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Happy Birthday, Jerry


Sixty-eight years ago today, Jerome John Garcia was born in San Francisco, California to parents Joe and Ruth Marie “Bobbie” Garcia. About 23 years later, Jerome would be known as Jerry Garcia of the newly formed Grateful Dead, formerly the Warlocks. Just 30 years after that, Jerry would pass away inside a rehab facility, leaving behind a legacy of music, love, and community.

But today, we celebrate his birthday. This morning I picked up my copy of Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip to brush up on the beginnings of the Garcia family. McNally’s description of Jerry’s youth reads more like adventure fiction of a San Franciscan boy’s life than a dry historical recounting of an icon’s upbringing. Perhaps this is why I immediately felt like I could relate to Jerry’s upbringing despite it being very different from my own. His story, and McNally’s telling of it, reveals the unquestionable truth that we are all molded and marked by the events in our life, especially in youth. If you looked back on your own life, you could pinpoint events, people, and places that have decided who you are today. Some are out of our hands, some seem magically fateful, and the rest eventually become our own choices.

Jerry was born in San Francisco, setting the stage for a life in curiosity and experimentation. His parents were both musicians and the interest naturally trickled down. In 1947, Jerry suffered two losses that would change enormously the course of his life. First, he lost the middle finger of his right hand in a wood chopping accident. His brother Clifford was accountable for the accident making it all the more unfortunate. Two months later, Joe Garcia would drown to his death while on a family vacation in Northern California. It’s hard to determine how much of the accident Jerry witnessed or what he remembered, but those facts are inconsequential when talking about the death of a young boy’s father.

With his father out of the picture, Jerry and his brother were left to rely on their mother who wasn’t a particularly nurturing, domesticated woman*. This made for a complicated relationship between Jerry and his mother, and left Jerry with confused notions about women, love, and trust. With his mother busy tending to her own art and to the family business, Jerry and his brother were left in the care of her parents, Tillie and Bill Clifford. Jerry was inclined towards Tille’s nature as a strong, charming woman who certainly had her influence.

Also having their influence on Jerry were a few “bohemian” teachers, one whom Jerry encountered in third grade, Miss Simon, and another in eighth grade, Dwight Johnson. Both entering his life at pivotal moments in childhood, they encouraged his artistic and literary curiosities. It may be owed to them that Jerry was able to freely develop his tastes for drawing, horror flicks, and rock and roll.

On his fifteenth birthday, Jerry’s mother bought him an accordion, not exactly the gift he’d been dreaming of. Fortunately for Jerry, (and for future audiences), his mother let him trade the accordion in for a guitar he’d been eyeing in a local pawnshop. Equipped with his own guitar and the instruments his father left behind, Jerry was on his way to changing the world of music.

It’s this perspective that brings more of an understanding and accessibility when I think of Jerry Garcia. I started thinking about the details of my own youth that influenced the person I am today and I noticed events intersecting with Jerry’s life. For example, I too experienced a disfiguring accident at the age of five (I believe Jerry was 4, soon to be 5). And my taste in music? Completely passed down to me from my parents, as was the case with Jerry. My intention isn’t to draw some connection between my life and Jerry’s, but rather to point out that every one of us has a beginning. August 1, 1942 was Jerry’s.

Happy birthday, Jerry.

References and Links

A Long Strange Trip

Young Jerry Photo

Cherry Garcia (a must treat for today)

“The first I remember knowin’ was the lonesome whistle blowin’
And a youngun’s dream of growin’ up to ride.
On a freight train leavin’ town, not knowin’ where I was bound
No one changed my mind, but mama tried.

One and only rebel child from a family meek and mild
Mama seemed to know what lay in store
In spite of all my Sunday learnin’
For the bad I kept on turnin’ and mama couldn’t hold me anymore.”

Mama Tried

*Fact is, none of us know what Bobbie Garcia was like as a mother. That topic can be left for the family to decide. Furthermore, I am not a mother so, I couldn’t possibly judge.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Larry E.Smith permalink
    08/02/2010 7:47 am

    I felt Jerry and the Grateful Dead were connected to me by some other worldly forces,check it out,I was born 8/11/1965 on or around that time they played in Redwood City were I was born,they were the Warlocks then,both Jerry and I are Leos born in August,I lived in sunnyvale and the Grateful Dead really formed in Palo Alto ,and they would play in mountain view and Santa Clara Continental ballroom,acid test at Big nig’s in San Jose,so they always played around me,my 1st true connection was seeing Jerry play at the Keystone in Palo Alto May 1979 “Reconstruction Era” and became a Deadhead in 1980,always synchronicity and cosmic jokes the we all got at the same time,it was’nt just drugs I got it when I was at a show clean and Sober,they were tapped in to the devine source,trying not to sound cosmic or trippy dippy but there was something there alot of of us understood,again Wharfrat:it mentions August West I was born in August and I’m from California which is the west ,but in this case a name,there were songs that really explained what Deadheads were all about:Scarlet Begonias:verse:Strangers stopping strangers just to shake there hand and if you get confused listen to the music play.jerry died 2 days befor my 30th birthday and the Grateful Dead was also 30,so there is more than meets the eye,it was like we were of the same fabric and mindset and from the same state or altered states ?????

  2. 08/03/2010 2:38 pm

    Aw, this is really sweet. Love the photo of young Jerry…and, how did I not know he lost a finger???

    PS – I’m a Leo too :-)

    • 08/03/2010 3:11 pm

      How DID you not know that!?!

      Growing up I heard that Jerry Garcia had cut his own finger off because it got in the way of his guitar playing. (Has anyone else heard this?) That belief was only recently debunked for me. I think I like the true story better though, much less frighteningly mysterious…

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