Revealing Quotes From Jerry Garcia on Music, Deadheads and Drugs

by Peter Wendel
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Garcia 1968 [photo: Rosie McGee]

In addition to being one of the most influential musicians of all time, Jerry Garcia was a visionary, a mystic, an intellectual (in the best way) and an everyman all rolled up into one big lovable guy.

Bob Dylan said this about Jerry after The Grateful Dead’s extraordinary frontman passed away in the summer of 1995: “There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player.” Amen, to that.

Jerry Garcia spoke his mind, didn’t mince words, and he managed to filter out much of the publicity bullshit that permeates many rock-star personas these days. Jerry wasn’t afraid to take a stand – for better or worse.

DeadWarfield SongMango.comPretty much everything Jerry did was outside the mainstream and contrary to consensus. He once said: “I’m shopping around for something to do that nobody will like.” That’s kind of how Jerry lived his life, and that’s how he changed the world. The trick is to find something to do that people don’t know they like (yet) – and that’s what Jerry did, leaving millions of “believers” in his wake.

Here’s Jerry in his own words, and you’ll notice that much of what he says is still completely relevant today.

The Beginning

220px-MotherMcCreesIn the mid-’60s, Jerry was in a jug band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, which included future Dead members, Bobby Weir and Ron McKernan (Pigpen).

GARCIA: Jug band is essentially country music, in that it’s rural. It was mostly a result of musicians not having enough money to buy fancy instruments. So they bought kazoos and used whatever was around.

Here’s a little insight into Jerry’s early musicianship, pre-Dead.

GARCIA: [As a young man] I got interested in folk music – finger-style guitar playing – and then I devoted all my energy to five-string banjo for about three years. I came back to the guitar when we formed the band. 

JerryGarciaHandStealyFrom the start, Jerry played against the odds. As many of you know, he lost two-thirds of the middle finger on his right hand in a wood-chopping accident when he was four. The only element of Garcia’s guitar playing that was impacted by the injury was classical guitar – a style of play that uses all five fingers on the picking hand.

GARCIA: The stump is really an extension of my index finger. A pick slides right in between so conveniently, leaving both of my picking fingers completely free.

The Music and The Grateful Dead

It all started for The Dead with the Acid Tests, which Merry Prankster Ken Kesey hosted complete with black lights, strobes and fluorescent paint – and of course, there was music, sweet music.

AcidTest2GARCIA: We were very fortunate to have a little time in history when LSD was still legal and were able to experiment with drugs just like we were doing with music.

Jerry talks about our collective, instinctive need for music as a ritualistic experience and expression of who we are.

GARCIA: You need music, I don’t know why. It’s probably one of those Joseph Campbell questions, why we need ritual. We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.

For the true Dead experience, you had to see them live (not to state the obvious) – and that never changed over the band’s 30 years on tour.

GARCIA: …the live show is still our main thing.

Jerry speaks to the “nonstructure-structure” of Dead songs – one of the aspects of the band’s music that attracted legions of fans.

GARCIA: The challenge part is coming up with structures that have the element of looseness to them, which means they can expand in any direction, go anywhere from anywhere – or come from anywhere – but also have enough form that we can lock into something. 

DeadPsychedelicsThe Dead immersed themselves in improv, not simply jamming and exploring inside songs, but also in the more macro-sense of creating their setlists on the fly as the music “happened.”

GARCIA: We don’t make up our sets beforehand. We’d rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper.

Over the long, strange trip, Jerry lacked neither creative energy nor a desire to make music.

GARCIA: [F]or me there’s still more material than 20 lifetimes can use up.

GARCIA: For me, I think the only danger is being too much in love with guitar playing. The music is the most important thing, and the guitar is only the instrument. 

Here’s the secret (for lack of a better word) behind The Dead’s longevity and ongoing relevance. They remained together for 30 years (an eternity for a rock band), and they’d probably still be playing together if Jerry hadn’t died in the summer of 1995.

GARCIA: The standard show-biz formula that says you have to repeat your most successful gesture seems to eat up performers very fast. Musicians buy that and they burn out, lose interest in music – and it’s understandable. It’s very hard to play exactly the same thing night after night without getting terribly bored. 

Boring for the musicians, and a little boring for the audience, too.

The Audience

JubilantCrowdThe Grateful Dead attracted one of rock music’s largest and most loyal fan bases. How did it happen? In a world where most musical performances tend to be over-rehearsed and scripted down to every last note and lyric, The Grateful Dead offered an authenticity, rawness and unpredictably that many people craved. The possibilities.

GARCIA: We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.

GARCIA: We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.

So what exactly was it about The Dead that drew so many people to their shows? Here Jerry offers one part of the overall attraction.

GARCIA: I think The Grateful Dead kind of represents the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large.


Latter-day Dead [photo: Susana Millman]

Jerry communicated through his music – and the audience could feel it, loud and clear.

GARCIA: Verbal communication is open to interpretation, just like the songs are. I’ve prefaced interviews in the past saying that I can’t do anything but lie. All talk is lying, and I’m lying now. And that’s true, too. Go hear me play. That’s me – that’s what I have to say. That’s the form my thoughts have taken. 

The band’s live shows were truly special, and as Jerry remarks, nobody else did what The Dead did.

GARCIA: You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.

The Dead’s audience grew and grew – and the demographics became difficult to pinpoint.

GarciaUncleSam-SongMango.com_-254x3001GARCIA: And there’s a lot of that stuff with people bringing their kids, kids bringing their parents, people bringing their grandparents – I mean, it’s gotten to be really stretched out now. It was never my intention to say, this is the demographics of our audience.

Back in the day, Jerry was a central figure in the counterculture movement that emerged in the ’60s. The Dead embraced peace and love – as did their audience – while the government embraced something very different.

GARCIA: Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.


StealYourFaceMeltAs most of us know, The Grateful Dead didn’t frown on drugs – and psychedelics were an integral part of the complete, mind-melting experience. Jerry, in particular, had strong feelings about drugs and the innate freedom we all have to ingest them.

GARCIA: I think it’s too bad that everybody’s decided to turn on drugs, I don’t think drugs are the problem. Crime is the problem. Cops are the problem. Money’s the problem. But drugs are just drugs.

GARCIA: The real problems are cultural. The problems of the people who take drugs as a cultural trap – I think there’s a real problem there, the crack stuff, the hopelessness of the junkie. The urban angst.

Jerry was always a strong proponent of legalizing certain drugs, like marijuana.

GARCIA: Greed and the desire to take drugs are two separate things. If you want to separate the two, the thing you do is make drugs legal. Accept the reality that people do want to change their consciousness, and make an effort to make safer, healthier drugs.

Here Jerry speaks about heroin and why some people are attracted to it. He mentions Watts (below), a neighborhood in Los Angeles, which was the scene of devastating racial riots in 1965. (As an aside, during The Dead’s hiatus in 1975, Jerry started using smokable heroin, and would eventually become an addict.)

GARCIA: But hey, when you live in Watts, you need a little smack to get by, you know what I mean? You need something soft and comfortable in your life, ’cause you’re not going to get it from what’s around you. And society isn’t going to give it to you. 


Uncle Jer [photo: Susana Millman]

Jerry was plagued by health issues, including diabetes and heroin addiction, so immortality was never far from his mind.

GARCIA: Death comes at you no matter what you do in this life, and to equate drugs with death is a facile comparison.

At some point, one by one, the members of The Grateful Dead stepped back from psychedelics as the years rolled by – but that explorative spirit never left their minds or their music.

GARCIA: Nobody stopped thinking about those psychedelic experiences. Once you’ve been to some of those places, you think, ”How can I get back there again but make it a little easier on myself?”

Thanks for all the memories, brother Jerry!

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at