The Stories Behind the Photos: The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia has been gone for 17 years, but his stature continues to grow. Someone, or several someones, recorded almost every note he played in public for 30 years, which keeps the CDs coming. More than 25 Facebook pages and dozens of blogs are dedicated to his legend. The music of the Grateful Dead has lived on in concert under several incarnations with various original members. Currently, it is Furthur, featuring Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and guitarist John Kadlecik channeling Jerry’s tone, timing, and technique. Countless cover bands, most notably Dark Star Orchestra, dot the world landscape, and the band’s loyal following has seldom faltered. Many old timers are happy to still be able to hear the music live while tasting the band’s expanded identity. New disciples who’ve heard the recordings or attended a concert jump on the bus all the time. Jerry lives!
I’m a Deadhead, and have been for long time. For me, no other band so successfully distills the core elements of American music – rock, blues, jazz, country, and folk – into a seamlessly integrated new whole. Jerry’s guitar, with its lyrical sense of melody, round, gorgeous tone, inventive rhythm, and most of all, deep emotion, moves me in the same way that his ancient expressive voice does. It’s all about the music, though the shared culture of the band also appeals. I listen to all kinds of music, but I’ll never tire of listening to any GD show from 1972 or 1977.
I had the good fortune to interview Jerry four times and be in rooms with him when he was at ease and not under the rock star microscope. First, last, and always Jerry was a musician; he loved music and lived to make music. All the other trappings bored him. I always found him to be humble, humorous, and articulate, though we know he certainly had his rasty moments. A lot of people depended on him, and the guru mantle weighed heavily upon him.
As the longtime staff photographer for Guitar Player and Frets magazines, I was also fortunate to photograph Jerry many times over the years. This gallery features some of my favorite images from those shoots. For the technically interested, I almost exclusively used Nikon FM and FM2 cameras with Tri-X black-and-white film and Kodachrome 64 for color during most of my shooting career.
For more Jon Sievert images of legendary musicians, visit www.humblearchives.com.
John McEuen, Steve Martin, Jerry Garcia. April 28, 1974
Though he started with the guitar, Jerry learned his craft playing bluegrass on the five-string banjo. He switched from banjo to electric guitar in 1965 when the Warlocks formed.
This photo was taken backstage at the First, and only, Golden Gate Bluegrass Festival in Marin County, California. This event featured such classic performers as Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse, Norman Blake, and Vassar Clements, as well as next-generation players including John Hartford, David Grisman, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Taj Mahal, and Doug Dillard. Backstage picking was preordained.
McEuen was, and still is, a guitar/banjo/fiddle force with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. A brown-haired Steve Martin was opening for the Dirt Band and on the cusp of a national breakout comedy career. Garcia was six months out of Old and In the Way, so he still had excellent banjo chops and was clearly enjoying himself. Later that night he briefly played onstage with Grisman’s newly formed Great American Music Band, which evolved into the David Grisman Quintet.
Golden Gate Park, September 28, 1975
The Dead were halfway through their 18-month retirement when they decided to give a free concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Billed as Jerry Garcia and Friends, it drew about 30,000 people to Speedway and Lindley meadows, about three blocks from my flat. A chance meeting with Steve Brown, former president of the Dead’s defunct Round Records, secured me a backstage pass.
Because the band was on hiatus, its routines were even more casual. Some photographers were actually allowed onstage. I was stage right and climbed on top of a speaker to get a higher angle. In the three frames before this one Jerry was turned, looking straight ahead at the crowd. I saw him turn his head in my direction, fine-focused, and released the shutter. It’s one of those times when you know you’ve got the photo. I cropped this as a vertical for a long time before I realized how much I liked the open space of the horizontal image. Fortunately, the peghead of the Travis Bean and Jerry’s hand were in the frame or it wouldn’t have worked either way.
Guitar Player cover, August 1978
I was writing and taking a lot of photos for Guitar Player at the time, so I pitched editor Don Menn on a Jerry Garcia cover story. It took a couple of months to arrange, and the first meeting was at a Jerry Garcia Band gig at Keystone Berkeley in December 1977. I got the feeling I was the one being interviewed, but I must have asked the right questions. We talked for about 25 minutes, and agreed to get together again soon to finish the interview. A couple of weeks later I got a call from Steve Parish, at 10 PM, inviting me to the come to the band’s Front Street Studio to finish the interview. We had guests and been partying all evening, and I was in no shape to drive to San Rafael that late at night. Parish said he would get back to me. The interview finally happened on June 8, 1978.
After the interview I set my lights up for the cover session with a white background. We spent maybe 20 minutes on the shoot. Jerry was wearing dark prescription sunglasses and I wanted to see his eyes. I noticed that my lighter-colored photo-gray glasses and black wire frames were an exact match so I asked him take off his dark glasses and put mine on. Unfortunately, his prescription was not close to a match for mine, so I shot him without glasses. I didn’t have autofocus on my Nikon so I had to work carefully to keep everything sharp. But it worked.
Wolf, August 1978
I photographed Jerry’s custom-built Doug Irwin “Wolf” guitar at the same time I shot the cover. Jerry played a succession of three Irwin guitars almost exclusively from 1973 through the early ’90s. Wolf was the first of them. Its top and back are bookmatched curly maple with an amaranth (purpleheart) core. The through-body neck is laminated fiddleback maple and purpleheart, and the peghead is overlaid with sheets of maple and purpleheart. Its wiring is essentially that of a Stratocaster with a stereo effects loop designed by Garcia and John Cutler. He played the Wolf from 1973 to 1979, when Irwin delivered “Tiger,” Jerry’s next custom instrument. Later in the ’80s, Wolf was converted to a synthesizer guitar and used off and on in some shows. After Garcia’s death in 1995, the guitar was returned to Irwin at Jerry’s bequest. It sold at auction for $700, 000 in May 2002.
Garcia/Grisman, March 6, 1991
David and Jerry met at a bluegrass festival in Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, in 1965 and quickly became picking buddies. Dawg played on a couple of cuts for the Dead’s American Beauty, and they hooked up again with Old and In The Way early in 1973. After OAITW ended, they drifted apart as each pursued different musical directions. They didn’t reconnect again until early 1990, when they worked together on a song for former Jefferson Starship pianist/bassist Pete Sears’ album. Shortly thereafter, Jerry showed up at David’s Mill Valley studio with an acoustic guitar to jam and suggested they make a record. Garcia/Grisman was released on Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label early in 1991. In March, I got together with them for a Guitar Player interview and photo session at Dawg’s home. Jerry did not like to be photographed, but he always tried to be helpful. We went through a series of posed photos but I didn’t like what I was getting, so I asked them to just play and captured their interaction.
Garcia, Squaw Valley, Aug. 25, 1991
Not surprisingly, Dawg and Jerry’s recording project produced some live performances. One was at the Squaw Valley Summer Music Festival high in the California mountains. The two-day event featured the Jerry Garcia Band, Jimmy Cliff, and Tower of Power on Saturday, and Garcia/Grisman, the Neville Brothers, and Bela Fleck on Sunday. It provided a rare opportunity to photograph Garcia backstage. You can see the effusive energy he radiated in conversations like the one here, where he was swapping Bill Monroe stories with Grisman and Bela Fleck.
Garcia, Jay, and Mary, Aug. 25, 1991
Naturally, a backstage room with Jerry, Dawg, Bela Fleck, and Grisman’s band was cause for high-level picking. I framed this image very deliberately because two of my favorite people, Jay Ceballos and Mary Berry, were in the background. Jay and Mary were Deadheads and Dawgheads from the beginning, and I relished the opportunity to give them an image with Jerry.
I never had access to the backstage inner sanctum of the Grateful Dead so I can’t tell you what that was like. But there was no doubt that Jerry was completely relaxed hanging out in this room with 25 to 30 of the band’s friends and family. There is also no question that his renewed relationship with Grisman and the acoustic guitar created a new spark of energy for him. They were still working together when Jerry passed in 1995.