet, sometimes our cultural cues cause us to worry whether a bolder, more self-centered attitude is not more productive. Jerry knew that to be a false premise. And his influence, always bordering on HUGE, was consistently collaborative, whether leading the sprawling ensemble that was the Grateful Dead through uncharted musical territory or sitting on a couch backstage, waving a lit cigarette about and contributing to some journalist’s interview.
It’s no exaggeration to say all of the great rewards of my life including my marriage, my children and my work owe their value and meaning to the concept of relationship. Relativity. Reflection. Teamwork. Community. Family. We!
Garcia knew the way, shedding light, never to master. I for one am eternally grateful for his guidance and all that he provided, musically of course, but also in the way he carried himself. Jerry was confident and secure in his gift, which helped him become the humble but effective leader that he was.
Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #6: Persevere