August 1, 2023 would have been the 81st birthday of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and August 9, 2023 will mark the 28th anniversary of his passing due to heart failure in 1995. Therefore, the Pearl Psychedelic Institute would like to issue a special newsletter celebrating his life and his contributions to music, humanity and psychedelic knowledge.
There is an old, framed picture of guitarist Jerry Garcia that has adorned the wall of my professional offices beginning with my windowless office at the Marin County Juvenile Detention Center during my doctoral internship days in northern California in the early 1990s. A lot of people knew who Jerry was since this was Marin County but I remember one older staff member being shocked that I had hung a “framed picture of Charles Manson” in my office! In the almost 30 years since, many people have asked about this framed picture but strangely no one questions as to why this is a central feature of my office décor. They assume (correctly) I must be a major fan of his music but most likely have no idea how deeply this connection runs throughout my life and the life of thousands of others.
Jerry Garcia is the “patron saint” of the Pearl Psychedelic Institute and before anyone combusts about how insane or sacrilegious this sounds, please take a moment to let me explain why this position of honor is neither.
Although Jerry was far from a perfect human being, his devotion to his music was absolute and the art that he created with the Grateful Dead continues to live and inspire people all these years after his passing. The meaning of the Grateful Dead’s music is difficult to distill but I think it generally was that life is a beautiful gift and that it is OK to explore oneself and the universe among thousands of other seekers in a place that was intended to be safe and encouraging for such exploration. It was also about giving and receiving kindness, trusting that there is some kind of instructive guiding life process always going on (if you look at it right) and that ultimately, love is really what it is all about: love of music and celebration, love for this life and each other and love for the planet that sustains us.
There has always been an intersection of psychedelics and the Grateful Dead and neither would be what they are now in American culture without the other. The members of the Grateful Dead have all been avid psychedelic explorers and for years, their patron (and sound man) was Owsley “Bear” Stanley who was probably the most prolific LSD chemist of the 1960s. In interviews over the years, the Grateful Dead spoke about the influence of psychedelics on the development of their way of playing music together and the early freedom and formlessness afforded them by the Acid Tests gave them the space to explore the relationship between psychedelics and playing live electric music to a psychedelic audience that was equally as much of the show as the band. As Garcia would say later, this was really the prototype of the whole Grateful Dead experience which means that this was not your typical touring rock-n-roll show.
Something about this was different.
I saw 100 Grateful Dead shows over a 10-year period and tried to understand, for myself, why the pull to go back was so strong and there did not seem to be anything else in America that even remotely provided this kind of experience. I felt like Dead shows were psychotherapy on a grand scale in that most of the participants in the audience were taking psychedelics and exploring their own lives, motivations, meanings, and relationships while the music, which was born of and evolved in these same psychedelic spaces, provided a vehicle that would, at times, catalyze some of the most profound insights and realizations of one’s life. In my personal experience, there was a general trajectory for a three-show run where the first night was usually about sloughing off all the psychological and emotional garbage that had insidiously accumulated since the last show and it was often a purging. The second night usually consisted of getting my priorities back in order, the ones that I knew were personally important even though they may not have been the most widespread priorities in American culture (kindness, curiosity, diversity, environmentalism, etc). These priorities would come to me in the form of images or through the lyrics or even communicated through the music but there was a resonance and a felt sense of truth that was unmistakable and reaffirming. By the third night, it was often about reconnecting with the power of inspiration and intention and leaving the show feeling like your life was truly an open book and the possibilities were endless.
Psychedelics intuitively connect to something profoundly human and resonate with an ancient, fundamental drive to experience ritual, celebration and the cycles of death and rebirth that underlie all of life. Garcia was never afraid to talk about psychedelics and felt like they deserved to be studied and understood:
“Psychedelics were probably the single most significant experience in my life. Otherwise, I think I would be going along believing that this visible reality here is all that there is. Psychedelics didn’t give me any answers. What I have are a lot of questions. One thing I’m certain of: the mind is an incredible thing, and there are levels of organization of consciousness that are way beyond what people are fooling with in day-to-day reality.”
It is difficult to explain exactly what it was that people were seeking at Grateful Dead shows but it was something powerful that did not necessarily happen at every show but when it did, it was widely felt and it could be transformative. The music was an amalgamation of different genres of music (blues, rock, folk, jazz, avant-garde, bluegrass, Dixieland) and it echoed, at times, both a rootsy, pioneering American days-gone-by feel as well as something emanating from deep space. People came to shows to dance, which is one of the oldest and most fundamental expressions of life and celebration and it allowed people to move with this music as it was being created. The lyrics were often mythical or archetypal which gave the listener grist for the mill as they sought out meaning in their lives or the music could get so dynamic and spontaneously creative that there was nothing but the joyful magic of existence in the moment. The author Ken Kesey once said, “Every so often, listening to a Dead gig, you shift into another gear. It’s what everybody goes for, and the Dead work hours and hours trying to provide it. They’ll work and work and work and WHAM! they’ll finally throw it into gear and your mind will hit that thing where you realize this is the area where the solutions lie.” Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell attended a Grateful Dead show and stated, “This is the antidote to the atom bomb,” and compared the experience to a modern-day shamanic ritual.
Steve Silberman is one of the finest writers to ever put words to the meaning of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Shortly after Garcia’s death in 1995, there was an edition of the Grateful Dead fan magazine Dupree’s Diamond News that contained written tributes to Garcia and Silberman wrote:
"If you were tripping, the music would pour forth celestial architectures, quicksilver glistening with might-be’s, cities of light at the edge of a sea of chaos, monumental forms that could be partially recollected in tranquility, and turned into designs in fabric or clay, golden sentences, streams of bits. And some nights, the hair on the back of your neck would stand on end as a presence came into the room, given a body by the magnificent sound system. In the hallways, the Dead’s own dervishes, the Spinners, would bow toward the stage, their long hair brushing the floor. Dancers raised one another up like kids in punk clubs, laughing like babies in their father’s arms, or weeping. Startled out of my reflection by some grace-note of primordial majesty, I’d look up and see his fingers…That furrow of deliberation where all else was left to drift, in the secret place where everything was waiting to be born."
Although Jerry Garcia did not want to be considered the leader of the Grateful Dead, he inevitably was. Garcia was the sun around which the other musicians revolved and he was the conduit through which whatever was coming through was coming through. His superb musicianship and ear, his sharp intellect and relentless curiosity as well as his willingness to take musical risks was a big piece of the Grateful Dead puzzle. He looked a bit like Santa Claus by the late 1980s and he seemed to like to laugh a lot and he was humble and shied away from self-aggrandizement. He struggled with fame and the loss of privacy and this is what eventually led to his addiction issues and his untimely death at 53 years old. But despite his human frailties and imperfections, Jerry Garcia’s art could inspire, transform and bestow unspeakable joy while often affording people glimpses of their highest selves, whether he was playing with the Grateful Dead or the Jerry Garcia Band. His music and his legacy lives on and continues to awaken within Deadheads, old and new, the sense that there is still adventure and higher realities to explore and that pursuing these goals is both noble and right if it is done with kindness and a desire to heal and grow and learn.
And that is why Jerry Garcia is the patron saint of the Pearl Psychedelic Institute.